Party notes

Jack Conrad takes a closer look at the new Peace and justice campaign

Most members of the Socialist Alliance first heard of the proposed George Monbiot-Salma Yaqoob election coalition from The Guardian (October 13). Reporters Martin Nicholls and Tom Happold tell us that they got the story as a result of a leak. Frankly, there is no reason to disbelieve them.

Keen observers of the left suspect that the Socialist Workers Party is the real moving spirit behind the whole project. Despite John Rees’s description of the Monbiot-Yaqoob initiative as “premature”, perhaps the SWP was responsible for feeding the story to the press. Why they might is easy to appreciate.

Comrade Rees and the SWP have already made one attempt to establish a ‘peace and justice’ coalition with Birmingham’s central mosque and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. Embarrassingly those negotiations ran into the sand; the Monbiot-Yaqoob coalition is therefore essentially an attenuated rerun. Yet, with their manifesto now up and running in the public realm the SWP leadership can claim that everyone must quickly get on board - not to do so would be to miss an ‘historic’ opportunity.

Monbiot and Yaqoob are SWP allies and obviously look to it for pliant activists and organisational underpinning. The SWP leadership certainly knew all about the Monbiot-Yaqoob plans from the beginning. In August, we are now told, the pair formally met with the SWP’s Rob Hoveman to secretly discuss their coalition, and the SWP’s Alex Callinicos is openly thanked in Red Pepper for his help.

So who are Monbiot and Yaqoob and what political programme do they advocate?

George Monbiot is a regular Guardian columnist and a fierce critic of transnational capitalism, an opponent of neoliberal governments and author of top-selling books such as The captive state. Interestingly, as indicated by his latest volume, The age of consent, his politics are evolving - and in a positive direction at that. His former localist nostrums have been abandoned and in their place he has embraced what he calls a “global democratic revolution”. Not that Monbiot has become a Marxist or even a socialist: Marx provided “in theoretical form all the oppression” imposed by Stalin on the peoples of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, he ridiculously insists (G Monbiot The age of consent London 2003, p26). Monbiot’s alternative to communism is a world parliament, an international clearing union and a fair trade organisation. In other words a utopian capitalism, a construct of the mind which maintains commodity production and wage slavery but, despite that, delivers peace and justice to all.

Salma Yaqoob is a psychotherapist who hurled herself into political action in response to the anti-muslim backlash following the murderous September 11 2001 suicide attacks on New York and Washington. A member of the Birmingham central mosque and chair of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, according to her article in the current edition of International Socialism she rejects the intolerance of extreme islam along with that of the “sectarian leftists” (autumn 2003).

The Monbiot-Yaqoob draft manifesto is a well-meaning attempt to appeal to a wide range of different groups, shades and traditions. Their stated aim is to unite “socialist parties, anti-globalisation campaigners, peace activists and faith groups, including muslims”. Put to an 80%-20% test, it is therefore hard to disagree with. Who does not want a “just society”?

Their manifesto rails against everything that is fashionably bad - big corporations, ecological destruction, ‘third world’ debt, racism, neoliberalism, the ‘war on terrorism’ and injustice. It then calls for everything that is fashionably good - peace, sustainability and participatory democracy. There is even a commitment to oppose “all forms of discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs (or lack of them), sexual orientation, disabilities, national origin or citizenship”. A not unimportant passage, given the willingness of John Rees and Lindsey German to drop “shibboleths” such as women’s rights and homosexual equality.

But presumably so as not to offend - or commit anyone to anything revolutionary - specifics are noticeably lacking. Put to the same 80%-20% test, it proves to be 80% platitudes. What Monbiot-Yaqoob therefore offer is sentimental radicalism. Their manifesto consists almost entirely of vacuous phrases. Instead of concrete historical analysis, a definite plan of action and singling out the only realistic agent of social change - ie, the working class - we get soggy formulations, sweet dreams and vague promises of philanthropic reform.

Take immigration laws. Naturally, Monbiot-Yaqoob oppose “scapegoating of asylum-seekers”. Who would not? Apart from the British National Party few parties, if any, would actually call for “scaremongering”. So what do Monbiot-Yaqoob propose? Answer - “a just immigration and asylum policy”. Iain Duncan Smith’s Tories could produce exactly the same banal phrase; maybe they do. The vagueness is deliberate - one must presume that Monbiot-Yaqoob fear repeating the demand in the Socialist Alliance’s People before profit manifesto for “freedom of movement, open borders and an end to immigration laws” (p14). Is that principle too “extreme” for them? Do they think potential voters would be scared off?

Leave aside the sacred texts, Monbiot-Yaqoob take their phrases about “peace”, “ethics”, “fairness”, “harmony” and “justice” from the existing moral and legal superstructure of capitalist society. Then they attempt to refashion capitalism in accordance with these ideals. That is what their political method amounts to.

Imagine a scientist who, instead of studying the actual origins, molecular composition and means of transmission of a disease like HIV/Aids, claimed that they could reverse its spread by appealing for “peace” and “justice”? They would rightly be branded as a charlatan. Yet Monbiot-Yaqoob are hardly approaching capitalism any differently. They certainly ignore its real workings. Does anyone seriously think that “financial crashes” can be minimised or overcome through the “restoration of capital controls”? By its very nature capitalism generates both booms and slumps. Likewise, though Monbiot-Yaqoob oppose war in the name of peace, what they forget is that a capitalist peace is in fact merely a prelude to capitalist war. Capitalism is as inseparable from war as it is from economic crises.

Only on paper can Monbiot-Yaqoob succeed in transforming capitalism. In the real world their manifesto is a forlorn, petty bourgeois attempt to reconcile the working class with capitalism (albeit in the guise of “independently owned and operated companies” which are “ecological” and “people-friendly”). Doubtless their manifesto represents a real step forward for two sincere middle class individuals. But for the Socialist Alliance to trade away or water down People before profit would mark a reversal (it would at the very least take us back to the green-pink nonsense peddled by John Nicholson and Dave Nellist - long departed founder-leaders of the SA).

The SA’s inner-core ‘task force’ says it will begin talks with Monbiot-Yaqoob “on the basis of People before profit”. Our response must be to adopt a position of distrust - organised distrust. Obviously for the SWP principles count for next to nothing. The SWP is by tradition anti-programme. Nevertheless it would be a profound mistake to reject dialogue with Monbiot-Yaqoob, as it would be to boycott a unity conference sponsored by them - especially as it might just possibly include the likes of George Galloway, Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, who are each committed to some version of socialism.

The best scenario would have been to win all such figures - and those they influence - directly to the SA. That would have been much, much more likely if the SA had been put on the road of becoming a party. But the SWP fears - and will continue to fear - any such perspective because it poses a direct threat to its continued existence as a confessional sect. A “wider coalition” can only but intensify that contradiction. People do not tend to vote for heterogeneous coalitions, nor do they tend to flock into them. The goal of a new working class party remains firmly on the agenda.

Communists have no interest in isolationism. Nor on the other hand are we going to stop criticising for the sake of “furthering our shared ideals”. On the contrary “furthering our shared ideals” demands that we highlight shortcomings, backsliding and unprincipled compromises.

Some have suggested that the SA is about to be liquidated into a political formation which is virtually indistinguishable from the Green Party. A mistaken assessment. The main component of the SWP’s “wider coalition” will in the short term remain the SWP. Neither Monbiot nor Yaqoob are about to bring with them tens of thousands of trained militants. Those that come will tend to be fresh to politics and the best of them will be open to new ideas. We shall energetically work alongside them on practical issues, patiently debate with them and in time we shall surely win them.

Even in the highly unlikely event of the Monbiot-Yaqoob manifesto temporarily serving as the basis for a “wider coalition” it would be wrong to elevate our criticisms into a reason for walking away. There is every reason to believe that contact with Marxist theory and crucially experience of the class struggle will educate and quickly convince the majority of the need for change. Certainly at every opportunity we shall attempt to fill empty phrases with a definite revolutionary and communist content.