Workers Power and the SA

Welcome shift

As the Socialist Alliance gathers momentum, it creates in its wake a pronounced fluidity in the politics of the revolutionary left. Sterile dogmas of the past are left behind as theory tries to catch up with practice. An excellent example of this can be seen in the latest issue of Workers Power (March).

In an editorial on "A new party" the comrades quite correctly start from the fact that the "biggest socialist election challenge for 50 years is underway". This, as the editorial indicates, is the concrete arena in which the unity of the left is being forged and Workers Power is clearly aware of the sectarian dangers of counterposing a new revolutionary party to what exists in the SAs (unlike some members of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, we might add).

This significant step forward for WP is further elaborated in the political tone of the piece. In terms of its programmatic demands at the March 10 policy conference the comrades write: "Whether or not we win, we will stick with the alliance. We will criticise its programme, where it is inadequate, but will unite with trade union and community activists in the fight for a left alternative to Tory Blair."

The editorial also states: "A party that can lead the working class ... has to be based on the principle: maximum freedom of debate, maximum unity of action." Readers will note that this formulation is almost exactly the same as that of the CPGB. While we are extremely encouraged that WP has shifted position, we should bear in mind that only last year WP was parodying our (and now its) approach to a Socialist Alliance as a call for a "federal" party that was inconsistent with democratic centralism.

It is positive indeed that WP has finally twigged that "maximum freedom of debate" (which we presume means open polemic in front of the whole class) actually strengthens our unity. The Socialist Alliances are obviously a great teacher. It is precisely here that WP members have learnt that unity in action does not have to be premised on agreement with a version of the revolutionary programme (Workers Power's old sectarian template for 'unity').

It is useful to contrast WP's current stance with that of its attitude to the Socialist Labour Party. WP briefly hailed the launch of Scargill's organisation - before quickly moving to counterpose its own programme and tiny organisation to the SLP, when it became clear that it was not about to adopt the WP version of Trotsky's Transitional programme. There was seemingly never a thought of WP 'sticking' with the SLP and arguing as a minority (although a handful of its cadre did actually join).

True, soon after the SLP's formation the prospect of transforming it into a party based on democratic centralism became rather a distant one. But revolutionaries ought to have adopted a position of critical support for a definite period of time - i.e., while the SLP could still be called a working class party rather than the personal property of one, sad, man. But in WP's case we had the sectarian antics of the 1997 general election. On the one hand, it backed Terry Burns in Cardiff Central after Cardiff SLP circulated a 'revolutionary manifesto' (in fact, as comrade Burns himself pointed out, he stood on the national SLP manifesto). On the other hand, it supported ex-Tory Alan Howarth as the New Labour candidate in Newport East against Arthur Scargill himself.

This excessively brittle and sectarian approach to those forces breaking from New Labour looked as if it was going to be repeated in the early days of the London Socialist Alliance when WP restricted itself to the role of 'observer' in the negotiations surrounding the aborted slate for the European elections in 1999.

Like the rest of our alliance partners, WP was forced beyond this 'revolutionary' posturing after the collapse of its perspectives following the election of New Labour in 1997. WP shared the hopes of the SWP et al of a 'crisis of expectations', which of course failed to materialise in a long post-electoral honeymoon. This pushed WP into a more pronounced engagement with the SAs.

None of this is to say that this latest orientation does not have its problems. The internal regime of WP is still characterised by bureaucratic centralism. Opponents of the majority are obliged to argue the majority's line in public: e.g., public meetings, debates, discussions and other such occasions. Thus, all members of WP had to formally agree with the ridiculous notion that the ex-Soviet Union of Yeltsin was a "moribund workers' state". That is, until recently, when the line suddenly changed. It is highly likely that WP's involvement in the SAs will expose the fragility of its current regime.

With the SA taking ever more steps towards becoming a centralised party, the possible dire consequences of breaking WP's mind discipline by going public with universally interesting internal differences are becoming more unlikely by the day. Dissidents no longer have to face the wilderness - they already have a home in the SAs.

WP has no real culture of internal debate. My experience as a Workers Power member in the early 1990s was that the constant pressure on keeping mum in public had a detrimental effect on branch life. Differences were rarely raised and handled badly when they were. Educationals were heavily based on the organisation's own turgid literature and were essentially concerned with getting a particular line right (Bosnia was particularly enjoyable in this respect). After all, next week it was going to be you arguing it.

WP quite correctly visualises a new revolutionary party involving wide-ranging debates. But is its culture robust enough to survive such a dynamic? Because the one thing that such debate exposes is rigid ideological organisation around a particular fixed dogma.

In order to survive in this "new party" WP really ought to think about overthrowing its regime and ending bureaucratic proscriptions on its membership.

Phil Watson