Socialists for Labourism
With the hostilities in Respect reaching their messy denouement last weekend, it was almost possible to forget the rather less fiery Socialism school of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. James Turley reports
As a second-time Socialism attendee, I was rather struck with a feeling of déjà vu upon perusing the timetabled sessions. Almost all the discussions had taken place, one way or another, last year. The same international 'case studies'; various tokenistic bits and bobs on environmentalism, racism and other bigotries, and all the other issues which are a little too flowery and unappealing to union bureaucrats for inclusion in the organisation's day-to-day activity; the old chestnut of whether the Labour Party can be "reclaimed" (coming from ostensible Trotskyists, one can only assume this is a very long-running Freudian slip).
And some of the discussions seem to have gone downhill. Last year, Robin Clapp led off on Marxist philosophy in the normal way, and a discussion took place also in the normal way - people said some naive and shallow things, but others contributed in more depth.
This year, however, Sean Figg's session on historical materialism basically took the format of a GCSE lesson. The 'teacher' spoke for a bit, then asked predetermined questions to the 'pupils', who answered them. After successfully knocking down the standard criticism of historical materialism that it is rigidly reductionist, I half-expected to be awarded a gold star. Heightening the sense of unease was Figg's reliance on Kautsky and Plekhanov, although the overall politics of the two went unexamined bar a brief reference to the latter's "Menshevik degeneration". The use of such contradictory figures is legitimate but a matter for serious debate, not to be handed down uncritically by a 'teacher'.
A similar session the next morning on economics (subtitle: 'How the bosses rip us off') featured the rather unedifying spectacle of Jane James patronisingly asking people to describe times when their boss had extracted from them more relative surplus value - a sort of cross between a citizenship class and 'Proletarians Anonymous'.
One of the fundamental premises of Marxism is that the masses must liberate themselves, and the role of leaders and pedagogues - while important - is subordinate to the building of a collective spirit of solidarity. The structure of meetings may be a rather low-order consideration in this task, but the reason the lead-off/discussion format has become so prevalent is precisely because it implies that the proletariat have as much, or more, to learn from each other than from a designated authority figure.
It is telling that even the SWP's Marxism event leaves this tradition intact at least in formal terms (although, of course, the platform speaker is usually allowed something like 10 times more time than contributors from the floor and debates are skewed through a dodgy speaker-slip system).
Thankfully, the majority of sessions were traditional debates, however. The Socialist Party apparatchiks might have regretted this, though, in the discussion 'Can China save world capitalism?' China, of course, is one of the great 'litmus tests' for the Spartacist League and various groups that adhere to some part or other of its tradition, so it was not surprising that the International Bolshevik Tendency intervened to criticise SPEW's record.
Speaker Lynn Walsh responded, as he invariably does, by asking what the IBT had done for the workers' movement over the last year - well aware that any answer short of 'sucking up to trade union bureaucrats' would be inadmissible, its members refrained from wasting their breath. Precisely how any kind of involvement in the labour movement legitimises or otherwise a theory on China was left unexplained by comrade Walsh.
Rally for Labourism
The Spartacist League itself had its own intervention, but typically targeted it at the IBT on entirely unconnected grounds. Indeed, its entire presence at the weekend seemed motivated solely by flogging copies of its 'dossier' on the IBT's Bill Logan.
The IBT comrades, for their part, were concentrating their fire on the presence at the three-hour Rally for Socialism platform of Prison Officers Association general secretary Brian Caton. Whatever the merits of the IBT line on the issue, it must be noted that almost nobody else present even seemed to comprehend that there could possibly be an issue with the leading prison officer speaking from a socialist platform (the Sparts being too busy pursuing their pound of flesh) ... except Caton himself, who asked not to be judged on the basis of his job.
His speech, the first of three from trade union general secretaries at the rally, was effusive in its declarations of socialism. He even referred to the IBT slogan, 'Screws out of the TUC!': "Half of my executive committee would agree, because they [the TUC] won't bloody do anything!" A swipe at the privatisation of prisons carried a slightly dubious caveat about "foreign millionaires" - perhaps what you would expect from a left-talking union official. Much the same came from Matt Wrack of the FBU, without the chauvinistic twist.
Mark Serwotka had been a busy boy, speaking not only at Socialism but also at the (SWP) Respect conference and the Labour Representation Committee meeting. He was on full unity-mongering steam - although of the 'fake unity around minimal agreement' variety typical on the left. Above all, the theme of the night was breaking the union link with Labour - host Dave Nellist cryptically cautioning against "feeding the hand that bites you".
Numbers appeared to be slightly down compared to last year - there were around 450 at the rally, for example - but, all in all, it was a typical Socialism, reflecting all SPEW's idiosyncrasies: an anti-Labour version of Labourism, an uncanny fixation on 'bread and butter' issues and a slightly suspicious attitude to anything else.
he Socialism 2007 fringe meeting organised by Hands Off the People of Iran was a short, but lively affair. Around a dozen or so people attended - some independents, but also a couple of Socialist Party members.
Torab Saleth from Workers Left Unity Iran described how in the last five years, there have been ever-growing protests from below - against privatisations, the non-payment of wages, the attacks on working conditions and the repressive nature of the regime. Even those "moderate muslim women" who had organised the famous petition 'One million signatures demanding changes to discriminatory laws' are now in prison, Torab reported. He told the meeting how "totally incomprehensible" it was to him that people like Abbas Edalat from the Socialist Workers Party-backed Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Attacks on Iran should demand that socialists and democrats in Britain do not support the movements for social change in Iran.
Comrade Torab stressed how for "Iranians, the war has already started." Iran's people are suffering under the sanctions and president Ahmadinejad has been able to use the threat of war to "try and solve Iran's endemic crisis and turn on its own people".
Rather controversially, he went on to suggest that if the governments of Iran and the US were to reach some kind of deal, "that would worry us almost more than war, as it would legitimise the crimes that the Iranian regime is committing against its people".
Tina Becker from the CPGB replied that comrade Torab was probably bending the stick a little too far. We should not lose sight of the fact that imperialism is the main enemy of workers and democrats in Britain, America and Iran. Imperialist war, especially if nuclear weapons were to be used, would lead to a massive loss of life. Also, if the US and Iranian governments were forced into a deal by anti-war pressure from below, it could actually be a good thing. But not for a moment should we suspend our support for the struggles of the Iranian people.
Encouragingly, the Socialist Party had sent Jim Smith as an official representative to the meeting. However, his main role was to explain why the SP "does not at the moment officially support Hopi". It's not that the SP has differences with Hopi's politics, comrade Smith explained. "The SP agrees with the platform and wants to distance itself from the 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' approach." At the recent Stop the War Coalition conference, SP comrades had voted against the exclusion of Hopi and Communist Students, he explained. Also, dozens of SP members and councillors have already signed up individually to Hopi, including comrade Smith.
No, the reason the SP currently does not support Hopi is because "it looks a bit too much like a CPGB front. We will send some people to the launch conference, but we want to see first how many workers and other layers support Hopi."
It should worry SP comrades that they are using the same argument that STWC chair and arch-Stalinist Andrew Murray employed to push through Hopi's expulsion. Yes, the CPGB was involved alongside Iranian exile groups in the setting up of Hopi, but it is supported by hundreds of individuals from all sorts of organisations and political persuasions. Among the supporting organisations are the Green Party in England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party.
But even if Hopi was a "CPGB front", the way to change that would be to join it!
SP Welsh secretary Alec Thraves presented a session entitled 'Who were the Bolsheviks?', which focused on their role leading up to and during the October revolution of 1917, and its significance for the working class movement today.
Comrade Thraves spoke of Lenin's call for the creation of an all-Russia Communist Party comprised entirely of revolutionaries and the necessity of removing reformist elements from the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. It did not seem to occur to him that the Socialist Party's promotion of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party and the idea that any new formation should specifically not be revolutionary might perhaps be a little at odds with Lenin's concept.
Comrade Bob Davies of the Communist Party of Great Britain raised the necessity for open criticism within the working class movement - something upheld by the Bolsheviks even in the most adversely hostile of political environments. He also attacked the failure of the current movement to unite around a programme of extreme democracy, instead focusing almost entirely on trade union questions. An SP member stated agreement with the need for democracy, and acknowledged the prominent role this played in the Bolshevik programme, but argued that the current movement must focus on issues the working class can more easily be galvanised around.
Leading member Glen Kelly stated that there is support within the trade union membership for a break from the Labour Party, but an overpaid and unaccountable leadership stand as an obstacle. But what is the membership to break to? Again, quite how this related to Lenin and the Bolsheviks was difficult to grasp. As they claim to stand in the Bolshevik tradition, the question the comrades have to ask themselves is this: when did the Bolsheviks ever argue for unity around an explicitly non-Marxist programme?
The meeting, 'Campaigning to defeat fees', went ahead without the main advertised speaker, National Union of Students president Gemma Tumelty.
In her absence Socialist Student activist and SP member James Kerr highlighted both the implications of tuition fees and the current campaign to "defend NUS democracy" from the dramatic inroads proposed by the NUS leadership, including the scrapping of national conference. He cited student protest movements in Chile and France as examples of how the fight should be conducted.
His SP comrade, Ben Robinson, moved on from this general exhortation to militancy to the elevation of a particular tactic almost to a principle: had the national leadership of the NUS called a "mass demonstration", he said, there would have been a "real chance" of defeating the introduction of fees.
Communist Students member Ben Lewis spoke of the need to move beyond the defensive demands on NUS democracy while involving the broad mass of students from below. He said that the fight against fees and the struggle for radical democracy were interlinked, and that we should not aim to court the NUS bureaucracy but set out a programme for a genuinely accountable, recallable and democratic NUS leadership.