'People before profit', partyists, and SA splits

This weekend Socialist Alliance members will be responding to the call by five SA executive members to meet in Birmingham to discuss the current situation, reports Dave Craig.

The May 3 Committee (campaigning for a workers’ party) met last Sunday and gave the event full backing. The immediate trigger for the September 13 meeting was events in the Birmingham SA after the Socialist Workers Party swamped the AGM and ousted Steve Godward from the chair.

This came to symbolise a wider malaise. The SA is deeply divided or split. Certainly it split in December 2001 when the Socialist Party left. Just recently we had another split when Workers Power walked out. Between these two events we have had the ‘battle’ in Bedfordshire SA, in which the SWP struggled to oust RDG comrades from the leadership and try to expel them. Then Liz Davis, who replaced Dave Nellist as chair, resigned in protest at the behaviour of the SWP. We can add to this list the disillusion of comrades like Mike Marqusee, Tess McMahon, Anna Chen and others.

The concern over internal machinations feed into a more general unease about SA interventions. The alliance failed to mount an effective political campaign around the firefighters’ dispute. With the odd exception election results have been poor. But, most significantly, the SA failed to make any serious intervention in the massive anti-war movement.

Not surprisingly disillusion is widespread. Workers Power was the first group to become demoralised by this. Its inability to unite with anybody at the May SA conference over the question of a workers’ party showed the way WP was heading. All it required was the shenanigans of the SWP in the Birmingham SA to finish it off. The sad fact is that the SA proved too much for Workers Power. Now the going is getting tougher, they couldn’t hack it and ran for the exit door.

In contrast the SWP has responded to this crisis by urging more of its own comrades to join and build the alliance. This is good news. The Revolutionary Democratic Group is an ‘SWP organisation’ - virtually all our comrades are ex-SWP. So we are pleased to hear that more of our comrades will be getting involved. Of course, we are well versed in The SWP’s methods of political struggle. What took place in Birmingham is very similar to what happened to our comrades in Bedfordshire SA. Running away is not our approach to politics, nor can it be the approach of militant workers.

The crisis and split within the SA can only be overcome by political struggle. The minority that think the SWP is leading in the wrong direction have to organise themselves into a more effective opposition. But this can only be done on the basis of a clear analysis of what is wrong.

Here we need to focus on three things. The first is the SA programme People before profit and its application to the class struggle. Second is clarification of the aims of the SA and how we can achieve those aims. Third is the strengthening of a democratic organisation and culture inside the SA. Since Saturday’s meeting is likely to focus on the third of these, I will concentrate most of my remarks on the less obvious question of programme.

When People before profit was agreed before the 2001 election there were three basic positions the SA could take in defining its basic attitude to the state. First was liberal socialism, which promises social reforms on health, pensions, jobs, etc on the basis of the existing parliamentary monarchist system. This is the essence of Labourism, which combines bourgeois liberalism with socialistic ideas. Second is republican socialism which demands radical democratic change and popular sovereignty as the basis for social change. The third is a workers’ republic that proposes the abolition of parliamentary democracy in favour of the democracy of workers’ councils as the basis for social change.

Revolutionary communists support the third option. But, if we limit ourselves to making propaganda for the abolition of parliament, we would be ultra-left sectarians, condemned to isolation from the working class. The question is the nature of the transitional politics which can act as a bridge between the current mass political consciousness of the working class and the future workers’ democracy based on soviets. On this question the SWP and RDG diverge fundamentally.

Our transitional politics are republican-democratic. Consequently we have no problem with joining and working in the SA on the basis of a republican socialist programme. Whilst the SA programme does not correspond with our total politics, it coincides with an important part of it. The democracy of the SA in 2000 enabled us to have an input into People before profit and produce something we could genuinely support, albeit critically. We can certainly claim that the RDG, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, CPGB, Bedfordshire SA and Merseyside SA had republican programmes and played a constructive role in getting democratic and republican policies into People before profit.

In the 1990s the SWP came to recognise the need for some transitional politics to avoid political isolation. But quite mistakenly it adopted liberal socialism, otherwise known as old Labourism. The SA is the mask the SWP wears when it dresses up in old Labour language and culture. Sometimes SWP members will speak ‘revolutionary’ and the next minute as SA old Labourites.

Central committee member Lindsey German sums up the SWP attitude. She says: “Lots of people say we need an old Labour Party - they want something that speaks about old Labour values” (Socialist Worker July 12). The SWP is the sort of organisation that will adapt its programme to such ‘demands of the people’. It sounds like a quick road to popularity. Lindsey praises the results of the SWP’s handiwork when she says: “In a way the programme of the SA is a left Labour programme.” Hence, “I am quite happy to be part of a broader alliance that includes these kinds of people and ideas.”

The RDG is also “quite happy” to be in an SA with “these kinds of people”. I would like to think they are our “kinds of people”. But it is time to break with Labour, not promote it. It is time to be honest with our kinds of people and tell them there is no future in the rotten and corrupt system of government in this country. It is not a matter of saying they must accept our revolutionary programme. Rather we want reformist workers to unite with us in a struggle for radical democratic and hence republican change.

Let us remind ourselves of why People before profit is a republican socialist programme. On p17 of the manifesto we find the section entitled “Real democracy”, which says we intend to:

Taken together, these demands constitute a democratic republic in anybody’s book. But in truth this is not “real democracy” - merely republican democracy. Of course republican democracy would be a significant advance, not least because it could only be won by the mobilisation of the working class in the face of ruling class resistance. Such a class struggle would not simply produce a new democracy, but a new and more political working class. The new working class might then demand “real democracy” rather than simply republican democracy.

In fact the SA has never advocated republican socialism. Even before the ink was dry, the SWP had come up with a special device known as ‘priority pledges’ to ensure the SA would only advocate old Labourism at the 2001 general election. “Real democracy” is not one of the priority policies set out on the back of the SA manifesto and in subsequent election material. The SA’s priorities are all old Labour policies with the possible exception of ‘Save the planet’. The latter is the sort of New Labour spin we except to come from the lips of that pompous self-righteous prig, the vicar of Downing Street.

 “Real democracy” would have to wait. The SA would “stop privatisation”, “tax the rich” and “raise pensions” without the need for “real democracy” and hence without the people. Was the SA offering us a type of royal socialism ‘from above’? No doubt workers saw this was a joke and awarded us derisory votes. “Real democracy” is not of course a gift of the SA to be handed down. It must be won by the mass mobilisation of the people themselves. If “real democracy” is not a priority of the SA, it means the SA is not using the election to mobilise the people for this aim. The real purpose of an election is not to get votes, but to mobilise and organise the working class. Votes will flow from that and not the other way round.

No sooner was the SWP’s old Labourism firmly in the saddle than the build-up to the war in Iraq produced the biggest “real democracy” movement in the last decade. Surely the SA would leap at the chance to win this movement to its “real democracy” programme? Not at all. The failure of parliamentary democracy exposed by the war drive - and now extended through the Hutton inquiry - poses questions about the politics of the SA and its total lack of commitment to “real democracy”.

The SA should have been able to translate its republicanism into a perspective of building republican people’s assemblies as democratic and representative institutions. In fact the SA’s old Labour politics did not translate into any democratic demands for the UK. The SWP’s dabbling with the idea of a ‘Peace and Justice Party’ came from trying to fill the vacuum created by its own Labourism. The war showed SA policies to be irrelevant. Old Labourism was a dead duck.

The second major cause of the division within the SA concerned the alliance’s aims. In the trade union movement there is already a gap between, on the one hand, the Transport and General Workers Union leaders and other union bureaucrats who want to reclaim Labour, and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, which is searching for a new workers’ party. Already the RMT has agreed to give support to the Scottish Socialist Party.

This division is reflected inside the Socialist Alliance between the ‘electoralists’ and the ‘partyists’. The former are opposed to campaigning for a new workers’ party and want to limit the SA to an electoral front. The latter want to see the SA campaigning within the working class movement for a new workers’ party. We are beginning to unite in the May 3 Committee to win the SA to the aim of launching a party as one of its official objectives. But we are not utopians. A new party cannot be launched at the drop of a hat or simply by passing motions. But, if the SA adopted the aim of a party, it would show a unity of purpose and lead to real campaigning activity in the labour movement.

Programme and party are inevitably connected. Our case for a broad-based party along the lines of the SSP are linked to the arguments for a republican socialist programme and a new workers’ party. This is why we call for a republican socialist workers’ party. This is only real alternative to an electoral alliance based on old Labourism.

Finally let us turn briefly to the question that will probably occupy centre stage on Saturday: that of internal democracy. If the SA does not see the need to fight for “real democracy” in the UK, we are likely to find it absent in the SA itself. The SA was originally a project to unite the left. That project is not complete. Given the disparate nature of the left and its factionalism, the SA adopted an approach which sought to include everybody and gave wide freedom of thought and indeed action. Federalism is a weaker form of democracy in terms of unity in action, but it was a vital necessity because of the disunity of the left.

In a number of cases we seem to be moving from that inclusive and democratic approach. We can cite the examples from Bedfordshire and Birmingham. We may be moving to a situation where the SWP dominates all elected bodies with its own members and sympathetic independents, while opposing voices are ousted. At the 2003 SA conference, the election to the executive was a shambles. The lack of democracy and transparency did not prevent the SWP securing the election of all its favoured candidates. But the guillotine nearly fell on Martin Thomas’s seat on the executive. Phil Pope did not get a fair opportunity to be elected. After conference a similar fate nearly befell Marcus Ström as national election agent. Shortly afterwards we saw Steve Godward being ousted as chair of Birmingham SA.

The AWL has called the situation in the SA a “split”. In a sense they are right. The SA is deeply divided. But ‘split’ can be ambiguous. It could mean advocating a splitting policy in which the minority walks out. We are totally opposed to that. The only way a divided SA can be reunited is through ideological struggle and political clarity about the issues. Let us seek to organise the minority and engage in a struggle with the SWP for the politics that can take the working class movement forward.

May 3 Committee motions


1. For democracy

The SA was founded on the principles of tolerance and representation of minorities throughout the alliance in order to unite the broadest layers of socialist activists and socialist thought. We will campaign for the SA to return to this inclusive and democratic state of affairs. Further, we will campaign for full implementation of the constitution on all matters relating to accountability.

2. For socialist principle

We seek to defend the principles of the SA as outlined in our manifesto People before profit.

3. For a party

The SA should put campaigning for a new workers’ party at the centre of its work.

4. For a Campaign for a Workers’ Party

Millions of workers feel disenfranchised by New Labour, which governs in the interests of war and big business. The emergence of a mass anti-war movement on a global scale and the development of parties such as the Scottish Socialist Party and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy show that it is necessary and possible to build a workers’ party in today’s conditions.

It is necessary for all trade unionists, socialists and communists in favour of a new workers’ party to combine our efforts in a campaign for a workers’ party.

Such a campaign should function within the Socialist Alliance, make links with the Labour left and operate within the broader workers’ movement to unite with other socialist and trade union organisations and activists who support the founding of a workers’ party.