No road to a mass workers' party

Peter Manson reviews Peter Taaffe's Socialism and left unity Socialist Publications, London 2008, pp112, £6

At a time when the Socialist Party in England and Wales is embroiled in controversy over its uncritical participation in the left nationalist ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ platform to contest the June 4 European Union elections, it is worthwhile looking a little more closely at SPEW’s politics.

This pamphlet, published in November 2008, and written by the organisation’s general secretary, Peter Taaffe, provides us with a suitable opportunity. Subtitled A critique of the Socialist Workers Party, it aims to demonstrate that, while the SWP is opportunist and sectarian to the core, SPEW is the very epitome of Marxist principle. The book is full of unsubstantiated assertions to this effect: for example, SPEW, like the Militant Tendency before it, “implacably defended a Marxist programme, sometimes against the left” (p35), while in Ireland “only the Socialist Party there has taken a consistent, non-sectarian, class standpoint” (p49).

The book begins by reminding readers that “The Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are the two largest organisations on the ‘Marxist left’ in Britain” (p1). True, but why has comrade Taaffe chosen to write about it now? After all, SPEW is not a group renowned for its polemics against its left rivals - the SWP, because of its size, being only a partial exception.

The answer lies in the positioning of the two organisations at this time. While SPEW has managed to recruit a new layer, particularly among youth, the SWP has lost both members and standing following the disastrous Respect episode. Unlike Respect, which initially met with a degree of success, including electorally, SPEW’s main strategic initiative, the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, has failed to make any impact whatsoever. But at least the moribund nature of the CNWP has meant an absence of any great difficulties for SPEW - if like Respect in the early days it had begun to make gains, its opportunist contradictions would have been sure to provoke internal strains.

Comrade Taaffe’s idea is to take advantage of the SWP’s post-Respect difficulties and political confusion (for instance, its ridiculous assertion that there is no space for the left to contest elections at this time) in order to re-establish his own tendency as the largest and hopefully hegemonic group on the “Marxist left”.

So he starts by paying the SWP a back-handed compliment - by comparing it to the pre-war CPGB: “Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1930s that if the Communist Party … had not existed in Britain then the revolutionary movement would have been immeasurably stronger …. Unfortunately, on a smaller scale, the same conclusion can be drawn from the role of the SWP in the 1990s and since.” The SWP has had “a disproportionate effect in acting as an obstacle to the necessary crystallisation of a new, left, guiding socialist and Marxist layer” (pv).

In my opinion, this statement is too bald and one-sided. It is true that all the left groups - including SPEW, obviously - are part of the problem. But they are also potentially part of the answer. On the one hand, they identify capitalism as the main enemy and working class organisation as the solution, constantly attracting new activists and thus the raw material for a revolutionary party; on the other hand, their opportunist accommodation to the influence of capital in the workers’ movement - in particular Labourism and nationalism - and their sectarian inability to unite in a single party ensure that, time after time, opportunities come and go and the talents and commitment of working class militants are largely wasted.

It has to be said that the ‘official’ CPGB played a similarly contradictory role (albeit, as comrade Taaffe points out, on a bigger scale). In addition the CPGB provides us with a more positive lesson: after its foundation in 1920, it united into one party all the most important left groups, which previously had been separated into impotent, squabbling sects.

Left unity

There is therefore one thing about this pamphlet that must be welcomed - the fact that it poses left unity as something desirable (I will not say necessary), if only in the abstract.

Comrade Taaffe points out that “in a period when the left in general has been weakened … there are many who argue, ‘Why can’t you forget your differences and combine to unite yourselves and the left in a real alternative?’” (p1). But, despite the cover title, his priority seems to be to establish that such unity is just not possible right now. In fact he makes no concrete proposals at all to achieve it.

He claims: “We are prepared to unify our forces in practice with all genuine Marxist organisations on an agreed, principled basis.” But he immediately goes on to negate this claim: “We will not, however, jeopardise the work of our members or supporters that we have built up in unprincipled amalgamations, in which the approach of organisations differ so widely as to produce paralysis” (p99).

In other words, unity is “unprincipled” whenever “the approach of organisations differ … widely”. What is meant by this is spelled out in the section of the pamphlet entitled:‘Party and internal regime’: “If you are in ‘permanent opposition’, which is what a ‘permanent faction’ means, why then remain within a party? Sometimes, it is better for a separation to take place in order that different ideas, programmes and tactics can be tested out before audiences of workers and young people” (p98).

So in general a single party ought not to contain those who advocate different ideas, different programmatic proposals or even different tactics? If we are serious about a the need for a single, democratic, mass revolutionary party, then we have to accept that such differences will be inevitable within it. It is a sign of a party’s good health that it not only tolerates, but encourages, the open expression of contesting ideas. Why can’t such ideas be “tested out before audiences of workers and young people” within the same organisation? I will return to the question of party democracy later.

Obviously, though, if you start off from the premise that organisations which are at present pursuing different tactics are better off remaining apart, it is pointless to even talk about left unity. And it is in this context that we should view comrade Taaffe’s account of previous rapprochement proposals between, on the one hand, the International Socialists/SWP and, on the other, Militant/Socialist Party:

“On two occasions in the 1980s, the SWP wrote open letters to Militant - at the height of our influence - requesting discussions with a ‘view to unity’. We never took up those invitations at that stage because the differences were too great. When the situation changed in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism, we approached the SWP and many other groups with a view to discussions in order to clarify ideas in the changed situation and the way forward. However, we and others were met with a brick wall; the SWP was bristling with confidence and not a little arrogance, clearly believing they represented the ‘future’ of the left. However, events compelled them to discuss with others on the left, including us, towards the end of the 1990s” (p37).

What this demonstrates is the lack of seriousness about unity on the part of both the SWP and especially SPEW. Note that comrade Taaffe admits that Militant did not even bother to enter discussions with the SWP in the 1980s because unspecified “differences” were “too great”. And what was it about the “collapse of Stalinism” that made those differences less significant? (Or was Militant now closer politically to the SWP by then?)

The truth is, what has characterised both organisations is their lack of sincerity about rapprochement proposals. The side calling for discussions has usually been the one hoping to gain an advantage from making the call - with the intention of knocking the other off guard and impressing third parties by their ‘willingness to compromise’.

Having said that, though, I am not sure comrade Taaffe is correct when he claims that “events compelled” the SWP to adopt a different attitude at the end of the 90s. Which “events” does he mean? Why did the SWP suddenly drop its overt hostility to other left groups and throw its weight, resources and comrades into the Socialist Alliance?

Socialist Alliance

In fact Taaffe’s description of the Socialist Alliance period is wholly dishonest. We are meant to believe that, while the SWP constantly manoeuvred in order to promote the SWP alone, SPEW was whiter than white - never swayed by narrow sectarianism and always putting the interests of the whole first. That is not quite how I remember it.

Comrade Taaffe states that, from the start, the SWP “sought to establish a narrow organisational dominance within the Socialist Alliance” (p2). Yet it was the SWP that proposed that each of the six “principal supporting organisations” (in addition to the SWP and SPEW, the CPGB, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, International Socialist Group and Workers Power) should have equal representation on the leadership and readily agreed that all should have candidates in the 2001 general election. It was the SWP that proposed a ‘compromise’ that actually conceded all SPEW’s demands in relation to the election - SPEW could contest all the constituencies it claimed were its by right and, what is more, agreed to the SPEW insistence that, unlike every other SA component, it would campaign exclusively on its own Socialist Party platform, not that of the SA.

I do not know why, for this brief period, the SWP decided to cooperate with other left groups. Perhaps the leadership believed it could incorporate some of their members or even leaders, or would at least develop and extend its hegemony over the whole left by this tactic. While we criticised the SWP’s frequent heavy-handedness, we also welcomed its decision to participate in the Socialist Alliance. It was the SWP that made the SA real and objectively opened up the way to party unity.

Taaffe writes: “It was not just ourselves, but other independent campaigners who opposed Labour on the electoral front, who [the SWP] tried to dismiss out of hand; for instance, the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, which stood in the 2000 Greater London Assembly elections” (p38).

He is referring to the fact that the London Socialist Alliance, the forerunner of the nationally established SA, had already agreed to contest the assembly, when CATP announced, without even consulting the LSA, that it too would stand. SPEW insisted that CATP, just like No2EU in 2008, was a section of organised workers willing to oppose New Labour in an election and that it was the duty of the left not simply to forego its own election campaign, but to wholeheartedly support this potential break from Labour.

At least No2EU is officially backed by the RMT union nationally, with its general secretary, Bob Crow, acting as convenor and figurehead. By contrast CATP was supported by a couple of dozen RMT militants, led by that sectarian of sectarians, Pat Sikorski, of the late and unlamented Fourth International Supporters Caucus. True, CATP was set up by the RMT’s London Transport regional council, but it was run by a handful of lefts who were happy to try and sabotage the first tentative step by the left to a united political and organisational intervention. Most RMT members in London knew next to nothing about CATP and certainly did not go out campaigning for it in the election. While the LSA stood on a full set of (admittedly left social democratic) pro-working class demands, CATP was a single-issue campaign that did not mention ‘workers’ or ‘socialism’.

SPEW had managed to get one of its own comrades onto CATP’s London-wide list, but it also insisted that SP member Ian Page should be the LSA candidate in Lewisham and Greenwich, one of the 13 London constituencies (CATP did not contest any of those seats). In its election material SPEW called for a vote for comrade Page locally and CATP for the ‘London members’ list. Its material did not promote the LSA at all and it was left to the other left groups to produce and distribute official LSA propaganda promoting both comrade Page and the LSA.

Comrade Taaffe states that SPEW’s proposals to “develop the existing federal form of organisation for the alliance” was “dismissed out of hand” by “the SWP and their allies, most of whom wished to move towards a ‘party-type structure’ as rapidly as possible” (p2).

Another inaccuracy. Only the CPGB consistently proposed that the SA should aim to become a united party based on Marxism. All the others were actually at one with SPEW that ‘at this stage’ organisational unity was not even on the agenda and that all we could do was form an electoral bloc. Worse, they all agreed with SPEW that, far from contesting on our own revolutionary platform, we should pretend to be reformists in order to attract Labourites disgusted with Tony Blair’s New Labour.

Of course, like SPEW they all claimed to favour left unity, but this would require, in Taaffe’s words, a “fairly lengthy period of discussion and clarification”. In the SA this “would best be served by a ‘federal’-type organisation, an idea which had strong historical roots in Britain” (p2).

When he says “strong historical roots” he is clearly referring to the Labour Party. It is certainly not part of the international communist or Bolshevik tradition to advocate a “‘federal’-type” political organisation. But it is no accident that SPEW advocated a Labour Party-type structure for the alliance: as we shall see, it views the establishment of a Labour Party mark two as the main strategic question.

Perhaps the biggest example of comrade Taaffe’s dishonesty in relation to the SA is the following paragraph: “The closed character of the alliance, which became clearer and clearer in the aftermath of the 2001 general election, made it impossible for genuine socialists to continue to participate within it … We were forced out by the decision of the SWP to use its numerical support to impose a ‘centralised’ approach in place of the federal approach which existed, particularly over who would be candidates at local level. Under their proposals local autonomy completely disappeared. True, a few ‘independents’ would be allowed to stand, but this was at the ‘grace and favour’ of the SWP …” (p42).

In fact this paragraph contains lie after lie. SPEW was not “forced out” of the alliance. It walked. SPEW objected to the passing of the constitution proposed by the SWP at the December 2001 SA conference which established it as a national membership-based organisation. Yes, this was necessarily a “centralised” approach, but not in itself an example of SWP control-freakery. Far from this constitution making it impossible for “genuine socialists” to remain in the alliance, only SPEW left at that time - I cannot even recall any of the dozens of ‘independents’ (those not belonging to any ‘supporting organisation’) joining the SPEW protest.

And “local autonomy completely disappeared”, did it? In fact there was no difference whatsoever in the way the SA operated before and after the 2001 conference. Local SAs still took their own decisions, including whether and where they would contest elections and who their candidate would be.

What the conference did was decisively reject SPEW’s federalist approach, where, in Taaffe’s words in local SAs “each organisation had no more than one vote” (p56). Under these proposals majorities and minorities counted for nothing. If you were a member of a group you would effectively be disenfranchised - only one of your comrades could have a say. What was that about democracy? And comrade Taaffe does not mention that the SP supported a constitution whereby each organisation would have the right to veto proposals it disapproved of.

It is true that the SWP soon tired of working with the other groups and its control-freakery eventually got the better of its original policy of cooperation. But the SWP should be criticised for its actual faults, not for what SPEW imagined - or pretended - was going on. The SWP’s biggest crime was in failing to carry through the partyist logic of the alliance and abandoning the whole project (in order to further water down its professed revolutionary socialism in Respect), not in forcing a new party on the rest of us, as SPEW claimed at the time.

The dissimulation continues with Respect. Again, instead of highlighting the SWP’s real opportunism, comrade Taaffe tells more lies: “… if there had been some leeway for participation, with freedom to politically operate within Respect, it may have been possible for the collaboration of the Socialist Party and others to have been obtained” (p44).

The problem with this is that, while Respect was hardly the finest example of participatory democracy, there was “freedom to politically operate” within it. We know there was - we in the CPGB did operate within it. Unlike in the SA (especially at first), the SWP made it clear it did not want us there. Its comrades blocked against us, preventing most of our comrades being elected as conference delegates and so on, but they rarely stopped us speaking at meetings and never stopped us selling the Weekly Worker.

As if to illustrate the point, one of the most noticeable thing about Taaffe’s section on Respect is that a good part of was clearly cribbed from the Weekly Worker. On p52 he even directly quotes my interview with Sajid Mehmood, the Respect candidate who previously was a Tory! (Weekly Worker April 19 2007). It goes without saying that the quotation he copies is not referenced.

What sort of party?

As I have pointed out, the fact that SPEW advocated a Labour Party-type structure for the SA was not unconnected to its desire to work for the birth of a Labour Party-type organisation, which is a constant thread throughout this pamphlet.

For example, in the preface comrade Taaffe says that his pamphlet is meant to be “a critique of what we believe are wrong methods in general, which in the crucial task of forging a new Marxist force can be a barrier to building a new mass workers’ left party in Britain” (pv). What do these words mean? Surely that the prime purpose of creating a “new Marxist force” is to aid the process of “building a new mass workers’ left party in Britain”.

In case you think I am reading things into what is a badly worded formulation (this pamphlet contains a good number of those!), here is the same idea expressed at the very end of the book: “We appeal to all those who have read and agree with our analysis and programme to join the ranks of the Socialist Party and the CWI. A strong Marxist left is vital, providing the ideological backbone to any new formation that will arise in Britain” (p100).

In this final section comrade Taaffe pays lip service to the idea of Marxist unity - only to reject it in practice. Instead, he concludes: “… what we can do today is to bloc with genuine socialist forces with their roots in the working class and the labour movement in the task of preparing the basis for a new, mass left party in Britain” (pp99-100).

In other words, it really is a waste of time for revolutionaries to unite. A mass revolutionary party is just not on the cards. They might as well remain in their separate organisations and concentrate on providing the “ideological backbone” for a Labour Party mark two. Although why reformists need ‘Marxists’ like the SPEW comrades to advise them on how best to construct another Labour Party is unclear. They seemed to manage well enough the first time around to create their “‘federal’-type organisation”, which, as we know, is “an idea which had strong historical roots in Britain”.

Right now SPEW is doing all it can to encourage Bob Crow to call for a “new, mass left party in Britain”. If he eventually does so, all this keeping quiet about No2EU’s blatant nationalism will have been worth it, won’t it? And SPEW will provide comrade Crow with the foot soldiers he needs for his new “federal” party, in which the ‘revolutionaries’ will be free to operate. The problem is, history has demonstrated that they will only be free to operate if they behave like reformists themselves. Trade union bureaucrats and respectable left politicians will only tolerate them if they behave. And as genuine revolutionaries tend not to behave, reformist politicians cannot afford the luxury of a democratic regime.

In other words, SPEW’s whole strategy is no strategy at all. But that does not stop Taaffe appealing to Marx and Engels for retrospective approval. They “strove to create the conditions for the formation of a mass party of the working class, even if in the first instance it was not to be formed with a clear, revolutionary policy” (p79).

But Marx and Engels never aimed for a halfway house. As non-sectarian communists have done ever since, they were prepared to work within all kinds of formations. But they never ceased advocating working class independence, working class democracy and working class internationalism - the very opposite of what union bureaucrats and national reformists stand for.

Party democracy

In many ways, comrade Taaffe’s ‘Party and internal regime’ section is the most interesting of the pamphlet. In fact he comes very close to advocating a democratic party regime - with one major exception, as we will see.

If appearances are anything to by, comrade Taaffe seems to favour something approaching the genuine version of democratic centralism, where minorities have freedom to criticise and form factions: “Lenin was confronted through virtually the entire history of his organisation with groups, tendencies and factions which disputed and argued against his ideas … The special circumstances in which the Bolshevik Party worked - it was forced to operate throughout most of its existence in the underground - has led to an entirely one-sided view … of Lenin’s ideas on ‘democratic centralism’ … workers could … confuse and conflate the idea of ‘democratic centralism’ with the ‘bureaucratic centralist’ ideas of Stalinism and its offshoots”. That is where the “roots of the mistaken approach of the SWP on this issue lie …” (p91).

On the right to form factions, he states: “While it is sometimes advisable that factions be wound up once the issues under dispute have been settled or pushed to the sidelines, it nevertheless cannot be achieved by fiat of the leadership from above” (p92). And again: “… while ‘permanent factions’ may be undesirable, at the same time they cannot be ‘prohibited’, either in a rigid ‘constitution’ or by edict of an ‘infallible’ leadership” (p98).

I confess I do not understand comrade Taaffe’s strange use of quotation marks, but I agree with the sentiment here. However, there appears to be a degree of contradiction when he writes: “Of course, permanent ‘factions’ - on the pattern of the LCR in France - are not a ‘good thing’ in a revolutionary organisation” (p97). And, as we have seen, he adds: “Sometimes, it is better for a separation to take place in order that different ideas, programmes and tactics can be tested out before audiences of workers and young people” (p98).

On one level it is true that factions (permanent or otherwise) are not a “good thing”. It would be far better if everyone agreed on just about everything and never felt the need to organise for an alternative policy or even leadership. But I profoundly disagree that “Sometimes, it is better for a separation to take place”. That is actually a ‘worse thing’ than the “permanent factions” of the former Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (now dissolved into the New Anti-Capitalist Party).

The history of the revolutionary left is littered with totally unnecessary splits, which have resulted from the inability to contain differences within a single party. It is precisely the ban on factions - or, in comrade Taaffe’s case, the strong discouragement of them - that has been the problem.

However, for Taaffe all this is pretty much academic, since he fails to see the central importance of a single revolutionary party in practice. For him the all-important role of Marxists is to provide the “ideological backbone” for a reformist halfway house.

I mentioned the major exception. This relates to openness - it is not only essential that minorities have the right to criticise, but in general the right to express those criticisms openly, in front of the class. That does not apply in the Socialist Party or its ‘international’, the Committee for a Workers’ International.

Comrade Taaffe refers to the “abundance of internal material on disputed issues issued by the CWI in the 1990s” (my emphasis). True, he says that during the dispute over the changing of the name of the party from ‘Militant Labour’ to ‘Socialist Party’ “The internal written discussion was circulated not just in Britain but internationally, and not just in our ranks” (p93) - the Australian Democratic Socialist Party complained that there was too much for it to take in. But giving a particular set of documents to a particular group is not the same as making them generally available as a matter of course.

Comrade Taaffe writes: “We also faced internal political conflicts … In fact we faced splits and defections. The documents relating to these disputes have all been published openly (see Marxism.net). This was done in order to allow anyone in the labour movement, particularly the left and the new generation of socialists, to examine the different standpoints within the CWI …” (p96).

Those old debates can certainly be accessed at the CWI “Marxist resource” website (whose address is actually www.Marxist.net - not the one he gives). But what about current debates? Since when does The Socialist or Socialism Today even hint that there are differences within SPEW on a given question?

Take its support for No2EU. We know that a section of the membership, including on the leadership, is more than a little unhappy with this overtly left nationalist turn. But where can “anyone in the labour movement” read about the minority’s objections? What is the point of learning about them months or years later? Surely the best way to educate a “new generation of socialists” is actively, enabling workers - not just those who happen to be members of your own group - to take sides in debates that are actually raging now.

SPEW’s ‘socialism’

As I have made clear, the CPGB favours the unity of all Marxists in a single democratic party, able to incorporate many publicly expressed viewpoints. However, that does not mean we favour an ideological truce - we are for ongoing open polemic as the best way to settle our differences.

We accept, therefore, that Marxist organisational unity will require a “fairly lengthy period of discussion and clarification” in order to defeat the opportunism that currently affects groups that claim to be Marxist. Unity will also require acceptance of some basic principles - for example, the centrality of democracy, which is crucial to the Marxist understanding of socialism.

Yet SPEW’s concept of socialism is not based first and foremost on workers’ democracy. In relation to the former Soviet Union Taaffe states: “The criteria [sic] for Marxists in the class character of a regime is ultimately determined by the forms and ownership of the productive forces … upon which the state is constructed” (p6). So “class character” is decided not by the control and active participation of millions, but by formal ownership status.

He goes on: “… in the transition from capitalism to the beginning of socialism … a nationalised economy would be the only possible foundation of a workers’ state” (p6). Which leads him, by a strange inversion of logic, to conclude that the nationalised ‘form of ownership’ in the USSR and eastern Europe - “what was progressive in these states” (p8) - was necessarily socialistic.

In reality this leads comrade Taaffe and the Socialist Party to elevate the state and the “nationalised economy” above working class self-empowerment itself. This is clearly demonstrated in his comment on the economic crisis and the government’s Keynesian response: “State intervention by capitalism to ‘save their system’ rehabilitates the idea of the state solving workers’ problems” (piii).

And that is good? What about the idea of workers solving their own problems (including through control of the state)?

In my opinion party unity with the current SPEW leadership would necessitate a very “lengthy period of discussion and clarification” indeed.