A 'credible' alternative?

The SWP's majority bloc has no confidence that socialism can win a mass audience, says Mark Fischer

Two key questions dominated the October 18 meeting of the Socialist Alliance’s executive and national council in Sheffield - firstly, the prospect of involvement with the electoral coalition mooted by Salma Yaqoob and George Monbiot; and secondly the trade union left’s relationship with the Labour Party.

Both meetings underlined that the SA majority - primarily the Socialist Workers Party, of course - is beset with profound political confusion. The SWP is pulling the SA - and itself - towards another coalition, but does not know what to do with it. As a united front, even of a “special kind”, the Yaqoob-Monbiot initiative cannot succeed. The party question will keep appearing and reappearing. But quite clearly the SWP believes that the electoral big time is just around the corner … as long as it maintains a steady course to the right.

When the SWP first entered the SA it did so with the perspective of fashioning it in to old Labour in the expectation of being flooded with refugees from Blairism. It did not work. Now we have the ‘peace and justice’ turn once again.

On the face of it, there is nothing to complain about in what leading SWPers have said concerning the Monbiot-Yaqoob initiative. The SA national office welcomed the document and stated that we would seek to engage with, it using our manifesto People before profit as the “starting point”.

Questioned by Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the short meeting of the EC before the NC began, Rob Hoveman (SA secretary and leading SWPer) informed us that he had met Yaqoob and Monbiot “briefly” in late August after they had approached Nick Wrack, SA chair. Following that, he had had no further part in the production of ‘Principles for unity’ - John Rees of the SWP even added the whole thing was probably a little “premature”. Later exchanges during the NC cited the article in this month’s Red Pepper magazine in which Salma Yaqoob commends the “valuable input” of the SWP’s Alex Callinicos in the production of the document and mentions that “senior members from … the Socialist Alliance, various trade unions, the Muslim Association of Britain, the Student Christian Movement and the Non-Violent Communication Network have … expressed an interest in participating”.

Again, apart from the lack of transparency, nothing objectionable here. Rob Hoveman pointed out that comrade Callinicos has been “asked to comment” by the pair - and why wouldn’t he? Indeed, an ongoing dialogue has been instrumental in moving Monbiot to the left over globalisation - as evidenced in his new book, The age of consent.

The real agenda of the SWP was, though, revealed in its attitude of unremitting hostility to an emergency motion to the NC from Stockport SA, moved by John Pearson of the CPGB.

Stockport’s motion recalled resolution No13, passed by the SA annual conference in May, which, in discussing the prospects for the formation of a broader alliance, stated: “We would insist only that it is open, inclusive, democratic and of course, socialist”. Stockport’s motion concluded by proposing that national council should “unequivocally state that the Socialist Alliance will not dissolve itself into a new liberal or non-socialist electoral coalition”. During the course of the debate, the Stockport delegation accepted an amendment moved by Martin Thomas to add to the latter clause, “and the manifesto of the Monbiot-Yaqoob initiative defines itself as such a coalition”.

Comrade Pearson suggested that their document was the new manifestation of the ‘peace and justice’ coalition that had been the subject of failed talks between the SWP, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and representatives of the Birmingham central mosque, during the summer. He outlined the history of George Monbiot and Salma Yaqoob as platform speakers at SWP-organised public meetings. The comrade characterised the politics of the manifesto as “petty bourgeois utopianism”.

This was evident, he said, in its call for support for privately owned, albeit ‘socially responsible’, businesses; in its peddling of the “ridiculous old myth” that imperialism is a policy option for finance capital rather than a system; in its posing of the interests of inefficient small capital by calling for controls on capital movement; in its pandering to national exclusivism by calling for humane policies on asylum rather than for an end to immigration controls; in its spinning of “the monstrous lie” that it is possible to retain but change capitalism in order for it to become an ‘ethical’, ‘socially just’ system that even “puts people before profit”; and in its call for ‘non-confrontational’ politics, thus denying the class struggle.

Comrade Pearson concluded by asking the SA executive’s ‘inner cabinet’, the task group, to explain what they meant by suggesting that the Monbiot-Yaqoob initiative was part of a process of forging “a credible left alternative”. “What is not credible about socialism?” he pointedly asked. Did the comrades take the view that socialism must be compromised with liberalism in order to become “credible”?

In the context of the present vacuum in British politics, with the crisis of Labourism; when the trade unions were increasingly reasserting themselves inside the Labour Party; and with the far-right British National Party attracting growing support at an alarming rate, this was no time to propose that principled, independent, socialist working class politics should defer to petty bourgeois utopian liberalism. This was nothing short of a betrayal of the working class, the comrade stated.

The debate on the Stockport motion was instructive. John Rees was the first of the SWP big guns to speak, correctly pointing out that the Yaqoob-Monbiot document “does not stand on its own” and that it “proves that a widespread discussion about a broad alternative to Labour” is gathering pace. True, but then the comrade drew the false line of demarcation in the debate that coloured the rest of the discussion: “If you want to shape it, you have to be there,” he suggested. But, flowing from this, the comrade posed the alternative as “passing resolutions critical” of the Yaqoob-Monbiot initiative. The notion that perhaps it was possible to critically engage with this development - in principled, open debate - was implicitly ruled out.

The SWP and fellow-travellers picked up on this false dichotomy and repeated it with varying degrees of crudity. A Manchester SWPer chided that if we want to influence people, then we “don’t start nit-picking”. Matthew Caygill of Leeds told us that anything that “builds the movement” is worth supporting - the comrade did not credit Bernstein for this infamous formulation, despite the note passed to him by Martin Thomas pointing out the debt he owed the German arch-revisionist.

Speaking of the Yaqoob-Monbiot document, the hapless Alan Thornett of the International Socialist Group assured us “it was all in there” - big chunks from People before profit are paraphrased in a “different language”, apparently. To refuse point-blank to engage - which nobody in that meeting had suggested - would mean we all “may as well follow Workers Power”, whose comrades walked out of the SA earlier in the year. Chris Searle (a Manchester comrade close to the SWP) told us that, if those comrades who said the document was not socialist were correct, then he was not a socialist, as he “agreed with most of it”.

While he did not speak in this section of the meeting, Will McMahon of the SA office reports that the Stockport motion was “critical of any engagement” with the initiative (SA e-bulletin, October 20) - untrue, but indicative of the false way leading SWPers succeeded in polarising the debate.

Stockport’s motion was heavily defeated, with just seven votes for and two abstentions. This leaves the SA task force effectively without parameters, as they “open the dialogue” and “take things further”, in the words of comrades Thornett and Hoveman respectively. Yet top SWP leaders have already indicated their willingness to dump inconvenient “shibboleths”, such as women’s or gay rights in the desparate search for electoral success. Independent elements who raised objections to opportunist concessions to non-working class programmes have been attacked and in some cases ruthlessly purged. Frustrated by the failure of the SA to make a breakthrough, the SWP has reverted to type - intolerant of dissent, willing to distort shamelessly the arguments of opponents and to draw false lines of division in pursuit of the latest get-rich-quick set of perspectives of its mercurial leaders.

Before moving on, it is worth noting the psychologically instructive language used by the SA majority to justify its course. Comrade Thornett repeatedly used airy terms such as “broader formation”, the need for a “credible alternative”, the imperative to “make a real connection with people”. As a long-term CPGB member, a rush of nostalgia swept over me - “Fuck me, he sounds like a Eurocommunist”, I whispered to my neighbour.

He was not the only one. Comrades like John Rees, Rob Hoveman and many of their co-thinkers were at pains to emphasise that we were dealing with “bigger forces than us” here and thus there was an opening to create a “credible” alternative.

Comrade John Pearson’s pointed challenge - “Why isn’t socialism credible, comrades?” - located the nub of the problem. In truth, the SA majority has little faith in its ability to engage with wider forces in society on the basis of principled working class politics. Just like the Eurocommunists of old, these comrades seek ‘relevance’ by politically adapting to what exists, whatever appears to be capable of garnering ‘popularity’. Thus in practice they make themselves irrelevant as socialists.

Lastly, it is worthwhile mentioning the SA-sponsored Convention of the Trade Union Left, to be held in February of next year. Taken with the Yaqoob-Monbiot debate, this underlined just how disorientated the SA majority actually is. Comrade Thornett presented the task group report on the convention. I cannot have been the only comrade in the room puzzled by the his comments, but I suspect the debate over the Yaqoob-Monbiot development had left comrades fatigued.

Comrade Thornett’s line of argument was that the Bournemouth Labour Party conference had been a runaway “triumph for Blair”. The ‘reclaim Labour’ project was consequently “in crisis” - a busted flush. The SA’s discussions around electoral unity with the Morning Star’s CPB had apparently foundered because of “pressure” on the latter from the trade union ‘awkward squad’. Now - in the aftermath of the total marginalisation and failure of the unions at the conference - it would be opportune to approach the CPB once more.

The trade union convention will therefore be an opportunity to “open up the debate inside the awkward squad” itself, suggested John Rees. Thus, Mick Rix of Aslef had been invited to defend the now distinctly wobbly project of ‘reclaiming Labour’.

The notion that Blair enjoyed an unalloyed “triumph” at Bournemouth is weird. Similarly, the idea that in the aftermath of the conference trade union leaders such as Curran, Simpson, Hayes and Woodley are more likely to turn their backs on Labour, or that their project now appears less viable than that of the SA’s, is also more than a little tenuous. After all, these leaders of the ‘big four’ unions were able to coordinate their actions to overturn conference agenda and defeat the government in a series of important debates - limited, yes, but tangible victories for the left nevertheless.

The SA should be seeking to work constructively with the left of Labour as it re-emerges in order help shape it and help it reach consistently independent working class political conclusions. The welcome trade union convention initiative should be used to further such a strategy. Posing idiotic ultimatums - from a position of profound political and organisational weakness - is, though, not serious politics.

Mark Fischer

Stockport SA emergency motion

National council: