Seeking out a path to the right

Marxism 2010 provided, among the usual array of celebrity guest speakers in the 101 sessions, a chance to gauge the current state of Socialist Workers Party politics, writes James Turley

Much has changed since the Marxism event last year. Principally, we are now under a Tory-Lib Dem government, which is carrying through George Osborne’s promise of a brutal austerity regime, as the aftermath of the banking crisis has taken state form. It’s official: capitalism is in its deepest economic crisis since the 1930s.

But what of the far left? How has it responded, how has its message been received? Well, non-Labour left candidates generally had an execrable showing in the recent general election, and even the best results (those of Respect) were well short of expectations. The working class, faced with the threat (and now reality) of a bloodthirsty Tory government, failed to flock back to Labour in enough numbers to save Gordon Brown as prime minister.

The SWP’s response was made clear in a meeting led by central committee member and ‘red professor’ Alex Callinicos. He placed the election - correctly - in the context of the crisis, quoting the dissident Keynesian economist, Paul Krugman, to the effect that this has all the makings of a third depression (after the 1929-39 crash and the long depression of 1873-96).

Into the breach steps the new Tory-Lib Dem government, committed to apparently endless rounds of public sector cuts. It has become an SWP mantra, he said, to call the coalition “weak and nasty” - he wanted to concentrate on the “nasty” side of things, and indeed seemed to beat a retreat from the notion that it was particularly weak. Cameron had done a masterful job negotiating the settlement with the Lib Dems, which holds the latter completely over the barrel, while using them as a bulwark against the loony right of his own party.

As for the nastiness, it was spelled out quite effectively. In the days of Margaret Thatcher, her economic policies were apparently described as “sado-monetarism” - but Osborne’s emergency budget was even more ambitious in its class hatred: comrade Callinicos called it “sado-monetarism with knobs on”, to much amusement.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party - and Labourism - remains. Labour retains an instinctive appeal to the masses of people by presenting itself as their property. Stan Greenberg, the American pollster who advised Clinton and Blair, was cited to the effect that most people in the country are “centre-left” (except on immigration, predictably), and Cameron has failed to break them from this perspective.

While, in the safety of a Marxism meeting, Callinicos was quite happy to describe the slate of candidates in the present leadership campaign as “a prize collection of losers”, he made it quietly clear that this was not likely to be the tenor of the SWP’s work in the current period. The SWP has to direct its main fire against the cuts, rather than (as in recent years) imperialist wars; for this it will be necessary to throw endless energy into ‘united fronts’, especially the Right to Work campaign (which, despite its unemployment-centric name, has become the generic SWP economic-struggle front organisation).

When we organise demonstrations, he argued, we must have Labour figures and MPs on the platform - and not just the nice, “cuddly” left Labour MPs we have seen on Stop the War rallies (and Marxism timetables). One wonders whether SWP speakers will refer to Diane Abbott or Ed Miliband as a ‘prize loser’ on such panels. Callinicos also called on the unions to lead a national ‘day of action’.

He ended - following an appeal for solidarity with regard to fellow CC members Martin Smith and Weyman Bennett, following their arrest on an anti-fascist demo in Bolton earlier in the year - by noting the presence of many ex-members of the SWP in the hall, imploring them to “come back!” (the whiff of desperation I detected here rather undermined an earlier proclamation that the organisation was “vigorous, spirited and up for a fight”).

The debate was dominated by the army of SWP clones. Martin Smith, prima inter pares on the CC, responding to a naive question about arming the class, noted that if one bullet could have ended capitalism, we’d have done it a hundred years ago. This didn’t stop him from going on to call for a one-day general strike - couldn’t we have done that a hundred years ago too? But I suppose nobody thinks a one-day general strike will end capitalism any more than a single bullet could.

The clone interventions were somewhat illuminating for once. In former years, it was common - whatever the subject - to find Marxism debates padded out with anecdotes about ‘ordinary people’ encountered on stalls or in union meetings, who had had enough of Labour and were crying out for an alternative. This year, such stories ended with the narrator explaining to the audience the organic links Labour has to the trade union and workers’ movement as a whole.

However, the history of the Socialist Workers Party is, among other things, a history of contrasting positions on electoral politics in general and the Labour Party in particular.

It was founded as the Socialist Review Group in 1950, whereupon - in line with the common policy of most small and isolated British Trotskyist organisations at the time - it turned to work in the Labour Party. When the student upturn came with Paris and Vietnam in the 1960s, the International Socialists (as they were by then) turned away from Labour; they have existed independently since that time.

After getting poor electoral results in the 1970s - the SWP was formed in 1977 for the purpose of contesting elections - developed a firm position against standing candidates, on the basis that the electoral game itself was a corrupting influence on socialists. In lieu of any electoral initiatives of its own, the SWP called for Labour votes in general elections as the most working class party on offer.

After the 1997 election, however, things began rapidly to change. Tony Blair became the most unashamedly rightwing Labour prime minister in the party’s history - the demise of the Soviet bloc, and along with it the threat (however illusory) of the spread of ‘communism’, considerably reduced the incentive to make meaningful concessions to the working class; meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced structural changes to British politics, gutting local authorities of their power, as part of her class offensive against the organised working class.

The SWP reacted to this development with a lurch towards dogmatic anti-Labourism, and simultaneously dropped its opposition to standing candidates. The result was a series of ill-fated unity attempts. The Socialist Alliance - to which the SWP were late-comers - united most of the non-Labour left into a force capable at least of standing a large slate of candidates around the country.

Its poor results - perfectly predictable, with our electoral system and our divided, ineffectual left - led the SWP in search of the big time, resulting in the alliance with George Galloway in Respect, with the SA effectively wound up on a unilateral basis by the SWP and its allies to make space for the new unpopular front.

Respect ended - inevitably - in a spectacular split (the non-SWP elements continue to lope onwards, although how long that will last in new political conditions is questionable at best). By the time it participated in this year’s general election, standing a handful of candidates as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the SWP’s heart was not really in it; the membership is raised on the idea that mass work is the be-all and end-all of revolutionary politics, that the important thing is to reach the millions ‘out there’ - somewhere over the rainbow. It is an opportunist fable - but one hard to square with an electoral front cooked up in back rooms with the explicit purpose of keeping unwanted left elements out (CPGB, Workers Power, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty ...), and then sprung on an indifferent and utterly uninvolved working class just weeks in advance of the poll.

Participation in Tusc - an object lesson in how not to mount a left electoral challenge - was balanced by a new (or rather, very old) route to ‘the masses’ - Labour. To its credit, the SWP did not indulge in the kind of wishful thinking typical of the Socialist Party in England and Wales in recent elections; it recognised that the political conditions around this election would see the Labour vote rally and the left vote squeezed. Socialist Worker finally came out with it, calling for a Labour vote in constituencies without a left candidate (February 13).

“Labourism remains,” said Callinicos - and, indeed, some form of engagement with workers under its spell is a necessary part of revolutionary strategy. The SWP, however, has come up with a realignment that simply splices a certain amount of Labour politics into a ready-made political method, which it calls the ‘united front’.

This is not what Lenin, Trotsky and others in the Bolshevik tradition meant by the phrase. For them a united front was a coalition of the whole class, around specific tasks of working class self-defence, in which the communists (and, for that matter, the social democrats) reserve the right to go for the throat in political criticisms of their partners. Unlike the architects of the united front policy, the SWP considers public criticism of partners to be an obstacle to unity, which trumps all other considerations. It does not matter who provides the political lead for a struggle, nor does it matter the political terms in which the struggle is couched, or the range of tactics employed. All these factors can be sacrificed in the name of unity - all that matters is that struggle takes place, and that match-day attendance on a protest is sufficiently impressive.

As such - just as it dragged Respect to the right, in order to placate phantom Muslim allies, and polices the Stop the War Coalition along with Stalinist allies to remove voices critical of reactionary ‘anti-imperialists’ - the SWP politically neuters itself by pursuing this policy. The only politics acceptable to the SWP’s proposed allies in its ‘united front’ against cuts will be watered-down Labourism; the only culture acceptable will be one where these politics, let alone the class warrior credentials of hypocritical Labour apparatchiks, are not up for discussion.

There is nothing wrong in principle with entering into an alliance with such characters, or indeed the Labour Party as such (that was the point of the united front policy in the 1920s, after all) - but our duty then is to hang them out to dry on their equivocations and careerist manoeuvres, not provide left cover for them. The SWP may not be paralysed in reacting to a changed political situation - but it is paralysed by its unwillingness to fight the hegemony of the labour bureaucracy over our movement.