Marxism 2003 - Rees lays it on the line

John Rees's opening remarks

We are in the midst of a rebirth of radical ideas, of the birth of huge global movement in resistance to globalisation and war. This is a chance. These are conditions which have not existed for the left since the late 1960s … what we choose to do will make a difference to the future and the possibility of lasting social change ….

… we want to construct from this movement the largest possible group of people who will work with other people but at the same time will propagate this argument [the need for revolutionary change] … Now you don’t have to choose between being broad and radical - you can be broad and radical. And this is what we want to do.

A movement isn’t a creation of the party - it is much greater and bigger than the party. But the party can assist the building and shaping of that movement. [If we do not do this] there will be no movement worth the name … It has to reflect what the non-revolutionaries in the movement want to do, and that’s why the question of working in the broad movement is so critical to us now. This is the tactic of the united front. Yes, we want more revolutionaries, but they are only revolutionaries in any meaningful sense if they act with others …

We brought a narrow band of the left [together in the Socialist Alliance]. But the Stop the War Coalition has brought in new forces … The prospects of knitting together the left and the unions, … many people in the muslim community and the existing forces in the SA will not be easy to achieve, but it does stand there now, waiting to happen… it is a pressing and urgent task in front of us… this is the spirit of the age.

Stuart King of Workers Power intervened in the debate

… What we can’t do is stitch together the Stop the War movement as an electoral alliance: there are real differences between us. The drive in Birmingham towards a Peace and Justice alliance covers over a number of key differences. Where do these organisations stand on gay and lesbian rights or secular education? When we stand in an election we put forward an alternative vision of society. These are important questions which cannot be covered over. We can’t cover over the deeply held prejudice in many mosques against gay rights.

Lindsey German counterattacked from the floor, to stormy applause from assembled SWPers

Comrades, I really think that in this debate and in the wider debate that we’re having there’s really two ways in which the left can go. Either the left can maintain itself in its sectarian isolation, nitpicking against everyone else, criticising people because they are not socialists (or not pure enough socialists), or we can throw ourselves into the movement, and out of that build a viable alternative revolutionary presence, and it is that second option that the SWP is committed to.

I think we need to ask questions about some people in the SA. Stuart King says some muslims are anti-gay, and this is perfectly true, but it is not a question we pose to christians who join the Socialist Alliance, is it? Now I’m in favour of defending gay rights, but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth, [created by] people who … won’t defend George Galloway, and who regard the state of Israel as somehow a viable presence, justified in occupying Palestinian territories.

I do think it’s a very serious question for the SA, but - let’s be honest - there are people in the SA who don’t support the STWC, who don’t support the muslim community in opposition to the war - that is the real dividing line on the left, as far as I’m concerned. And out of that we have to build an alliance which moves outwards and takes on serious forces, and doesn’t become a sectarian talking shop. About a quarter of the people at the recent SA conference did not want to leave the room and engage in the real world.

In the SWP we are moving into the new left. When you talk about the forums we’re having, the test for the SWP is, do we want to lie back in the ghetto with these people who don’t want to relate to the real world or are we prepared to link in with the new forces in this society in order to change things?

John Rees’s reply

… the anti war movement has created an absolutely new political condition on the left in this country and I do believe that out of the anti-war movement it is possible to build a bigger and broader alternative to New Labour than we have at the moment.

This is possible, but it is not automatic - it is an act of imagination. It’s popular to get up and say that we want unity. But anyone who has done this sort of work in the trade union movement or in any campaign knows that the precondition is that you do not let people who represent very little stand in your way. When the chair of the Socialist Alliance in Birmingham wrote in a leftwing paper that he did not wish to work with the muslim community or the Communist Party of Britain, that was time for the people who did to take on the leadership in that city.

As a result of this we had the largest meeting our movement has ever held in that city in a generation, and I was proud to be on that platform alongside George Galloway representing the SA.

That is the future: the rest is the past.