The futility and absurdity of halfway house projects

As both wings of the organisation once known as Respect gather for 'conferences' in London, there is a good deal or hype and unfounded official optimism in the air, says Peter Manson

The Socialist Workers Party pretends that Respect is stronger than ever now that 'the right' has departed, while George Galloway, Linda Smith and Salma Yaqoob look forward to a rosy future, with the gains of Respect being advanced in a new left-of-Labour alliance, free of the debilitating influence of the SWP.

Sorry, comrades, but it is over. Both Respect and its legacy are dead, no matter what exaggerated claims you are making in the battle to emerge from the debris of the faction fight of the past three months better placed than your rival. The whole world knows it and so do you, even if you cannot admit it while there is still unfinished business to attend to.

In fact one might ask (with the benefit of hindsight on the part of some comrades), why did it take so long? How could such a contradictory and unstable formation as Respect keep together for so long? Respect's membership consisted in the main of those who would describe themselves as 'revolutionary socialists'. However, to keep the 'unity' project with muslim activists and Asian businessmen afloat, these comrades, not least the SWP, persuaded themselves to junk, or at least put on one side, vital principles such as republicanism, secularism, working class socialism, open borders, a women's right to choose to have an abortion, gay rights, etc.

As leading SWP comrades were at pains to explain, Respect could not be a specifically working class organisation (or "just socialist", in the words of Lindsey German). Sure, the word 'socialism' was part of its name, but it was there for form's sake, as a sop to the SWP's own historic claims and tradition. According to the SWP central committee, "We agreed on a minimal set of points that were the maximum that our allies "¦ would accept "¦ Hence the name which was given to the new organisation, Respect - the Unity Coalition, was less than the full-blooded socialist position we would ideally have preferred, but which would have put off other people who wanted some sort of anti-war, anti-racist, anti-neoliberal alternative to New Labour" (www.swp.org.uk/respect_cc.php).

In fact it was only the first two of those 'antis' that the whole organisation was united around. As we know, Respect made the biggest inroads in those areas of the country that had a large proportion of muslims - in east London, where it was mainly people of Bangladeshi extraction who were pulled towards the organisation, and in parts of Birmingham, where the ethnicity was mainly British-Pakistani.

Overwhelmingly such muslims are, of course, both anti-war (or at least against war on countries whose population is largely muslim) and, being victims, anti-racist. 'Anti-neoliberalism', which was generally translated in practice as anti-privatisation and anti-cuts rather than anti-capitalism, was most definitely a secondary element. The SWP leadership itself is clear as to what was primary: it states that the whole idea of Respect was to attract the "many thousands of people activated by opposition to war". It was, of course, absolutely essential to do so, but the SWP appealed to those thousands on the basis of the lowest common denominator, not on the basis of principled working class politics.

Neither the SWP nor Galloway attempted to target muslims on the basis of opposition to 'neoliberalism', let alone working class politics. How could they, since their method was to seek out sympathetic figures amongst the mosque hierarchy and 'community leaders'? This was absolutely the case, despite SWP assertions that such a method was a recent, Galloway-inspired development. These 'community leaders' were often businessmen, whose networks and connections are based to a large extent on family and money, not leftwing political conviction.

It would be difficult to hold together such contradictory forces even in a loose alliance for any length of time. But a political party? Respect was destined to blow apart and it was only a matter of time.

The whole crazy 'experiment', in repeating the disastrous popular front history of 'official communism', has proved a costly affair for the SWP - it had shed a good few hundred members and is down to little more than a thousand loyalists. Now that it is free of Galloway and the businessmen, it can pose left once more, but its leadership appears to have learnt no lessons and would certainly be prepared to do something similar again.

Absurdly, John Rees and co claim that the crisis was brought about by an eclectic right wing around Galloway asserting itself and supposedly turning its back on Respect's original "radical" basis. If this were true, it ought to have led the SWP to question the very nature of such an alliance taken to party form. What was to stop the right behaving in this way in the first place? Indeed why should it not behave in this way? But the CC document, 'The record: the Socialist Workers Party and Respect', does not even come near asking these questions.

What of the Galloway 'Respect Renewal' wing? What lessons have its supporters learnt? Well, they have certainly learnt a lot about the SWP's bureaucratic and manipulative methods, but what about the alliance they want to continue? So obsessed are they with the SWP that they do not even query the basis of this popular front of a special kind. Its inherent instability does not occur to them.

Let us be clear. It is not just a question of the non-working class elements. Yes, their presence guarantees that instability will be deep-going and produce further splits. But what if the businessmen were to abandon Galloway, the International Socialist Group and the soft left in the anti-SWP version of Respect? What if they were replaced by the RMT union, the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Party in a new alliance based more explicitly on working class organisations?

At first sight this would seem to be a sounder basis for a new party. For example, union bureaucrats and Stalinites, as well as revolutionaries, are all against the effects of neoliberalism. But this 'sounder basis' is an illusion. Bob Crow and the RMT bureaucracy would play a role not unlike Galloway and the 'community leaders' in Respect. They would force the left to go along with "a minimal set of points that were the maximum that our allies "¦ would accept". Otherwise there would be no alliance. The union bureaucracy would be similar in another way - it would act as guarantor to the British establishment that any such new party would be eminently safe and trustworthy. Just like the Labour Party has been safe and trustworthy for over 100 years.

And the Labour Party is not irrelevant to this discussion. For Galloway, the SWP, ISG and the soft left are still united on one thing - their common desire to recreate a Labour Party mark two. It goes without saying that this desire is shared by the Socialist Party and now by a good part of the Labour Representation Committee around John McDonnell MP.

For the last year or so the SP has recognised that its Campaign for a New Workers' Party was stillborn. Meantime, Peter Taaffe and co have been waiting for the RMT, FBU, CWU, etc to come the their rescue. Certainly the SP hopes to take advantage of the new fluidity created by the sudden collapse of Respect. Sections of the Labour left too, including partisans of the LRC, have all but given up on their forlorn attempts to 'reclaim' the Labour Party and are hoping that some new 'broad' party can be established with the help of at least a few left-leaning unions.

Unlike Galloway, Crow and McDonnell, the left groups - SWP, SP, ISG, etc - do not regard a reborn old Labour formation as an end in itself. They regard it as a useful and necessary step on the road to a bigger revolutionary party, naturally under their own leadership. They have viewed formations such as Respect and the CNWP, and the Socialist Alliance before them, as a Labour Party mark two in embryonic form.

However, all such halfway houses cannot but be unstable. They contain within them a left and a right whose cooperation can only be limited - they are, after all, ultimately pulling in opposite directions. The left aspires (at least in theory) to international working class power, while the right - whether in the form of muslim businessmen or trade union bureaucrats - will, in the last analysis, want to do a deal with the British state and finance capital.

There is one way in which such a hybrid may become stable - and that is when it ceases to be a halfway house and becomes an object in itself. The main example we have is, paradoxically, that of the Labour Party, within which the symbiotic relationship between left and right in the form of a bourgeois workers' party did underscore its stability. But for that to occur the left must be permanently subordinated to the right.

Of course, the revolutionary left, when it agrees to "a minimal set of points" that are "the maximum that our allies "¦ would accept", claims that this is just a temporary arrangement. At some time in the not so distant future the left will reassert itself and promote its own politics - or so we are led to believe. Unfortunately the time never seems to be quite right for such a move.

However, the job of communists is not to stand aside from new developments, but to actively intervene within them. The SA, Respect, CNWP - all were sites for struggle to achieve the only formation worth fighting for - a Communist Party, within which Marxists unite as Marxists.