Under pressure

Party Notes

John Rees’s Socialist Worker article, ‘The left after the war’, deserves re-examination (August 2). Such polemics are hardly everyday occurrences. Socialist Workers Party writers are notoriously shy when it comes to engaging with critics to their left.

Indeed for comrade Rees to publicly cross swords with those to whom he refers, with deliberate vagueness, as “a small number of left sects and individuals, some of whom were in the Socialist Alliance” is not only rare, but shows that the dominant SWP faction - ie, those most closely associated with the busted ‘peace and justice’ project - were under extreme pressure. Amongst SWP activists there were definite rumblings of discontent, and bourgeois journalists such as Nick Cohen were happily borrowing some of our arguments for their influential broadsides.

Comrade Rees’s article is in fact a classic exercise in smoke and mirrors. JV Stalin and his school of falsification would have been proud. Dishonestly comrade Rees refuses to name the “small number of left sects and individuals” - though clearly they include the CPGB, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Workers Power and SA executive members such as Steve Godward, Lesley Mahmood, Margaret Manning and Declan O’Neil. Nor does the comrade deign to provide quotes and sources to back up his argument.

All manner of totally unfounded accusations and inaccurate assertions can that way be safely made. Eg, comrade Rees claims that his leftwing critics “opposed the foundation” of the Stop the War Coalition, or else “nominally supported it” but “actually opposed it at every turn or took no active part in building it”.

A few facts. The CPGB never “opposed the foundation” of the STWC. Nor to my knowledge did others in the SA. Our members and weekly paper consistently helped to build and promote the anti-war movement.

That did not imply hiding political differences though. Communists tell the truth as they see it. Failure to condemn the Ba’athist dictatorship in Iraq, the studied silence over al Qa’eda terrorism, promoting the Muslim Association of Britain as key partners, handing Charles Kennedy an undeserved platform on February 15 and the virtual liquidation of the SA throughout the course of the war - all of these decisions were at the very least big tactical blunders. And, because we insisted on making such criticisms publicly, the SWP and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain cynically excluded us from the STWC’s steering committee. The AWL was likewise punished.

Needless to say, comrade Rees’s overriding concern is his failed plan to run ‘peace and justice’ candidates alongside a section of the mosque. An honest post-mortem would have been very positive. However, again and again he resorts either to outright fabrication or sly distortion.

Leftwing critics “objected to working with the muslim community”, he maintains. Untrue - certainly in the case of the CPGB. The Weekly Worker carried many articles by myself, Marcus Ström, Ian Donovan and others celebrating the presence of large numbers of muslims on the anti-war demonstrations. Nor do we have any problem cooperating with or even recruiting individual imams to the SA. Squaring the circle of religious doctrine with our SA programme is entirely their problem. Not ours.

Equally false is the charge that we “talk as if all the muslims were fundamentalists” and are “anti-gay or anti-woman”. They are not. Only a small minority of muslims are fundamentalists or followers of political islam. Most are notionally observant, increasingly secular and open to the ideas of equality and democracy. The way to win such people to socialism is surely not through courting and thereby strengthening the mosque. Quite the reverse. Break them from the mosque - not through hectoring denunciations of their religion, but by encouraging at every opportunity active participation in class politics.

In the context of ‘peace and justice’ we emphasised that the Koran and other basic muslim texts are anti-gay and anti-woman. The mosque cannot compromise here. Nor should we. In contrast Lindsey German said the SWP would not make a “shibboleth” out of gay and women’s rights. Her intention was unmistakable: water down or abandon our socialist principles on gay and women’s equality outlined in the SA’s People before profit in order to make electoral gains.

Obviously any joint platform with the mosque must by definition be thoroughly opportunist. In all probability it would also have fallen apart at the first test. Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and other such opponents would have gleefully pounced on any equivocation on gay and women’s equality and cleaved the ‘peace and justice’ bloc down the middle.

The most revealing sections of comrade Rees’s article are those dealing with popular frontism and the class nature of the ‘muslim community’. Undoubtedly the “majority” of muslims are working class. That is also the case with most religions in Britain - the hindu temples, the synagogues, the Church of England, the Russian and Greek orthodox churches, the catholic church, the protestant sects, etc. Does it therefore follow, as comrade Rees claims, that talk of “cross-class alliances” or “popular frontism” by the “minority” in the SA is “wrong”? No, comrade, it does not.

The middle class, or for that matter bourgeois, layer in the mosque is hardly marginal or irrelevant. The mosque is run by traditional - middle class - intellectuals, the imams, usually in tandem with a tightly knit circle of small and medium-sized capitalists. In most such  cross-class ‘communities’, it is the rich, the well connected who dominate and direct the whole politically.

Comrade Rees mentions the radicalisation of the “Jewish community” in the early years of the 20th century. Socialists would have been “stupid” to turn their backs on them. Indeed they would. However, anarcho-syndicalists such as Rudolf Rocker (a German catholic by origin who taught himself Yiddish and operated in London’s east end from 1895 till World War I), the Social Democratic Federation and after it the CPGB did not succeed in organising a whole generation of Jewish workers by aligning themselves with the rabbis; instead they split the “Jewish community” along class lines.

By complete contrast, ‘peace and justice’ had the mosque as a central pillar. Even the executive of the Morning Star’s CPB balked - though Andrew Murray backed the proposal, he lost by a resounding margin of four to one.

True, as comrade Rees notes, bourgeois muslims too are affected by the chauvinist hysteria whipped up over asylum-seekers and the concerted propaganda barrage directed against fundamentalism, etc. This - and especially the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq - has radicalised muslims (the SWP tries hard to forget its craven support for a genocidal Serbia against the mainly muslim Kosovars). Yet, though islamic socialism condemns the evils of western capitalism, it remains deeply reactionary. Islamic socialism is half ludicrous protest against the present and half lamentation for a mythical golden age.

Aligning oneself with islamic socialism through a common electoral platform is not analogous to marching alongside muslims on a protest demonstration - or for that matter christians, liberals, greens, left nationalists, etc. The latter is purely episodic and tactical. However, the former is a putative programme for government and amounts in practice to jettisoning our principles, in a desperate, though forlorn, bid to channel the huge popularity of the anti-war movement into MPs and MEPs for the SWP.

Comrade Rees tries to save his drowning argument by clutching at the October 1917 revolution and the worker-peasant alliance promoted by the Bolsheviks. It does not work - even if one absurdly and improbably equates Russia’s Left Socialist Revolutionaries with Birmingham’s central mosque.

The Bolsheviks always stood under their own banner of working class political independence. Yes, in 1917 they agreed a governmental coalition with the Left SRs (a non-Marxist socialist party supported by the majority of poor peasants). Needless to say, this was not the child of some diluted common electoral platform. On the contrary the Bolsheviks consistently distinguished themselves from the SRs and won the peasants as allies indirectly; primarily through uniting the overwhelming mass of the working class around the Marxist programme (of course, the SWP leadership fears adopting any such programme). Working class power and its promise of land, bread and peace attracted and galvanised the peasants and this propelled the Left SRs towards a party-to-party deal with the Bolsheviks.

As the SWP crazily zigs and zags from one failed ‘strategy’ to another, various weak elements have fallen away from the SA. ‘Peace and justice’ excused many a goodbye. Others such as the AWL have signalled an intention of exiting too.

These comrades are profoundly mistaken. Uniting the left was never going to be easy. For our part the CPGB is firmly committed to staying in the SA and campaigning to unite all communists and revolutionary socialists with the view to establishing a new workers’ party.

Meeting on September 13 in Birmingham, the SA’s democratic and pro-party forces could play an important role in giving focus to this widely shared goal. Together we seek to emulate the tried and tested successes of the Scottish Socialist Party and Rifondazione Comunista in Italy. Boldly establishing a pro-party SA platform would certainly provide an alternative for an increasingly disorientated SWP membership.