No compromise on sexism and homophobia

Is the SWP facing its 'Clause 4' moment? asks Jack Conrad

Deeply frustrated by their lack of social purchase, the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party are increasingly prone to the wildest opportunist zigzags. Once SWP members were habitually told to automatically vote Labour in elections. Now John Rees and Lindsey German are bombastically urging joint candidates with the mosque and are prepared to expunge so-called “shibboleths” such as women’s and gay rights from any manifesto/platform.

These comrades were fervently convinced that their time had come with the spontaneous anti-war upsurge. London saw three unprecedented demonstrations - two million rallied in Hyde Park on February 15. However, that has translated neither into any discernible increase in Socialist Alliance votes nor into SWP recruits.

Unsurprisingly SWP tops refuse to grasp a simple truth. The problem lies entirely with themselves. The SWP is not an attractive organisation for radicalised youth or militant trade unionists. The opposite is the case.

The internal regime is routinely described as democratic centralism. Untrue. In reality the SWP practises bureaucratic centralism. Control-freakery rules. Serious minority opinions are barred from any expression in Socialist Worker or Socialist Review. Indeed dissidents are expected to gag themselves in public.

What of the SA? If the SWP had followed the partyist line consistently advocated by the CPGB and learnt from the Scottish Socialist Party and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, surely things would have turned out differently. Instead of being confronted by a confusing medley of rival groups, the anti-war movement could have been greeted with a single message - join the SA.

It was not to be. Due to SWP misleadership the SA was effectively shut down for the duration of the war. As a result membership remained stagnant, no paper was launched and votes in subsequent elections have been depressingly marginal. Preston is merely the exception that proves the rule.

The majority on the SWP’s political committee have responded with a futile attempt to recreate the Stop the War Coalition at the level of electoral politics. Having been rebuffed by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, SWP primus inter pares John Rees is banking on a joint “platform” with islamic clerics. Not that the SA’s executive is supplied with any information about any of the negotiations.

The SA is treated as factional private property. Neither opposition to nor even questioning of the new turn can be tolerated. Inevitably the SA’s constitutional principles of political balance, inclusivity, toleration and transparency have been contemptuously trampled under the heel of a crushing SWP majority.

The SWP dramatically increased its numbers on the SA executive committee from three to 13 at May’s conference. In tandem an attempt to purge the awkward squad has begun. Having failed to remove the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Martin Thomas from the executive and the CPGB’s Marcus Ström as nominating officer, the SWP successfully swept the board in Birmingham. Victimised firefighter Steve Godward was ousted as chair and all potential opposition voices were removed from positions of responsibility. Packing the AGM with newly signed-up members did the trick.

Birmingham is vital. Comrade Rees hopes it will serve as his launch pad.

SWP leaders maintain that the most radicalised people in Britain are muslims. By which they generally mean someone who obeys the imam’s call to prayers. Therefore comrade Rees’s new alliance is to be built not by winning individual muslims to socialism (which would be highly positive and welcome). No, the SWP is set on liquidating the SA in favour of “Peace and Justice” candidates run jointly with the mosques.

There is no possibility whatsoever that the programme of any such bloc would be based on working class socialism and consistent democracy. To say that is not islamophobia: it is a simple statement of fact. Neither church, chapel, temple nor mosque organise workers as a class. Such institutions might contain many workers in their congregations. However, they are typically dominated by middle class professionals, owners of small businesses and traditional intellectuals.

Owing to their ambiguous position in British society mosques tend to be eclectic politically. Mutual aid and demonstrating against the US-UK neo-colonial assault on Iraq go hand in hand with deeply reactionary attitudes towards women and gays. Islamic socialism might rail against the effects of capitalist monopolisation, but salvation is sought in an idealised past, not working class solidarity and the future. It is a form of clerical socialism: half protest, half ludicrous.

To march alongside those mobilised by the mosque against US-UK warmongering is good politics. Communists and revolutionary socialists thereby gain a hearing and bring forward the cleavage of the muslim ‘community’ along class lines. What we object to is not unity in action with non-working class forces, but the watering down or abandoning of principles for the sake of what can only be fragile and fleeting. To strike an electoral - ie, programmatic and governmental - alliance with the mosque would also be to decouple from those millions who are looking for a socialist alternative to Blairism and ruin any prospect of broadening the SA through winning support from left-moving trade unions such as the RMT, the FBU and PCS.

The signs are worrying. At Marxism 2003 comrade German made the plea that women’s and gay rights should not be treated as “shibboleths”. The message is clear. Peace and Justice candidates are expected to stand on a minimalist platform which steers round such fundamental questions. How can it be otherwise? The Koran defines women as lesser human beings and forthrightly condemns homosexual acts as abominations.

There is, of course, nothing dated, dogmatic or sectarian about defending women’s, gay and lesbian rights. The worth of any movement or society can be judged in the attitude it takes towards equality. The SA’s 2001 general election manifesto demanded “equal rights for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals” and an end to “discrimination against women” - the relevant section was carried under the banner, “No compromise on equality” (People before profit London 2000, pp13, 14). Quite right.

Our vision of socialism certainly includes freeing people from the stereotyping and straitjacketing of capitalist society. Indeed it is correct to say that there can be no socialism without the liberation of women, gays and lesbians.

Doctoring, abandoning or putting aside demands so as not to upset the sensibilities and prejudices of the mosque is not only crass opportunism, but is actually to give up on the struggle for democratic rights in the here and now - a struggle that alone provides the bridge to the desired future.

Keeping quiet on such questions is not a sign of sophistication and strength. Rather it stems from profound programmatic weakness. Opponents are bound to go for the jugular. They will demand to know where Peace and Justice candidates stand on abortion, cohabitation, divorce, homosexual adoption and equality before the law. Ironically Labour candidates could hold a more progressive position. New Labour has after all made great play of its commitment to women’s quotas, scrapping the notorious clause 28 and introducing a form of same-sex marriage.

Certain SWP cadre have given a frightening glimpse of how they intend to counter criticisms. For example, they are saying that too little attention has been paid to the women’s question. Undoubtedly correct. There has been 50-50 tokenism aplenty, but precious little substantive campaigning (which should as a matter of course involve men as well as women). But what is the SWP’s proposed solution? There is talk of picketing lap-dancing clubs. Obviously such antics pander to the moralism of the mosque.

Capitalism constantly strives to commercialise every aspect of human activity. Virtually no area is off limits. The result is invariably degradation for all concerned. However, the answer is not to line up with the moralists who demand that strip clubs, prostitution, pornography, etc be banned by the state. Vicars, priests and mullahs have been doing that for centuries, along with a whole pack of bigots, hypocrites, censors and charity-mongers.

Instead of siding with reactionaries, Marxists have sought to empower the powerless through democracy, solidarity and the class struggle. For instance, the GMB has set about unionising sex workers. Totally inadequate, yes. An initiative which also carries the inherent danger of legitimising the trade in sex. Nevertheless far better than any pious moralism.

Many SWP comrades are deeply perturbed by the imminent prospect of entering into what amounts to a popular front. Doubtless most have a passionate commitment to the rights of women, gays and lesbians. If such “shibboleths” are to be put on the back burner for the sake of electoral expediency, what next? Surely this is a ‘clause four’ moment. That is why from top to bottom SWPers have a duty to rebel.