Left unity: start making friends

Pro-party independent James White looks back at the SA's May 10 conference and the prospects of splits in the Socialist Workers Party

Last month’s conference was roughly as I expected, although I was perhaps even more disappointed with it than I thought I would be.

What has changed in particular since the December 2001 conference is the attitude of the Socialist Workers Party. Now that the SWP is in the driving seat, it is very much more bullish, with a contemptuous attitude towards everyone else. Eighteen months ago, when its position was not so secure, it was treading much more carefully, but on May 10 we saw the sectarian arrogance for which the organisation is renowned, and has been for 20-30 years. The breast-beating from John Rees and the ranting and raving from Julie Waterson were the clearest signs of that.

It seems that the SWP is thinking of submerging the alliance into some sort of ‘peace and justice’ popular front arrangement and increasingly looking beyond the SA itself. The motion that was passed laid down that there should be no preconditions as to what any new formation might look like - except, I think, that the mover, Alan Thornett, said it must be “explicitly socialist”. Speakers on our side of the conference were perhaps not clear enough that we are not actually opposed to a regroupment, realignment or coalition: we must certainly talk to whoever wants to talk to us - about, for example, joint slates in the European elections. However, I personally am sceptical about where exactly these forces are that are going to coalesce around the alliance in this ‘regroupment’.

It is actually quite unlikely that the Communist Party of Britain would sign on the dotted line for such an arrangement. I know the Socialist Party pretty well, having been a member for 12 years, and I would consider a deal with the SP rather remote. As for the Socialist Labour Party, it would be a complete non-starter - and I do not think we would want to join forces with them in any case, given the Stalinist rump that is left in many areas. What remains is the Labour left and, to be honest, if you have not left the Labour Party by now, you probably are not going to do so. The Labour left would not be prepared to stand candidates against their own party, so in terms of elections it would be meaningless.

If, however, the forces for a broader alliance are not coming from the labour movement, or groups that orientate around it, then who will sign up for something that is “explicitly socialist”? So I just cannot picture what this thing would look like. Maybe people more in the know could explain how it might be a runner, in which case fine: I am not opposed to the discussions. But to completely subordinate everything to this vague possibility, whose chances of actually working are not big, is crazy. The latest bulletin from the SA office, following last weekend’s executive meeting, contains a series of advertisements for other campaigns, which SA members are urged to support - the campaign to Defend Council Housing, defend Galloway, etc, but nothing about any initiatives the SA is taking itself. It seems we will be back to the SA being assigned a supporting role to the SWP’s other ‘united fronts’ until election time comes around again.

We, the pro-party elements, have to look beyond the alliance as well - but in a different way. I am increasingly sceptical as to whether the SA does have any prospects itself. This is still an open question - I would not completely write it off yet, but we must now look at a perspective of building support for a campaign for a workers’ party within the movement itself rather than just within the confines of the SA.

The CPGB has made the point that a party cannot be achieved without first having it adopted as an aim and what strikes me about the current political situation is the absence of the subjective factor. A party is not going to just happen by accident - it has to be adopted as a perspective and worked towards. Clearly, as the conference showed, the obstacle is that the SWP think that they are it and there is no way that they will countenance anything that gainsays that.

The SWP very much likes to keep things simple for its membership. If the leadership were to start talking about some sort of transitional formation and the different tactics that socialists might have to adopt in order to achieve the ideal situation of establishing a mass revolutionary party, many of the members’ eyes would glaze over - they are mostly not theoretically trained so as to be able to engage in that kind of discussion. So it is a question of ‘Keep it simple; build the SWP’, and the leadership is clearly not going to depart from that perspective.

A campaign for a workers’ party would need to have a much stronger union orientation than has been the case up to now. At the moment it would largely be a case of propaganda - raising the idea, perhaps through developing a newsletter or bulletin; holding meetings wherever possible; looking to get motions through union branches, and so on.

The failure to organise Socialist Alliance fringe meetings at the trade union conferences over the summer represents another squandered opportunity. As a minimum these could have been used just to explain what the SA is, but ideally could have provided a forum to debate the question of a new party. Instead, as I understand it, the SA will be cheer-leading for George Galloway. Such missed opportunities will continue to arise until we start to act independently of the alliance itself, if necessary.

The biggest audience would be people like Fire Brigades Union strikers - there is certain evidence, within some unions at least, of a radicalising layer - and people involved in the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements. They would largely be people who had never heard of the Socialist Alliance.

There are some people - particularly within the Socialist Resistance group - who are constantly fantasising about splits and divisions within the SWP: they talk about appealing to the SWP’s middle cadre. This demonstrates the paucity of political ambition that exists on the left at the moment and I just do not buy a word of it. The SWP is a hegemonic organisation, similar to the position the Communist Party occupied in, say, the 1930s or 40s, and there are several satellite groupings who largely direct their propaganda at that organisation’s membership rather than anybody else. There is also a small group of fellow-travellers developing, who are rewarded for their loyalty, at least on the big issues, with places on this or that campaign or committee, which allows them to maintain a personal political profile they could not otherwise have.

I would not write off completely the possibility that the SWP could split, but I would like to see some evidence that something like this is happening, and I see none whatsoever, at least in England. It would of course be much simpler if the largest group on the left actually started to sort itself out and do what we want it to do, but an awful lot of energy is directed into trying to achieve that rather than looking to the class itself.

First of all we need to set a date for a conference. We need to thrash out a draft position, which should be open to amendments, and put it to whatever groups and individuals turn up. I do not think this is rocket science. That was more or less what was done when we agreed the motion that went to the SA conference. There needs to be an initiative taken before the end of the year.

It is easy to swim in the murky left milieu - trying to engage with SWP full-timers and sell them papers or whatever, but really this is sectariana. Perhaps it is my training in the Militant Tendency/Socialist Party, which was very dismissive of all the other groups. Nevertheless, there is a danger that you can take your eye off the ball and spend all your time talking to each other and not to the class. We need to start making some friends - that is as good a way of putting it as anything.