Wot? No left?

In the fight between George Galloway and the SWP, Mike Macnair is reminded of the debate between the Bukharinite 'rights' and the Stalinists in 1929-33

Thanks to various blogs (particularly Andy Newman's) and circulating emails, we now have a somewhat clearer picture of the factional struggle in Respect and its impact in the Socialist Workers Party.

Late September's fake unity and attempt to deny the existence of serious differences has broken down. There have been walkouts from meetings to elect delegates in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham and accusations of unconstitutional conduct. There is a row about how many members Student Respect branches can claim in order to elect delegates. Socialist Worker has been driven to the extraordinary step - for SW - of actually commenting on a debate in the left. They have printed an editorial criticising Galloway for beginning "to attack the core of the left in Respect". SW tells us that Galloway "denounces members of the SWP as unthinking 'Leninists' who listen to nobody but their shadowy and unaccountable leadership - a classic rightwing stereotype of revolutionaries. Inside Respect a campaign has been launched against the SWP in an attempt to drive us out."

This is a far cry from the denunciations of the Weekly Worker on several blogs a few weeks ago for overstating the seriousness of the crisis in Respect.

The debate has clearly also entered into the SWP. In a pre-emptive strike against this, in mid-October the SWP central committee expelled three SWP members - Rob Hoveman, Kevin Ovenden and Nick Wrack. Andy Newman has published some of their contributions to the SWP pre-conference discussion. But the debate has not yet been effectively pre-empted. The October 22 edition of Party notes denounces some unnamed members for circulating a petition against the expulsions: "These comrades did not raise the petition in their branches, but instead approached a select group of comrades to sign. Neither did they inform the CC they were launching a petition. This is an undemocratic method of winning a position inside the party and alien to our method of operating."

"Undemocratic" here is code for 'against the bureaucratic interests of the CC and the full-time staff employed by it'. Advocates of genuine democratic centralism are for people who hold common opinions opposed to the view of the leadership being able to organise themselves, and for communication between party members outside 'official channels'. This creates the best conditions both for clear and well informed decisions, for the political education of party members, and for subordinating the leaders to working class interests.

The SWP's "method of operating", in contrast, is that of the Labour, trade union and Soviet bureaucracies. This "method of operating" creates the best conditions for GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) decisions, like Soviet 'central planning' or the SWP's self-deceptions about Respect, and for a division between the thinkers in the leadership and those who just do what they are told in the ranks. And it creates the best conditions for the capitalist class to obtain control of workers' organisations by bribing or winning over individual officials.

The politics of the debate, such as it is so far, is not a pretty sight. It is a certain kind of debate: one like the debate between the Bukharinite 'rights' and the Stalinists in 1929-33; and one like the debate between 'Euros' and 'tankies' in the 'official communist' parties in the 1970s. In other words, a debate between rightists who represent themselves as favouring democracy, pluralism and broad unity and bureaucrats who for the moment represent themselves as leftists.

Stalinists and Bukharinites

In 1928-30, the Stalin faction in the Soviet leadership undertook a sharp 'left turn' - the turn to the first five-year plan and the collectivisation of agriculture. Along with this went casting the blame on their former allies round Nikolai Bukharin - the 'rights' - for what had gone wrong in the 1920s. The 'rights' were driven out of top leadership positions. The large majority of the former Left Opposition in the Soviet CP took this 'left' turn for good coin, and 'capitulated' - reconciled themselves with the Stalin leadership. It did not help them when the purges of the 1930s came along.

Internationally, the turn involved the 'third period' denunciation of the social democrats as 'social fascists'. Outside Russia, the Stalinists could only expel people, not suppress discussion by police methods; the result was splits of the 'rights' from the CPs in several countries, notably Germany, Spain and Sweden. The 'rights' represented themselves as advocates of a pluralist and democratic socialism, as opposed to the bureaucratic centralism of the Stalinists.

However, their real objections were undercut when, in the mid-1930s, the Communist International took the 'people's front' turn. In Germany by now the Hitler regime was in place, and the 'rights' survived as a rump in exile. In Spain the 'rights' unified with the majority of the Spanish Trotskyists to form the Partido Obrero de Unificacià³n Marxista (POUM). The POUM went along with the people's front government: thereby preparing the grounds for the Spanish Communist Party to recover its position and, in turn, crush the POUM.

In Sweden the 'rights' unified with a leftwing split from the social democrats, but after the Comintern's people's front turn became politically homeless and gradually moved to a position which by the mid-1940s was on the far right, allied with pro-Nazi groups.

In truth, the rhetoric of democracy and unity used by the 'rights' proved to be illusory, because their idea of 'unity' was primarily addressed to diplomatic relations with forces to their right - the idea which was to become the people's front - and their idea of 'democracy' was within the framework of the existing capitalist states and state system.

Euros and tankies

'Eurocommunism' emerged in the 1970s. It was both an adaptation of the communist parties' ideas to their practice as seekers after reformist coalition governments with social democratic and centrist parties, and a (slightly delayed) reaction to the 1968 'Prague spring' ('reform communist' government in Czechoslovakia, overthrown by Soviet troops). Like the Bukharinites, the Euros represented themselves as seekers after broad unity - but they meant by this unity with forces to their right, not to their left. And they represented themselves as 'democrats': but they meant by this commitment to the liberal-constitutional, and national, capitalist state regime.

The fate of the Euros is more obvious, and closer to present politics, than that of the Bukharinites. In their large majority they have either created pro-capitalist substitute social democratic parties (Italy), simply become absorbed into the existing social democratic or left capitalist parties (US, Britain) or destroyed their own parties (Spain, Britain). The influence of the Eurocommunists and their fellow-travellers on Blairism is a striking example of how much the 'democratic' and 'pluralist' rhetoric is worth: these 'democrats' and 'pluralists' have turned the formerly somewhat open conferences of the Labour Party into monolithic celebrations of the leadership in the style of the Stalinist CPSU.

Their opponents, the 'tankies', were so-called by their opponents because they were willing to back the intervention of Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia. They included small minorities (like the founders of this organisation, the CPGB) who were genuine leftists. But in their large majority, the tankies stood for a fake, bureaucratic 'leftism' which did not go beyond certain bounds. Witness the Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain, still clinging desperately to the British road to socialism and the illusion of 'reclaiming Labour' (or helping to found a substitute 'party of labour'), still trying to find excuses for the manifestly pro-capitalist Chinese regime. Witness the CPUSA, still clinging to the similar strategy of working within the left-capitalist Democratic Party to create some sort of people's front.

The analogy between the present debate in Respect and the SWP and these past debates is not perfect. The SWP CC does not, like the Stalinist bureaucracy of 1928-30, dispose of state funds and access to jobs for supporters, or of police cells for opponents. If Socialist Worker, Socialist Review and SWP branch meetings do not educate SWP members in Marxism, International Socialism carries some Marxist theoretical work which is more serious than the vulgarised parroting of Moscow bureaucrats (the highest theory the 'official' CPGB could rise to) and the annual Marxism event includes some educational discussions as well as an increasing proportion of apologetic garbage. So there should be some members of the SWP who can see what is going on in this debate and could propose a real alternative. But we have not heard from them yet. Who we have heard from are the fake democrats/unity-mongers and the fake-left bureaucrats.

Fake democrats

On the fake democrat side we find in the first place George Galloway. The SWP leadership claims, quite falsely, that Galloway has moved to the right since the founding of Respect. The reality is that Galloway's political positions have been consistent throughout: traditional Labour fellow-traveller of the 'official communists': bureaucratic, 'anti-imperialist' - ie, a supporter of regimes in unfriendly relations with 'the west', with a particular interest in Arab nationalism - and with a catholic quirk about abortion and his own maverick character as an MP.

What has changed is that, though Respect has had some limited electoral success, it has not 'taken off'; on the one hand, non-SWP Respect activists are no longer willing to be run by the SWP CC and, on the other, the SWP leadership is looking for excuses to shift its ground. In this situation Galloway's original letter appealed to non-SWP Respect activists with the ideas of necessary pluralism and openness. The same line appears in his Morning Star piece 'Uniting for peace'. But this pluralism means in substance special concessions for the patriarchal-conservative 'community leaders', the freedom of Galloway and other elected representatives to 'follow their consciences' - ie, do their own thing. And openness has clear limits. This was made apparent at once by the deal for fake unity, the opposite of openness, at the September 22 Respect NC meeting.

Among the expelled SWPers, Kevin Ovenden's document 'Keeping a sense of proportion' is simply a defence of Galloway against SWP leadership charges. Nick Wrack's 'Out towards the open sea' is a more substantial critique, arguing in substance for a variant of the Mandelite Fourth International's view that it is necessary to build broad left parties: again we find that the openness and pluralism involved is for forces to the SWP's right. Ovenden, Wrack and Hoveman have all, like Galloway, been party to the top-down way Respect has been run since it was set up. Some self- criticism, as well as criticism of John Rees, might be appropriate if we are to believe they are born-again believers in real democracy and pluralism.

Outside the SWP, bloggers like ex-SWPer Andy Newman and Socialist Resistance supporter Liam Mac Uaid form part of the same trend. Both have provided remarkable examples of 'openness and pluralism when it's convenient', attempting to talk up the 'outbreak of peace' round September 22 and denouncing the CPGB for attempting to get a principled point of view presented in the bourgeois media. The media, of course, already had the documents - which comrades Newman and Mac Uaid had published in their blogs.

I have not said a great deal about this trend. But it is enough to see that its character is broadly the same as the Euros or the Bukharinites. Any talk of democracy and pluralism is at best skin-deep. The real core of the politics is the desire to reach out to forces to the right.

Fake leftists

Reading the SWP's Party notes, the Socialist Worker editorial, and SWP loyalists' contributions to online discussions and blogs, one might imagine that the SWP leadership has suddenly had the veils lifted from its eyes and come to see that Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty was partly right: as Matgamna puts it in his October 17 'Open letter to Chris Harman and the SWP', "Do you now find yourselves suddenly realising what you have got into, with the shock of someone who wakes up to the realisation that he has been sleep-walked into a disease-ridden stream of sewage? Have you suddenly realised whom you've been holding hands with?"

I carefully do not credit the Weekly Worker with this supposed awakening of the SWP leadership. All along, the Weekly Worker has argued that the problem in principle with Respect was not the SWP or other leftists entering into partial alliances with Galloway, or with islamists, or with small businessmen. The problem in principle was creating a bloc on the basis of a fake consensus, of the leftists shutting up about and voting against their own political views and pretending to place political confidence in the likes of Yvonne Ridley and so on. The problem, in other words, was not primarily with Galloway's, or the islamists', or the small businessmen's conduct - this was perfectly open and rational from their own political standpoint. The problem was the SWP's conduct.

We have said, earlier on, that Respect has only had striking success in areas with a strong muslim population, but we have not, like the AWL, said that that means it is merely a 'communalist' phenomenon. In fact, in the last round of local elections, if 'muslim' East London and Birmingham remained the heartlands, Respect was beginning to get respectable votes outside these heartlands.

This may seem off the point, but is precisely relevant. The SWP leadership has adopted as a stick to beat Galloway and his co-thinkers elements of the AWL's and AWL fellow-travellers' criticisms of Galloway and of Respect, not the CPGB's. They have done so because partial adoption of bits of AWL-speak better serves the bureaucratic interests of the SWP leadership as such, as opposed to the interests of the SWP rank and file and the working class as a class. The truth is that the indignation is wholly synthetic and the leftism is fakery.

Meanwhile, the SWP leaders are at present seeking, as they make this turn, to wall off their members from the ideas of critics of the Respect project, including both the AWL and the CPGB. Their weapon in this effort is 'anti-imperialism': by which they mean that it is a duty of leftists not merely to oppose British and US imperialist military action against 'third world' countries, but also to avoid political criticism of the regimes the US or Britain attacks or solidarity with the workers' movement in those countries.

This is 'leftist' in the same sense that the line of the Spartacists and similar groups, of 'military support to the Taliban' (etc) is 'leftist': an empty, posturing, moralistic 'anti-imperialism'. It pays no attention to the fact that today's target regime is yesterday's, and tomorrow's, collaborator with the imperialist world order. And it pays no attention to the clear fact that it is only through the mobilisation of broad masses of the working classes that imperialism can actually be defeated. This 'leftism' is, of course, nothing new: it is merely the old Stalinist idea of the anti-imperialist front of peoples and governments reformulated for a world without the USSR.

The reality is that the central leadership of the SWP is responsible for something - Respect - which has become a debacle - not just for the SWP as an organisation, but for the political ideas on which it is, at least formally, based. The 'left turn' is a matter of the central leadership of the SWP trying to draw back from this debacle and yet hold onto their jobs. So there will be no self-criticism of the bureaucratic operation of Respect, which is their own bureaucratic operation of the SWP. There will be, as there is in the Socialist Worker editorial, a defence of a 'Leninism' which is only 'Leninism' in the Stalinist interpretation of that term. They will defend the Organising for Fighting Unions conference - but make no criticism of the way in which that conference, as a bureaucratically controlled rally, could lead nowhere further forward in terms of actually organising.

Moreover, there is a fundamental point here which the SWP once half-knew. Societies like our own have a working class majority and universal suffrage. The bourgeoisie rules in such societies through the support of the labour bureaucracy, including the 'official lefts' (recent history's 'awkward squad' of trade union leaders). The SWP's own bureaucratic centralism, and its attempts to ally with 'real' or 'serious' forces to its right on the basis of faked-up diplomatic 'agreements', serves to reinforce the ability of the labour bureaucracy to support the bourgeoisie.

Ever decreasing circles

Though the western Bukharinist parties of the 1930s International Communist Opposition were, on the whole, small, the fight between Bukharinists and Stalinists was a large-scale struggle for the future of the USSR and the world communist movement under conditions of acute capitalist crisis. For all the mass size of some of the European communist parties, Eurocommunism and the 'tankie' oppositions to it were acting on a smaller historical stage: within the limits of global capitalist order. The 'new Eurocommunism' - both of the 'Eurotrotskyists' of the Mandelite Fourth International and in Britain of the Galloway wing in Respect - is smaller still.

The fact is that the left, both organised and unorganised, has landed itself with some very fundamental mistakes. As a result, it is doomed to repeat the disastrous history of the 20th century on an ever smaller scale, in ever decreasing circles, until it breaks from them.

One of these mistakes is the idea that debates should be conducted in secret and a face of unqualified 'unity' presented to the outside world. It is a tiny step forward in this respect that Socialist Worker has gritted its teeth and published a (dishonest) attack on George Galloway rather than pretending the debate does not exist. It is a bigger step forward that people other than the Weekly Worker have begun to publish on the internal affairs of Respect or of the SWP. But these very people - like comrades Mac Uaid and Newman - display an utter incomprehension of the fact that you cannot have openness for one purpose and synthetic unity for another. They - and the SWP loyalists, and the AWL - also display complete incomprehension of the key to openness: that we can have unity in action for agreed purposes between people who violently disagree with one another and say so openly. A real left in the SWP would need to stand for that sort of openness.

A second fundamental error is the 'anti-imperialist front' both in its 'official communist' interpretation and in its Spartacist version. The number of supposedly 'anti-imperialist' regimes which have proven as time goes on to be anything but is not beyond counting, but it would be merely tedious to list them here. In the case of Iran, what is involved is repeating an error in relation to the character of the regime which has within the adult lifetime of present activists cost the lives of thousands of working class militants in Iran itself.

There is a connection here, too, to the first error. We can have unity in action for agreed purposes between people who violently disagree with one another and say so openly. In exactly the same way, we can unite with supporters of the Iranian regime in opposing US-British or US-sponsored Israeli military action against Iran, and US-British covert operations to attempt to take over the internal opposition for a 'colour revolution' as cover for a military coup. But we can do so on the basis that we ourselves do not support the regime; that we support the Iranian workers', women's, and national movements in Iran; and that we do not respond to imperialist media vilification of the regime by prettifying it. A real left in the SWP would need to stand for proletarian internationalism, the unity of the working class internationally, not for the 'anti-imperialist front of peoples and governments'.

The third error, and fundamental to the SWP, is the idea that a 'Leninist party' means organisation without a clear political programme which the party fights for and which forms the basis of membership. The SWP leadership has thought for decades that programme does not matter: only 'Leninist party organisation' - ie, bureaucratic-centralism - matters. Hence the suppression of programmatic differences in, to quote John Rees, the "consensus on the basis of which Respect was formed". A real left in the SWP would need to develop and fight for a clear political programme as the basis of the party.