Alan Thornett's diplomatic silence

Peter Manson reviews Alan Thornett's 'Building a socialist alternative' (Socialist Alliance, 2003, pp26, £2)

How can working class organisation be revived? Can the left take advantage of the possibilities thrown up by the huge movement against the US-UK war on Iraq by drawing its best elements into a powerful, new socialist force? And what role can the Socialist Alliance play in such a development?

These are questions that deserve a serious response, beginning with a sober, objective analysis of the situation we actually face and a realistic assessment of the state of the workers’ and progressive movement. Unfortunately, though, SA national executive member Alan Thornett does not pass this first, basic test in his eminently well-meaning pamphlet. In my opinion he not only overestimates the combat-readiness of the working class and the potential of the so-called ‘anti-capitalist movement’, but also exaggerates the health, success and prospects of the Socialist Alliance in its current state.

We are told: “The situation today is in sharp contrast with the difficult period of the early 1990s, when the workers’ movement was forced into sharp retreat” (p2). Presumably comrade Thornett is referring to the bourgeois triumphalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destruction in the perception of millions of workers the possibility of some kind of emancipatory alternative. In Britain, of course, our class was already on the retreat following the defeat of the miners’ Great Strike at the hands of Margaret Thatcher in 1985.

But for comrade Thornett the “difficult period” has been left behind. Things began to change with the “mass strikes in France at the end of 1995” - although the fact that in Britain, despite some welcome signs of renewed union militancy, strikes remain few and far between is not allowed to interfere with his optimistic conclusion. What is more, this new challenge provided by a working class willingness to fight was, in comrade Thornett’s view, “boosted further by the emergence of the anti-globalisation movement in Seattle in the USA in 1999” (p3).

This “crucially important new movement” had such an impact that comrade Thornett believes it is regarded with trepidation in ruling circles. For “September 11 2001 gave the American Republican right the chance they had been waiting for to strike back at these developments” (ibid). The ‘war against terror’ and the ‘project for a new American century’ are directed not at ‘rogue states’ which refuse to bow before US hegemony, but at the disparate and confused ‘anti-capitalist movement’. In reality ‘the war against terrorism’ is the new anti-communism. It is primarily designed to discipline the whole working class.

Leaving aside his one-sided view of the world, comrade Thornett does arrive at something like a correct conclusion: “The political fallout from all this [the anti-war movement] is now clear. It has created a political radicalisation to the left and an anti-imperialist sentiment which can shape the future of the left for the next period. It opens up a new situation, and a new opportunity for all those who want to challenge New Labour and build a socialist alternative to it. We must not miss it” (p4).


Quite right. We should give a lead that is both bold and crystal clear. Anything that gets in the way of unity and the struggle to create a new workers’ party must be fearlessly criticised. That certainly means undeviatingly defending the SA’s founding principles of toleration and inclusivity and promoting it as a fighting alternative on every possible occasion.

Yet, as readers will know, Alan Thornett is a leader of the International Socialist Group, the closest and most sycophantic ally of the SA’s largest component, the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP, as the dominant force in the Stop the War Coalition, shamefully kept socialism, and in particular the SA, off STWC platforms. Nevertheless, true to form, comrade Thornett refers to the STWC as a “well led coalition” (p3). In my view it can be described in that way only if you consider its job was exclusively one of mobilising the largest possible numbers at the expense of politics - the winning politics of the working class.

In spite of this glaring absence, “The left itself has been strengthened as a result of its leadership of the highly successful, mass anti-war campaign,” he claims (p4). And it is the SA that is especially “well placed” - even though to all intents and purposes it was in reality shut down for the duration (p5).

In what way has the left been “strengthened”? Have our organisations been flooded with thousands of new recruits? Have the sales and influence of our publications tripled or quadrupled? Have the votes for socialist candidates seen such an increase that we are on the verge of a real electoral breakthrough?

Unfortunately for comrade Thornett, this pamphlet was published before the September 18 Brent East by-election, where, despite an enthusiastic campaign and a fine candidate, the SA polled a dismal 1.73%. It was the Liberal Democrats who took the seat with a massive swing from Labour. It was they who benefited from the anti-war sentiment as the big electoral winners - even though they switched to support for ‘our boys’ once the invasion actually began. It was Charles Kennedy who had been given a platform in Hyde Park, courtesy of the SWP, and it was the Lib Dems who registered in the minds of the millions, not the virtually invisible SA.

Brent East stands as an ironic, yet eloquent refutation of comrade Thornett’s thesis. He declares that May’s local elections, which saw the victory of Michael Lavalette in Preston and “several results of around 20%” for the SA, “were a confirmation of the radicalisation which is taking place” (p5). Comrade Thornett conveniently forgets to mention the fact that, despite these excellent results, and despite the fact that in most wards electors had three votes and so could afford to spare us one, our average return was only around five percent. But no doubt that - and Brent East - can be explained by his claim that this “radicalisation” is “only partially reflecting itself in a socialist vote in elections” (my emphasis ibid).

Perhaps the most breathtakingly absurd (not to mention disingenuous) paragraph in the whole pamphlet is the following: “Unlike traditional parties we don’t just appear at election time. We have been involved in campaigns to stop the sell-off of council houses. We have fought against the war on asylum-seekers. We held the biggest rank and file trade union conference seen for many years last year on the issue of the trade union political fund. Most of all we have been centrally involved in opposing Bush and Blair’s drive to war since September 11. Members of the Socialist Alliance have been central to the building and leadership of the Stop the War Coalition” (p25).

Comrade Thornett is attempting to deny what everybody knows to be true. His first sentence is a lie: the Socialist Alliance does “just appear at election time”. Between elections the SA is routinely run down, neglected and in many areas virtually ceases to exist. Yes, “members of the Socialist Alliance” have been involved in all the campaigns he mentions, but almost invariably wearing other ‘united front’ hats. The trade union conference (held more than 18 months ago!) is the exception that proves the rule - the only example he mentions where SA members were acting as SA members.

And after Brent East it seems that even contesting elections is too bold a step for the alliance. As we reported last week, the SWP’s John Rees stepped in to ensure that the democratically agreed decision of Lewisham SA to contest a council by-election was bureaucratically overturned. Comrade Thornett spent a good deal of energy at the September 27 demonstration against the occupation of Iraq and Palestine trying to persuade CPGB comrades that we should not publicise this embarrassing fact. Fortunately his fellow Resistance supporter, Toby Abse of Lewisham SA, took a rather different view and decided to publish the whole story (see Weekly Worker October 2).

Clearly comrade Thornett, along with his SWP masters, is more concerned at showing the SA in a flattering light - irrespective of the truth - to potential partners in a new electoral coalition, a future “radical left alliance” (p9). In comrade Thornett’s view such a coalition would aim to stand “a socialist candidate in every constituency” in the next general election (ibid). A worthy aim, but should we not be starting to prepare for such a massive intervention by contesting elections as widely as possible in the here and now?

It would be unfair to claim that comrade Thornett agrees with the SWP on every issue. He does not. But his guiding political method is not open, honest polemic and the clash of opinions. It consists of fawning before those perceived to be powerful and avoiding upsetting them by maintaining a diplomatic silence. For example, there is no mention in this pamphlet of the possibility of SA participation in an electoral bloc with non-socialist candidates, along the lines of the SWP’s aborted ‘peace and justice’ initiative. As with the Lewisham debacle, he clearly prefers not talk about such matters.

He permits himself one area of disagreement with the SWP - the electoral base of the British National Party. Comrade Thornett mentions in passing that one of the reasons for establishing a socialist alternative is the need to stop the BNP “picking up working class votes by default” (p7). Of course, the SWP is so adamant that the BNP is not attracting “working class votes” that it insisted on deleting all mention of such a possibility from an anti-fascist motion at our May annual conference.

But comrade Thornett’s commitment to diplomatic silence spoils every good intention. Take the ‘p’ word. While in formal terms the ISG is committed to a working class party - indeed comrade Thornett himself has previously written of the possibility of a Socialist Alliance party - he foregoes all mention of this in deference to SWP sensibilities. Thus the nature of the new socialist “coalition” we are supposed to be aiming for is left deliberately vague, and therefore is useless and dishonest to boot. Hence his ISG even voted against our composite motion that the SA should set itself the aim of a workers’ party at the May conference. This may get comrade Thornett a pat on the head from the SWP and a place on the SA’s inner core, the task force, but it does nothing to bring about clarity or give a clear sense of direction.


How much more powerful this pamphlet would have been if comrade Thornett had been in the position to declare that the Socialist Alliance would transform itself into an inclusive, democratic party with an invitation to all socialists to join us. What a message such a confident and inspiring declaration would send out to those who for the moment only look at us with indifference or even disdain.

Comrade Thornett has argued himself into the position where such an outcome in Britain cannot even be hinted at - yet, ironically, it is openly proclaimed for the continent of Europe! In the section headed ‘European dimension’ he writes: “The task now is to build anti-capitalist parties around the socialist sector of the no-global movement and the anti-war movement” (my emphasis, p24). He even informs us that “Discussions are being held on the need for a European-wide anti-capitalist party or anti-capitalist slate for the 2004 European elections” (my emphasis, p6).

This is perfectly correct and desirable, of course (although one must ask him why in that case he supports a British withdrawal from the EU). But perhaps comrade Thornett is suggesting that, while we should all belong to a single European party, we should remain organisationally separate when it comes to domestic politics?

What sort of politics should the proposed new coalition (for Britain) stand on? Well, the Socialist Alliance does not “want a return to ‘old Labour’, if it means the Labour Party of Harold Wilson or James Callaghan, let alone Ramsay MacDonald … [W]elfarism, redistribution and so on … are not an adequate basis for a politically viable alternative. Any new party or alliance has to be anti-imperialist, anti-racist, consistently in defence of democratic rights and in support of the struggles of the working class” (pp10-11).

This formulation raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps if ‘old Labour’ means the Labour Party of Clem Attlee or Tony Benn, that would be acceptable? Perhaps if it combined “welfarism” and “redistribution” with anti-imperialism, anti-racism, “defence of democratic rights” and support for “the struggles of the working class”, that would do the trick? It seems so, but, in the absence of an underlying politics of revolutionary democracy, it sounds like the Labour left all over again to me.

Comrade Thornett goes to great lengths to explain why “reclaiming [the Labour Party] for the left will prove a futile task” (p21). Not so futile as trying to recreate it outside Labour, I would suggest. In fact, at a time when the Labour left is undergoing a limited, yet real, revival, any attempt to set up a pale imitation outside the party’s ranks is about as far from a “viable alternative” as it is possible to get.

Comrade Thornett puts forward no political demands that would set us on a path that is qualitatively different from the common or garden Labour left. He ends the pamphlet by proposing, as a basis of discussion for the launch of “any new coalition”, a list of 15 points taken from People before profit, our 2001 general election manifesto. Of these, 10 are trade-union-type demands, while the rest - “defend asylum-seekers”, “end discrimination”, “save the planet”, “stop the onslaught on civil rights” and “cancel third world debt” - taken together amount to no more than left liberalism.

Of course, most of these are not only supportable, but essential components of a socialist platform. However, by themselves, a socialist platform they are not. They are a platform for the reform of capitalism - one that does not even start to challenge the way we are ruled. For example, comrade Thornett does not appear to have learnt any democratic lessons from the anti-war upsurge and Blair’s response to it.

He writes: “… despite this revolt, Blair was able to deliver the goods to Bush, win a parliamentary majority and go to war. This alone demonstrates how far removed from its traditional supporters New Labour has become” (p2). Surely it also demonstrates that there is a gaping democratic deficit in the UK constitutional monarchy system - a system that allows Blair to ride roughshod over the clearly expressed wishes of the majority, using the royal prerogative if necessary.

To the 15 bullet points taken from People before profit comrade Thornett wants to add: “No to Bush and Blair’s war drive”, “Imperialist troops out of the Gulf” and “Freedom for Palestine” (p26). Agreed, but we also need to make demands that would not only prevent our rulers flouting mass sentiment, but would begin to provide answers to the millions who opposed the war, around which they could organise and start to realise their own power:

Democracy is a vital class question and victory in the battle for democracy is the essence of socialism and the rule of the working class majority. Simply latching onto every spontaneous protest movement and giving a socialist coloration to strikes and radical demands does not add up to a viable strategy. It is democracy alone which provides the bridge that joins the capitalist present with the aim of socialism and communism.

Of course, comrade Thornett’s pamphlet is not without its merits, not least his commitment to “an organisation that values political debate and different ideas” (p17). A pity the SA’s dominant bloc does not practise what it preaches - remember Beds, remember Birmingham, remember the attempt to oust the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty from the executive, remember the physical assault on CPGB members at Marxism 2003?

Comrade Thornett would rather forget.

Peter Manson

Building a socialist alternative

New Socialist Alliance pamphlet, £2 each; discounts for bulk orders. From Creative House, 82-90 Queensland Road, London N7 7AS; 020-7609 2999; office@socialistalliance.net