Socialists and revolutionaries are grateful to the Socialist Workers Party for kindly letting us know - through the pages of The Guardian - that should Ken Livingstone not stand, Paul Foot is to be our “socialist candidate for the mayor of London” in the 2000 elections (November 24).
Comrades in other organisations such as the Socialist Party in England and Wales have expressed dissatisfaction that this SWP decision has been foisted on the London left without debate or consultation. This jars even more, given that important sections of the left in the capital - SWP, CPGB, SPEW, Independent Labour Network, etc - are actually in the process of negotiating a united socialist slate for next year’s European elections, presuming they take place with PR. Now the SWP unilaterally turns around and simply informs others that comrade Paul Foot will be standing for mayor and urges support for him as the “socialist candidate”!
Of course, it should be borne in mind that the London left have probably had about as much ‘consultation’ as members of the SWP themselves. The Cliff faction runs a notoriously tight ship as far as inner-party ‘democracy’ is concerned. At the very least, socialists in London should be allowed to interrogate Foot on his platform before deciding whether he should be our unity candidate, or whether perhaps someone else should be selected. A principled approach would be:
- To begin an exchange with other organisations about the general attitude to be taken to the mayoral elections. It seems from discussions with individual SWPers that it is taken as read that a Livingstone election campaign should automatically pick up the support of the left, even if he is standing as Blair’s man. “I am 100% behind Ken, but if he is not selected … then there should be a socialist candidate”, Paul Foot tells us (my emphasis - The Guardian November 24). The notion that, if selected by the official Labour Party apparatus, Livingstone’s candidature will have anything remotely in common with ‘socialism’ is incredible. As Charlie Kimber correctly notes, Livingstone “has consistently tried to deny that he is really a threat” to Blair’s political project (Socialist Worker November 21). In contrast to Foot’s softness on the man’s ‘socialist’ credentials, comrade Kimber therefore emphasises that “the opposition needs different politics to Ken Livingstone”. Quite right.
- A candidate that expects to receive the united support of the left must be prepared to stand on a minimum platform agreed by that left. This should be subject of democratic debate, clarification and amendment.
- This candidate should be adopted by democratic vote at an open meeting of the entire left in London. Of course, given the relative numerical strength of the SWP, some comrades may criticise this as a foregone conclusion. Yet without such an approach the SWP is in effect handing the rest of the left ultimatums, thus helping to perpetuate division and mistrust.
Apart from the fact that the SWP acts in a sectarian manner - which is hardly a scoop - there are a few other points to note. All serious working class politicians welcome the move of the Socialist Workers Party to oppose Blair’s New Labour at the ballot box. Small though it is, the SWP is for the moment the largest revolutionary organisation in this country. Despite its inflated membership figures, it has thousands of revolutionary young people in its ranks, a stable and authoritative team of leaders and considerable resources to deploy in the fight for the loyalty of the class.
The SWP’s move into the field of elections will precipitate important changes. It is coming out of its self-deluding little world and will therefore be forced to negotiate, debate and conclude agreements with others on the revolutionary left. The range of influences to which this new electoral move will open up the SWP are very varied and - potentially - very disorientating. Without the anchorage of a principled programme, what is there to stop exactly the same contagion that currently threatens the SPEW with extinction infecting the SWP?
It is imbedded in SWP culture that having a programme is a thoroughly bad idea. The last time the organisation debated this question with any degree of seriousness (about the last time it debated anything, in fact) was in the early 1990s.
A telling comment was made by Maureen Watson (subsequently expelled) at the session on ‘Centrism and ultra-leftism’ at the SWP’s annual ‘Marxism’ school in 1990. She confidently told her audience that “Lenin would be turning in his grave, at the thought of being bound hand and foot by a programme” (cited in Republican Marxist July 1990).
The philistine notion that the mere existence of a programme somehow trusses the party up and prevents it from being ‘principled’ in practice is barely worth commenting on. If this were so, one wonders why the most astute, flexible and principled working class politician of the 20th century underlined again and again the “tremendous importance of a programme for the consolidation and consistent activity of a political party” (my emphasis, VI Lenin CW Moscow 1977, vol 4, p229). However, comrade Watson’s foolish throwaway remark does reveal a truth about the SWP. In fact, it was not Lenin and the Bolsheviks who were traumatised by the idea of being “bound hand and foot” by some programmatic document. No, this is a phobia transferred onto the SWP from the SWP leadership itself.
Why? Simply because like too many others on the revolutionary left in Britain, the SWP has been in the business of sect building, not a party project. A programme in these circumstances can be not simply a nuisance, but an actual obstacle to the manoeuvres of the leadership.
As a centrist formation, the SWP must keep itself free to adapt to prevailing moods and prejudices. The last thing the leadership needs is a revolutionary standard, a reference point against which today’s particular opportunist or sectarian twist can be judged. Yet without a democratically agreed revolutionary foundation, all manner of sectional politics - feminism, petty nationalism, narrow economism - will undermine the whole edifice.
Programme is therefore not an optional extra: it is the key. For its formulation, inner-party democracy is required. Either way, whether it is aware of it or not, the SWP has some big problems looming.