Big questions and micro-splits

On Saturday April 9 there were two meetings at Birmingham United Services Club. In the morning was the first gathering of the provisional committee of the Socialist Alliance (Provisional) elected by the March 12 conference on left unity (see Weekly Worker March 17 and March 24). In the afternoon, there was a general members' meeting of the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform, which voted, by a fairly narrow majority, to wind up the SADP after the May 5 general election and transfer its assets to the SA (P). Both meetings were characterised by the efforts of a minority to prevent the implementation of the March 12 decisions and/or to preserve the SADP as an alternative to the SA (P). The minority were the supporters of the motion defeated on March 12, which would have constituted the "Democratic Socialist Alliance" in place of the SADP. In both cases these efforts were voted down after substantial and somewhat acrimonious debate and a certain amount of procedural manoeuvring. Fight for a Marxist party Four members of the minority - Peter Grant, Matthew Jones, John Pearson and Dave Spencer - have now issued an appeal to all the SADP members whose email addresses they have, characterising Saturday's decisions as a split and the liquidation of the SADP, and calling for the reconstitution of the SADP as an "unequivocal pro-party project" and a negotiated division of the SADP's assets between the SA (P) and the 'continuing SADP'. In effect it is these comrades, having lost the vote on March 12 and April 9, who are calling for a split. SA (P) committee Thirteen of the 15 committee members elected were present, the other three sending apologies. The committee passed overwhelmingly a resolution on the implementation of the decisions of the March 12 conference. Towards implementing this resolution, it elected five officers (chair, secretary, membership secretary, treasurer and communications/press officer); a four-member conference planning committee; convenors for a publications sub-committee to explore the possibility of producing publications; convenors for working groups - to be composed of SA (P) members more generally who were willing to participate - on democracy, republicanism, internationalism and environmentalism; and two delegates to the Socialist Green Unity Coalition liaison committee. The resolution also set the membership fees level at that prevailing in the Socialist Alliance while it was still functioning - ie, £24 waged, £6 unwaged - and set a provisional rate for the period before the conference planned for the autumn of £12 waged, £3 unwaged. Though this was not expressly contained in the resolution, it was agreed that, as in the Socialist Alliance, half of these fees would go to local alliances. A separate resolution was passed to the effect that if the SADP meeting in the afternoon decided to wind up, SADP members would be entitled to become SA (P) members and have membership fees paid to the SADP credited against SA (P) fees. The meeting tasked the officers with communicating with SADP members and contacts from the March 12 conference to promote active support for SGUC and other socialist candidates in the general election. The minority put up three resolutions. All three were arguably out of order, since it could hardly be the job of an organising committee to modify the policy on the basis of which it was elected; but Steve Freeman in the chair declined to rule them out of order and much of the meeting was taken up with debating them. The first, from John Pearson, argued for the autumn conference to be 'open' in the sense that anyone, whether or not holding SA (P) membership, could move resolutions and vote. Comrades from the majority objected that this would be to make the autumn conference into a simple rerun of the March 12 conference. On March 12, comrades argued, we decided to set up a (provisional) organisation with (provisional) membership on a definite political basis. If comrades wished to decide this organisation's policy in the autumn, they could commit to it to the extent of paying the (small) fee for provisional membership. The motion was defeated by nine votes to three. The second, moved by Dave Spencer, was to assert that the main aim of the SA (P) was to campaign for a party with the organisational character of the Scottish Socialist Party, and that this should be the main focus of the autumn conference. This was more narrowly defeated, by seven votes to five. The third, also moved by comrade Spencer, proposed that groups which sought to affiliate to the SA (P) should be invited to commit themselves to becoming platforms in a new party. This was also defeated by nine votes to three. In both cases, the objections were not mainly to the goals proposed (though two of the committee members, Pete McLaren and Mike Davies, are advocates of federal forms of organisation). Rather the first resolution was unduly narrow, leaving out other objectives agreed on March 12, and the second, though not framed directly as an ultimatum to the left groups, was seen by comrades as being in practice just that. SADP The SADP meeting in the afternoon was not a great deal larger, being attended by 17 people. It dealt with a certain amount of general business, one item of which was rather important. This was that three potential candidates in the general election had applied to stand in the name of the SADP's electoral registration as 'Democratic Socialist Alliance - People Before Profit'. One in Liverpool and one in Crawley would have stood under the banner of the United Socialist Party, but the USP had decided not to stand candidates after all. After reports, the meeting agreed to endorse them. We agreed not to endorse the third candidate, in Manchester, who appeared to be standing merely as an individual rather than as a result of any democratic local decision-making process. We also agreed to delegate to the SADP officers the task of deciding on any further applications to stand in the SADP's name, on the basis of the principles we had used in the decisions taken at the meeting. The major discussion was around resolutions on the outcome of the March 12 conference. John Pearson proposed a motion which argued that the March 12 conference was a defeat for the SADP and the new SA (P) was set up on an unsound basis. Accordingly, the SADP should continue in existence, changing its name to 'Democratic Socialist Alliance' to reflect its electoral registration, and fight at the autumn conference to reverse the wrong decisions taken on March 12. This resolution was defeated, with four votes in favour and nine against. There were two alternative resolutions proposing closure of the SADP. The first, from Steve Freeman and Dave Church, proposed that this should take place immediately with SADP assets transferred to the SA (P). This motion was amended to postpone closure till after the general election. The second, from Mike Davies, would have "agreed in principle" to close the SADP and merge it in the SA (P), but set up a special SADP meeting at the time of the autumn conference to take a decision on closure. Mike's ground for this proposal was in substance that inadequate notice had been given for a closure decision to be taken at the present meeting. In the event, Steve and Dave's resolution was passed, as amended, and Mike's accordingly fell. As I said earlier, this meeting was - more than that in the morning - marked by acrimony, sharp exchanges, some heckling and some dodgy procedural manoeuvres. The minority is now calling for a split. But the policy differences at stake are narrow and at first sight obscure. What are they about? The minority has characterised the majority as an unprincipled bloc and a sectarian "hegemonic attempt" or take-over bid by the Revolutionary Democratic Group. What, if any, truth is there in this, and what, if any, larger-scale lessons can be learned from this small-scale squabble? SADP history The SADP was founded in autumn 2003 in response to the undemocratic manoeuvres of the Socialist Workers Party leadership of the Socialist Alliance in preparation for what became the Respect project. At that time and since, it has regrouped primarily SA 'independents' who were hostile to the SWP for various reasons, but at the outset it also included the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, CPGB and RDG, together with the 'orthodox Trotskyist' Workers' International and International Socialist League. The Alliance for Green Socialism has been involved since early 2004 and the Workers Power group was on board between late 2003 and summer 2004. The Red Party after its creation in summer 2004 also joined up. The CPGB withdrew from the SADP in February 2004 when the SADP committed itself to acting outside the Socialist Alliance and to direct opposition to Respect, but rejoined in July 2004 after an internal discussion. This was partly because the results of the Euro elections made clear that Respect was not going to 'take off' as a broad left formation but remained a small front for the SWP. We do not think and have never thought that the SADP had either the political or the human resources to trigger broader regroupment by its independent action. But the dead-end frontist character of the SWP's conduct of the Respect project meant that we have been willing to cling to any straw, however weak, which offered scope for collaboration among groups and independents. Since the June 2004 Euro elections, the SADP's main political project has been to attempt to achieve some form of broader unity beyond its own ranks. The practical result so far has, however, been further attrition of the SADP. When the SADP initially called for a conference to launch a struggle for a new workers' party, it received a positive response from the Glasgow Critique supporters' group and a cautiously positive response from Workers Power. The AGS and Socialist Party in England and Wales responded by proposing a new and more limited electoral coalition - a proposal taken up with enthusiasm by the AWL - which has come into existence as the Socialist Green Unity Coalition. Since the launch of the SGUC the AWL has largely withdrawn from direct involvement in the SADP. Meanwhile, the Liverpool dockers' group were in the process of forming the United Socialist Party and comrades from WI and the ISL urged us to get on board this project in spite of the weaknesses of its political platform and apparent lack of organisational democracy, because it was the product of a group of 'real workers'. WI comrades now seem to have withdrawn in practice from the SADP in favour of the USP, though ISL comrades attended the April 9 meeting. When the call for the March 12 'socialist unity' conference finally came out, Workers Power withdrew its support on the basis that the proposal appeared to be one for the refoundation of the Socialist Alliance. The issue of 'refounding the Socialist Alliance' now turns out to have produced a quasi-split - as well as the heckling and manoeuvring on April 9, there have been violent and abusive exchanges on the e-list - among the remaining forces of the SADP. To the extent that the formation of the SA (P) has added new forces, these consist only in some supporters of the small Socialist Unity Network group. The underlying differences Though there was a majority and minority at Saturday's meetings, the underlying reality is a more complex mosaic defined by differences about the party question. Comrades in the SADP, as it was originally formed, had certain limited common ground: a commitment to openness and democracy in the affairs of the Socialist Alliance, as opposed to the SWP's secretive bureaucratic control; a commitment to the SA's manifesto People before profit, as opposed to the very watered down ideas which came to form the basis of Respect; and the notion that what is needed is a struggle for a new workers' party, as opposed to the SWP's old concept of the SA as a 'united front' and its new alliance with "muslim activists" (ie, Respect). But it was always the case that what comrades meant by the struggle for a 'new workers' party' was very different. The AWL and Workers Power, in their different ways, adhere to the 'orthodox Trotskyist' idea that the only way to a new party worth its name is through a mass split of trade unionists from Labour towards a new formation based on the trade unions. They hope that such a party would be more hospitable to Marxist ideas than the existing Labour Party has proved to be. The WI and ISL comrades have a 'left' variant of this view: as long as the new party is based on some section of trade unionists, even a small one, they think it will have some prospect of going beyond the world of small groups. Pete McLaren and leading AGS comrades have been up-front that what is needed is some sort of red-green formation which may have more of a 'network' and certainly a more localist character than a conventional party. A party like the SSP? Other comrades, from both the majority and minority sides, want to see a party 'like the SSP'. No-one present at Saturday's meeting - nor, I guess, anyone else - is keen to set up an English nationalist socialist party, even those who think that Scottish nationalism is legitimate. What they want is a multi-tendency socialist party. But this in turn can mean more than one thing. One possibility, which the CPGB has championed and which Hillel Ticktin also argued for on March 12, is explicitly a party of the Marxists, committed to the class rule of the working class and hence to political democracy, as against the existing bureaucratic-coercive state, and which is open and democratic and hence allows the differences which at present divide the far left (other than the issue of democracy itself) to be fought out within its ranks. Another, much more ambiguous, proposition is the idea of a party which is "not programmatically defined by the line between reform and revolution" - to use a phrase favoured by supporters of the creation of such parties in the Fourth International to describe the SSP, the Italian Rifondazione and the Brazilian Workers Party. If what is meant by this phrase is 'not being programmatically defined by documents of the first four congresses of the Comintern' - ie, not an 'official communist', Trotskyist or Maoist party - then it is entirely correct and necessary. If, however, what is meant is neutrality in the battle between loyalty to the existing state system and national constitution and loyalty to the interests of the working class, then such a party would at best merely recreate a left-talking version of the Labour Party as an instrument of capitalist rule over the working class. This is what has happened to the Brazilian Workers Party and may be in process of happening to Rifondazione. Alternatively, and more probably, it would be like the Socialist Alliance. That is, by insisting on not taking decisions which might alienate hypothetical 'left Labourites', it would have nothing of substance to say on major political issues like immigration or the invasion of Iraq, and as a result marginalise itself. Republican socialist party? Comrades of the RDG offer what they conceive to be a 'third way': a republican socialist party. By committing itself to political republicanism, they argue, a republican socialist party can give itself the ability to take clear political positions and avoid warmed-over Labourism, without forcing the choice between 'reform' - ie, a parliamentarist road - and 'revolution' - ie, soviet power, etc. Their error is that the real choice presently posed is not between 'reform' and 'revolution'. It is between loyalty to the presently existing (UK-national, monarchist, parliamentarist, rule-of-law) bureaucratic-coercive state, and loyalty to the interests of the working class. As a result, a party which was, in fact, committed to democratic republicanism would be committed to the overthrow of the existing state - even if it saw this overthrow as coming about by peaceful and parliamentary means. The choice between warmed-over Labourism and Marxist politics is not a choice between abstract hypotheses about reform and revolution. It is a set of choices about concrete political issues - like immigration, Iraq, Europe, police powers, trial by jury, the United Nations and so on. Left Labourites and trade union officials are also in general committed to bureaucratic control of any movements or organisations they participate in. This reflects the convergence of the particular interests of the trade union officials and elected representatives (MPs and councillors), the bureaucratic traditions of the Labour Party and trade union movement which they make their home, and the long-time and profound influence of 'official communism' on their ideas. The struggle for democratic republicanism implies the struggle for the subordination of the officials and elected representatives to the trade union members and the constituents. The official lefts would characterise any party which had such commitments as a 'Trot group' - George Galloway's characterisation of the SSP. As a result, a 'republican socialist party' would be in reality - predominantly - a party of the Marxists. In reality this is also true of the SSP. At its core is the International Socialist Movement, a tendency originating in the Trotskyist Militant Tendency/Socialist Party. The ISM has evolved towards 'nationalist socialism', or 'socialist nationalism', but it retains from its origin many of the reference points of Marxism. Relation of forces The minority in the SADP has had a much less clear positive strategic position. Dave Spencer, and some other comrades who have contributed to the SADP e-list discussion from this standpoint, appear to hold the Fourth International view: set up a party on the basis merely of rejection of the policy of New Labour, the struggle for a 'socialist alternative' and internal democracy. John Pearson, on the other hand, has argued all along that the SADP is grounded simply on the basis of preserving the continuity of the Socialist Alliance. He therefore seems to say: before the SWP's Respect turn the Socialist Alliance could have turned itself into a party; hence now the SA's survivors can create a party. Matthew Jones, from the Glasgow Critique supporters' group, which has argued for a Marxist workers' party, finds himself perhaps in strange company: his common ground with these comrades is presumably negative, based on a rejection of the RDG's 'fetishism' of republicanism and the idea that it is necessary to break with 'alliances' that include the existing groups and create a new party. CPGB comrades would be perfectly willing to join an 'SSP-type party', function in it as a platform, and throw what resources we have into it, if it had the least possibility of success. We do not allow the bad politics (in our view) of the leaderships of the SSP or, for that matter, Respect or even the Labour Party, to prevent us from collaborating on points of agreement at the same time as we continue to fight for what we think is right. However, the reality is that the SSP was launched by the strongest group on the Scottish far left; Rifondazione by a large split from the Italian ex-communist Democratic Left; the Brazilian Workers Party by the leadership of a trade union confederation; and the Portuguese Left Bloc by a bloc of the larger far-left groups in Portugal. The SADP has on paper 81 members, and has never attracted more than about 30 to meetings. It is far smaller than the SWP or SPEW and significantly smaller than the AWL and AGS. It has less public presence than the CPGB. The idea that it could force the larger groups into a democratic united party is a complete illusion. The idea that it could 'outgrow' them by recruiting new and 'uncorrupted' militants is also an illusion. A familiar one too: it is this same illusion which animates the existence of the 57 varieties of far-left groups, most recently the Red Party. March 12 This mosaic of divergent positions in the SADP on the party question was reflected in the passing by the March 12 conference of three different resolutions which were very doubtfully consistent with one another. As reported by Nick Rogers on March 17, the CPGB's resolution arguing for the struggle for a party based on the fundamentals of Marxism - ie, class politics and the struggle for the fullest possible democracy, both in the state and in the movement - was passed by 18 votes to seven. As reported by Dave Craig on March 24, the resolution setting up the Socialist Alliance (Provisional) was passed by 18 votes to 13. But, in addition, the conference passed by 17 votes to 10 an AGS resolution on 'actual unity', which insisted that conditions are unfavourable for the creation of a new mass party; that any unified party must include SPEW, the AGS and the AWL, as well as the SADP; and hence we should support (a) the SGUC and (b) "the continued existence of the SADP (under whatever name), in particular to provide a national organisation for those local groups and individuals who do not wish to affiliate to another existing national organisation". When we read these three resolutions together, it is clear that there was not a single majority on March 12, but an overlapping group of majorities. We in the CPGB voted for the 'SA (P)' resolution (as well as our own obviously) - not because we see this as offering the way to a revived Socialist Alliance, but for reasons closer to the AGS's. By bringing the Socialist Unity Network comrades on board and rejecting ultimata on the party question, it offered the prospect of a slightly broader-based organisation for those groups willing to participate, the surviving local groups and individual 'independents' to coordinate their activities. Other comrades will have voted for it for their own reasons. But this coalition of overlapping positions, which the minority call an 'unprincipled bloc', is no novelty. It has been the character of the SADP all along. When the minority accuse the majority of being 'liquidators' of the SADP's "unequivocal pro-party project" what they mean is that another coalition of overlapping positions passed resolutions they support - but also other (questionably consistent) resolutions - in SADP meetings during 2004 and down to February 2005, when the resolution they supported on March 12 was carried by five votes to three. Splittism/sectarianism It is a notorious fact that there are '57 varieties' of the left. Just a few less actually, according to the website, 'Leftist parties of the world', which lists 54 organisations in Britain to the left of the Labour Party, although it may well have missed a number (www.broadleft.org/westeuro.htm; I have not counted green and nationalist organisations). The comrades in the minority in the SADP are opponents of the existence of the '57 varieties'. The substance of their position is that they oppose the up-front introduction of republicanism into the aims of the SA (P) as potentially narrowing the appeal of the project and in their view making it into "another sect", and that they want to counterpose a 'Democratic Socialist Alliance' to 'the sects' - ie, the existing groups of the far left. Their first step is ... to make a split, because they lost the vote on these questions. The effort to create unity will thus have produced yet more disunity. In reality, this dynamic was written into the SADP - at least as a risk - from the beginning. Over a year ago, reporting on the meeting organised by the SADP after the walk-out of the minority from the Socialist Alliance conference which decided to subordinate all SA electoral work to Respect, I commented: "[I]f the Democracy Platform elects either to assert that it 'is the Socialist Alliance', or to strike out on its own towards fresh fields and pastures new, one of two things will happen to it. The first possibility is that it will break up and collapse, because there is not enough agreement among its members to support an independent organisation. The second is that it will become ... yet another sect ... There is no reason to suppose that this would represent any kind of gain for the British workers' movement" (Weekly Worker March 18 2004). At present, it looks as though the SADP is in process of giving birth to a new and weaker coordination, the SA (P), and another new sect, the 'pro-SADP minority'. The reality is that the bureaucratic-centralists are currently a majority of the British left. The advocates of an open and democratic multi-tendency workers' party - whether it is to be a Marxist party, a 'republican socialist party' or a party which is "not programmatically defined by the line between reform and revolution" - are a small minority. There is no more reason to suppose that going to the masses with the SADP minority's message - or, for that matter, the SA (P)'s message or the Red Party's message - will overcome this problem, than there is to suppose that going to the masses with the pure politics of Maoism (various groups), Barnesism (Communist League), Workers Power-ism, Spartacism or any other particular minority 'ortho-Leninist' variant will overcome the minority status of their positions. Unity and disagreement At the end of the day there is only one road to overcoming these problems. This is practical collaboration on points of agreement, combined with willingness to fight out in the open issues of disagreement. For majorities, this policy requires the rejection of the policy of secrets and lies and the various forms of ban on factions which has characterised the 'ortho-Leninist' groups. It is necessary to accept that minority positions are legitimate differences. It is only when the majority of the most important organised groups of the British left are willing to take this path that we will really be in a position to have a new multi-tendency workers' party. For minorities, it requires willingness to act as a disciplined and principled minority within an organisation or movement led by people you disagree with on points of real substance: to work within it while maintaining and expressing your principled differences. Several of the smaller groups of the far left and the 'independents' have had no choice about their independent existence, because they have been expelled from larger organisations for simple dissent. Others, however, originate as independent groups by walk-outs or engaging in unprincipled provocations which force expulsions: that is, by unwillingness to recognise that they are a minority and act accordingly. The SADP minority appear to be on this latter path. In this, they are indeed following the path of one aspect of the SADP's majority in 2004. The majority of the SADP refused to participate in Respect, in spite of the fact that the SWP and its co-thinkers had a clear majority in the Socialist Alliance for the Respect project. The effect was dispersal in practice of the 'pro-party' forces in the Socialist Alliance and a weaker opposition in Respect to its leadership's bad policies than would have been possible. Holding onto the refusal to act as a principled minority is leading the SADP's minority further down this road of dispersal of forces. It is this fundamental question which makes the micro-scale battle in the SADP worth thinking about: it exemplifies precisely the errors the British Marxist left has to overcome if it is to get anywhere. Mike Macnair