Arise - the new Socialist Alliance

Steve Freeman, a member of the committee that has organised the November 12 conference to relaunch the SA, calls for both continuity and change in the fight for socialist unity

"The great appear great to us only because we are on our knees: Let us arise." With these famous words James Connolly condemned queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897 as a "feast of flunkeyism". He told his audience that "the Irish Socialist Republican Party, which from its inception has never hesitated to proclaim its unswerving hostility to the British crown ... takes the opportunity of hurling at the heads of all the courtly mummers who grovel at the shrine of royalty the contempt and hatred of Irish revolutionary democracy." Connolly would no doubt have recognised the significance of the words, "Arise, ye workers", on the banner of the dockers during their 1972 strike. It could be seen on the mass demonstrations outside Pentonville prison in support of those jailed for defending trade union rights. In similar vein the first words of The International are: "Arise, ye starvelings from your slumber." The struggle of the working class for freedom and democracy always brings forth the cry for working people to rise up against the capitalist system. Nowadays it is fashionable to proclaim that the working class, the trade unions and socialism are things of the past. But history has not come to an end. The working class movement will arise again and with it the movement for socialism will expand well beyond its current narrow confines on the fringe of politics. Whilst the need remains for socialists to unite and move towards a party, we can rest assured that some form of socialist alliance is a necessity. This is why nobody should write off the Socialist Alliance. On February 5 the SA voted at its annual conference to close down by 73 to 63 with two abstentions. On November 12 ex-members of the SA will be meeting to consider a relaunch. The history of the alliance may then look very different. Instead of collapse, 2005 will be the year the Socialist Alliance split. On one side of the cleavage will be Respect, the Unity Coalition, and on the other a new Socialist Alliance. It is therefore premature to declare the fight for socialist unity at an end or as a consequence the SA no longer necessary. The Socialist Alliance has existed for 12 years as a project for left unity. By 2001 it brought together into a single organisation the majority of socialist groups outside the Labour Party. In 2001 a new SA (mark two version) was born and over the next four years it was led by the Socialist Workers Party and its allies. But with the Iraq war the leadership more or less gave up trying to build an alliance of socialists and turned to building a different kind of alliance - between socialists and muslims. In 2003 those SA members who were in favour of a working class party, including the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, CPGB, Revolutionary Democratic Group, International Socialist League and Workers International, began to organise themselves as the SA Democracy Platform (SADP). With the closure of the SA, the SADP called a conference in Birmingham and, with its allies from the Socialist Unity Network and the Republican Communist Network (Scotland), agreed to set up a provisional organisation to plan a relaunch. Subsequently the SADP voted to give full support and all its assets to the Socialist Alliance (Provisional) and closed down. The SA (P) is gathering around it those who recognise that specifically socialist unity and a new working class party are needed more than ever. The necessity for either has not been abolished by the arrival of Respect. However, this is not to say the new SA should be a carbon copy of the SWP-dominated alliance. Even if we wanted that, it would not be achievable. The SWP is the largest socialist organisation outside the Labour Party. The new SA will therefore be far smaller than the previous version. It would now represent a minority of the socialist movement. In 2001 the SA did not have to recognise Respect simply because it did not exist. Today a new SA will have to adopt a correct stance in relation to the biggest beast in the jungle. That means being tough enough to resist the obvious temptation to take a sectarian attitude towards Respect. A new Socialist Alliance has to redefine itself politically if it is to have any hope or prospect for survival. The November conference will therefore decide the fate of the SA - to be or not to be. It is not possible at this stage to give a definite statement as to the political differences between the new SA and Respect since the members of the SA (Provisional) have yet to decide exactly where they stand. But we do have a fairly clear idea of what the officers of the SA (P) are proposing and a reasonable estimate of what the opposition are saying. In this article I will concentrate on the former, not the latter. In what sense will the new SA be a continuation of the old alliance? There must be sufficient continuity with the previous organisation to be able to lay claim to the name. It is not just a matter of membership. The new SA will continue the fight for socialist unity. This was always one of the SA's most important functions and for a time the SA helped break down sectarian barriers on the left. This will continue. Second, the SA was an alliance and not a party. This remains the same. Our expectations from a Socialist Alliance will be lower than we have a right to expect and demand from a party. Third, the SA was an alliance of socialist groups/parties and individual socialists - or 'indies', as they came to be known in SA-speak. We will continue to welcome the support of socialist groups and socialist indies. Finally, the SA took an important step in developing a left unity programme known as People before profit. The new SA will stand on that programme. The new Socialist Alliance will therefore continue to represent the best non-sectarian politics that the SA promoted before its degeneration. However, in other respects the new SA will have to be different. We cannot stand still. It has been a learning process and we must incorporate the best politics that developed with the old SA. If the new alliance is merely a dogmatic continuation of the old SA, minus the SWP, then its failure would be predictable and imminent. The new SA has to represent not just continuity, but change. The new SA must be what it says - something new. The old SA focused almost entirely on elections. Its main purpose was seen as standing left candidates against Labour. With 98 candidates in 2001, it made a good start. But the old SA was seen by the SWP majority simply as an electoral front. If anything needed doing apart from elections, then the SWP saw itself as the appropriate vehicle. There are many good reasons why we should not define ourselves in electoralist terms. First, even if we wanted to play at electoralism, we do not have the base for anything more than a token effort in one or two localities. Second, the SA made a big mistake in putting the electoral cart before the campaigning horse. The new SA must start from scratch and show itself capable of national and local campaigning activity. Electoral work should grow from that and not the other way round. We also need a much clearer political profile as to what we are fighting for. The officers of the SA (P) have proposed that we identify ourselves as an Alliance for Republicanism, Internationalism, Socialism and the Environment. It is surely a happy coincidence that this spells out 'Arise'. That, of course, takes us back to James Connolly, the opening line of The International and the 1972 dockers' strike. Then there is the central question of a new working class party. Whilst the SA is not a party and does not pretend to be one, we must take on the task of making the transition to a party that was successfully made when the Scottish Socialist Alliance transformed itself into the Scottish Socialist Party. The SSP is a practical example of what socialists can achieve from a socialist alliance. But we are not simply copying the SSP. We are not arguing for Scottish independence. We are putting emphasis on democracy and internationalism, not on nationality. Consequently, as the SA (P) clause A3 says, we will campaign for "a republican socialist party along the lines of the SSP". Whether this should also be a Marxist party remains to be agreed. Finally the new SA has to get to grips with the issue of federalism. We are not proposing the 80-20 formula of the first SA, which gave the right of a minority to veto majority decisions. Neither do we want a repeat of the more centralised, but confused, form of federalism of the SA mark two. We are proposing a new form of democratic federalism. The SA will comprise SA members and SA partners, which are affiliated organisations. The members will elect the SA executive at the annual conference. The executive will be accountable to the SA members. The SA executive will meet with our socialist partners in the proposed 'Council of Socialist Organisations'. This council will be a forum for socialist cooperation with the right to take majority decisions that will not be binding either on the affiliates or the SA executive. The new ideas we are putting forward did not parachute in from outer space. What is proposed here has its roots in the unfolding dialectic of the old SA. Almost everything can be found in debates that took place at the SA conferences in March and December 2001. At the first conference People before profit was accepted. But two different views emerged over the question of our 'priority pledges'. On one side were the 'Labourites' who wanted to restrict the immediate policies to the politics of the old Labour left. Against them were the 'republicans', led by the CPGB and supported by the RDG and AWL. Jack Conrad wrote a powerful polemic against the "economism" of the SWP majority under the headline, 'Prioritise democracy' (Weekly Worker March 1 2001). The CPGB proposed a set of six republican and democratic demands as the cutting edge for a politicised SA. Needless to say, this was rejected. The same argument arises again. At the December 2001 conference there was a second set of issues concerning the party question and federalism. A structural proposal from the RDG put forward the constitution of the Scottish Socialist Party and made the argument that the SA needed to move in this direction. This was 'customised' by removing all reference to 'Scottish' and replacing it with 'Republican'. This proposal for a republican socialist party along the lines of the SSP gained 21 votes. The same argument arises again. At the same conference the RDG, AWL, a number of independents and comrades such as Dave Church and Pete McLaren were arguing for a form of federal constitution that would keep the Socialist Party on board. The RDG did not support the Socialist Party's proposal for minority vetoes. But, along with many comrades, we believed it would have been possible to maintain socialist unity on the basis of opt-outs rather than vetoes. The case for a genuine form of democratic federalism within an alliance was made then. The same argument arises again. The seeds of the new SA can therefore be found in the disagreements over the direction of the alliance in 2001. This minority was by no means unified and sometimes pulled in different directions. But in the theory of democratic organisation the failure of the SA leadership in 2003-04 should have led to growing support for the alternative perspective until the minority became the majority. In reality the opposite has happened. The 2001 minority has become a majority simply because the old majority walked out. Building a new socialist unity does not mean finding the lowest common denominator or sticking to the old SWP politics and perspective. It means building a new unity around the more advanced positions arising from the dialectic within the old alliance. Now the socialist movement is reorganising around four alliances or coalitions - the Socialist Alliance, the Labour Representation Committee, Respect and the Socialist Green Unity Coalition. Each represents different policies and perspectives for the working class movement. The new SA has a place not only because of its 12-year struggle for socialist unity, but because it has something distinct to say about the direction the socialist and working class movement should take. The SA will be the only alliance or coalition campaigning for a new independent working class party. The LRC is for rebuilding the Labour Party and neither Respect nor the SGUC have come out for a new working class party. The SA is the only alliance that will campaign for republicanism, internationalism, socialism and the environment. The SA will be the only alliance that recognises the fundamental importance of the fight for democracy in the struggle for socialism. So, whilst there will be some areas of overlap with the other alliances, the SA will have a distinct message. The SA will have to explain to the working class movement the importance and significance of the political direction we are proposing. At the same time we have to ensure this does not degenerate into sectarian rivalries. While we cannot account for the behaviour of the other alliances, we are accountable for our own actions. Our general attitude to these rival alliances should be governed by the policy of the united front. First, we are in favour of united action with all these organisations against capitalism and the Labour government. We do not place our differences with these organisations above the need for a united front against the common class enemy. This means we put the interest of the working class in achieving unity above any special policies or interests we hold against other socialist coalitions. The united front policy does not mean the suspension of criticism. On the contrary, it means we act together, whilst continuing to explain our policy differences. The purpose of the united front is also educative. It enables the working class to understand the policy differences and grasp which ideas best represent their interests. To hide our differences in the united front is to prevent or undermine the political development of the working class. In my own view the high point of this united front would be the merging of the LRC, Respect, the SGUC and the Socialist Alliance (or at least a majority of these forces) into an independent working class party - ideally with the SSP and socialists in Wales and Northern Ireland too. If this is not possible, we should seek to develop the closest possible relations with all socialists in the UK and take what steps we can to form a single party. The working class needs a new party, which can, in Jack Conrad's words, "prioritise democracy". We therefore need a strong Socialist Alliance to arise again like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes.