United front of a third kind

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group argues against Alex Callinicos' Socialist Review article and calls for the Socialist Alliance to become a 'united front party'

This month's Socialist Review, the Socialist Workers Party's monthly magazine, contains an article entitled 'Unity in diversity' by Alex Callinicos, a central committee member and one the party's leading intellectuals. It is the most authoritative theoretical statement on the Socialist Alliance project since Lindsey German last dealt with the subject. Comrade Callinicos sets out clearly the main options for the Socialist Alliance. He indicates how SWP thinking is changing. He deals with the central question of whether the SA should limit itself to a united front or follow the path previously trodden by the Scottish Socialist Alliance and become a party. As readers of Weekly Worker may remember, the RDG intervention at the December 1 SA conference concentrated on promoting the example of the Scottish Socialist Party. It is the only serious option, given the real circumstances facing the working class movement. So when he says that "the most frequently cited model is the Scottish Socialist Party" we know our message is starting to get through (Socialist Review No262, April 2002). Comrade Callinicos describes the SSP as a "left socialist party initiated and led by activists mainly, though not exclusively, from a background in the Militant Tendency, whose sectarianism they sought to break comprehensively. It has a broad socialist programme that you don't have to be a revolutionary to sign up to, but it includes organised political tendencies (platforms) that are required to subordinate their activities to the interests of the SSP as a whole. Thus, for example, SSP members are required to sell only Scottish Socialist Voice publicly." He then goes on to recognise the real achievements of the SSP. He says that "the SSP has undoubtedly been a remarkable success in its three years of existence. It has carved out a space for itself in the new Scottish political arena created by devolution, and won impressive votes in the 2001 Westminster elections." He is clearly pleased that "supporters of the Socialist Worker Platform have, since joining the SSP in May 2001, established themselves as active and loyal members of the party". One of the factors in this success is the fact that the SSP "has also succeeded in uniting the bulk of the Scottish far left under the same roof". This is of course in marked contrast with the failure of the Socialist Alliance at the December conference, when the SWP failed to come to a compromise with the Socialist Party. So whilst the SSP model only received 21 votes at the December 2001 conference, it is now coming up on the inside rail. The odds have surely been slashed from the 100-1 outsider to the bookies' new favourite. This was confirmed recently when the first ever members' platform in the SA was launched in Bedfordshire, calling for the SA to go down the SSP road. Recently the front page of the Weekly Worker, reporting on the SSP conference, confirms the shift that is taking place. The article says: "There are profound lessons here for all Socialist Alliance comrades to learn in both England and Wales. Most notably that the bold step forward from the Scottish Socialist Alliance to the Scottish Socialist Party has put socialism back on the agenda" (March 7). How can the CPGB argue with that? So what prevents Alex drowning in his own SSP tidal wave? What does this latter-day King Canute have to say? Despite "these real achievements", he argues, "it does not follow that the SSP is the only, or even the most desirable, model for party-building elsewhere". The first dam he tries to construct is the SWP and the second is the united front. Scottish tales Apparently what prevents us learning from the progress and experience of our Scottish comrades is the size and dominance of the SWP itself. He says: "There is an obvious difficulty: namely the enormous imbalance in the resources and members of the Socialist Workers Party and the other political currents within the Socialist Alliance." So the SSP succeeds in Scotland because the SWP is a minority. But we are lagging behind in England because the SWP is dominant? It is not too few SWP members in Scotland that explains the SSP progress. Neither are too many in England the problem. It is not numbers at all. It is the difference in politics. In Scotland the SWP members actually support the SSP model and work to build it. In England SWP members oppose the SSP model and work to prevent it. There is democratic centralism for you! It is a political problem that comrade Callinicos identifies. He says: "This is already a source of tension and is one reason why some SA members advocate the creation of a new party." In fact the most concrete and most open expression of this "tension" was the 'battle of Bedfordshire', as reported in Weekly Worker. On the one side SA comrades advocate not only a local constitution to ensure the inclusion of all trends, but an SA newspaper and moving towards a party along the lines of the SSP. On the other side the SWP comrades feel these politics are not what the SA should be about and see them as a challenge to their control of the alliance. The fact that the SWP is a large majority is not in itself a problem. The question is how the SWP exercises that majority in relation to other groups and individual members, whether they are large like the Socialist Party or small like the RDG. It matters little whether that majority is in an alliance or a party. As Callinicos says, "Such a move [to a party] would not abolish the imbalance, but transfer it to a new terrain." Exactly. So how would the terrain change? In a party all members will be on an equal footing as party members. At the moment we are in an alliance of those in groups and parties and those who are not, and between those with their own paper and those without. Simply becoming a party does not change the size of SWP majorities, but its does change the relationship between the first class and second class members. No amount of the SWP flattering and promoting their favourite 'indies' can alter that. It is a poor substitute. The second argument is related to the united front. This is the ultimate SWP rationale for opposing the SSP. In essence the SA needs to remain a united front in order to attract disgruntled Labour supporters. Comrade Callinicos says: "Turning the SA into a party now would foreclose this process and deny substantial numbers of Labour supporters who can be won to a socialist alternative of the opportunity to participate in defining the nature of this alternative." There is something in this argument that should not simply be dismissed. But we need to look at the theory of the united front which comrade Callinicos links to the current period. To begin with, he takes us back to the use of this tactic in the Russian Revolution and the attempt by the Communist International to codify this experience in 1921. As a tactic, the united front was the means by which the minority communist forces could win a majority of the working class. The mass of workers, under the influence of the dominant bourgeois ideology, trusted the social democrats and not the communists. The communists must therefore come forward and propose united action against the common enemy for a given objective. Either the social democrats will refuse united action and expose their own sectarianism or unity will be achieved. The struggle will then decide whose theory and practice represents the real interests of the working class. The practice of the united front will show that the communists are the real non-sectarian fighters. The influence of the communists should grow and that of the social democrats diminish. The united front is therefore a method by which the communists become the majority of the class and the class becomes ready to take power. The party without the united front tactic will act in a sectarian way. But equally the united front without the party leads to the liquidation of the working class as an independent political force. These dangers were present in the 1920s. Comrade Callinicos says that "at the third congress of the Comintern in June and July 1921, Lenin and Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders argued that the CPs were in danger of becoming sects that concentrated on denouncing the social democratic leaders as traitors, while making no effort to win over large numbers of workers still influenced by reformist ideas". The debates over the united front were aimed at correcting precisely this error. Comrade Callinicos draws attention to a key point. He says: "Trotsky made clear that united fronts could only work if they involved at least a section of the reformist leadership." If the working class was already revolutionary then they would simply unite behind the communists programme and slogans. There would be no need for a united front. The reformist leaders are leaders because the mass of the working class is reformist. So Trotsky is absolutely right that we cannot overcome the problem of a reformist working class without relating correctly to the reformist leaders. Sneaky Comrades Callinicos sums up the united front in the following way. He says that "by bringing revolutionaries and reformists together into a common struggle, communists could demonstrate to the social-democratic rank and file, in practice rather than in words, the superiority of their politics. The united front thus has two aspects: (1) it united revolutionaries and reformists in a common struggle around issues of concern to the working class as a whole; and (2) it involved a struggle for political influence over the masses between revolutionaries and reformists." It is worth noting that Alex is sneaking in the economistic formula about "issues of concern to the working class as a whole". He surely means issues that economistic intellectuals think are of concern to the working class as a whole. We can hear the Blair mantra that workers as a whole are only concerned about 'schools and hospitals'. In fact reformist and revolutionaries can unite on a whole range of issues to mobilise the working class. According to comrade Callinicos, the united front exists today in its "classic" form in the Stop the War Coalition. Such "classic" united fronts seem to be identified in single-issue campaigns. In the last 20 years we have seen united fronts take shape in the miners support committees, the anti-poll tax movement, the campaign against pit closures and the Criminal Justice Bill, and the Anti-Nazi League. However, united fronts can form around a more general set of demands, such as Globalise Resistance and the Socialist Alliance. Callinicos calls these "united fronts of a new type". He says that, "whilst these coalitions bring together revolutionaries and reformists, their political platform is much broader than some relatively narrowly defined campaigning issue". In fact the Scottish Socialist Alliance was precisely such a generalised united front emerging from a single-issue united front - the Scottish anti-poll tax movement. When the SSA became the Scottish Socialist Party, it did not abandon its character as a united front of reformists and revolutionaries. Rather it took the higher form of a 'united front party'. The RDG uses the term 'communist-Labour party' to express this higher form of united front. The united front should not therefore simply be seen as the opposite of party. On the contrary the united front of reformists and revolutionaries can be raised to the level of party. Such united front parties are not simply a theoretical possibility, but have existed: for example, the German Social Democratic Party of the 1880s with Bernstein, Kautsky and Luxemburg. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was for much of its existence a united front of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The latter, whilst nominally revolutionaries, were a reformist, social democratic trend. Comrade Callinicos makes one other useful point by explaining that communists parties do not just arise from gradual recruitment. Taking the example of Germany and the United Social Democratic Party in 1919, he reminds us that mass centrist organisations can under the right circumstances provide a mass base for a communist party. As he says, "Hundreds of thousands of workers moved in the space of two years from reformism via centrism to revolutionary politics." Of course, if we were in a revolutionary situation, we would be building a real communist party and splitting the centrists. But in the UK today a mass centrist organisation with a communist wing would be a real step forward. Our view of the Socialist Alliance is similar to the SWP, insofar as we view it thorough the prism of the united front. But we draw different conclusions. First, as Trotsky said, united fronts can only be effective if they involve a section of the reformist leadership. In fact the Socialist Alliance hardly contains a section of the reformist leadership. There is no Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, Jeremy Corbyn, etc, or any of the reformist trade union leaders. Far from making progress in the fight for unity, the Socialist Alliance actually lost an important component of the united front when the SWP failed to prevent the Socialist Party from leaving. The issue seems to boil down to this. Is the SWP actually in favour of a united front party at some time in the future? Or does the SWP want to limit the SA to a lower form of united front for sectarian reasons? Far from this gaining socialist Labour supporters, we will begin to lose the ones we have got. The SA cannot stand still. It has got to go forward if it wants to gain the 'big mo'. It is not a matter of the SA formally declaring itself a party today or at the latest tomorrow. That is a red herring. It is about setting the aim of a party and then going into the working class movement and campaigning for a new party. This does not foreclose the possibility of Labour supporters joining the SA. Many would do so because they want to be involved in working for the declared aim of party. The SSP shows it can be done and is not just a pipe dream. The debate will need to move on. The SSP model will increasingly be seen as the way forward - not just for reformists, but also for communists. So the issue should then become: what kind of SSP? Should it be nationalist, Labourite or republican? At that point we might even get some agreement with the CPGB. But before then we will need to answer the points made by Jack Conrad (Weekly Worker April 4).