Third plank article

The SWP's Alex Callinicos tell us the SA is a "united front of new type". No, it ain't, says Mark Fischer

Alex Callinicos's article in April's Socialist Review is perhaps the third plank of the John Rees, Alex Callinicos, Lindsey German, Chris Bambery majority faction's political platform. The aim has been to assert the 'orthodox' nature of the leadership's orientation and to promise rich rewards from its current perspectives. First came Lindsey German's 'The future of the Socialist Alliance' (Socialist Worker May 5 2001). Then John Rees in International Socialism (No 90, spring 2001) Now we have comrade Callinicos - perhaps completing the set - on the "role that political parties should play in the broader movement", a discussion of the united front (all Callinicos quotes from SR April 2002 unless otherwise stated). It is valid to speculate that the impulse for these articles came from behind-the-scenes opposition being mounted by Socialist Worker editor Chris Harman and the feeling that exists amongst the SWP activists that they no longer quite know what they are doing - there have been at least three radical reorganisations of the SWP's internal structures since the death of Tony Cliff in April 2000. Comrade Harman believes that the 'united fronts' - especially the Socialist Alliance - are a division from building the SWP and the circulation of Socialist Worker. At the risk of being a little crude, the series has so far gone like this. Lindsey German's contribution argued the need for a revolutionary working class party and that - unconvincingly - the SWP is it. The Socialist Alliance could not become a party because it would split with the first serious political challenge - a war, a racist upsurge!! The John Rees article described the SA as a "relatively durable" united front which could be exploited by the SWP. Now it is the turn of Alex Callinicos to explain to us that, although the SA unites the bulk of the organised revolutionary left in today's Britain and has features in outline form of a revolutionary party, it cannot be such a party. The vacancy is filled. Comrade Callinicos locates what he calls the "peculiar hybrid character" of the SA. First, "it leaves open the issue of reform and revolution". Second, it is "also hybrid organisationally", in that it not only contests elections, but is "also developing a broader campaigning profile". Yet, while the December 2001 conference established the SA as a membership organisation, "the affiliated far left organisations maintain their own independent structures and activities and still provide the bulk of its active members". In contrast to "classic" united fronts such as the Stop the War Coalition and the Anti-Nazi League, "united fronts of a new type" such as the SA or Globalise Resistance spring from the "much higher level of political generalisation that embraces a substantial minority of the British population". Thus, their platforms are "much broader than some relatively narrowly defined campaigning issue" and they involve activists "with quite diverse political viewpoints". Leaving Globalise Resistance to one side, this really is disingenuous nonsense when applied to the SA. Here we have a political formation overwhelmingly composed of revolutionaries of various stripes that have come together to build an organisation with common finances, a democratically elected leadership, national officers and headquarters, common election candidates, a common manifesto and - as comrade Callinicos himself notes - a "broader campaigning profile". Clearly, these arrangements prefigure not the beginnings of a 'united front', but a political party of some sort. The question is of what sort? At best, comrade Callinicos is confused and confusing on this. Throughout the article, he continually blurs the distinction between the SA as a 'united front' and as a party by utilising this slippery category of "united fronts of a new type". The political project that seems to lurk behind this needs to be drawn kicking and screaming into the light. Ostensibly, the comrade seems to correctly reject the notion of a halfway-house/party of recomposition 'phase' advocated by some trends within the alliance. He writes that "sometimes behind the advocacy of the SA becoming a party in the short term lies a model according to which involvement in a centrist party is a necessary stage in the process of creating a mass revolutionary party". He characterises such parties - important features of the working class political scene post-World War I - as formations that "systematically blurred the distinction between reform and revolution". Yet in Scotland the SWP is now the Socialist Workers Platform of the Scottish Socialist Party and Socialist Worker is no longer publicly sold. The SSP not only blurs "the distinction between reform and revolution", but has an overtly national socialist programme. The SWP excuses this in Scotland because it is a minority. But in England it has been precisely the SWP as the majority that thus far has been instrumental in ensuring that the SA does not adopt a revolutionary programme, that it remains a hybrid 'centrist'-style organisation that "leaves open the decisive strategic question of reform or revolution". Callinicos justifies this on the grounds that "to adopt a revolutionary programme "¦ would be to slam the door on Labour Party supporters who have rejected Blairism but who have yet to break with reformism". Thus, the position of the SWP starts to take on a bizarre shape: l The SA is not a "classic" united front, in that its "political platform is much broader than some relatively narrowly defined campaigning issue". It has a "campaigning profile" on a range of issues, it is "a membership organisation with a properly elected leadership". In other words, though Callinicos is loath to use the word, at its best, the SA has started to resemble a party. l This "hybrid" proto-party formation must not, however, adopt a revolutionary programme, as this will put off a mass of disillusioned Labour voters and members who are yet to break with reformism. Instead, the revolutionaries - presently the overwhelming majority - must ensure that basic lines of political demarcation between reformist politics and revolutionary are obscured - that the SA resembles a centrist formation, in other words. l Without this deliberate obfuscation, we will not be able to win "far larger numbers of Labour supporters" than we have succeeded in netting thus far. Indeed, a "large-scale influx of working class activists would radically transform the character of the SA [into what exactly? - MF] and make the relationship between the affiliated organisations much more of a side issue". Or, to put it in slightly more angular terms "¦ The SWP is the revolutionary party with the revolutionary paper. However, it does not have a substantial base in contemporary society, nor can it without winning masses of working class people away from supporting Labour. This can only be achieved in a staged way - a revolutionary programme would 'put them off'. In the meantime, the SWP will therefore create a united front of a "new kind", but ensure that it does not actually adopt a revolutionary programme, despite the huge preponderance of revolutionaries in it. This is because the SWP leadership is waiting for the "large-scale influx" of Labourites that would effectively swamp the troublesome smaller 'sects' and make the SWP's relationship with them "much more of a side issue" - or rather a non-issue, as far as the SWP would be concerned. Far from a 'united front' - be it "classical" or of a "new type" - the SA is being designed as a centrist net for workers leaving Labour. Callinicos delineates the role of the SA as one of offering "disaffected Labour Party members and supporters a new political home" - but not a new politics, it seems. The SA's programme must be circumscribed by a mechanical perspective that these workers will 'inevitably' carry all their reformist illusions with them as a package. The SWP sees itself as the future revolutionary minority in such a party and will cherry pick recruits at its leisure. If this is an accurate sketch of SWP thinking, this schema would plausibly account for the cult of the 'independent' so assiduously promoted by the SWP and the fact that - despite their tiny numbers - the politics of the alliance have been tailored to accommodate the 'non-revolutionaries' in the bloc. It reveals to us the reason for the refusal of the SWP to vote for principled revolutionary politics, even though it has an overwhelming majority. It explains the comment of Chris Bambery at the CPGB's annual school in August 2000 that "I am not interested in a 'unity' in which the SWP dominates" (Weekly Worker August 31 2000). The SWP leadership grotesquely caricatures the strategically important tactic of the united front, developed by the 3rd Congress of the Communist International in 1921. Its original context was the struggle for influence over the masses between revolutionaries and reformists, in circumstances where the initial revolutionary wave post-World War I had ebbed. Reformist organisations would be approached - both leaders and rank and file - for joint work around specific, normally defensive, demands. There was no question that a precondition for this bloc would be the acceptance by the social democrats of the full programme of the communists. By the same token, there was no question that the communists would deny their own politics in order to accommodate the social democrats and start to play the role of reformists themselves. In reality, the tactic was double-edged - defensive in the broader context of the balance of class forces, offensive in that was intended to expose the vacillations, the half-heartedness and ultimately the treacherous nature of the social democratic misleaders of our class. The notion that the ANL therefore fits into this "classic united front" template is nonsense for anyone who knows a modicum of history. In fact, far from exposing prominent reformists, it has consistently provided them with a left cover. But Callinicos lauds the "narrowness of focus" of such 'classics' as the reason for their achievements. For example, the "single-minded focus" of the ANL on "mass mobilisation against organised fascists" accounts for its "enormous success". Instructive here is how comrade Callinicos might measure "success". The comrade boasts how attempts to commit the ANL to opposition "to all immigration controls have always be rejected". Because of this, Labour MPs and various luminaries have been more than happy to add their names to the sponsorship list of some tame ANL protest against "the Nazis". How does this challenge them? Who isn't against "the Nazis"? Clearly then, "success" for Callinicos and other SWP tops is measured by numbers on demos, bums on seats - not by the success of an active struggle for the hegemony of revolutionary politics over layers of the class who currently have reformist ideas. Or, as Alex Callinicos wrote to the SWP's soon to be ex-fraternal organisation in the United States in spat over tactics in the anti-capitalist movement, it is foolish to think that "the way in which revolutionaries differentiate themselves" is by "'putting forward the arguments' which set us apart "¦" Instead, it was by "being the most dynamic and militant force in building the movement in question that we distinguish ourselves and draw new people towards us" (cited in the Weekly Worker February 7). Labourites leaving the Labour Party are thus to be offered an 'old Labour' safe haven in the form of the SA - fashioned for them by revolutionaries, ironically enough. This dismal perspective may be dignified with proud names from the past, but it has nothing in common with the history or method of the united front, as formulated by the early Communist International. No, the SWP should stop being so modest. The tactic it employs in relation to the Socialist Alliance is entirely of its own invention. Mark Fischer