Defend Rees-German and the Left Platform
Peter Manson looks at the organisational moves to pre-empt a full debate, the factional war in the latest Pre-conference Bulletin and the ending of the silence over Jane Loftus
At last, almost three weeks after the Communication Workers Union leadership unanimously called off the postal workers' strike in an abject surrender to Royal Mail and the Labour government, the Socialist Workers Party has broken its silence on the role of Jane Loftus, CWU president and former SWP member.
Everyone knew, virtually from the moment the strike was called off, that comrade Loftus voted for the sell-out and that the SWP central committee immediately called her to account, demanding she reverse her stance and renounce the interim agreement. But the SWP leadership breathed not a word about it - presumably because it thought it more important to retain a relationship with Loftus than issue a public statement to reassure the SWP's confused ranks. Finally, however, Socialist Worker has published a brief statement, headed 'CWU president resigns from SWP' (November 28).
Pointing out that comrade Loftus's backing for the agreement was 'in sharp contradiction with the SWP's position' and had 'caused problems for our members in the union and much wider', the piece reports that members of the CC were unable to persuade her to change her mind: 'She recognised that this brought her into sharp opposition to the party on a very important matter, and resigned from the SWP - although she remains keen to continue working with party members.'
The authors of the central committee document, 'Industrial perspectives', which appears in the second SWP Pre-conference Bulletin (known as the Internal Bulletin or IB), clearly have the Loftus case in mind when they write: 'We should not think that our own comrades are wholly immune to the pressures generated by holding official positions '. Sometimes they buckle '. We have to put in place better mechanisms ' to ensure as far as possible the accountability of comrades in such positions.'
In fact there had been some talk in the SWP of the possibility of a return to the rank-and-filism of the 1960s and 70s, and the time when members were instructed not to stand for official trade union positions, but the 'Industrial perspectives' document purportedly clears this up: 'We still want to contest for union positions, but the main focus is the rank and file.'
However, the central committee is continuing to stress its new perspective - which it insists is totally in opposition to that of the former leadership of John Rees and his Left Platform faction - that working class resistance to the effects of the recession is now the main question: 'We cannot fight the battles of 2009 and 2010 with the methods of 2007 and 2008. We have argued for a long time that more militant tactics (occupations, all-out strikes, walkouts, etc) have a much better chance of being accepted by workers now and our job is to give a lead, not trail behind.'
That is why the leadership is now going all out to build the January 30 2010 Right to Work conference as its most immediate campaigning priority. Comrades Rees, Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and others in the Left Platform counter by accusing the CC of playing down the role of 'united fronts' - not least the Stop the War Coalition, the stronghold of the three Left Platform leaders.
In fact Rees and co have advocated a new 'united front' which will pull in broad forces to mobilise a fightback against job losses and attacks on wages and conditions. But the CC, in another document in IB No2, titled 'Right to work ' the road from Brighton', write: ' ' in the wake of the collapse of Respect and the 'Offu cheque' [in 2007 John Rees accepted on behalf of the SWP front, Organisation For Fighting Unions, a $10,000 donation from a Dubai businessman] many in the party believed we were not in a position to simply kick off what some saw as an 'overarching united front against the recession'.'
So what then is Right to Work? While the CC admits that 'It will not immediately knock aside every other campaign that is attempting to organise opposition to the recession', Right to Work 'can do something that nobody else does. It can bring together a combination of the better parts of the union leaderships, key workers' struggles and the energy of young people and students. We can build a vibrant campaign that centres its activities on building 'solidarity and resistance'.'
Well, perhaps I am missing something, but I really cannot see any substantive differences between the two sides on this issue - although both do their best to manufacture them. In fact it is this rather petty faction fight that dominates IB No2, with all six CC documents directed at cementing the changed line and doing down the Rees faction.
However, while the differences may be petty, the bureaucratic methods used by the CC against its rival are hardly democratic. In this, Martin Smith, Alex Callinicos and co are merely employing the methods used by Rees at the time of the last split - over Respect in 2007. In the run-up to SWP conference, held every year in January, disciplinary action taken against dissidents prevents them fighting their corner and potentially spreading the contagion of debate into the conference itself.
That is why it is vital for healthy forces in the SWP to forthrightly demand an immediate reinstatement of all those who have recently been suspended or expelled and an end to so-called disciplinary action till at least the close of January's conference. Instead of the usual tame rally, the SWP is in urgent need of a full and honest political debate. If it is going to be of any real use to our movement, that must be normalised. In that sense John Rees and the Left Platform should be defended from the organisational campaign being conducted by Martin Smith and the CC. Meanwhile both sides can be politically exposed as thoroughly opportunist, economistic, sectarian, elitist and anti-democratic. The bureaucratic centralist ban on the right of members to form permanent or semi-permanent factions must be ended by conference. Indeed the whole sordid debate between the CC and the Left Platform ought to be held in public. Socialist Worker must be available to more than one faction. That way wider forces can be engaged and educated. It would also help no end for Socialist Worker to open its pages to contributions from other organisations on the revolutionary left. That would strike a powerful blow for partyism and help overcome the rotten tradition of irresponsible split following irresponsible split.
Although the principal leaders of the Left Platform have not been targeted, several of their followers have been hauled before the disputes committee and two - Claire Solomon and Alex Snowdon - have so far been expelled for what appears to be nothing at all. Comrade Solomon was ejected for her role in organising what seems to be a perfectly harmless event at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and comrade Snowdon on a vague charge of 'factionalising' (see 'The fight gets ugly' Weekly Worker November 19). In the meantime Socialist Worker editor and CC member Chris Bambery - who, although he has not signed up to the Left Platform, was regarded as a Rees ally on the previous leadership - is also under fire (see below).
The aim of these dirty tricks appears to be to persuade comrade Rees that his position is hopeless and he might as well jump before he is pushed. While he shows no sign of doing so right now, it seems pretty clear that he has no chance of winning the day in January.
In the meantime he is posing as a staunch defender of party democracy and free and open debate (although readers may recall that last year he thought the CC's democracy commission sop was a step too far). In 'Building the party: the perspectives of the Left Platform' - signed by all the original signatories, but surely penned by comrade Rees himself - we read: 'No-one should feel nervous about putting forward their views for fear of being denounced as factional or, worse still, of facing disciplinary action. The real tradition of Leninism ... is of free and open debate ... '
The row over what the SWP loves to call 'united fronts', centring on Right to Work and the STWC, is instructive.
Comrade Rees contends that the CC response to the crisis is both too economistic (needless to say, he does not use that word) and too narrow. Referring to the likely 'renewed militancy' in the coming period, he writes: 'We thought that it would be thoroughly political and that it would depend for its success on revolutionaries relating to it in a political and not a syndicalist manner.' However, 'relating in a serial fashion to each strike as it arises will neither create a revolutionary leadership in the working class nor allow that class to solve the immediate problems of generalised unemployment, wage reductions and public sector cuts'.
What is needed is 'a broad, united left organisation on a national scale that can deliver solidarity to each dispute as it occurs on a far more effective level than the SWP alone is capable of doing'. So isn't that what the CC's Right to Work campaign is intended to be? No, says comrade Rees, RTW has 'the character of a party front, not a genuine united front'. Why? Because the 'call for the conference was effectively issued by the SWP CC'.
However, the CC has a point when it says the SWP is 'not in a position', following Respect and Offu, to launch something on the scale of the STWC (in other words, the SWP is not trusted). In any case, this is just a question of degree. All of the SWP's 'united fronts' have begun with the organisation itself - often, it is true, alongside a handful of others - making the call for their launch and then running them for the most part.
However, since when were these 'united fronts' aimed at creating 'a revolutionary leadership in the working class'? Think of Respect, Stop the War, the Anti-Nazi League - which of them tried to pull the masses towards the politics of revolution? As everyone knows, the SWP has always insisted that in order to keep them as broad as possible principled socialist politics must be kept out. Its idea - shared by both sides of the current divide - is that the 'revolutionary leadership' already exists in the form of 'the party' and its 'united fronts' are viewed as recruiting vehicles for the SWP itself.
Rees talks about the 'huge credibility' gained by the SWP from the STWC: 'We took this process a step further with the wider project of Respect, which had significant success until its crisis in 2007.' But the reason why even now 'Building the anti-war movement has to be a central priority' is that '21st century capitalism and imperialism are intertwined', so we can expect further military adventures.
For its part, the CC does not disagree: 'The Stop the War Coalition, set up eight years ago, remains a very important united front and the SWP is central to STW groups in towns and colleges up and down the country '. At last year's conference and since, there have been accusations from some of the party's ex-leaders, and most recently from the Left Platform faction, that the SWP is giving up on STW. This has never been true, as comrades who have been leading and building it for eight years can testify' ('Imperialism and building STW').
However, Rees alleges: 'Since 2007 [when he was still the principal leader?], the SWP leadership's attitude to the anti-war movement has been equivocal'. Today it is 'patchy and in some places very inconsistent'. So 'For two of the critical weeks before the national demonstration against the war in Afghanistan the paper carried, in one issue, nothing on the war and, in the second issue, only one short article'. He argues that the 'very successful demonstration of 10,000-plus on October 24' happened despite the fact that 'Many of our stronger areas did not mobilise large numbers of SWP members or put on their usual levels of transport', while 'Party Notes in September instructed colleges to send only one comrade per university to the Stop the War conference.'
Eight Tyneside supporters of the Left Platform back this up: 'We have been told directly that we must not build a Stop the War group in Sunderland, and instructed not to do Stop the War activity at Sunderland University. Comrades were discouraged from going to the national demo on October 24.' Their expelled comrade, Alex Snowdon, claims on his blog that Tyneside SWP has now organised an SWP anti-war public meeting on the same evening as a Tyneside Stop the War organisational meeting (luna17activist.blogspot.com).
It does seem that the leadership has not been quite as enthusiastic as previously about mobilising for the STWC and, while this may partly be because RTW is now the priority, there can be little doubt that there is also an anti-Rees element being played out.
Comrade Rees also takes up the argument that 'united front work' has 'pulled us to the right in practice'. But the principled behaviour of people like himself in the STWC has 'always prevented it from becoming a mere 'peace' movement', he claims: 'Our speakers have always made anti-imperialist, not merely 'peace' speeches, and they have always connected the war with wider social and economic issues, as you would expect revolutionaries to do.'
What a joke! You would expect 'revolutionaries' to link the question of war to that of the working class struggle against capital, not spout the kind of classless anti-imperialism, linked to 'better spend the cash on the NHS' arguments, that we have become accustomed to from the likes of Rees and German. The words 'working class', 'socialism' and 'capitalism' have rarely passed their lips on STWC platforms.
As well as the six CC perspectives documents, IB No2 also contains a leadership 'Reply to the 'Left Platform'', written in the style you normally associate with Alex Callinicos. Placing quote marks around 'Left Platform', which he contends is actually a rightwing faction, the author notes that the Left Platform refers to united front work as a 'strategy' in its document, whereas, of course, 'the creation of a united front is a tactic'.
This leads him to a more or less accurate definition of what a united front ought to be. Its purpose is to 'work with and against the reformists and thereby to win, over time, the majority of the working class' (my emphasis). But, you may ask, when has the SWP ever behaved in this way in its 'united fronts'? Did it try to expose the reformism of George Galloway in Respect, of the union leaders and Labourites in the STWC and Unite Against Fascism?
In reality such organisations are without exception popular fronts (or an unpopular front in the case of Respect), where the SWP agrees to drop, or suspend, its revolutionism in order to attract and retain forces to its right. As John Rees himself has noted, popular fronts are defined by the fact that the right wing is allowed to set the agenda, often despite being in a minority.
But for Callinicos, all this is a side issue: 'The truth is that the 'Left Platform' is led by comrades fixated on the recent past' who 'refuse to acknowledge that circumstances have changed. And so they blame their own party for not trying hard enough to recreate the mass movements of a few years ago'. It is a 'combination of nostalgia and personal bitterness'.
State of the party
The CC document 'Building the party' inadvertently exposes the disastrous shape of the SWP.
It begins by continuing the polemic against the Reesites by reminding comrades that 'this is not a perspective based on 'retreating' into party-building. It is one which requires the entire party throwing itself into strengthening our united front work and building the resistance'.
But for the most part this article is pretty much the same as every report on the question of organisation that the leadership has ever published. 'The party' is continuing to make great strides, membership is growing and the circulation of Socialist Worker is still on the up ('on average 9,800 copies of Socialist Worker each week' are sold - an increase of 700 on a year ago - and there are 'over 4,000' subscribers).
Whereas Rees and co conclude from monthly figures reported in Party Notes that membership has declined, the CC assures comrades that 'registered membership' stands at 6,417 as at October 2009, compared to 6,155 the previous October. As we know, however, a 'registered member' is someone who says they want to be a member - ie, has filled in an application form - and a good number of such 'members' are never heard of again.
This is clearly revealed by the bald statement: 'So far this year we have recruited 1,041 members' (which includes 225 students in the autumn term alone). A large number. But you do not have to be a Sherlock Holmes to note the discrepancy - over a thousand new recruits have only produced 260 extra members. What happened to the rest? Or did 700-800 other comrades drop out?
The truth is that very few of these 'registered members' are real. For example, only about half pay any dues at all (although this does not stop the CC from boasting of the recent great improvement - the figure has gone up to 51% - 'an 11% increase on three years ago'). Rather forlornly the CC pleads: '' asking comrades to pay subs is not a secondary question. We have to encourage every member to pay subs.'
But it is not only dues payment that is sorely lacking. What about any sort of commitment? We are not told what percentage of members ever turn up to an SWP event, but the CC reminds its comrades: 'Every person who joins the party should be contacted as soon as possible.' What a good idea. And: 'Every branch should try and encourage members to attend meetings. A text is not enough; we should phone comrades or visit them.'
The Left Platform does not address the central question of membership criteria, but thinks that the situation is bad because of the CC's failure to launch a 'campaign of sustained recruitment'. Apparently the 'areas of the party that have avoided the party-isolationist method' - those that are still 'working in united fronts' - are 'ones that are growing'. They would say that, wouldn't they?
However, comrade Rees has a really exciting proposal to rejuvenate the branches: 'The standard format of theoretical/political discussion followed by practical organising is a barrier to effective intervention.' What is needed are 'activist meetings', where 'current priorities' are 'briefly' outlined by a single speaker, and then everyone gets down to talking about doing things: 'Routine meetings which rush through organising tasks will not appeal to new members and contacts energised by the strikes and movements.'
So people will be more inspired by the prospect of handing out leaflets and staffing a stall than they will by politics? By a theory that arms them with the vision of a new world and the means of achieving it? But the CC actually concurs: the Left Platform's proposals for a 'rearrangement that focuses on activity ' isn't a ridiculous suggestion' - although the problem is, it is unlikely to change much. Too right.
The CC seems to have held back from endorsing the proposals of national committee members John Rose and Mike Simons in IB No1 for further dumbing down Socialist Worker in order to make it more attractive to 'ordinary workers' engaged in resisting attacks brought on by the recession.
In 'Socialist Worker: a turn to the class', the leadership contends that, while there is a 'need for short articles, humour, clarity and much else', a 'high emphasis on theory' ought to be retained.
Also in IB No1 'Anne and Martin (West London)' - who, I commented, appear to be close to the CC (see 'Triumvirate's reorientation faces Left Platform rebellion' Weekly Worker October 29) - held forth on the poor state of SWP branches and duly apportioned the blame to the former Rees-dominated leadership. In IB No2 they turn their attention to Socialist Worker.
In 2004, they write, it 'became simply 'the paper of the movement'. As a result, it published uncritically a great deal of very poor stuff, some of which actually ran counter to our politics ... The newspaper became unreliable, unauthoritative and lightweight, and comrades were actually ashamed of the paper we had to sell every week ...'
They go on: 'The cardinal sin for revolutionaries entering into united fronts ... is to forget their politics, adapt to the movement and to a degree dissolve themselves into it. But that is what the paper did and - worse than this - consciously.'
However, '... five years later the paper is only still recovering'. Despite the 'influence and expertise of a truly excellent team of journalists', there 'still remains an editorial tendency to downplay the role of informing the membership and periphery in favour of blind optimism'.
There is no mistaking the object of their criticism: the editor. This is borne out by the contribution from three Left Platform comrades, including someone called 'Lindsey', who complain about the 'attacks on Chris Bambery, a CC member of long standing, around SW. A letter criticising the paper and calling for his removal as editor appears to have been orchestrated by two full-timers, Joseph Choonara and Rob Owen.' Comrade Choonara has been proposed by the outgoing central committee as part of the 2010 CC slate, which also, strangely enough, contains the name of Chris Bambery.
As well as the factional battle and one or two old-style 'how our branch does things' offerings, IB No2 also has other contributions of note. They include 'Stopping the BNP - do we just contain them?' by 'Andy and Doug (Birmingham)'.
These comrades take issue with 'Ben', who in IB No1 reported how his local Defend Council Housing group refused to admit a former member of the BNP. They provide extensive quotes from Phil Piratin's Our flag stays red to show how the 'official' CPGB in the 1930s worked with current members of the British Union of Fascists, winning them away from the extreme right in the process.
Then there is 'Richard (East Anglia)', who reports the allegation that it was no less than Martin Smith and Weyman Bennett who wanted to drop 'no platform' at an NC meeting, yet at the October party council comrade Bennett seconded the motion reaffirming it. Richard asks: 'Did two CC members deliberately mislead one of the most important of the democratic forums in the party, to score points in what they regard as a faction fight?'
Finally there is a long contribution from 'Graham (Glasgow)', which bizarrely combines support for Workers Power's call for an anti-capitalist party with strong criticism of the SWP's behaviour in Respect (they 'led efforts to block essential socialist demands, such as a worker's wage ', lesbian and gay equality - apparently so-called 'shibboleths'') and the demand for 'a Scottish-based leadership with full authority to act on our national terrain'.
Graham contends: 'It is time for the SWP in Scotland to have become a fully-fledged party within the IST.' This would, after all, be the natural corollary of the outcome of the Scottish day school on the national question, held during the summer, where the SWP in Scotland 'overwhelmingly endorsed voting 'yes' in an independence referendum'.
So can we look forward to the SWP following the example of Militant Labour? Will there be a split between the International Socialist Tendency (Scotland) and the Socialist Workers Party in England and Wales? Unlikely, but it does show to what extent the poison of separatism has affected the opportunist left.
IB No2 can be read on the CPGB website at www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/794/PreconfBulletintwo2009.pdf