Will John Rees liquidate the SWP for the sake of Respect?

Respect's minor breakthrough in east London and Birmingham has strengthened the hand of the Rees-German faction of the SWP leadership against those they have dubbed the "conservative elements", writes Mark Fischer. We can expect the battle the heat up, as the leadership demands everything must be subordinated to Respect's "big time" project

In many ways, the young, 'immodestly dressed' Asian woman who attended the May 17 post-election meeting of Respect in Newham encapsulated the problems confronting the Socialist Workers Party, as it attempts to orientate itself in order to take advantage of Respect's hard won beachhead. She forcefully denounced some local Labour councillors as nothing more than "dodgy businessmen" who abused their positions for personal gain. In particular, she underlined the need for Respect to be very different, not to follow the same corrupt path. A number of participants in the meeting felt sure that she raised this as a direct response to earlier comments from others. Plenty of new faces had turned up, many interested in putting themselves forward as councillors for the new organisation. The majority were middle-aged muslim men (all wearing prayer caps and often small businessmen). The general impression many left was that these people see themselves as the new generation of 'community leaders'. They want, via Respect, to replace the older generation of (Labour Party) 'community leaders' and councillors - although, judging from some of the political comments forthcoming, there are clearly problems. Contributions included complaints about a lack of support from the council for single-sex education and for small traders. They also made some general anti-crime and anti-prostitution comments and voiced complaints about litter. Naturally enough, the SWP's internal bulletin Party Notes targets the 2006 council elections as the next major staging post for Respect: "If we are serious about building our base in east London and Birmingham and breaking into new areas then the campaign starts now "¦ we have to start systematically campaigning in these areas, "¦ take up local campaigns and win the trust of people in these communities" (All quotes from the SWP's Party Notes May 23, unless otherwise stated). Key to the fight to "win the trust" of these people is plugging into "the networks that exist in every working class community - trade unions, community groups, churches, mosques, etc "¦ A good Respect campaign is also about motivating these people to see Respect as their own and to help build it and make it a success". But what type of "networks" is Respect relating to and how? With 20% of the vote across Newham in the general election, there is a good chance that Respect will win a raft of councillors. But what sort of politics will they articulate? How will Respect reconcile what are essentially not just different views on important political questions, but different class interests? And how on earth will Respect be able to exert any control over these forces when the principle of the accountability of elected representatives has already been so cravenly abandoned as one of the many concessions given to George Galloway? These sorts of concerns - shared by not a few SWPers across the country - cut to the heart of the whole Respect project and reflect a real fault line in the SWP. Clearly, something has to give. Nuances Seasoned SWP-watchers have become accustomed to struggling to find meaning in nuanced differences amongst its leading members. The use of certain phrases and not others, significant silences, polemic by proxy - in the absence of an honest Marxist transparency in the conduct of SWP affairs, it has been an unfortunate necessity for others in the workers' movement to approach the group in the same manner that commentators once tried to discern the internal dynamics of the Soviet bureaucracy. Idiotically, the Weekly Worker has been criticised by some for even trying (see below). But now, the SWP's weekly internal bulletin underlines that - in broad terms - the shape of the political crisis we have sketched out has been correct. The Party Notes report of the May 22 national council confirms that the organisation is rent by profound differences, possibly deeper than anything in its past history. And, read intelligently, the May 23 document tells us everything we need to know about its basic contours. First, it is important to bear in mind that it is success that has precipitated the problems: "Respect has hit the big time. Galloway's journey into the lion's den has put Respect well and truly on the map. He has gone from being a pariah to a national hero! The senate hearing has electrified politics; he articulated what millions of people across the globe felt about Bush and Blair's illegal war and occupation." Electoral success in the east end of London, rapidly followed by Galloway's heroics in Washington, has certainly electrified those in the SWP most closely associated with Respect. This is the prayed-for breakthrough that was held out to SWPers as compensation for the uncomfortable necessity of dumping 'shibboleths' - "the big time" has arrived. In the absence of a development like this, an uneasy stasis previously existed on the organisation's leadership between Respect enthusiasts like Rees and German and those concerned that the SWP's revolutionary integrity was being compromised by the initiative - comrades, one presumes, such as Harman and John Molyneux (see Weekly Worker November 18 2004). Now the balance has shifted dramatically in favour of the Rees-German pole. Unease has been growing for some time about their growing rightist appetites and banking on Respect's further advance will bring things to a head. So far, the only public criticism of the populist turn, even if mild, has come from the SWP's international co-thinkers - distance protects them from immediate retaliation. The most notable, thus far, has been Eamonn McCann - veteran author, commentator and public face of the SWP's sister organisation in Ireland. He wrote an obituary of Paul Foot in the September 2004 issue of the NUJ's house paper The Journalist. In this, he recounted an anecdote that has apparently infuriated Rees and German. The last meeting Foot addressed was at Marxism 2004. Before proceedings began, he gave clear instructions to the chair who introduced his session: "He's told me that the only thing he wants said is that he's been an organised revolutionary for 42 years," she dutifully told the audience. This, comrade McCann suggests, shows he was not "a softie on the margins of a hard party". In fact, comrade Foot expressly "intended the remark for fellow Socialist Workers Party members who he feared might be vulnerable to seductive new fame". Of course, Respect's "new fame" post Galloway's election and projection onto a world stage has immeasurably increased the vulnerability of the likes of German and Rees to the seductive blandishments of the "big time". Clearly, they are also anxious that the gains are consolidated, that the patchiness of party members' involvement is ended and the whole SWP, from top to bottom, is subordinated to the task of building Respect as the alternative to New Labour. Thus Party Notes - produced by organiser Martin Smith, but with the thumb prints of John Rees himself all over it - is heavy with loaded phrases intended to underline both the possibilities and seriousness of the situation. A once-in-a-generation opportunity has presented itself: it must be seized immediately or lost. The tone thus chimes with the comments of comrade Rees at the Friend's House post-election victory rally on May 18, when he warned that "we have landed on enemy territory" and need to "get inland fast or be surrounded". We are "a fighting detachment and do not have the luxury of time", as "our enemies will try and break us now" (Weekly Worker May 28). So the bulletin warns SWPers that the situation is critical, that gains will be put under attack: "Labour is not going to sit back and let us challenge them on their home turf "¦ they are going to try and undermine our base." The response is clear: "Our job is to go all out to build Respect" in every "workplace, college or community". A "mass membership" must be brought on board on the basis of organising events that "pull in hundreds of people", not the usual "six people" who normally trundle along to SWP meetings. The "pace of events at the moment" dictates that "a once-monthly meeting is not enough". In contrast to the tired practice of the past, the public events of Respect have to be "big, bold and exciting" - and numerous, of course. Although typically overblown, the ambitious approach of the Rees-German pole of the SWP leadership has its strengths. No doubt, there is a body of opinion in wider society to the left of New Labour that is awaiting something viable to make an impression. Respect's electoral beachhead and Galloway's Washington triumph has positioned it relatively well to take advantage of this. Yet far more is contained in Party Notes than simply an attempt to rally SWP troops for another push. Implicit in it is a process that could easily see the effective liquidation of the organisation and a more or less explicit threat against those Rees has already dubbed the "conservative elements" - a trend within his own organisation that fears for the SWP itself as a consequence of Respect. Conservatives In unequivocal terms, Party Notes threatens these comrades that there can be no more patience for their "ifs or buts". Events demand a "complete turn" by the entire organisation. An end must be put to the situation where there are "'Respect specialists' in the SWP". Now, "every member has to join Respect. Every SWP member has to build Respect" (my emphasis - MF). Essentially, the limits are imposed by the cramped vision of SWPers themselves, not the potential revealed in the political situation: "There is one big danger: everyone agrees with this strategy, but thinks it relates to east London and Birmingham. There can be no exceptionalism. Of course in some areas around the country we are further forward than others with this project. But Galloway's election and the trip to the senate mean that we can build Respect in every town and city. "Let's look at Watford "¦ Of course, we are not saying that Watford can become Tower Hamlets overnight, but we can make real gains in short order. On average we get about six members to an SWP meeting. It should be possible if we do the work to build a Respect group of 50-100 members. This is the way to build a new left. What we are not talking about is taking over Watford council, but what we are saying is that it is possible to win a councillor and build a vibrant organisation on the ground." The hapless Watford comrades therefore have their orders. They must "make real gains in short order": concretely a "vibrant" Respect branch of 50-100 members and - in due course - a councillor. That or their leadership will want to know the reason why, presumably. On one level, this sort of puff is very familiar in SWP-land. Every few years or so since the early 1990s, the leadership has seized on this or that development and demanded its membership take advantage of it - almost on pain of expulsion. For instance, who can forget the organisation's semi-loopy turn in response to the mass protests in 1992 against the Tory government's threat to decimate what remained of the British coal industry? The previous (equally false) perspective of the 'downturn' was overthrown literally overnight. Tony Cliff - interviewed in Socialist Worker at the end of January 1993 - speculated that "if we had 15,000 members and 30,000 supporters, the October 21 miners' demonstration could have been different. Instead of marching round Hyde Park, socialists could have taken 40 or 50,000 people to parliament. If that had happened, the Tory MPs wouldn't have dared vote with Heseltine. The government would have collapsed" (Socialist Worker January 23 1993). We have dissected the insane perspectives of the SWP during this period - and the cynical motivations for them - elsewhere, but it is important now to recall how these new perspectives were enforced. The actual scale of the unease and incipient revolt in the upper echelons of the party remains unknown even today, but it was real enough. Longstanding cadres were expelled. Reports surfaced in Tribune of Cliff "denouncing such leading party figures as Pat Stack, Mike Gonzalez and Colin Barker" (February 12 1993). In terms that echo today's rhetoric pouring forth from party centre, the organisation's pre-conference document The SWP and the crisis of British capitalism identified both the potentials and the obstacles: "The party "¦ must change radically if it is to take advantage of the present opportunities. Only a minority of the party is responsible for the successes of the past few weeks - recruiting, selling more papers, etc. Many of this minority are very recent recruits to the party. "Many more experienced comrades, scarred by the 1980s, dominate the branch meetings, where they act as a conservative block to shifting the party" (SWP Pre-conference bulletin, 1992, quoted in Socialist Outlook January 30 1993). The SWP leadership thus has a history of showing little tolerance of those in its ranks who raise "ifs or buts", and have consistently shown a mercilessness in lopping off dissenting sections of its organisation in order to enforce some policy volte face. We have argued that the "complete turn" to Respect is different, however. The Rees-German project effectively poses the liquidation of the SWP as even a formally Marxist organisation. SWP - 'for the time being' Disagreement about the running down of the SWP clearly surfaced at the May 22 national council - or, as Party Notes more coyly puts it, "comrades raised the question of how the party organises when the main priority is building Respect". A blunt answer is given: "We have to repeat, the starting point has to be Respect. If we start with the internal question of the organisation of the SWP we will just be gazing at our navels and miss the best opportunity we will ever have to create a new left. The SWP has to fit around Respect, not the other way round. For the time being we will have to be flexible about the form the SWP takes. But for the time being we need to continue to hold monthly SWP meetings. (However, over the next three or four weeks we need to be holding Respect meetings/rallies)" (my emphasis - MF). Comrade Rees has obviously learned a valuable lesson from the experience of the Socialist Alliance. We pointed out at the time that it was impossible for the SWP to ride two horses simultaneously, which would place SWPers in an impossible position. If you want Respect to be the alternative in this period, you have to build it, not the SWP. This is not simply a matter of the logistics of building two sets of meetings. It is a question of political consistency. The SWP's decision to build Respect as a left populist organisation (and, in the recent past, to promote the Socialist Alliance as a left reformist one) is premised on a concrete political evaluation of what brand of politics is demanded by objective reality in the here and now. The CPGB has consistently proposed that revolutionary socialism is what is required. Shockingly, we have encountered opposition from more or less every left, ostensibly Marxist, group we have worked with for the last decade or so. Indeed, we were informed at the October 18 2003 SA executive committee that in order to make "a real connection with people", we needed more a "credible" - that is, even less socialist - alternative. Logically, if the leading revolutionary faction in the workers' movement considers Respect's left populism a necessary stage of the political reconstitution of working class in this country, it has to fully subordinate itself to that task. And this is not simply a question of which is more 'fun' or produces more immediate results. Sure, it is easy for the Rees-German pole to contrast the dull routine of sparsely attended SWP meetings to the sparkly vistas of Respect rallies packed out with fresh faces. More importantly, if the basic political assumption that underpins the creation of Respect is accepted, there is an inescapable logic to it. And, in these circumstances, it is not exactly hard to see what set of meetings, what organisational work should be prioritised - and not just for the next "three or four weeks" either. The lesson is perfectly illustrated by the experience of Scottish Militant Labour. These comrades started from the thoroughly false assumption that a necessary stage in the struggle for socialism in Scotland is the break-up of the historically constituted proletariat of Britain along national lines. This understanding underpinned the move to create the Scottish Socialist Party. But without the decision of the SML comrades to devote all their cadre, their full-time apparatus, finances and press to the embryonic SSP, the project would simply have withered and died. Today, after a split with what was to become the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the former SML majority exists as a separate group only in the form of the International Socialist Movement SSP platform - a formation that has more of the organic utility of a navel than a political heart for most of its members. Essentially, it is now a network of broadly like-minded people with a journal, who happen - for the moment - to dominate the leadership of the SSP. Their cohesion inevitably weakens as time and political realities pull them in different directions, eroding the original sect unity that once glued them together. In the very same document where the SWP "conservative elements" are bluntly threatened with the ultimatum to drop their "ifs or buts", there is also an attempt at reassurance that the same fate does not await their own organisation. Building Respect is presented as being synonymous with building the SWP. Thus Party Notes tells members that "worrying about the weather on Saturday mornings" (ie, "pasting table" politics, as it is dubbed elsewhere in the bulletin) is old hat: there is actually "a huge audience for Socialist Worker inside Respect. With a mass Respect we can build a mass audience for Socialist Worker". Similarly, "if the SWP is a driving force in building Respect, then we can expect to pull many more of the best activists into our ranks. In Newham we are already doing this - building Respect and building the SWP "¦ In election week," SWPers are informed, "we sold over 500 copies of Socialist Worker in east London. As you can imagine, this was not a week when we were organising tube sales, etc." Indeed, the political contradiction between Respect and the SWP is supposedly far smaller than unnamed critics would have people believe: "For all the sneers of Respect being a muslim front, what came out of the [May 18 post-election victory rally] was a fighting socialist strategy - and not just from John and Lindsey; Salma, George and Abdul all outlined a militant strategy for Respect, all based on the mobilisation of the working class." It is clear what the dominant faction in the leadership is trying to do here. It is combining threats with soothing noises to assuage the fears of 'conservatives'. But it is not really a question of paper sales or platform rhetoric. There is a political logic to the Respect project that - without a bold challenge to its basic assumptions - is inescapable. Bolshevism We have pointed to the divisions on the SWP leadership and how these are presently articulated. Even Andy Newman of the Socialist Unity Network, an individual characterised by essentially 'SWP lite' politics, has grudgingly admitted that we were accurate: "Given that the SWP does not have internal discussion bulletins "¦ there is a tendency for some people outside the organisation to over-analyse nuanced differences between written or spoken contributions from leading comrades. Quite often the resulting conclusions are quite wrong - a specialism of Weekly Worker, paper of the 'kiss and tell' sect, the CPGB - who regularly as clockwork pronounce, 'The end of the SWP is nigh' "¦ However, the difference in emphasis between the articles by Chris Harman and John Rees in the May issue of Socialist Review was simply too striking to ignore" (www.socialistunity-network.co.uk). Of course comrade Newman has almost made a speciality of heroically ignoring the mounting evidence of divisions - up to now "¦ As for the idea that the 'end is nigh', nothing is automatic in politics. But there is a liquidationist logic to opportunism - invariably not recognised by opportunists themselves, of course. In the article comrade Newman refers to, Harman underlines the need for a "Bolshevik Party" that must be "active within the Respect coalition, as within every other front of resistance" - possibly a protest against the liquidationist drift. We agree - we need Bolshevism. But we obviously mean something very different by it. The debate in the SWP, which must break the surface at some point, should be used to pin down people and organisations across the left on precisely what they mean by 'Bolshevism' - what sort of party is demanded by objective reality in today's Britain? Should we fight for a Communist Party "¦ or something else? And - in the best traditions of Bolshevism itself - let's have that debate in the open, shall we? As Tony Cliff once - correctly - observed, the revolutionary party "must be extremely democratic, because the only way in which you can reflect the mass of people is by having a great deal of internal democracy. It is not true that the working class has one cohesive point of view. The revolutionary party would reflect that lack of cohesion, of course. "And therefore, if you speak in terms of dialogue with the class, the class itself has different views, and therefore this democracy is necessary "¦ There is no question about it: if a majority decides, the minority has to obey it; the minority of course has to have complete guarantee that it will have all the time the opportunity to express its views and influence the views of the majority - and not in secrecy, but in open debate in front of the class" (my emphasis; cited in Socialist Review May 2000). Perhaps - in this context at least - we are better 'Cliffites' than the likes of comrade Harman? It will be interesting to find out.