Sectarian killers at the funeral

The Socialist Workers Party will finally bury the Socialist Alliance on February 5. Ian Mahoney draws some lessons

We need a sober assessment of where the death and funeral of the Socialist Alliance leaves the left in Britain and what conclusions we must draw from it. Currently, two sectarian responses are on the table. First, there is a retreat into micro-sectdom à  la Workers Power - an increasingly shrill organisation that has become the revolutionary left's equivalent of Mike Yarwood. Everyone of a certain age remembers the name, but no one sees them around any more. Second, we must firmly reject the sincere, but politically foolish moralism that some SA comrades are advancing as a strategy - we had a characteristically eccentric version of this in last week's paper from Dave Craig. That is, to retain the name of the SA, but now with just handfuls of individuals in it. As comrade Craig puffily puts it, "To defend the SA is to defend the idea of socialist unity, even if we are reduced to less than a hundred members. The task of communists is to be in the vanguard of that defence" (Weekly Worker January 27). To defend "socialist unity" as an abstraction - by setting up a new organisation without the involvement of any of the main organisations of the British left - is not serious politics. It is a form of self-harming revenge on the SWP, akin to lashing yourself to the Titanic to protest against the poor seamanship of the captain. Moreover, we must have something viable to say to the growing number of SWP comrades who are increasingly uneasy with the rightward lurch carried out by their own leadership. Economism What we are essentially seeing with the burial of the SA is a victory for the miserable culture of sectism that still dominates the left, and a temporary setback for partyism. It is far too glib to lay the entire blame for this at the door of the SWP leadership, just as it would be to say that the opportunist sins the SWP is currently committing in Respect are somehow unique to it. In fact, the whole SA experience has underlined the political decay, the profound programmatic bewilderment, of almost the entire left. It is essential to recognise that - at its core - the SA was a product of the crisis of Labourism, expressed as a process of delabourisation. Initially, this caused what became the Socialist Party in England and Wales to flip from deep entryism to the doctrine that the Labour Party had under Tony Blair become completely bourgeois: later the SWP, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, International Socialist Group and Workers Power also broke from their auto-Labourism. The key point to bear in mind about this process is that it was not only beyond the control of the revolutionary left - it was unanticipated. Thus, these important sections of the left found themselves outside the organisational or electoral orbit of Labour in a totally untheorised way - remember that almost without exception the left anticipated the 1990s being a period of upswing in the class struggle in the aftermath of the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in eastern Europe and the USSR. We were actually promised "the red 90s" by that ninny, Peter Taaffe. Thus, there was no fundamental political break from the flawed methodology that made such organisations little more that critical appendages of the Labour Party in the first place. Faced with the challenge of systematically approaching the mass of the British population with a rounded Marxist programme, including at election time, they failed miserably. The SA experience underlined once again that for the revolutionary left - notwithstanding its abstract declarations of fidelity to Marxism and (heaven help us) Bolshevism - its real political method derives from economism. The discussions that led to the drafting of the SA's election manifesto, People before profit, illustrate the terrible logic of these politics. At the September 30 2000 SA conference in Coventry - called to agree a protocol setting down the broad outlines of our platform for the general election in 2001 - the CPGB proposed an amendment that, as our preamble stated, was intended to "give comrades drafting our manifesto clear guidelines". This read: "The following principles should be taken into account in the Socialist Alliance's general election statement: "The alliance considers: socialism is the beginning of human freedom; socialism and democracy are inseparable; socialism is conquered by the working class. It cannot be delivered from on high - neither by a parliamentary majority nor a revolutionary party; socialism is international or it is nothing. There can be no socialism in one country." Incredibly, every major SA component, apart from the AWL in an uncharacteristic spasm of principle, opposed this amendment. The SWP's John Baxter explained that, while he "wouldn't disagree" with any part of it, it ought not to be our "starting point". You cannot go on the doorstep with statements such as the one the CPGB was putting forward, he suggested. Instead you have to say that "the Labour government has betrayed people who voted for it". Given everything that happened subsequently with the SA and Respect, our observations at the time were extremely apposite: "Comrade Baxter's comments betrayed a complete lack of self-belief on the part of the SWP in its own professed revolutionary Marxism" (Weekly Worker October 5 2000). The actual SA manifesto conference on March 10 2001 revealed further the depth of the problem. Between them SWP, SPEW, AWL and Workers Power submitted some 23 priority bullet points to this Birmingham conference. Overwhelmingly they were characterised by pay, conditions and other such trade union-type demands. This expressed the anti-Marxist conviction that economic struggle is the best, the most effective means to mobilise the working class in the fight for socialism. For the CPGB this represents a profound mistake. That is why all the priority point we submitted were political. The working class needs a revolutionary programme because of necessity it has to master high politics and become the champion of all who are oppressed by capital and the state. That is, unless it wants to content itself with perpetual wage slavery. The first strategic target must be the destruction of the existing state, ie, the United Kingdom, and its replacement by a federal republic. If the working class can comprehensively take the lead in this democratic struggle then effectively the capitalist limits on democracy will have been breached. The working class will have made itself into a ruling class that is already ceasing to be a class. Obviously there is an intimate connection between our programme and the organisational form we proposed for the alliance. Effectively, we argued for it to become a democratic centralist Communist Party (see J Conrad Towards a Socialist Alliance Party). Without a revolutionary party there can be no socialism, without a revolutionary party the working class is nothing. Economic struggles against employers and the government's anti-trade union laws have no inherent logic pointing to state power and ending exploitation. Nor do economic struggles enable the working class to coordinate all discontent, all movements against injustice, all opposition to the government and the system of capital into one, final, mighty assault. Economic struggles are the guerrilla warfare of the working class. What is required for socialism is a grand army with a general staff that has been fully tested and trained. Incredible Marxism? But we were a small minority. So here was an alliance initially involving the main revolutionary trends in British politics which rejected all suggestions that we actually adopt Marxist politics as the political basis for any electoral outing. This was explained in any number of ways, including the idea that the SA was a kind of ruse to catch the left fallout from Blair's Labour: comrades such as Liz Davies, Mike Marqusee and Dave Church were touted as the first of tens of thousands of social democrats soon to be heading our way. People wagged a finger at the CPGB and told us that the SA was not about making the revolutionary left "comfortable", but constructing a net that would capture these forces. Clearly, this stemmed from sect politics. This was expressed by Alan Thornett of the ISG at the conference that agreed People before profit, our manifesto for the elections later that year. Replying - rather grumpily - to the minority who were trying to arm the Socialist Alliance with some basic revolutionary principles, he told us that such ideas were completely inappropriate. Apparently the Socialist Alliance manifesto was no place for Marxism. Why? Because most of us already had our own revolutionary "party" and that was the place for us to keep our revolutionary shibboleths! Comrade Thornett had certainly expressed the problem of the British left in a nutshell - Marxism is a secret language for initiates in their tiny circles and their unreadable press; it is not seen as a guide to action for the masses. The same essential approach came from the SWP. Chris Bambery, John Rees, Chris Harman and Lindsey German would occasionally pose to the left, but then loudly urge a vote to the right. Highfalutin revolutionary notions should be kept where they belong - in the already existing revolutionary 'party'. Marxist principles had no place in a general election campaign, supposedly because that is not where the mass of workers are at. As if the purpose of Marxists standing candidates in elections was not to organise, agitate and educate. Since then, we have seen the SWP collapse itself into Respect - which has explicitly rejected the idea that socialism is an act of working class self-liberation. The true rationale for this was hinted at in the psychologically instructive language used at the fraught October 18 2003 SA executive meeting. There, comrades such as Alan Thornett came out with vacuous comments such as the need for a "broader formation" than the alliance, a "credible alternative" that could "make a real connection with people". The need for 'credibility' was also repeatedly stressed by leading SWP comrades present, prompting John Pearson of Stockport SA to challenge: "Why isn't socialism credible, comrades?" (Weekly Worker October 23 2003). This is the core of the problem that confronts us in the aftermath of the demise of the SA. It is clear that the majority of those who dub themselves Marxists have no belief in the ability of these politics to engage with and convince masses of people. For these comrades, Marxism may be a useful analytical 'tool' to dissect the workings of the economy, history or the state of contemporary South American fiction. It may also be a handy myth-system to cohere this or that isolated sect. However, any attempts to use it as a guide to action - whether in the arenas of the trade unions, the anti-war movement or electoral interventions - are by definition 'ultra-left' and 'sectarian'. Thus, there is a common characteristic of all the unity projects the ostensibly revolutionary left has engaged in since its dislocation with Labour from the early 1990s onwards. All, without exception, have been to the right of the supposed real politics of the Marxist organisations involved - even when there has been no-one but people who dub themselves Marxists in them. This methodology was articulated by the SWP's John Rees when he proudly reminded the assembled revolutionary socialists at Respect's founding convention that they had voted "against the things we believed in, because, while the people here are important, they are not as important as the millions out there "¦ We voted for what they want." A job well done then. So, apparently, it is a mark of a serious revolutionary in contemporary Britain that we approach the mass of the working class with a brand of politics we don't believe in (presumably because we think it is wrong, even positively dangerous?), in order to tell them what they want to hear so they will deliver a vote to us. SWP/Respect-bashing is easy enough, but it is important to bear in mind that - with this or that qualification or nuance - this despicably dishonest, anti-working class methodology is the overwhelmingly dominant one on the left. We have the micro-versions in the form of Dave Craig's 'communist-Labour party' or his imaginery "mass republican socialist party, along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party" (Weekly Worker January 27). This template led the comrade to vote against demands for the replacement of the police by a workers' militia to be included in People before profit. We all listened to SPEW's rationale for deleting the demand for open borders from the same draft - Hannah Sell told us it was "utopian". Obviously "we do agree with" the demand, she assured us, but it was not a good idea to "write down what is blatantly true and we all believe", since even the "most advanced sections of the working class" are convinced that border controls are necessary. The examples of this conspiratorial method are legion on the left and have been comprehensively documented in this paper over the years. The left regards Marxism as adequate for a defining credo of some confessional sect. But for politics to approach masses of people via the ballot box, a more "credible" set of ideas is required. Yes, the SWP - in the guise of Respect - has taken this the furthest. But it is simply a question of degree. This is the dominant politics of the revolutionary left in Britain today. And whatever else it is, it ain't Marxism. What next? We remain committed to the simple proposition that it is the first job of Marxists to organise themselves as Marxists. Our consistent fight has been for a Communist Party and the disappearance of the SA does nothing to change this, although the death of the alliance and the rise of the popular frontist Respect is an important setback. Operating in this new political context, we believe that tasks for communists are: * To politically differentiate in the coming elections. Given the drift to left populism of important sections of the left, we must re-emphasise the centrality of class in our communist world view. Likewise, a fundamental line of political demarcation in British politics remains the Iraq war. Thus, we are calling for support only for anti-war, working class politicians: this should be the political basis on which we choose which candidates we will back in the Labour Party (which remains a bourgeois workers' party), in Respect, SPEW, the Scottish Socialist Party and the micro fringe. * To expend considerable effort over the coming period in the fight for theoretical clarity in the Marxist movement and to seek cooperation and organisational merger with other Marxists engaged in this project. We will fight for unity on the basis of genuine communism, in other words. * We must maintain a comradely attitude to all attempts to bring the left together, to avoid any further fragmentation of our already pathetically meagre forces. However, we will be absolutely clear in whatever forum we operate in that the answer to the crisis of the left is not a rerun of left social democracy, centrism nor the popular fronts of the 1930s. If, however, real life presents us with such formations, then it obligatory that we relate to them. But the job of communists is not to advocate or take the lead in setting them up. The job of communists is openly and honestly to fight for revolutionary politics and a Communist Party l