Debating the dynamics of Respect

Mary Godwin reports from the latest CPGB members' aggregate, which discussed the Summer Offensive and the liquidationist trajectory of the SWP leadership

An aggregate of CPGB members held in London on June 4 discussed the latest developments in the Socialist Workers Party and its Respect popular front party, and how communists should respond. John Bridge opened the debate with an analysis of what exactly Respect is, and how it fits into the overall political situation in Britain today. Respect leaders state that a viable leftwing alternative is needed to the Labour Party, and declare Respect to be this alternative. So we need to start by looking at Labour and where it is going, comrade Bridge argued. At present capital is backing Blair's party because they know it gives them more leverage for their money that any other party, but the biggest financial donors remain the unions. The post-1945 social settlement is under attack from the bourgeoisie. Labour is in a state of conflict with its base, blaming workers for problems, such as the pension shortfall. The question is, can Respect become a replacement social democratic party, can it reform society in the way Labour used to claim to be able to do? But capitalism as a system is in decline, and all political questions need to be addressed in the context of this decline. What about Respect's electoral performance? Despite Galloway's victory, there was no breakthrough, no fundamental split in Labour's electoral base. Respect took only a fraction of Labour's vote, and makes up only a part of the anti-war movement. The Lib Dems benefited most from the anti-war vote, proving we were right to say Charles Kennedy should not have been given a platform at the anti-war demonstrations. Is Respect a party? The supplement in Socialist Worker would suggest so. But when it comes to principles such as a women's right to choose or open borders, Respect is still conveniently described as a coalition - disparate groups coming together on what they agree - and otherwise agreeing to disagree. The aims of the John Rees leadership are clear. Respect is the future and the SWP should dissolve into it. This alarms some in the SWP. The prospect of opportunists becoming Respect councillors as a route to power and influence worries others. The leadership has given away the principle of collective control over elected representatives. George Galloway has been given the right to decide how he votes in parliament. Respect does not have the potential to develop into a party able to answer the fundamental questions about capitalism and how to overcome it. It is an 'unpopular front', the parameters of its programme being determined by its most backward elements. Whenever sects achieve success, their programmatic fault lines are exposed and that tends to blow them apart. Elements in the SWP who want to put all their efforts into building a mass Respect party are certain to be opposed by others who resist the liquidation of what they see as Britain's Bolshevik party. The fact that the SWP is not a democratic organisation retards the development of these divisions. When such sects do go into crisis, though, it is a messy process, often with very little left at the end. But if there is a clear left split from the SWP, we need to be able to engage with it, not least to shift the debate on the left in Britain onto the need for a Communist Party. As to what we communists can do to intervene positively, comrade Bridge said he understood comrades' frustration at our relatively weak position. We are in an analogous situation to that of Trotsky and his supporters, but of course on an even lower level. To reach the masses we have to go through organisations such as the SWP's Respect. Our immediate task is to try to divide Respect along class lines, and to become familiar with SWP politics and literature. We need to clearly understand how the degeneration came about, to maximise our chance of salvaging something from it. Discussion following comrade Bridge's talk can be divided into two themes: criticism of the party's line in the election by comrade Cameron Richards and replies; and discussion of the SWP, its nature, aims and probable fate. Comrade Richards said the opening focused too narrowly on the SWP, overestimating its impact on society, which is negligible. It is wrong to ignore the rest of the left. The Labour left still exists, as shown by speculation about whether George Galloway will try to rejoin the Labour Party. The CPGB has unnecessarily alienated itself from the group it seeks to influence, because the motion passed at the December aggregate was, he said, misapplied with only four Labour candidates being supported. Our tactics during the election campaign were inept, leaving us more isolated than we need to have been. They should have been more nuanced. Comrade Anne Mc Shane said she was in two minds about whether the party should have supported Jeremy Corbyn, as comrade Richards believed. The account in the Weekly Worker (April 28) could come over as 'Corbyn did not answer our calls, so we do not support him'. But it is right to be critical and not allow Corbyn and his like to get away with an undeserved reputation. Comrade Mark Fischer said he was surprised that only four Labour candidates met our criteria for support, but the tactic was correct and was correctly applied. Comrade Tina Becker agreed, and said, far from the CPGB looking stupid, in fact it was Labour Left Briefing who were made to appear foolish for supporting Labour candidates who were actually pro-war and pro-occupation. Comrade Peter Manson wanted to know how comrade Richards would have defined a candidate as 'anti-occupation', if he or she was not prepared to demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops - any caveats imply attribution of a progressive role to imperialism. Comrade Bridge said the fact that only four Labour candidates called unconditionally for troops out now shows the extreme weakness of the labour left. On the broader question of the nature of the SWP, comrade Michelle Euston did not agree that its influence in society is negligible. Comrade Richards said SWP leaders attempted to increase their influence by switching from strike-chasing to imam-chasing, but they remain strike-chasers at heart. They are now trying to capitalise on the prestige they gained through the Respect project by building links with non-Labour trade union leaders such as Serwotka, Wrack and Crow and hoping to attract their members. In his reply comrade Bridge said this would be unlikely to yield the desired results, because the unions are hollowed out at present - there are some leftish leaders but few willing troops. Similarly the revival of the Labour left will require a shift in society. He agreed with comrade Richards that John Rees's aim is to move out of the ghetto and influence the 96% of the population who are not muslims. He also expressed surprise that there was no rebellion in the SWP over Respect's stand on abortion or Lindsey German's infamous "shibboleth" speech. Comrade Mc Shane observed that some Respect members in Bethnal Green and Stepney do not trust Galloway. The tension between conservative Bengali Respect members and SWP comrades over social questions such as women's rights could be the catalyst for the split in the SWP. Comrade Becker agreed that the key question in Respect will be how the leadership can control councillors or, if they cannot, how they can curb the resulting rebellion in the SWP rank and file. She said the John Rees leadership knows they need a Respect paper to move it forward, and that they cannot successfully publish two weekly papers. So Socialist Worker, which has been used to put forward a counterbalance to Galloway's rightwing comments to reassure the SWP rank and file, will have to go. This will increase the tension in the organisation and could be the trigger for the explosion. Comrade Manson disagreed, predicting that a crisis could well come about over the nature and role of Socialist Worker if attempts were made to gradually transform it into a Respect paper. Comrade Steve Whitehall-Smith doubted whether this would be possible. The formal position of the SWP is so far to the left of Respect on many questions that the two could not be combined in a single paper. But comrade Euston said that Socialist Worker had already undergone a transition into a "paper of the people" with no objection: SWPers who want Marxism are referred to the journal Socialist Review. If Respect grows, it will be harder for the SWP to control, and there will be more scope for the formation of a left faction. This should be our task, comrade Becker argued. When the SWP splits, both factions will be rightist and it will require active intervention from outside to produce anything worthwhile. Comrade Bridge replied that, as Respect is so obviously a populist formation, any SWP split has to be to the left. The aggregate also heard a brief opening from comrade Fischer about the £30,000-target Summer Offensive. He compared this year's campaign with last year's, and gave details of planned launch meetings around the country and examples of fundraising activities already undertaken by comrades. He also listed forthcoming opportunities to turn the party outwards and raise money. The aim of the offensive, he said, is to train comrades in the political skills of street work and other fundraising methods, and to draw the periphery of our supporters closer to the party. Mary Godwin