Ways, means, and destinations

In the first of a series of strategic articles Jack Conrad discusses the future of the Socialist Alliance

When the post-Tony Cliff Socialist Workers Party threw its weight behind our Socialist Alliance, it gave us a vital qualitative boost in terms of resources, cadre and reach. Nevertheless since then the burning question of 'ultimate destination', and therefore organisational ways and means, has been left hazy or unanswered. This and subsequent related articles are submitted as a contribution aimed at provoking thought and debate and through that clarity. They will be followed in due course by a more extensive pamphlet.

The general election is rightly our immediate priority. However, for Marxists elections have never been the be-all and end-all of politics. The Socialist Alliance desperately needs a programme and an ambitious system of practical work before and after the general election that will stage by stage bring about a rapprochement between our various component parts and in the shortest possible time-span achieve solid and durable unity in a single democratic and centralist party organised throughout, and against, the United Kingdom state. By the way, that overriding objective of ours is no dogmatic obsession. Only armed with such a party can the working class take on and defeat our main enemy. To argue for anything less is to argue for defeat.

Evidently neither the SWP's designation of the Socialist Alliance as a united front nor the non-aggression pact advocated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales describes what exists at present, let alone provides any sort of alternative - offensive - vision to the dominant - defensive - ideology and forms of Labourism.

On the other hand John Nicholson's, Pete McLaren's and Dave Nellist's unrequited courtship of greens, direct actionists and assorted anarchist types now appears completely dated and more than slightly embarrassing. The All Red and Green title of the photocopied Socialist Alliance bulletin put together by comrade McLaren is a quarterly self-confession of failure. The Socialist Alliance unites reds, but not reds with greens. Excellent.

True, there still remains a definite infatuation with the greens. This despite the undeniable fact that they follow an agenda utterly alien to socialism and the cause of the working class. Every genuine socialist is an environmentalist, but very few greens even formally adhere to socialism. Small-scale and shopkeeper capitalism is their social ideal.

As a school of thought greens, and those of a similar hue, oppose global capital. But they do so in the name of an imagined self-sufficient past, not a communist future of freely associated producers. Even worse, the Green Party programmatically insists upon a thoroughly inhuman - Malthusian - reduction of Britain's population from 60 to 20 million; presumably along with draconian 'non-racist' immigration controls. Africa, India, China and the 'overpopulated' 'third world' are viewed through the same malevolent green eyes. People, not alienated capitalist social relations and production for its own sake, are for them the root problem. In the final analysis that leads to gas chambers.

Despite all the damning evidence highlighting the reactionary essence of the greens Ian Burchall recently fantasised - as an SWP "exercise in political science fiction"- about a "possible" reformist "coalition" government consisting of greens, the Socialist Alliance and independent Labour leftists (Socialist Review December 2000). Nevertheless those siren voices who seek "positive links" with the Green Anarchist and warn against fighting seats where there is also a Green Party candidate nowadays sulk on the margins or find themselves charitably regarded as slightly oddball individuals. Good.

In part that is no doubt because the Socialist Alliance has been decisively tilted in favour of the reds and is therefore an unattractive prospect for freebooting green careerists and muddleheads. The SWP's entry cemented the whole Socialist Alliance as an alliance of socialists, principally Britain's main left organisations. Something, it should be stressed, the CPGB consistently advocated and tenaciously fought to achieve.

There was what might be called a cost. Insubstantial elements fell away - goodbye Green Socialist Network, Green Way Ahead, etc. However, there were in both material and political terms significant gains. Left-dominated local socialist alliances sprung up by the dozen and new affiliates rallied - hello Workers Power, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Red Action, etc.

In every respect this rearticulation of the Socialist Alliance has orientated the whole project towards an altogether different destination from the one envisaged by the original Liaison Committee. In the opinion of the CPGB objectively things point unmistakably towards an eventual merger of all affiliates into a single democratic and centralist party; at least in terms of logic.

Yet it cannot be denied that at present we as a bloc form a small minority. Apart from the CPGB none of the other "six principal socialist organisations" in the Socialist Alliance have declared for the unity of revolutionary socialists as revolutionary socialists. Indeed, as revealed by the voting figures at our September 30 2000 Coventry conference, there exist two, much bigger, albeit bitterly opposed, conservative blocs. Where we had at our command 40 votes, they had well over 150 apiece - the SWP bloc because of self-limitation, the Socialist Party in England and Wales bloc due to maximum mobilisation.

As I have already stated, neither the SWP nor the SPEW bloc holds out any kind of dynamic or inspiring perspective. Let me expand somewhat on this bald judgement, beginning with the bloc headed by the SWP.

Officially it promotes the Socialist Alliance as a united front between revolutionary socialists and left Labourites. This perspective is echoed by the International Socialist Group, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and the Revolutionary Democratic Group.

By designating the Socialist Alliance a united front, the SWP implicitly limits us in terms of pace to what is acceptable to left reformism. Apart from the vacillating and narrow-minded nature of left reformism, the flaw is obvious. The Socialist Alliance has never contained anything more than a smattering of groups and individuals who would define themselves in terms of the - counterrevolutionary - tradition of social democracy: e.g., the Leeds Left Alliance, Democratic Labour Party (Walsall) and the now perhaps defunct Independent Labour Network.

More importantly, to ensnare disillusioned Labourites and in order to provide them with what appears to be a comfortable political home, the SWP bloc tries to dilute or tone down our commonly held principles and would-be programme. This is done so as to fashion us into a trap which will pull in and catch those disgruntled with the Labour government and its repudiation of any pretence of being committed to social transformation.

As a front the Socialist Alliance is of course thereby privately visualised as a transmission belt into the SWP - i.e., supposedly the revolutionary party, but in actuality a state capitalist confessional sect. Today they join the Socialist Alliance, tomorrow the SWP. That is the schema. As for the Socialist Alliance itself, with the SWP as a ventriloquist majority that essentially underhand and dishonest method means voicing politics publicly which are far to our right in terms of the Socialist Alliance's true political centre of gravity.

So instead of thrashing out our own common ideas as Marxists and revolutionaries and then unashamedly and confidently presenting them to the working class the SWP et al do their best to ensure that we routinely stand on politics that can best be described as warmed over left social democracy. Stop the closure of X. Clean up the streets in Y. Don't privatise Z. Not that we should belittle or ignore such matters ... the role of revolutionary socialists and communists is, however, to generalise, raise and integrate all grievances and demands, and immediately direct them towards the overthrow of the existing state.

Mistakenly there is no recognition that militants - and in time the broadest layers, who have fallen out with Blair's Labour Party and establishment politics in general - can be won intellectually and organisationally to full blown Marxism by a direct course, or leap, as opposed to some abstract and shadowy half-way house.

Of course as a rounded body of historically accumulated knowledge Marxism can only be grasped through painstaking, extensive and ongoing study. However, Marxism's straightforward insistence on the reality of classes and class struggle, consistent promotion of extreme democracy and heaven-storming mission of universal human freedom means that millions of so-called ordinary people can quickly, easily and passionately come to see Marxism and its 'big ideas' as their own. Individuals invariably have their Damascene conversion - the decisive moment when they suddenly see the light.

In Prague and Nice SWP contingents chant flamboyant anarchist-style anti-capitalist slogans ... but that heady brew is not for the consumption of the mass of electors in Britain. Here the SWP speaks on behalf of the dead body of old Labour and offers a series of emaciated 'action' demands which in their totality fail to transcend either the constitutional monarchy system or the system of capital. Democracy and high politics, which alone can forge the workers into a potential ruling class, are notably absent.

Put another way, the SWP has still to break with economism. At this juncture it cannot therefore properly lead the Socialist Alliance despite the welcome flexibility and initiative displayed by the post-Cliff quadrivirate of Chris Bambery, Chris Harman, John Rees and Alex Callinicos.

What of the SPEW bloc? It and its anarcho and localist allies of convenience are even less ambitious than the SWP. When not actively sabotaging the Socialist Alliance by standing against us, or holding back finances in their "war" on the SWP and those "heavily inclined to support" them, SPEW is set upon nothing more than an election non-aggression pact (SPEW national circular, December 21 2000). Along with Bakunin, their totem is federalism.

Peter Taaffe is galled by the prospect of his rank and file mixing with other forces on the left and being contaminated by the dangerous ideas of unity. He is also blindly searching for a prophylactic formula which will magically restore the fortunes of his rapidly declining and fragmenting organisation. Incapable, it seems, of putting the interests of the whole to the fore, his sole concern has been his prestige as general secretary of an accidentally but appropriately named sect. Politically, it hardly needs adding, SPEW constitutes the right wing of the Socialist Alliance. Under the banner of Marxism it advocates a completely bombastic and apocalyptic version of left reformism. Note: SPEW's hopes for socialism rely on a cataclysmic economic slump and its fulsome praise for, and painting red, last year's petty bourgeois fuel protests.

What of the third bloc, the CPGB? Inevitably, as we think of ourselves as the most far-sighted, consistent and selfless component of the alliance, the CPGB has tried to present radical, ambitious and yet fully realisable and coherent proposals. Without exaggeration, it may be said that what the Weekly Worker proposes invariably finds confirmation in the grain of events which we have helped to direct and shape.

The CPGB took the prime lead in establishing the London Socialist Alliance. Our comrade, Anne Murphy, was the first to break the SWP mould of abstention from revolutionaries joining together to fight elections - she secured active SWP support standing on January 21 1999 as Socialist Unity in the London borough of Hackney. Having a fully theorised understanding of the agitational purchase and educational value of the election tactic in the present period of reaction sui generis, we did everything within our power to stand slates of Socialist Alliance candidates in local, regional and European elections. From the outset we argued for, and in due course won, a full list in the GLA elections.

On the Socialist Alliance Liaison Committee our delegates were, to begin with, alone in flagging the target of 50-plus-candidates for the forthcoming general election. We were also determined to provide practical means whereby coordination between ourselves and the Scottish Socialist Party and the Welsh Socialist Alliance could be democratically facilitated. The CPGB recommended that seats be permanently reserved for the SSP and the WSA and that together with these comrades we set the target of 100-plus candidates on a UK-wide basis and thus secure the right for a nationwide TV party political broadcast. And thankfully what began as CPGB madness in now accepted as Socialist Alliance common sense.

The CPGB has also distinguished itself by steadfastly championing an ever widening and ever deepening democracy in the Socialist Alliance. That is why we equally stress the freedom to openly dissent and the duty to centralise agreed actions.

At Coventry the CPGB and its co-thinkers were able to act as 'king makers' and score a string of successes which advanced the mutually compatible principles of democracy and centralism. In so doing the shameful Mike Marqusee-SWP ban on selling partisan literature while canvassing for the LSA was reversed. A body blow against bureaucratic centralism.

Yet, as we freely admit, in terms of numbers we were dwarfed at Coventry by the two - conservative - blocs, just as we are on the ground in the local Socialist Alliances. It should also be pointed out that our motions promoting the Marxist vision of socialism as an act of working class self-liberation were soundly but revealingly defeated by their combined votes in Coventry. Our Socialist Alliance partners voted in that baneful and regressive way because their self-serving perspectives either hold them back or actually throw them back. Our intention, in contrast, is to pull everybody and everything forward.

Over the coming weeks I shall examine in turn our arguments for a Socialist Alliance political paper; why we should adopt a Leninist minimum-maximum programme, as against economistic eclecticism; the superiority of democratic and centralist organisation, as opposed to the amateurishness and primitivism of the present-day groups and sects; the necessity of theoretical struggle as a precondition for rapprochement and unity; why we in the Socialist Alliance should train our members as revolutionaries and not as mere trade unionists; and finally the pressing need to combat every manifestation of nationalism and unite all revolutionary socialists and communists in a single, UK-wide political party.