Very many people are revolted at the state of the world. Whether it be in reaction to war, racism, exploitation, oppression or the sickening displays of meanness and hypocrisy that effuse from the bowels of government, we have all experienced that visceral urge to tear the head off this system and those who marshal it.
We feel this way every day. But unlike those who either sink into despair or comfort themselves with a purely academic understanding of capitalism and its degradations, we — the socialists, revolutionaries, Marxists — aim to change things. We agitate, educate and organise to transform the world.
When we commit ourselves to an organisation that we feel embodies and fights for our ideas, we do so in all seriousness. Such a choice is not the choice of the confused or the timid. It is a momentous decision. All the more momentous because we see ourselves as part of a great historical tradition, a tradition from which we draw inspiration and whose achievements we strive to replicate. We are partisans of the working class and the working class revolutionary politics of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.
That is why we in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty view the unfolding crisis in the Socialist Workers Party, as something worthy of discussion.
From outside the confines of the SWP we have very limited factual information on the disagreements within their ranks. What facts we have suggest that the disagreements are very sharp indeed. The leaked text of the SWP’s first pre-conference “Internal Bulletin” does little to illuminate the processes which we believe are under way. We suspect that SWP members also have little information as to the precise content of the debate and have no real idea why two leading London student members have been suspended from membership or why certain websites have been shut down.
For all of the fuzziness over details and specifics, the political foundations of the crisis within the SWP are clear. The foundations are at one and the same time organisational and political, for in revolutionary politics these things are inseparable. One flows from the other. These foundations are just not a feature of the distant past, they continue to operate on both sides in the dispute.
the “lesser evil”
For approaching three decades or more the SWP has adopted political positions unashamedly and significantly at odds with the tradition it claims to represent. Leading members of the party justified these twists and turns in industrial proportions.
From John Rees’ dishonest re-writing of the Iranian counter-revolution and other aspects of imperialism in his book Imperialism and Resistance, back to the active support given by the SWP to the ultra-right nationalist murderers at the helm in the disintegrating Yugoslavia, the SWP has made some very significant — and reactionary — political choices. These choices repeatedly put the SWP on the side of the oppressor against the oppressed in the name of anti-imperialism. The AWL took a different position, refusing to side with oppressors big or small. We maintained an unstinting international working-class solidarity in the face of much name-calling and abuse. We continue to maintain this position.
So what have these big, international questions got to do with current crisis in the SWP? They exemplify on a larger scale the shifts, twists and turns that have characterised the SWP leadership’s domestic political choices and the failures they produced. They are a very loud echo of the rotten politics at the heart of what the SWP calls “united front work”. One important example should illustrate what we mean.
In international questions the leadership of the SWP stood steadfastly against American or British imperialism. In so doing, however, they often took the side of smaller imperialists and oppressors. They rejected working class independence by choosing a “lesser evil”. Domestically, they identified the need for an electoral alternative to New Labour but sacrificed left-unity, democratic organisation and socialist politics for “unity” with outright reactionary organisations and individuals — the likes of George Galloway and Islamist groups.
Just as they wilfully confused the rotten state apparatus of Slobodan Milosevic with the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians who composed what was then Yugoslavia and Saddam Hussein’s murderous gang with the Iraqi people, they wilfully confused anti-war opinion with one man and Muslims with a self-appointed, reactionary “leadership”. They abandoned independent working class politics for collaboration with small business owners, dictators and clerical-fascists.
In fact, what the SWP continues to call “united front work” bears closer resemblance to “popular front work”.
The formation of Popular Fronts by the thoroughly Stalinised official “communist” parties signalled a complete political about-turn. Preceding 1934, when Pravda — the official journal of Stalinist orthodoxy — issued its first endorsement of cross-class alliances, communist parties loyal to the USSR took the position that political forces, like reformist social democratic parties, were in fact “social fascists”.
From 1928, the Stalinists were expecting further working class revolutions and were determined that if such possibilities arose, nothing should compromise the hold on power enjoyed by Moscow. All other political forces were to be discredited and excluded from positions of leadership. Ultimately faulty expectations of great revolutionary movements were not Stalin’s only consideration. Significantly, Stalin also wanted to sideline left-wing opponents in the Comintern and undermine his domestic critics.
The rise of European fascism put a large dent in this perspective and spelled the end for Stalin’s “Third Period” idea (the “period” of revolutions). In its place came the popular front tactic — making all kinds of cross class alliances. Like the “Third Period”, this cynical change in tactics was not only the product of a change in objective circumstances. There were organisational practicalities and political opponents to be dealt with. These changes in tactics were a self-preserving reaction to unfavourable conditions. To preserve themselves, the Stalinists ultimately jettisoned the last scintilla of working class politics. The driving forces behind the SWP’s “united front work” are similarly complex: a mixture of bad politics and organisational self-preservation.
The blame for the disintegration of “Respect” — the crown atop the SWP’s “united fronts” — was laid firmly at the door of John Rees, then the SWP’s most prominent leader, now excluded from the Central Committee and forming a “Left Faction”. Whilst we give no political credit to Rees, such an apportioning of blame is ultimately unfair as it serves to mask the common politics between the “Left Faction” and SWP majority. For “Respect” — a popular front if ever there was one — did not disintegrate just because Rees fell out with George Galloway over a dodgy donation, but because the muddle of opportunists and right wing forces inside of it could no longer be reconciled.
The SWP majority has not rejected Rees’ popular fronts, as evidenced by the inclusion of a slash-and-burn “yellow-Tory” Lib Dem councillor at a recent anti-EDL demonstration organised by the SWP’s “Unite Against Fascism” group. This councillor is part of a Leeds city administration that is attacking the pay and conditions of refuse workers in the city. This man is an enemy of the working class. To repeat, cross-class “unity” does not make a United Front which can effectively fight for working class interests.
One thing alone seems to be changing in the SWP — that is the voracity with which its leadership acts against political threats, both internal and external. Another example, again from the Leeds demonstration, is the attitude of SWP full-time organisers to other socialist organisations on the day.
Members of the AWL were accused of racism — no explanation offered — and received threats of physical violence. This is not the first time SWP organisers and leading members have resorted to political thuggery, but we suspect more of it is to come. The treatment meted out to external critics is one thing, but the prospect of such an approach being taken to SWP members is real.
Over the years, critical SWP members have had a heavy hand from the Central Committee and the party’s “Control Commission”. Summary expulsion, threats, and abuse were common. In a fight over ultimate political control and legitimacy in the SWP, will oppositionists will be suspended or expelled en masse? How heated does the discussion have to become before physical threats are made? These are not pleasant thoughts, but they are worth every SWP member thinking about.
The SWP in crisis must be a very confusing place indeed. Judging by individual contact with party members and leaked internal documents, the political lines dividing the “Left Faction” and majority are less than clear. The real political argument — or at least the argument the SWP should be having — is nowhere to be seen.
SWP members have choices. They can either go along with the side-show “debate” between John Rees and SWP National Secretary Martin Smith, or start to ask questions.
They can either accept and embrace the popular frontism and reactionary politics that underlie the whole debate, or start to argue for independent working class politics.
They can either participate in the mounting political thuggery, or argue sharply against it.
They can either forget the independence of mind, the seriousness and commitment with which they joined the SWP, or they can remember why they became a socialist. For our part, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty hopes they will take this opportunity to think politics through again.