Advanced and backward

Danny Thompson of Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance and the Revolutionary Democratic Group argues that events in the BSA reflect national divisions

I welcome Marcus Larsen's analysis of the class struggle as it manifests itself in the Hull and East Yorkshire Socialist Alliance and in Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance (Weekly Worker February 7). All such political conflicts should be brought out into the open, rather than swept under the carpet, as is the usual modus operandi on the left. So it is good to see that SA executive members are taking these issues seriously. It is a shame therefore that the Socialist Workers Party has not put its side of the story. Indeed this has been one of the problems comrades face in Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance (BSA). The SWP does not like to argue its politics openly. We saw this during the industrial dispute over the Vauxhall closure. We criticised the SWP for undermining the political campaign against Blair by failing, or refusing, to cooperate with the BSA. It was not prepared to debate the issues. Later the SWP made an official complaint and called for an inquiry. Significantly it submitted a secret document to the inquiry - on condition that we could not see it and it would not be published. The SWP accusations were false. The inquiry satisfied itself on that score. Criticising the SWP did not constitute "sectarianism". On the contrary sectarianism flourishes when there is no open polemic. Politics is replaced by personal smears and gossip in dark corners. It was not our "sectarianism" that was the problem but theirs. We favour the democratic method used with such effect by Lenin. Open debates and internal political struggles are the life blood of political development and change. As he noted many times, open political arguments helped to make the Bolsheviks strong. We want the local SWP to desist from acting like sectarians. This means telling the world openly what their problem is. Then we can answer them politically. Of course cynics might say that if the SWP has 27 votes in its back pocket, it is not necessary to discuss politics at all. The issues here are about programme or policies, constitutions and democratic rights. These must be brought into the open. To make the issues public is to put them before those advanced and class- conscious workers who read papers like the Weekly Worker. It is to put the issues before the wider SA membership. This includes workers in the SWP, whose class position and class experience make them interested in the truth. Marcus's views about what is taking place in the BSA is an extension of how he saw the SA conference on December 1. In a previous article we made the same connection, arguing that "what took place in the BSA was a direct result of the decisions of the December 1 conference" (Weekly Worker January 31). So it is worth reviewing the battle lines as they took shape at the SA conference. Roughly speaking, there were two main political blocs plus the Socialist Party. The largest grouping with a majority of votes was the 'democratic and effective' (DE) bloc. This comprised the SWP, International Socialist Group, CPGB and indies like Nick Wrack and Mike Marqusee. The other bloc was that of 'democratic federal unity' (DFU), comprising the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Workers Power and indies such as Pete McLaren and Dave Church. The DE bloc supported the SWP's proposed constitution. The CPGB identified this bloc as the progressive or advanced section. It considered the DFU bloc as more backward and localist. Notwithstanding the contradictions within each bloc, we saw the politics differently. The DE bloc was politically backward because it was anti-party and not committed to fighting for the unity of the SA. The DFU bloc stood for a federal structure with 'one person, one vote'. This was the only form of organisation that could maintain a united SA and keep the SP on board. It was the only democratic and effective option for the SA. It would give greater freedom to the revolutionary minority. In contrast Marcus sees the SP as a "Taaffeite" party, a sectarian organisation with whom compromise was impossible. We saw the SP as a Nellist-Taaffe party with whom compromise was possible and necessary. Without knowing comrade Taaffe's views, it was clear that Dave Nellist could have been kept on board with a democratic federal constitution, without the SA majority having to compromise on 'one person, one vote'. The DE bloc were not prepared to compromise with the SP, and since they were the majority, a split was inevitable. The SWP was not going out of its way to keep a rival on board. The CPGB had dogmatically attached itself to the idea of the SA becoming a revolutionary centralist party and therefore saw no need to compromise with its 'principles'. Add to this the behaviour of the SP in the dispute in Hackney and we have all the ingredients for the 'democratic and effective' slogan of 'no compromise with the SP'. Not surprisingly Marcus objects to our claim that "the SP has been pushed out". We stand by that statement because it is true. Of course it is not the whole truth. The Socialist Party arguments for 'consensus federalism' placed it in a 'no win' situation. It boxed itself into a sectarian corner. However, albeit a bit late in the day, comrades like Clive Heemskerk and Dave Nellist were looking for a way of remaining on board. When we see the SP wobbling on the edge of a cliff, getting ready to jump, do we throw them a lifeline or give them a little nudge and smile to ourselves as they plunge to their death? The December 1 conference may look like a sectarian suicide. We have all read the suicide note. But no scientist or criminologist will accept what is obvious. Yes, it looked like suicide, but it was in fact a murder. Marcus seems to think that 'Taaffeite sectarianism' explains the whole picture. It does not. There is another side to the story which concerns the politics and motives of the majority DE bloc. Of course nobody in that bloc will admit that, including Marcus. After all, if there was a crime, they are number one suspects. This is why the DE bloc has a major responsibility for the split. We will not build the SA into an effective party of the left by means of this kind of split. When Marcus looks at events in the BSA he sees them through the political prism of the 'advanced' and 'backward' forces at the SA conference. His theory leads him to believe that the advanced elements in the BSA are the 'democratic and effective' centralisers of the SWP. The same theory suggests that the opposition to the SWP must represent the 'backwardness' and 'localism' of the 'democratic federal unity' kind. Of course Marcus does not say that the SWP represents the 'advanced' wing of the BSA. But he identifies the RDG with the 'backward' forces. He says: "The RDG is playing a poor role - siding with the most backward, most localist elements." Since the SWP and RDG stand on opposite sides of this dispute, we can deduce from dialectics that implicitly he sees the SWP as representing the advanced forces. This does not, nor should it, prevent Marcus from criticising the SWP. But he selects words that do not contradict his basic theory. The local SWP may be 'advanced', but they are also "barmy". So in the BSA it is the "barmy" SWP versus the 'backward' RDG. I am sure if we asked our comrades in the AWL they would think the descriptions should be the other way round! Far be it for me to let a few facts get in the way of such a 'good' theory. First the BSA officers closed the meeting when the new local constitution fell and we were left without one. Had they not done so there would have been a split. Closing the meeting was simply postponing it until the issues can be more widely understood and resolved sensibly by democratic means. It meant taking the issues from the local to the national SA. The local SWP decided that they would restart the meeting again after most members had left and elect their own officers. This was simply the recipe for a split. Presumably there would be two BSAs and two sets of officers, with the national executive having to decide which they wanted to recognise. A local split would then be in danger of becoming a second national split. The local SWP behaved in a reckless fashion. Considering that the central committee is directly represented in the shape of the SWP local organiser, unless the CC dissociates itself in practice from splitting tactics, it is a repeat of the national split at a local level. Why did the local SWP 'spontaneously' or 'naturally' think that a split was the solution? Having just got rid of the SP nationally is it not possible that same 'we are in charge now' attitude has infected the SWP rank and file? After all, at the conference SWP members were openly applauding when the SP walked out and clearly saw it as another victory for 'the party'. If Marcus thinks the behaviour of the SWP can simply be explained by local factors such as 'barmyness' then he is surely guilty of his own brand of localism - separating the local from the national (and international) politics. His original proposition was correct. These local events reflects the wider national issues in which the SWP represents "barmy" splitting tactics or backwardness. Let us consider the issue of 'localism'. Suppose the working class in Manchester decided to go on strike and workers elsewhere decided to carry on work as usual. Would Marcus condemn the Manchester strikers as 'backward localists'? On his definition the answer is 'yes'. Localism, according to him, is action in one locality. Of course the Manchester strikers would need to generalise the struggle to the rest of the country. They would be guilty of 'localism' if they believed they did not need to spread the action to other localities. What view would Marcus take if the national trade union bureaucracy outlawed the Manchester strikes on the grounds of 'localism'? Should all 'localist' strikes cease, in order to conform with the inactivity and backwardness of the majority? Would Marcus line up with the bureaucratic centralisers in their fight against localism? Or would Marcus consider that even 'localist' action can be 'advanced'? So who is taking the political issues in the BSA to the national executive and to a national audience through the Weekly Worker? Was it the SWP or was it the BSA officers and the RDG? The SWP was invited by the Weekly Worker to explain its view of the politics. Clearly the party thought it was all right to comment on the Hull and East Yorks SA. No localism there. But not in the BSA, where the SWP has been determined to keep it as a little local difficulty with no significance to any other part of the SA. I call that localism. But Marcus with his CPGB centralist dogma cannot see SWP localism when it is staring him in the face. How can the SWP accept a local constitution in some parts of the country, but not in the BSA. Is that localism? Marcus explains: "What seems to be at the heart of the BSA fiasco is the fact that the incumbent officers and the majority of members are reluctant to surrender unnecessary and prescriptive clauses in their local constitution" (my emphasis). We note the word "seems". In fact this is simply not true. On the contrary the BSA officers proposed a new local constitution drafted to take account of the December 1 national constitution. Far from being backward, the BSA is among the first to produce a post-December 1 local constitution. Clause three on programme and constitution says: "3.1. The BSA programme is currently the Socialist Alliance manifesto People before profit as amended by the BSA Policy statement and any other BSA policy decisions"; and "3.2. The BSA recognises the constitution of the Socialist Alliance and all the rights and responsibilities therein". This is not clinging to "localism". On the contrary it is taking the original BSA "Bedfordshire constitution and programme" and replacing it with a constitution that relates the local to the national programme and national constitution. The only aspect of this that might be controversial is the idea that the BSA can advocate policies which differ from People before profit. But Marcus himself quite rightly says that the "BSA is free to pass whatever programmatic document it wishes". The programme issue can be dealt with in two ways. Either a bureaucratic rule that bars any 'affiliate' - for example, the BSA, or the SWP or CPGB - from advocating any policy not in People before profit. Or perhaps we could have one rule for the local alliances and special programmatic privileges for the political groups? Or we could do it politically on a case by case basis. The question is how does the BSA programme differ from People before profit? The BSA programme, democratically agreed before People before profit, advocates a lower minimum wage and a federal republic. Of these two policies I would be very surprised if the BSA did not come into line with People before profit on the minimum wage. But this requires respect for the BSA democratic processes, not some bureaucratic ruling from above. The issue of the federal republic is different. At present People before profit advocates an English republic. Will Marcus now tell us that a federal republic is BSA "localism", as opposed to the SA's 'nationalism'? It will be interesting to see whether Marcus's predilection for 'centralism' means he will advocate an independent English republic against the 'localist' federal republic. For the record, the BSA supported 'one member, one vote' from its foundation (opposed by the local SWP), a national SA paper (opposed by the SWP), a programme submission to the Birmingham conference (opposed by the SWP), a local democratic constitution (opposed by the SWP), the aim of launching a broad-based party along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party (opposed by the SWP), and a federal structure that would guarantee representation for the SWP on the BSA executive (opposed by the SWP). So where is BSA backwardness here? At the end of the day it is programme and power that is at the core of this dispute. The fight for programme reminds the SWP that it is not in control. This is what explains its hostility to a local constitution. It explains the false accusations of RDG "sectarianism". It explains its determination to get rid of three BSA officers - not on the grounds of their activity and commitment to the SA, but because they are RDG members or sympathisers. It explains the smears against these comrades. It is about power, the fight for programme and the methods the SWP will deploy to achieve its aims. This boils down not to localism, but the future national direction of the SA movement - towards an English republic or a federal republic?