SWP and Socialist Alliance

Auto-Labourism lives on

The deepening commitment and involvement of the Socialist Workers Party in the Socialist Alliance, both at leadership and rank-and-file level, has had a major, positive effect on the project and resulted in progress that would otherwise have taken place much more slowly.

Yet the SWP's involvement has been largely untheorised, in terms of an overall perspective or goal for the alliance project. It has consistently sought to duck all discussion on the dynamic and direction in which the alliance project leads. Since the SWP believes, or professes to believe, that it is 'the revolutionary party', it has shied away from the logical progressive outcome of this project - the birth of a new working class party - instead taking refuge in the formula that the Socialist Alliance represents some kind of 'united front'.

In part, this is a result of the SWP's view of what a genuine working class party should be - i.e., a much larger organisation based on the politics of the SWP's modified but fundamentally orthodox Trotskyism. The Socialist Alliance, with its many shades of thought and its freedom of public criticism, is so far from this model that the SWP theorists have not been able to reconcile with its theory the evident fact that a new party is in the making. But the logic is proceeding remorselessly nevertheless, despite the organisation's evident preference for keeping political debate and programmatic controversy at arms length for as long as possible, and it is notable that at least some of the programmatic questions facing the alliance are beginning to be touched on by SWP theorists.

Nowhere is the SWP's theoretical floundering shown more starkly than when one of its most eloquent writers and learned thinkers, John Rees, tries to address the question of alliance tactics towards New Labour (Socialist Review March). The logic of the Socialist Alliance is confronting the SWP with a whole number of unresolved programmatic questions - many the legacy of past mistakes and historic errors of perspective. So the question of electoral tactics, and indeed our strategic attitude toward the Labour Party in this period in its deepening bourgeoisification and unprecedented domination, is a theoretical hot potato.

A smattering of non-SWP participants in the Socialist Alliance, for instance, were also members of the Socialist Labour Party in its initial period when it appeared to have a chance of becoming a viable organisation. Such comrades remember well the SWP's hostile abstentionism and pseudo-leftist attacks on the SLP as being irremediably reformist. This ultimately meant that, while it hedged its bets with the ambiguous slogan 'Vote Labour or socialist', the bulk of the SWP's activity around the 1997 general election involved advocating a critical vote to Blair's New Labour.

Obviously in 2001 there is a big change. True, the SLP limps on, a husk of its former self. But more importantly the Socialist Alliance, with the SWP in the leading factional role, is the main force on the left. We are set to stand around 90 candidates in England alone. What sort of campaign should we conduct? Ninety local campaigns in each constituency or a nationwide challenge to the Labour Party and other establishment parties? Comrade Rees is not sure. On the one side he appears to believe that elections are a way of making propaganda and winning support across the whole country. On the other hand he still hankers after the old certainty that elections are about choosing a government: i.e. opting for the lesser of two evils. Hence we find this equivocal formulation: "Crucially, we want a dynamic socialist campaign that gives confidence to trade unionists, campaigners and militants fighting back. But many of these people - tubeworkers, hospital workers, carworkers, post office workers - are still Labour Party supporters. What should we be saying to them about their party? Clearly we are saying support the Socialist Alliance, but the Socialist Alliance is not yet strong enough to stand in every seat. So what do we say in areas without a Socialist Alliance candidate?"

Comrade Rees concludes: "If we are to continue this vitally important dialogue with Labour supporters then we must be able to say, 'We only called for workers not to vote Labour when there was a socialist alternative.' Where none existed we, with a heavy heart, said 'Don't let the Tory in - vote Labour but build the socialist alternative, so that next time we don't fact the same lousy choice'."

Comrade Rees criticises "some on the left [i.e., Peter Taaffe and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, who] argue that we should abstain. The Labour Party, it is said, is a second Tory Party, a pro-business party pure and simple, no different from the US Democratic Party. This is a very serious claim. If the Labour Party has ceased to exist in its traditional form, with no socialist force capable of replacing it, then the British working class has suffered a severe defeat."

He continues: "It is understandable that many former Labour Party leftwingers should feel inclined to such rhetoric. For many years they thought that the Labour Party was the sole representative of working class interests and that it could be a vehicle for socialism. The realisation that this is not true, forced on them by the defeats of the Labour left since the mid-1980s, has now driven many to the opposite conclusion." In fact, such was the impact of these defeats that quite a few such people drew similar conclusions even before Tony Blair entered Downing Street.

Here comrade Rees is acting as a rearguard rather than a vanguard. He seizes on one common theoretical weakness, shared by the Socialist Party and other ex-Labour leftists such as Mike Marqusee (and indeed Arthur Scargill) in order to bolster his argument, attacking the contention that the transformation of New Labour into an out-and-out bourgeois party is complete:

"The truth is more complex. The Labour Party has always been defined by two incompatible poles. On the one hand it rests on the organisational and financial support of the trade union leaders. The people who vote for it and who run it are overwhelmingly working class. But politically the Labour Party has always been wedded to the capitalist system. It has sometimes, but not always, accepted that some limitation on the free market is necessary, but has never doubted that the capitalist system is inviolable in all essentials. Neither has the Labour Party ever wavered from the view that parliamentary democracy is the only mechanism available to working class people to improve their condition. In short the Labour Party is, as it always has been, a pro-capitalist party supported by the organisations of the working class."

Here is an example of how a perfectly good theory, applied in an abstract manner, can give a misleading picture of reality, and thus be misused. It is true that Labour has not, as yet, gone through the final consummation of the Blair project and become an outright bourgeois party. It has not been shown, decisively, by means of any historic test, that the old LP bureaucracy and pro-capitalist upper crust of the trade unions has been organisationally transformed into a mere appendage of Blair's billionaire sponsors, as opposed to political subordinates of the capitalists, as they were under the classic 'old' Harold Wilson-style Labour Party. Nevertheless, the bourgeois pole has achieved unprecedented dominance and the proletarian pole has become increasingly subordinate and residual, as we have noted before.

The flaunting of New Labour's super-rich paymasters has, as indeed was happening before 1997, produced an indifference and cynicism about politics among the working class that is unparalleled. For all the SWP's euphoria in 1997, which resulted in such ridiculous events as SWP comrades singing 'The Internationale' in pubs in delight at the Blairite election landslide, actually the last election produced the lowest electoral turnout this side of World War II. For all the SWP's schema, which said that the working class should have been enthused about getting rid of the hated Tories, and that there should have therefore been a 'crisis of expectations' leading to massive disillusionment pretty quickly afterwards, it has been proven that this was indeed a schema. There was no 'crisis of expectations', and such is the 'disillusionment' that it appears that there will most likely be only a marginally worse electoral turnout in 2001 than the dismal one in 1997.

The SWP shares a central methodological tenet with the people it is polemicising against: auto-Labourism. That is, the belief that it is obligatory for socialists to give electoral support to 'bourgeois labour parties', no matter how rightwing or openly anti-working class the political profile or posture of their leaders - or even whether they are seen by the workers as in any way championing the interests of workers as a class. The SWP, correctly, notes that Labour still contains elements of a bourgeois workers' party in its organisational composition and, ignoring the fact that its whole political direction of motion is strongly to the right, concocts convoluted justifications for continuing to vote for it, come hell or high water.

Thus comrade Rees, despite the undoubted sincerity of his hatred for Blair and all he stands for, is forced to pen craven apologies for the same Blair to justify his false theory: "It is true that Tony Blair occupies one of the most rightwing points on the spectrum. But he is not the most rightwing Labour leader ever. He has not split the party and joined a Tory government, like Ramsay McDonald. Nor has he split the party and so kept it out of government for a generation, like David Owen and the other founders of the SDP.

"It is true that the policies of the Blair government are more rightwing than some of his predecessors. Yet Blair's warmongering in Kosovo and Iraq was matched by Wilson's support for the Vietnam War. And the Callaghan government's IMF austerity programme and attacks on trade unions not only led to a fall in real wages for the only time in British post-war history, but also led directly to the election of Margaret Thatcher."

"... So the choice for those who do not have a socialist candidate to vote for will be this - either they vote for the open, unashamed representatives of big business, backed by the majority of the capitalist class, overwhelmingly organised on the ground by the local ruling and middle class elites, and under one of the most rightwing leaders in its recent history. Or they vote for a party which is certainly pro-capitalist, but is funded and supported by working class people, including the majority of class-conscious workers. If we make a wrong decision, a decision contrary to the instincts of the majority of shop stewards and activists in the working class movement, it will not make it easier to win them to the Socialist Alliance in the future."

Given that Tony Blair's government, according to this scenario, is really not so different from the Harold Wilson government of the Vietnam war days, or the Wilson/Callaghan government of the 1970s, one is driven to ask, 'What, then, is all the fuss about?' Why do the same kind of activists who in that period would most likely have been stalwarts of the left wing of the LP, see no future for themselves in this kind of activity today? The answer to this, of course, is obvious. The Labour Party, while not yet finally breaking from all theoretical possibility of influence by the trade union bureaucracy, has undergone a qualitative rightward shift.

Comrade Rees's examples of earlier betrayals are half-truths, which hide more than they reveal. He writes that Ramsay McDonald's programme in 1931 was every bit as openly anti-working class and hostile to any semblance of political influence of the organised working class as is Blair's. True. But unlike Blair, McDonald had to break from the Labour Party, and found his own short-lived bourgeois party/clique ('National Labour') in order to carry out this programme.

It is also true, of course, that Blair has not split the Labour Party, as did the David Owen and his 'Gang of Four' in 1981. Obviously, he has not needed to do so - he has instead politically transformed the Labour Party into a formation that has effectively the same politics as the SDP. This job was, of course, not just the work of Blair. The essential spadework was done by the leadership of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley in the 1980s, with their driving out and marginalisation of most of the pro-working class, pro-socialist elements of the Labour left. In reality, whereas both McDonald and the Gang of Four ultimately failed in their drive to destroy all even formally independent working class politics, Blair has more or less succeeded, at least within the framework of the Labour Party as an organisation.

Likewise, comrade Rees's comparison of Blair's warmongering record with that of Harold Wilson is way wide of the mark. Wilson indeed was a staunch supporter of US imperialism in Vietnam, and he certainly tried to witch-hunt revolutionary opponents of the Vietnam war out of the Labour Party. But Wilson was quite unable, because of mass opposition within the labour movement and the Labour Party itself, to send any troops to aid the Americans in Vietnam. Contrast this with Blair's initiating role in many of imperialism's recent wars: against Iraq and above all in Kosova.

The weight of pro-working class forces in Labour was qualitatively different in that period. And of course the Labour Party under Wilson was not so far removed from the one under his predecessor, Attlee, carrying out in terms of domestic policy a social democratic programme of bourgeois nationalisation, Keynesian economics and a general posture of seeking to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalism in the interests of the working class. To pretend that there is no qualitative difference in the relationship between the Wilson-led Labour Party in government of 1964-70 and the working class, and the relationship between our class and the Blair administration of today, is a distortion of reality to fit a defective schema.

Comrade Rees compares the Blair government somewhat favourably to the social contract, strike-breaking Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-79, and points out that, unlike Blair's government, Wilson's attacks on the working class led to a fall in real wages and thereby the rise of Thatcher, as well as a frightening growth of fascism. But again, this is ahistorical. Blair's government stands on the shoulders of the most reactionary aspects of the 1974-79 Labour government.

In fact, in 1974-79, there was a genuine 'crisis of expectations' in the working class. The Labour government, elected on a leftist-sounding programme, which included the repeal of the Heath government's anti-union laws, and the setting up of a 'National Enterprise Board' which would supposedly have the power to take industries into 'public ownership' and impose a kind of bureaucratic 'planning' on private industry, came to power as the result of a major confrontation between the previous Tory government and the working class.

Many revolutionaries certainly advocated a vote to Labour in 1974, in order to put the Labour leadership to the test of office, so that the workers who supported it and had illusions that it would fight for them could judge it by its actions in power. Revolutionaries were also obliged, when the Labour government abandoned its honeyed promises and started cutting public spending, witch-hunting trade unionists and using troops to break strikes, to withdraw any support from the party leadership in elections, while supporting any real expression of working class discontent within the party.

The fact is that Denis Healy's Labour chancellorship, under Callaghan, confronted the working class with the first whiff of 'monetarist' economics, and thereby represented the birth of the overtly Thatcherite current within the party. The foul record of this government in office produced a quite massive 'Bennite' leftist opposition movement within the LP after its defeat in 1979; Kinnockism, and even more Blairism, epitomises both the subsequent crushing strategic defeat suffered by our class in the miners' Great Strike of 1984-85, and the marginalisation of the Labour left by the most consistently bourgeois elements of the same Labour Party hierarchy that was responsible for the horrors of the 1974-79 government. More specifically, it represents the yuppie protégés, the Blairs and the Mandelsons, who have pushed the party so far to the right that elements such as Roy Hattersley now think that they have gone too far. So much for the theory that Blair's regime is no worse than rightwing Labour leaderships of the past!

Comrade Rees's statement that, in voting Labour, those who do not have the opportunity to vote Socialist Alliance would be voting against "open, unashamed representatives of big business, backed by the majority of the capitalist class" jars against reality, given the well publicised fact that the Labour Party is right in the pocket of such people, from the billionaire Lords Sainsbury and Simons to the Hinduja brothers, from Bernie Ecclestone to the Murdoch press. In voting for Blair's party, one would be voting for "open, unashamed representatives of big business".

And surely it is completely at variance with reality to assert that the Tories under Hague are "backed by the majority of the capitalist class"? In fact, it is clear that the Conservatives will not even receive the wholehearted backing of their own Europhiles, such as Michael Heseltine. Such a hard, rightwing ruling class ideologue as Max Hastings recently described himself as a "disillusioned ex-Tory" for roughly similar reasons. The truth is that Blair intends that New Labour will replace the Tories as the main party of the bourgeoisie in Britain.

In voting for Blair loyalists, and thereby helping New Labour to win the election, one would only be helping him in this task. Of course, this in no way precludes tactical electoral support for any Labour candidate who concretely represents some kind of progressive, working class-based opposition to, or break from, Blairism, thereby in some way constituting an expression of Labour's current submerged proletarian component.

It is unfortunate that the SWP's wrong understanding and theory lead it into shallow historical distortions and a perspective so at variance with reality. But for the Socialist Alliance to accept its counsel would lead to a blunting of the SA's critique of New Labour, and can only retard the project that many SWP cadre and rank-and-file members, including comrade Rees, are playing a major role in building.

Ian Donovan