Most important task
Despite the relatively modest votes the SA received in the general election, the momentum towards unity is growing, as more comrades across the left are convinced of the need for an effective and democratic party to the left of Labour. Promoting and furthering this drive for left unity remains the most important task for the CPGB, said Marcus Larsen, introducing a session on the future of the Socialist Alliance.
He described the three blocs within the SA. At present the dominant bloc is the Socialist Workers Party and its allies, including the International Socialist Group. The SWP regards the Socialist Alliance as a united front of a special type and, as we have commented previously, views itself as the party. Although the SWP may seem to be winding down SA activity in some localities, comrade Larsen?s analysis is that the SWP is now firmly wedded to the Socialist Alliance project. It could not now simply change tack and pull out without risking very serious repercussions for itself.
The second bloc is composed of the Socialist Party and a few scattered localist allies. Having failed to prevent the development of the unity that currently exists in the Socialist Alliance, it finds itself almost completely isolated and discredited.
The CPGB is building a third bloc of forces working for deeper unity in the Socialist Alliance, around the platform, ?For a democratic and effective Socialist Alliance?. In effect this ?third way? is the Socialist Alliance?s pro-party bloc.
The platform includes a section based on the ?Charter of members? rights?, written by comrade Mike Marqusee - albeit with important additions. But the CPGB stresses that the call for democratic rights is made as an integral part of the fight for an effective organisation. During the debate comrade John Bridge reiterated this point: we are not interested in the rights of individuals for their own sake in a petty bourgeois or anarchistic way - ie, placing them over and above the needs of the whole. On the contrary democratic rights - including factional rights - are the best way to strengthen the Socialist Alliance as a collective and deepen its fighting unity.
While we make no secret of the fact that our goal is the transformation of the alliance into a democratic centralist party, other comrades with a slightly different perspective will undoubtedly support the statement. Obviously we hope that the SWP leadership will endorse the platform, for example, even though it contains formulations that are alien to its present internal culture and methods.
Comrade Larsen also spoke about the moves towards left unity in the trade unions. The forthcoming launch of the Unison United Left - reported by comrade Lawrie Coombs in the Weekly Worker (September 13) - is an example of the kind of advance we wish to encourage. Such moves resulted, at least in part, from the SA?s own success in drawing the left together, said comrade Larsen. The Socialist Alliance executive has set up a trade union committee, which can if the will is there act as a counterweight to any attempts to restrict the alliance to electoral work.
Next, comrade Larsen dealt with the May 2002 council elections in England. The SA executive committee has recommended the use of the June 2001 general election manifesto, People before profits, as a basis for campaigning in these local elections. Comrade Larsen welcomed this emphasis, which was accepted by the Socialist Party?s representative on the executive, even though that organisation?s SA candidates in the general election had refused to run a common campaign; and had stood against us in the London assembly and Hackney council elections.
In the following debate comrades argued that the SA?s general election manifesto needed to be criticised, but also defended as the highest expression so far of left unity. We should argue that People before profits demands specific organisational forms if it is to be fought for in practice - those of a democratic and effective party. The current Ruritanian federal structure is clearly totally inadequate.
Finally, comrade Larsen referred to the December 1 Socialist Alliance conference in London. Although the conference will debate what superficially appear to be technical questions concerning the SA?s structure, it will also decide the alliance?s next political step - back to ineffective federalism or forward to deeper unity.
Several draft constitutions have been put forward. The Socialist Party is arguing for a non-aggression pact with the right to veto any proposals it deems unacceptable. Comrade Larsen predicted that it would win very little support. He also described the Alliance for Workers? Liberty?s original proposals as typical of the thinking of many: they sought to bureaucratically enshrine representation for the smaller groups and individuals, as a way to prevent domination by the SWP. But the effect would be to institutionalise the sects and hold back the party project.
By contrast the CPGB believes that inclusive representation of loyal minority trends, while highly desirable, should be achieved politically, not bureaucratically. What was needed was the creation of a partyist culture, whereby it was considered natural that all significant trends ought to have their voices included in SA leadership bodies and committees. This in fact is what has been happening already in local Socialist Alliances. Nationally it could be continued through a fully accountable and transparent elections preparation committee producing a recommended list of candidates for elections to the executive committee.
In the debate, some comrades reported a downturn in the activity of their local Socialist Alliances, resulting from the way the SWP leadership attempts to compartmentalise political activity. It still regards the Socialist Alliance as almost exclusively a vehicle for election work. The SWP channels its energy in other fields through front organisations: eg, Globalise Resistance and the Anti-Nazi League. Worryingly, in some local Socialist Alliances SWP members had been unwilling to debate the September 11 terrorist outrages in America or the USA?s ?declaration of war?. SWP comrades are asserting that such grave international developments were not proper subjects for discussion in the Socialist Alliance. Others state that there is no point even talking about the question since we are unlikely to reach agreement.
The SWP clearly intends to work for the setting up of a broad anti-war movement under its hegemony - the SA would no doubt be a signatory. But not much more. All speakers felt that the Socialist Alliance could not be downgraded in this way: it must take a lead in the struggle against war and be seen to take a lead. SWP comrades have stated that ?certain types? of debate should be discouraged within the SA, as it would allegedly alienate left Labourites moving towards the alliance. No doubt the discussion currently ensuing on the SA Press Group internet list over the attitude of socialists towards individual acts of terrorism, reactionary ?anti-imperialists?, etc would come under this category.
In reality, however, SA ?independents?, like just about every other section of society, want to examine, debate and do something about such momentous events. The lack of any political culture within the Labour Party at a rank and file level is precisely one of the factors that caused many former members to switch to the Socialist Alliance in the first place. Such comrades will certainly want their new organisation to take a stand on the Bush ?war on terrorism?. So the SWP approach is both counterproductive and unsustainable.
Comrade John Bridge described the work December 1 conference preparations committee. The committee has responsibility for compositing motions, and will publish two bulletins containing all submissions.
Our attitude to guaranteed minority rights was the cause of some criticism. In the early days of the alliance - before it was transformed by SWP participation - the CPGB doggedly fought for the right of automatic representation. Not any longer. Comrade John Pearson felt that the change had not been properly explained or communicated.
Peter Manson replied that there had been many articles in the Weekly Worker arguing that our attitude to the question ought to reflect the development of the alliance itself. In the mid to late 90s there were influential elements that were opposed to inclusiveness itself. We had to fight hard simply for the right to remain in the SA. Its future even as an alliance was by no means certain. However, to insist on guaranteed representation today, as the alliance more and more began to resemble a party, was to risk stunting it in the federalism of the past.
We have now won those battles. Comrades on the left now see the Weekly Worker not as a wrecker, but as an invaluable weapon for partisans of the Socialist Alliance project - including when it criticises the SWP or the Socialist Party. It was argued that the best protection against bureaucracy is not an array of ?special rights?, but openness. John Bridge urged comrades to use the Weekly Worker - the paper could act as a ?solvent of bureaucracy?.