Sect primitivism and a Socialist Alliance party

Inevitably the main underlying theme of the Socialist Alliance's March 10 conference concerned the period after the general election. Each and every debate at Birmingham was haunted by its attendant ghost of things to come.

Inevitably the main underlying theme of the Socialist Alliance's March 10 conference concerned the period after the general election. Each and every debate at Birmingham was haunted by its attendant ghost of things to come.

Should the Socialist Alliance set its sights on attracting Labourites as Labourites - a united front of a special kind which secretly acts as a transmission belt into a chosen sect (Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, International Socialist Group, Workers Power, etc)? Should we settle for a loose non-aggression pact? In self-defence that is all Peter Taaffe deems necessary. Should the Socialist Alliance boldly aim to transform itself into a party? And if so what kind of party is needed? A reddish-greenish protest party? A Labour Party mark two within which a snug communist minority is tolerated? A democratic and centralist revolutionary party with full factional freedom?

As we have detailed over a whole series of polemical articles, the majority of supporting groups in the Socialist Alliance are congenitally infected with economism. Comrades automatically bring to the fore economic demands, or seek to give economic demands a socialistic coloration. High politics and the vistas of extreme democracy are not for today and ought not to disturb the bovine minds of ordinary folk. Stick to the European Union's minimum wage, anti-trade union laws, the NHS, etc. In other words let us back drab day-to-day efforts to improve their lot as wage slaves.

Between them the SWP, SPEW, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Workers Power submitted some 23 priority bullet points to the Birmingham conference. Overwhelmingly they were characterised by pay, conditions and other such trade union-type demands. Mistakenly the comrades are convinced that the economic struggle is the best, the most effective means to mobilise the working class.

Such an approach leads to a narrow view, not only of our political, but also of our organisational tasks. Economic struggles against employers and the government's anti-trade union laws hardly require a revolutionary programme. Nor do economic struggles around the NHS necessitate a Socialist Alliance political paper. Nor does the economic struggle call forth a body of professional Socialist Alliance leaders. Nor does the economic struggle give rise to a Socialist Alliance party which exists to coordinate all discontent, all movements against injustice, all opposition to the government and the system of capital - eventually into one, final, mighty assault. This much is obvious.

Organisational forms are determined by the content of activity. Consequently, our SWP, SPEW, AWL and WP allies, by prioritising the economic, trade unionist-type bullet points mentioned above, author and legitimise not only a narrowness of political activity, but also of organisational work.

With their famished agenda the best that the Socialist Alliance can aspire to become is an electoralist ginger group. In leaflets and manifestos, and at speechifying rallies, we would hold out the promise of a socialism while being hobbled by being unable to provide any realistic road map to the desired future. The endless loop of buying and selling labour power remains unbroken. Only the extreme democracy championed by the CPGB offers a way out of that conundrum.

We have come a long way. Since the mid-1990s - when the Socialist Alliance first came into existence in response to the bureaucratic exclusion of the organised left from Arthur Scargill's proto-Socialist Labour Party - wider and wider forces have gradually swung into our orbit. Beginning as a loveless match between what was then Militant Labour, the CPGB and a flotsam and jetsam of vaguely leftwing grouplets and freelance individuals, the Socialist Alliance now has all Britain's principal revolutionary organisations giving their support. Above all, of course, the SWP.

By combining our scattered forces we have within our reach today the possibility of standing over 90 candidates throughout England and Wales (the kingdom of Scotland, for the moment, is a different story). Yet there is no room for smug self-satisfaction.

Our organisation is rightly described as woefully primitive. True, this is made blindingly obvious mainly because of the impressive distance we have travelled and the mountain we have climbed in order to fight the general election. What just about served five years ago must become an impediment under these propitious circumstances. Yet, precisely because our problems are those of rapid growth and much expanded influence, there can be a determined campaign to overcome backwardness both before but especially after the general election from a position of strength.

Primitive organisational forms can no longer be tolerated. The Liaison Committee and our executive committee must be won to lay plans for the greatest degree of professionalism and centralism we can achieve. Certainly the Weekly Worker will do everything in its power to persuade the cadre who are preparing to fight the general election that the amateurism which as present handicaps and blunts our efforts must be fought tooth and nail.

To begin to describe what the CPGB means by primitiveness we can do no better than quote Alan Thornett in his pinched address to the Birmingham conference. Speakers had to make do with four-minute snippets. Replying - rather grumpily - to the minority who were determinedly trying to arm the Socialist Alliance with some basic revolutionary principles, he frustratedly told us that such attempts were completely misplaced. Apparently the Socialist Alliance manifesto is no place for revolutionary ideas. Why? Because most of us already have our revolutionary "party"! In his case he is presumably referring to the International Socialist Group.

Frankly what came from the mouth of poor old comrade Thornett could equally have come from any number of factional gladiators at Birmingham. For example, the SWP's Chris Bambery, John Rees, Chris Harman or Lindsey German. One after the other these comrades stood before us, momentarily posed to the left and then loudly urged a vote to the right. Fancy revolutionary notions should be kept to the revolutionary 'party' and its restricted circle of consenting sympathisers and certainly not propagated in 90 constituency mail-drops and an all-England party political broadcast. That is not where the mass of workers are at, and we should begin where people are at and not where we want them to be.

A direct corollary of this bowing before spontaneity is blessing, perpetuating and justifying the continued existence of the sects. There is no need for the Socialist Alliance to undergo the painful and difficult transformation into a revolutionary party because there is already an abundance of them. My, your, their revolutionary party ... we all have our preferred brand.

A simple statement of fact. There is no revolutionary party in Britain. Neither the SWP nor SPEW, nor the ISG, AWL or WP. The Provisional Central Committee, and the CPGB branches, cells and committees it leads, is not a party either. Let me explain that apparent paradox. In 1991, as disciplined CPGB members, we Leninists did our duty and took the title of our party from the Marxism Today liquidationists. These scum had no right to deprive us of our party membership or responsibilities. But, as we stated at the time, our overriding task was, and still remains, to "reforge the Communist Party of Great Britain" ('What we fight for' Weekly Worker).

Sects, whatever their grand pretensions and name tags, are alien to and far removed from parties. Sects are defined not simply by small size and lack of deep roots in the working class. That is incidental. Sects are marked out by the primacy they give to some fetishised ideological catechism - usually conjured up by this or that all-knowing sage. A requirement of continued membership being full public agreement with the sect's current version of these ideas. To disagree, for example, with the SWP dogma of state capitalism, or its latest line turn on elections, is to invite expulsion or is a prelude to yet another split. The same goes for the brittle regimes of SPEW and WP.

Life is richer than any theory. The former is four-dimensional, the latter an approximate, blurred and frozen reflection. With the passage of time theory and reality diverge to the point where even the best theory becomes its opposite in the hands of the guardians of the word. No wonder the history of the left since 1945 has been of one schism after another. Sects produce sects ... and from nothing comes nothing.

A party is another matter entirely. A party is a part of the working class, the advanced part. As the leading detachment of the class, a party will and must contain within its ranks many different viewpoints, because there are many different thought-through experiences. Fierce arguments and clashes between rival groupings are inevitable and healthy. And, far from being confined to closed annual conferences or monthly internal bulletins, frequent open polemics on all manner of subjects - yes, in front of the whole working class - is the norm.

Sects operate as something akin to a religious order. Every sect has its incumbent pope, the saints of old, along with the ruling body of cardinals. Below the ecclesiastical hierarchy stands the humble flock. Here the stress is on discipline of thought, not unity of action. Moreover each sect is marshalled for war. Each has its special enemy. SPEW against the SWP. The AWL against the SWP. Workers Power against the SWP. SWP against everyone. Theory is not about explaining the world, let alone changing it. Theory is about the cohesion of the sect itself and a weapon to be deployed in the primordial war of one against all and all against one.

Given such an inauspicious environment, activity in the working class movement and society in general is bound to be one-sided, amateurish and above all selfish. Anti-fascist work and student protests against the abolition of grants, trade union broad lefts and anti-capitalism, standing in elections and the Socialist Alliance - it is all the same: progress is first and foremost judged not by the self-confidence and self-activity of the working class, but the number of paper sales and the influx of recruits.

This state of affairs, especially within the Socialist Alliance, can no longer be excused. While sects in some way keep alive the embers of the revolutionary Marxist tradition under bleak or particularly adverse conditions, they find justification. For example, the 1950s. But, unless revolutionary theory is animated through revolutionary practice, it becomes a mere fossilised dogma, a mantra to be learnt by initiates, but of no use in the real world. Hence the effortless ideological flip from formal revolutionism to old Labourism.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Socialist Alliance will be aware that its best elements, its most forward-thinking personalities, have begun to regard the existence of the sects and their primitive methods as a phase that ought to be left behind as soon as possible. But in our opinion, unless the connection between sect primitivism and economism is recognised, there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Inexperience, amateurism and an inability to fully meet agreed financial targets are common to us all, including those who steadfastly fought for the principles of Marxism at Birmingham. If all it took was John Rees and one of his training days to overcome primitivism then it would have been right to have turned March 10 into a big workshop, as he wanted.

But the problem of 'primitivism' is a wider one than a lack of experience and training: it denotes a narrow approach to the priorities of the Socialist Alliance. The Socialist Alliance cannot be built into a genuine alternative to New Labour while the 'theory' of a united front of a special kind continues to excuse a majority voting to confine our programme to the political space once occupied by old Labour. Such economism is intimately bound up with primitivism.

When we rid ourselves of economism we shall begin to rid ourselves of primitivism.

Jack Conrad