On-off front

Jack Conrad argues that sects no longer possess the slightest historical justification

For the layer of pro-party groups and individuals, the Socialist Alliance's - much delayed - conference on May 10 proved disappointing. Sectarianism triumphed.

Dramatically the Socialist Workers Party bumped up their quota on the executive from three to 13. Furthermore, a whole new stratum of pliable SWP allies were added - supporters of Resistance now account for half a dozen seats.

The ham-fisted and totally untransparent slate method of election was painful to observe. Nevertheless, on balance, the rearranged and swollen executive is largely unproblematic. The SWP majority should now feel obliged to carry out executive decisions on the ground. One particularly galling feature of the SA has been the silent boycott of agreed actions which do not meet with SWP approval. So communists are not suffering from pique because the SWP - after some considerable effort by Chris Bambery - successfully dragooned its voting fodder so as to achieve an executive to its liking.

When it came to the executive, all the CPGB insisted upon was that each of the principal minority factions be represented. Only at the last minute did we persuade the SWP to back down from the high-risk intention to exclude the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - lack of basic class solidarity with George Galloway was cited. A deal was struck between Rob Hoveman and our Marcus Strom which put the AWL's Martin Thomas onto the SWP's slate. A small victory. Toleration of differences has been one of the hallmarks of the SA. Booting out an awkward minority would have marked the death of inclusive democracy.

No, the negativity of May 10 lay in the SWP's complete rejection of any kind of partyist perspective for the SA. Moving towards unity of the left and, step by step, laying the basis for a new multi-tendency party of the working class was aggressively dismissed as mere resolution-mongering by SWP numero uno John Rees. Every SWP speech confirmed that its leadership wants nothing more than an on-off election front. The elementary lessons of Scotland were contemptuously dismissed. Except during elections SA branches will therefore not be revived or given any meaningful life by SWP input. Nor is the SA to have an official paper. That might endanger sales of Socialist Worker.

In common with Gerry Healy, Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe before him, comrade Rees seems to imagine himself the anointed possessor of some magical formula for revolution. Hocus pocus. Everything from the Stop the War Coalition to the SA's May 1 poll results in England were solely due to the SWP and its single-minded strategy of "building the movement". Put another way - building the SWP as a confessional sect and putting in place a whole series of so-called united fronts, which serve as transmission belts.

Yet Gulf War II saw unprecedented anti-war movements spontaneously erupt in countries where the SWP's co-thinkers are either absent or exist on the extreme fringes - eg, Spain, Italy, USA. Nor does comrade Rees appear to notice another fact - the anti-war movement failed in its prime objective. The war went ahead. The only regime change happened in Baghdad. The US-UK 'coalition of the willing' occupies Iraq.

Another question. Did we permanently secure even a one or two percent scintilla of those who took to the streets in their millions over February and March into an organisation that can stop another war? The honest answer is that, no, we did not. Recruits numbered hundreds, not tens of thousands. Equally germane - could a narrow sect like the SWP contain and empower a mass membership? No, it could not. For that a wide party which practises democracy, which has a culture of open debate and does not routinely gag dissidents is required. A party is therefore not just a nice idea. It is an objective necessity.

What future does the SWP envisage for the SA? It is to be traded as a bargaining chip. The aim is a "new alliance" embracing Birmingham imams and the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain. Perhaps George Galloway is to be crowned as the ornamental figurehead. Comrade Rees is free to negotiate "without restraints, limitations or preconditions". By piggy-backing on this rather incongruous and inherently unstable "new coalition" the SWP hopes to get its members into the Greater London Assembly and the European parliament in the 2004 elections.

How should pro-party forces respond? Frankly we must get our act together. The International Socialist Group lies in the pocket of the SWP. The AWL's obsession with Galloway is unhelpful, to say the least. Nor does Workers Power's renewed bout of isolationism from the left bode well. In their own way these groups still constitute part of the problem. Pro-party forces need to unite, first in serious discussion and debate. To further that process we shall be making available space in the Weekly Worker for a whole range of different views. Sessions at this year's Communist University over August 2-9 will also be arranged.

Whatever the immediate outcome, there is every reason for confidence. New Labour is producing its opposite in the collapse of auto-Labourism, the search by trade unions for a viable alternative and a series of small but significant rebellions. These are harbingers. On an international scale too the traditional reformist left - social democratic and 'official communist' - is in crisis and faces nemesis. Though it is embryonic, a new left stirs.

This or that fortuitously well placed sect might find its brief moment of glory. However, their days are coming to an end. Sects no longer possess the slightest historic justification. Mobilising against the new American hegemonism, reviving rank and file combativity, taking on the power of the modern state and achieving human liberation demands the organisation of the advanced section of the working class into something much higher, something much more worthwhile - a single, democratic centralist, party.