Party Notes

Jack Conrad argues for the need for class politics

Not so long ago most of the Socialist Alliance’s principal supporting groups considered themselves duty-bound to vote Labour in elections. The Socialist Workers Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, International Socialist Group and Workers Power were auto-Labourites as an article of faith. The same affliction gripped what is now Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party in England and Wales, along with Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes in Scotland.

As one, they justified unconditional support on the ground of class, not politics. The Labour Party was what Fredrick Engels and Vladimir Lenin famously called a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Labour rested upon the organised working class - above all the trade unions. Politically, however, the party was led by reactionaries who acted fully in the spirit and interests of the bourgeoisie and the system of capital. Often this designation was employed by the auto-Labourites alongside a completely spurious lesser evilism. Labour might be bad. However, the Tories would be far worse. Workers were thereby urged to choose between butchers. Standing alternative candidates was contemptuously dismissed.

Auto-Labourism began to break down following May 1 1997. Together they had excused their call to vote for Tony Blair’s Labour Party by insisting that getting rid of the hated Tories would trigger a “crisis of expectations”. Blair’s manifesto offered next to nothing. Despite that, those below would impatiently take matters into their own hands. Hope would fructify into action. A huge wave of militant struggle was almost certain.

Suffice to say, it did not happen. Hence the old certainties of auto-Labourism crumbled and gave way to disappointment, confusion and disorientation. From that position of profound weakness came the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party.

Auto-Labourism produced its opposite in other ways too. The SA and the SSP have embraced the politics of auto-anti-Labourism. No conditions, such as embodied in a platform of class defence, are presented to Labour candidates - especially those on the left - so as to secure allies and gain a hearing from the mass of workers. Instead the electoral successes of maverick campaigners, left SNPers and greens are celebrated. Their votes boastfully counted alongside those of the SA and SSP as left of Labour.

We in the CPGB consistently opposed auto-Labourism. Likewise we argue against auto-anti-Labourism.

Frankly, the SA, the SSP, SPEW, etc have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Having abandoned auto-Labourism, they are in danger of abandoning class politics. Although the bourgeois pole is dominant as never before, Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party. Indeed there is every reason to believe that the recent string of ‘awkward squad’ victories in the trade unions will soon find expression in the Labour Party. In the name of burying new Labour, Mick Rix, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley have signalled their intention to rewin real Labour.

Of course, our aim is not the revival of the Labour left. What objective circumstances cry out for is an all-Britain revolutionary party of the working class - the scientific name of which is ‘Communist Party’. Hence we lambasted the failed attempts by the SWP-ISG majority to constitute the SA as old Labour in exile.

A correct attitude towards the Labour Party is vital. The party still has the majority of trade unions affiliated to it and commands the loyalty of the overwhelming mass of those who consider themselves working class. The Labour Party is therefore the key strategic question in Britain. Labourism cannot be wished away, but has to be positively superseded.

Without that socialism is impossible. After all socialism is not a nice idea, a concoction of suitably radical and fashionable causes. Socialism is the democratic self-liberation movement of the mass of the working class - organised in everything from trade unions to the revolutionary party - as it breaks through the political and structural limits of capital and begins the global transition to communism: ie, starts to realise general freedom.

To write off the Labour Party as a field of struggle is to desert the organised working class. That is why the CPGB has proposed direct engagement with Labour candidates. And, while favouring the democratisation of trade union funds along the lines just agreed by the RMT, we consider calls for disaffiliation to be tactically wrong-headed, mistimed and potentially retrogressive. Frustration with the Labour Party is perfectly understandable. However, breaking from Labour could herald depoliticisation.

Over the last year the SWP has acquired a taste for mass politics. Unfortunately, since it is utterly contemptuous of programme, the result is pure opportunism. Mass politics turns into the crass search for popularity.

The SWP is attempting to reproduce the anti-war movement at the level of general politics and appears ready to sacrifice any principle to achieve this end. After the spontaneous two-million-strong February 15 demonstration, the quadrumvirate of John Rees, Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos and Chris Bambery seem to imagine that they have cracked the code of history. Hubris.

Concretely the result of their efforts is the desperate attempt by comrade Rees to cement a ‘Peace and justice party’ - initially through secret negotiations with the imam of Birmingham’s central mosque. SWP leaders nowadays self-consciously pepper speeches with demands for ‘peace and justice’ - not ‘socialist unity’ and ‘workers’ unity’. Yes, there is every reason to worry.

Restricting the anti-war movement to a single slogan limited possibilities, but did help in the short term to maximise numbers (in actual fact the anti-war movement promoted two demands - ‘Stop the war’ and ‘Freedom for Palestine’). Nevertheless, whether it be one slogan or 10, the approach of relying on narrowness - ie, minimum agreement - is unlikely to hold up against even the comparatively mild test of an election campaign.

Elections, including local elections, require a programme, or at the very least the outlines of a coherent and logically consistent world view. Peace and justice would be fragile, unstable and surely doomed. To state the obvious, the ideological outlook of revolutionary socialists and imams is fundamentally at variance. Leave aside secularism, consistent democracy and the rule of the working class; what about the rights of women and gays? After all, according to the Koran the female is a lesser being than the male. Homosexual acts are condemned as abominations in the sight of god.

Voters - and certainly opponents - will demand to know what stand candidates take. How would Peace and Justice candidates respond? Would they prevaricate? Would they risk the whole project falling at the first hurdle and tell the unalloyed truth? Would they sneakily lie for the sake of unity?

In swapping auto-Labourism for auto-anti-Labourism and now an electoral alliance with a section of the mosque, the SWP has retreated from flawed class politics and is in danger of adopting the fatal politics of the popular front.

What is a popular front? It is not, as some erroneously suggest, any and all examples of cross-class cooperation, let alone marching on the same demonstration as muslims. Such brittle sectarianism is completely alien to the tradition and practice of Marxism.

The Bolsheviks experienced no problem marching alongside old believers, muslims, jewish separatists and all manner of middle class dissidents. Simultaneously they distinguished themselves from the Mensheviks by striving for a worker-peasant alliance. The Marx-Engels partnership pursued a similar strategy during the 1848-49 revolution in Germany. Nor should it be forgotten that the regime ushered in by the October 1917 revolution was the worker-peasant alliance in power. The country became a workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ republic.

A popular front is typically a bloc of parties in which the working class component practically limits itself to achieving a ‘progressive’, ‘just’ or ‘peaceful’ capitalism. Those not contented with the hollow promise of such a capitalist utopia become a problem to be surgically removed or brutally crushed - the logic of the popular front is counterrevolutionary.

Well known governmental examples of popular fronts are: Kerensky’s in 1917 Russia; Spain’s in the 1930s; Leon Blum’s in 1930s France; Salvador Allende’s in Chile in the 1970s; and Lula’s in Brazil today. The results have not been good. On the contrary workers have often paid the price with their lives.

The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain forgets nothing and learns nothing. Robert Griffiths, John Haylett and Andrew Murray - the CPB’s leadership - laud popular fronts retrospectively and yearn to see them again. Not surprisingly then, SWP and CPB tops nowadays are at pains to emphasise how much they have in common.

Tony Cliff must be spinning in his grave.

Jack Conrad