Floundering SWP refuses to learn

There was one obvious and yawning gap in the programme of the Socialist Workers Party's annual summer school. Peter Manson reports on the leadership's attempts at damage limitation after the Respect disaster

Any honest and democratic Marxist group would have gone out of its way to prominently feature such a significant event as Respect’s demise. How else can lessons be learnt? But not the SWP. The word did not even appear in the programme of Marxism 2008.

What about the Left List, the name under which the SWP’s wing of Respect was forced to stand in the May 1 elections, and which had been rebaptised ‘The Left Alternative’ just a week before Marxism? True, there was a Left List/Left Alternative stall, but the fact that the SWP has decided to wind this ‘united front’ down and let it die a natural death went unspoken.

At the poorly attended Left List national council meeting on June 28, it had been SWP leader John Rees who gave the main report - and laid down the leadership line. Although things are “very favourable” for building a left organisation, he said, there were “subjective” difficulties - all left candidates had got bad results in the May 1 elections and this was likely to remain the case in the immediate future.

Nevertheless, comrade Rees was not about to recommend that the Left List, as an ‘electoral united front’, should simply cease to exist. What would happen to the sliver of non-SWP members that joined the anti-Galloway split? It was important to try to continue working alongside them. Therefore the Left List would limp on with a (barely) functioning website and fortnightly email newsletter.

Local branches should no longer attempt to put on events under their own name. Instead, they should “organise big public meetings with speakers from different political parties, trade unions and campaigns”. The Left List would, with very few exceptions such as Preston, no longer contest elections, and membership subscriptions would be reduced in line with the organisation’s new token existence.

What was needed, said comrade Rees, was a return to Respect’s roots - “the movements”. All members and supporters should be encouraged to get “fully involved” in campaigns for health, education and housing, against the war and against the BNP. A “new, much bigger left party” would arise from such campaigns and the Left List “wants to be part of this process”.

After all this, the name was a secondary issue. At first the choice seemed to be between sticking with ‘Left List’ or switching to ‘Left Party’, ‘The Left’ or ‘Left Alliance’. Then a non-SWP member suggested ‘The Left Alternative’ and in the end this was the name that was voted for, just ahead of ‘Left Alliance’. In formal terms the new name is supposed to be ratified at the November conference, but the SWP thought there was little point in waiting for a conference that may never happen - it went right ahead and implemented the change in any case.

If the conference does take place, the plan is for ‘delegates’ to “share experiences” about the campaigns they have been involved in rather than debating pointless motions.

This, then, is the reality. The SWP’s Respect misadventure has ended in ignominy. It seems likely that John Rees himself - who insisted the Left List should contest the London assembly elections despite warnings on the political committee that the results would be humiliating - has had his line overturned. No wonder the leadership did not want to talk about any of this at Marxism.

However, it would have been impossible not to broach the subject at all. It was clear that the rank and file would bring it up if the leaders did not. Indeed Respect and the need to learn lessons was raised from the floor in several sessions. In two of those I attended it was a prime talking point.

Just like Respect

The session, ‘Where next for the left in Europe?’, featured SWP political committee member Alex Callinicos, veteran Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire leader Alain Krivine and Volkhard Mosler of the SWP’s sister grouping in Germany, Linksruck.

Comrade Callinicos himself mentioned the ‘R’ word when he talked about the recent “divergent experiences” in Europe, in which the low point was not represented by the collapse of Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party, he said, but by the entry of Rifondazione Comunista into a centre-left government and the subsequent electoral wipe-out of the left. However, it was Germany that marked the “high”.

Comrade Callinicos recalled how Rifondazione leader Fausto Bertinotti had addressed Marxism five years ago, referring to the fragmentation of the social forum movement. But his response had been to move to the right. This he compared with the alleged reaction of George Galloway to the decline in the anti-war movement: a move to “crush the SWP and the left” in Respect and form “an alliance with businessmen” in order to go forward.

However, the policy of revolutionaries must still be to “bring reformists into common formations” (ie, halfway house parties), while retaining their own “revolutionary socialist identity”. He did not say whether he thought the SWP had done that in Respect, where its policy had been, in the words of John Rees, to “vote against the things we believe in”.

He claimed that this policy (of uniting with reformists in a common party) was exactly what the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was doing with its move to a new anti-capitalist party (ACP): “We in the SWP saw Respect in similar terms.”

Comrade Krivine, the next speaker, did not directly dispute comrade Callinicos’s characterisation of the LCR’s project and he was far too diplomatic to openly refer to any of the disagreements the LCR has with the SWP. But he described the current period as one of the “reconstitution or recomposition of the far left”.

Nevertheless, his message was a contradictory one, since he suggested the proposed ACP would build on “the experience” of the Left Bloc in Portugal and the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark.

The ACP should have three main aspects, he said. Firstly, it must demand an emergency social programme, in response to the “destruction of social acquisitions” the working class has suffered in the current period. The class must pose such demands “without knowing whether the bourgeoisie can afford” them.

Secondly, the ACP must “tell the truth” - the “capitalist system cannot be reformed”. Comrade Krivine added that he knew some people are afraid of the word ‘revolution’ (and it must be said that the LCR itself hesitates to employ it in relation to the ACP’s programme), but that was indeed what was needed, he implied.

Thirdly, the ACP must be “clear on participation in government” - while the LCR was “not against it in principle: that would be stupid” - it was most certainly against entering into any government coalition with social democrats.

The aim was not to create “a second LCR”, said comrade Krivine, and he estimated that around 9,000-10,000 had been participating in the ACP campaign’s 300-400 local committees in preparation for a founding conference in January 2009. While these had drawn in people from the Communist Party, trade unions, the women’s and anti-globalisation movements, there was also a minority which was “not political” - people who, in a political sense, “know nothing”; the sort of people who make comments like “The left today is Besancenot” (comrade Krivine commented that personalities, such as the LCR leader, cannot always be avoided).

From the above description it is clear that the ACP project has many contradictions - it is certainly possible to imagine it being pulled by the pressure of events to the right. But it is equally clear that it is of an entirely different order to the SWP’s overt halfway housism.

Comrade Mosler was clear that Die Linke, whose Frankfurt branch he chairs, is a reformist party - one of a group of striking workers who were recently recruited en bloc typically said: “I have left the SPD to join the SPD.” Nevertheless, there is a “difference between reformism from above and reformism from below” and, what is more, Die Linke leader Oskar Lafontaine was a reformist moving to the left. He had said how it was important for the party not to lose its credibility like others on the left and had quoted Karl Liebknecht: “Down with war!”

Another reason why this sort of “reformism from below” is welcome, according to comrade Mosler, was that, while he conceded the current capitalist crisis is “not so deep” as when Trotsky wrote his Transitional programme, it is possible that the granting of any reform may cause the system real problems: there will be a “class struggle over the programme of reforms”.

Comrade Mosler was pleased to say he was part of a “network of revolutionary Marxists” inside Die Linke, whose job was to “break the limits of parliamentary reformism”. He declared that socialists must “only join the government on the ruins of the capitalist state”.

Step back

Speaking from the floor, John Rees said that in Britain there would be electoral opportunities and future breaks from Labour, but for now the conditions are such that “we have to take a step back”. It was important to understand that we now have to “engage in battles that are not electoral”.

After other interventions from comrades from Poland, France, Italy and Greece, the platform speakers spoke once more. Volkhard Muller stressed that, while Lafontaine was moving to the left, it might be predicted that “He will betray you.” We must “keep up the criticism if he does”, but you can’t say, “Don’t work with people like that.” There were bound to be reformist elements in broad anti-capitalist formations.

Comrade Krivine would still not be drawn into responding to such comments. Would the LCR bow to the right, as the SWP had in Respect? Would it deliberately attempt to make the ACP like Die Linke in order to be attractive to all those reformists? He was not saying. But he did make a welcome call for the European left to work together much more closely.

In his response comrade Callinicos confessed to being “enthusiastic” about the French anti-capitalist party. He thought ‘anti-capitalist’ was a “good term” because it was “ambiguous” - it described a negative, not a positive aim. To “say you’re anti-capitalist is not to sign up to revolution (which he characterised by workers’ councils, dual power and an armed uprising). He went further: ambiguity around the question of reform and revolution is a “good thing”: it is “necessary”.

What an indictment of the SWP’s method. All that can be won to “the revolutionary party” are the ones and twos. But it is possible to trick thousands into an ACP (Ambiguous Callinicos Party?) and fool them into making a revolution when the time is right.

Of course, comrade Callinicos made the usual noises about how the “revolutionary socialists” would be fighting to build whatever broad organisation the SWP next engages in and “win it to our world view” (just like they did in Respect, obviously). He concluded that the project of “building an electoral alternative” remained a “strategic imperative”. But “the problem is, the electoral route is blocked” at this time.

So what should the SWP do instead? “Intervene in the crisis of New Labour and offer a way forward.” One method was through promoting the SWP’s latest wheeze - the ‘People Before Profit Charter’ (a list of 10 points, against cuts, privatisation, war, the BNP, etc). In that way it can hope to “begin to draw together the fragments of the left around broad anti-capitalist demands”. Although a leaflet featuring this charter was handed out at Marxism, it still has not made an appearance on the SWP’s website or even got a mention in Socialist Worker.

Pep talk

John Rees’s session, entitled ‘Strategy and tactics’, was evidently meant as a kind of pep talk after the Respect debacle. Without attempting at all to grapple with current tasks or even establish where the SWP is right now, his presentation was intended to demonstrate that, despite the “setback” (an almost universally employed term to describe the end of the ‘unity coalition’), the SWP had the theoretical adaptability to bounce back.

Comrade Rees began by pointing out that political consciousness is always uneven, which is why there is a difference between workers’ interests and their consciousness of what those interests are. This, he said, dictates “a certain kind of organisation for social change” - one that groups together the conscious minority to “give them the best chance of winning over the majority”. Such an organisation, the “party of a new type”, must act as a “lever to raise the consciousness and combativity of the whole class”.

But how should the party relate to the rest of the class? Well, there were two dangers: sectarianism and liquidationism. For examples of the first phenomenon, SWPers were advised to look at the small groups gathered with their stalls at the back of the Institute of Education (such remarks are always good for cohering the membership around the leadership). The SWP, by contrast, is prepared to work alongside reformists. However, the SWP prides itself on its firm resistance against liquidationism - “the collapsing of the distinct positions of the revolutionary organisation to curry favour with the right”. Obviously the SWP would never be tempted by that.

Comrade Rees did go on to point out, though, that “There are no absolute rules on how to avoid either of these dangers. Even a very good revolutionary organisation will probably succumb at some time.”

If this was not disarming enough, comrade Rees outlined the type of party regime necessary to combat those twin dangers - one that facilitated “internal debate”. Democratic centralism, described by Lenin as “absolute freedom of discussion, followed by absolute unity in action”, was what was needed, he said. There could be no “dictatorship of the leadership”.

Finally, comrade Rees exhorted every comrade to “Think for yourself”.

None of this was intended as an ironic parody - comrade Rees appeared deadly serious and, as far as I can tell, the audience took it that way too. I cannot say for certain whether Rees is simplya dishonest hypocrite or whether he actually believes that the theory he sketched out matches the reality of SWP practice. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere between the two.

SWP mistakes?

If comrade Rees had steered away from the concrete and in particular the Respect disaster, the rank and file had no such inhibitions. It was Respect that dominated the subsequent contributions.

The first speaker from the floor, an SWPer from Scotland, called on the leadership to “explain what happened in Tower Hamlets”. The comrade thought that “charismatic figures” like Galloway and Tommy Sheridan presented opportunities, but there were dangers too. Nevertheless, the SWP “shouldn’t be demoralised, but we should discuss it”.

A second SWPer agreed with the previous comrade, but wanted to know “what we did wrong in Respect”. A third also commented on the “massive setback” and added: “I understand that there are other really, really exciting things happening, but what should we do electorally?” Should the SWP not consider standing as the SWP? There would be no problems with the name and the LCR had shown that it was possible for the left to win a big vote. Labour was so unpopular and even “the fascists” were able to attract a sizable protest vote.

The comrade asked to “hear the arguments against”. But his plea went unanswered.

National secretary Martin Smith was “still glad we went for Respect, no matter how bad it’s been”. He just regretted that no other Labour figures and union leaders had followed the lead of Galloway and Mark Serwotka and added, rather inanely: “Next time I’d prefer to have more with us.”

Comrade Smith revealed that there had been talk of splitting from Galloway at the time of hisCelebrity big brother appearance in 2006 - “Salma at the time wanted to break with him.” But “Did we make mistakes?” he asked. The uninformative answer was: “Maybe we did.”

The problem in Tower Hamlets was that “12 quite weak people” were elected as councillors. “We had to have a socialist contingent [on the council] to hold them and we didn’t quite get there.”

So the lessons learnt by comrade Smith were that the SWP should have recruited more big names and should have got its comrades elected.

In view of the debate, comrade Rees announced he would apply the theory of strategy and tactics to electoral interventions. He told us that he had stood for election in Tower Hamlets “not because I wanted to be a local councillor, but because I knew they needed leadership”. It did not give him any satisfaction that his “prediction” about the quality of the councillors elected had been proved right.

Of course, you could ask, if he knew that those the SWP had promoted and lauded had bad or weak politics, why didn’t it strike comrade Rees at the time that the whole venture was, shall we say, dubious? By this remark he had more or less confirmed what the Weekly Worker had pointed out from the start - the SWP had hoped to ride on the backs of the businessmen’s networks just to get some comrades elected. It knew that nothing progressive would come through the election of its allies.

Comrade Rees next talked about the “timing of the split”. Whereas comrade Callinicos had still been spouting yesterday’s lie about George Galloway’s ‘anti-left witch-hunt’, Rees implied that the SWP had considered splitting over a year earlier: “Should we have dumped Galloway at the time of Big brother?” he asked rhetorically, without bothering to reply to his own question.

However, by last summer the SWP knew it was “going to be subordinated to a much more rightwing organisation”. These were people who did not want to go to Pride or build the trade union conference. In fact, “The independent existence of the SWP was at stake - that’s why we had to split.” You would have thought that comrade Rees might have warned Callinicos that he was going to own up on this to save poor old Alex some embarrassment.

The important thing, said comrade Rees, had been to “retreat in good order” - a phrase used by the Weekly Worker to describe the SWP leadership’s aim at the time. It “would have been easy to go from retreat to rout”.

Despite the loss of a good number of comrades, including some from the leadership itself, you can say that Rees got away with it - he certainly carried the overwhelming majority of his Marxism audience with him. The “project is live”, he promised. We will “find new networks, new alliances”. However, “Don’t rush into an electoral test” at this time - “Results are not good at the moment.” In fact, Rees confessed he found electoral politics “boring” and added: “I would happily dump it if I thought it was the right thing to do”.

How unfortunate the SWP is to have such a leader as John Rees. It has lost many members and seen its influence drastically reduced because of his Respect turn. Now, all he can offer the SWP rank and file is campaigning around the themes contained in his People Before Profit Charter. Clearly the stage is set for further  demoralisation and decomposition.


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