The two souls of socialism

Trade union politics was the main dish at Socialism 2010, the Socialist Party's annual school. James Turley reports

It may not be the same kind of large-scale cultural event as the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism school, but Socialism - the annual “weekend of discussion and debate” put on by the SWP’s largest rival, the Socialist Party in England and Wales - is never without interest.

It has to be said that the comrades have a far healthier attitude to actual debate than the SWP, whose Marxism meetings - especially ‘headline’ ones - are generally packed with SWP hacks, always ready to make the same intervention eight times over, and who are specially selected through the speaker slip system. SPEW sometimes likes to confront controversy in the movement, if not in its own ranks, head-on. Tellingly, the SWP’s Unite Against Fascism front was invited to debate the far right with a Socialist Party member, SPEW not being quite so far down the mindless ‘no platform’ rabbit-hole. But a UAF demo organised on the same day apparently meant that nobody was available.

Attendance at Socialism was generally good - SPEW filled the spaces they booked, and both the meetings I attended were packed out, as was - more or less - the main rally in Friends House.

As for the weaknesses, they were indicated in something of a symptomatic silence in the first session I attended, ‘Can the cuts be stopped? What strategy do we need?’ - that is, the failure of John McInally, a PCS union executive member, to declare his Socialist Party membership at any point (nor was he billed as such). Glenn Kelly - advertised as a leading SPEWer - barely thought it worthy of mention. (The third speaker, Steve Hedley of the RMT, at least genuinely is not a SPEW member.) One wonders if, had comrade Kelly not been disgracefully banned from holding office in Unison during the recent witch-hunt, that would have been his billing.

Union-friendly Keynesianism

Starting from the correct position that trade unions are mass organs of the direct class struggle, SPEW proceeds to the incorrect conclusion that in practice the unions are the organs of the class struggle. The ‘strategy we need’ - which was by no means obvious from the off, but rather had to be pieced together from various speakers’ comments - is thus set within the horizons of what the unions can be cajoled into doing at the given moment of struggle.

This was particularly clear in comrade McInally’s opening, which was wholly focused on the affairs of PCS. After the obligatory rundown of the deleterious effects on his members of government policy, it fell to him to push the recent PCS pamphlet, There is an alternative (bit.ly/pcstiaa), which argues against the cuts and for an alternative of large-scale public investment.

It is worth looking at this in some more detail. After reciting the common (and quite correct) argument that the present level of state debt is relatively small compared both to this country’s history and other major imperialist countries at the present time, we get to the demands - investment in a million “climate jobs”, in “housing, renewable energy and public transport”, for a start; building affordable housing for the five million people on the council house waiting list; and so forth (p6).

We should also “never forget that it was the banking sector that caused the recession” (no, it was not), and nationalise the banks in a way that takes them under effective public control. Comrade McInally was particularly excited about calls for “tax justice” - in effect, somewhat modest proposals for progressive taxation, along with the much talked-about ‘Robin Hood’ tax on global financial transactions and clampdowns on tax evasion and avoidance. Finally, the PCS call for a couple of cuts of its own - Trident and the war in Afghanistan (agreed).

This, as is pretty obvious, is a Keynesian programme. That is not just my assessment, by the way - McInally was quite comfortable to describe the PCS pamphlet as Keynesian. In his opening, Steve Hedley complimented it as a good bit of “reformism”, achievable under capitalism - an assessment repeated at the later rally by Peter Taaffe, with the caveat that this reformist shopping list had the character of a “transitional” demand in current circumstances (McInally seemed to be fumbling towards this assessment, without using the T-word). Left critics of the Socialist Party have often accused it of talking up Marxism while quietly propagating left-reformist politics. Now it does it openly. Union-friendly Keynesianism and ‘revolutionary’ Marxism - the two souls of SPEW.

It is worth taking apart this “transitional” character. The genesis of this term, as readers will know, is Trotsky’s 1938 programme, The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International. This consists largely of demands of a basically defensive character that, in spite of their apparent modesty, could, Trotsky believed, not be met by capitalism in that period. They were thus liable - if pushed with enough force by a big enough section of the working class - to spill over into revolution.

Of course, contrary to Trotsky’s assertions, capitalism survived the war - indeed, the very shift to a war economy rendered large parts of the economic programme irrelevant, such as the sliding scale of hours. Nevertheless, it is rather difficult to argue simultaneously that the demand for tax justice is achievable under capitalism and that it is a transitional demand apt to turn a situation of discord into a revolutionary situation. Transitional to what, comrades?

‘Take the Liverpool road!’

The other prong of revolutionary strategy according to SPEW carries on a tradition for which it became (in)famous in its days as the Militant Tendency - municipalism. Local councils should refuse to implement the cuts, but instead mobilise their communities in defiance. Labour figures who implement cuts should be unapologetically shunned. This was the position of comrades Kelly and Hedley - although the latter said that any resultant organisations pulled together should avoid “mad” names like No2EU, which “sounds like Ukip’s little brother”. (The room winced - of all the people to utter that line, an RMT regional organiser was possibly the most discomforting, since SPEW’s involvement in that electoral calamity last year could be put down wholly to RMT involvement.)

Calls were heard repeatedly for councils to “take the Liverpool road” - a reference to the Militant-led Labour council that ran Liverpool, starting around 1983. The Militant’s strategy was simple - illegally set a deficit budget, in defiance of Thatcherite reforms of local government, and demand that the central government make up the shortfall.

The only serious ‘success’ of this strategy - beyond the considerable extension of social provisions in Liverpool, which should be noted - came in 1984, when the government really did pony up £20 million for the subsequent year’s shortfall. At this point the narrative divides into two alternative endings. If you are a true believer in the heroism of the Liverpool 47, this is the proof that central government cuts can be defied, and the blame for the subsequent petering out of the Liverpool ‘red base’ lies wholly with sell-outs elsewhere, when a number of Labour councils previously refusing to set legal budgets caved in.

If you are not, your eyes drift to other great social conflagrations of 1984 - principally the miners’ Great Strike. Militant’s ability to get money out of Thatcher can be put down to the latter’s unwillingness to see a second front open up in that battle - like, for instance, a generalised strike movement or other rebellion in one of the UK’s major cities. In effect, Militant was bought off with small change from the state in the anticipation that it could be dealt with later. Indeed, it was - Thatcher froze Liverpool out, and the Militant leaders of the council (“a Labour council!” thundered witch-hunter Neil Kinnock) responded by adopting the ‘delaying tactic’ of issuing 90-day redundancy notices to all its employees. This finally ended all hopes of council workers launching an all-out strike. The Labour leadership had its chance - Militant was purged.

The Liverpool road never worked. It was a footnote to a more general failure of the workers’ movement to strike back with any kind of unity against, at that point, the most vicious bourgeois attacks of the post-war era. The continuing deification of this council - one would almost confuse it with the Paris Commune - is almost cultishly bizarre, coming from an organisation which normally has at least one foot in reality.

So that is the strategy - attempt to mobilise the unions around admittedly Keynesian ‘alternatives’ to cuts, combined with localist, municipal resistance to them. More detail was forthcoming at the ‘Rally for Socialism’ from Taaffe, SPEW’s leader since its foundation in 1997. First, we should make the call for a TUC demonstration before Christmas, rather than the current date of March 26 next year (comrade Kelly suggested that a march on that date would be a “funeral march” for many of his union brothers and sisters).

If the TUC does not agree to bring the date forward, the three big ‘left’ unions (PCS, RMT and FBU) should call a demo anyway. This should be used as a platform to call for a one-day public sector general strike, which in turn is a platform for a one-day general strike proper. Beyond that, the picture increasingly fades into obscurity - longer strikes, and then ... silence. “We have the strategy,” thundered Taaffe. “We have the ideas.” Comrades can judge for themselves.

There were a few other points of interest from the rally: Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, began his speech with a defence of his union’s decision to call off London-wide strike action last weekend, which took the form of an extremely bitter and ill-tempered outburst directed at unnamed “so-called left bloggers” - “What mass pickets have you ever organised?” he whined petulantly, to thunderous applause from the assembled throng. I do not claim to know if it was a good move - Wrack’s demeanour, along with cryptic weasel words from a number of SPEW comrades present, certainly do not fill the heart with confidence.

Cindy Sheehan, a noted American anti-war activist, injected a certain amount of humour into the proceedings, which was welcome. It is interesting to note that in her case, half a decade of disillusionment with the Democratic Party has issued in, for once, a marked shift to the left - she plans to stand for president on a socialist ticket, and dismissed usual American fulminations about the ‘middle class’ with an explicitly working class orientation - in America, she said, there is only the working class and the looking-for-work class.


One factor almost entirely absent from the strategic discussions I attended was the approach to Labour. SPEW appears happy to approach Labour figures on a ‘suck it and see’ basis, council by council, MP by MP, without any strategic view of overcoming Labourism.

The poverty of this view came to the fore in a session entitled ‘Can we build a new workers’ party while Labour is in opposition? Will Labour move left?’ - a debate between former Militant MP Dave Nellist and Pete Firmin from the Labour Representation Committee. After the usual laundry list of complaints about Labour government attacks, and the assertion that the structural changes in the party made it impossible even to bring socialist politics to conference, comrade Nellist claimed that a new workers’ party could be built - not by “bolting existing left groups together”, but by winning leadership of the “hundreds” of campaigns the cuts will provoke.

Comrade Firmin responded relatively sensibly, pointing out that Labour had never been socialist or a vehicle for socialism. He observed that, even after 13 years of reactionary Labour government, the SPEW-supported Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was only able to garner an utterly pitiful share of the vote. Working class voters went back to Labour to keep the Tories out. Like it or not, he argued, the Labour Party still is a pole of attraction to those opposed to the government. He also made a fundamentally important point - it was the union tops that supported New Labour. They brought Blair to power, they eagerly gutted Labour conference. There was no “Chinese wall” between the two, as the SPEW comrades imagined.

The debate was extremely repetitive - a whole series of SPEW members from different branches brought tales of the perfidy of local Labour administrations. Rhondda Cynon Taf in South Wales came under attack no less than three times for issuing redundancy notices to its entire workforce, forcing all its workers to sign new and far more punitive contracts if they wish to continue in their jobs. (Shades, dare one say it, of Liverpool 1985?) How could comrade Firmin expect the good people of Rhondda Cynon Taf to flock back to Labour?

Only two contributions rubbed against this blank-faced denialism. One comrade argued that the recent Labour government had delivered concessions, however imperfect, on disability rights. Ed Maltby of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty suggested that the goal of a new workers’ party was not counterposed to working to some extent with Labour. Throughout his intervention, a number of comrades in my corner of the room, unfortunately including Peter Taaffe, muttered and sniggered - until the moment when the brave comrade Maltby dared to suggest that Liverpool council ultimately lost, whereupon there was a shocked intake of breath followed by hisses of disapproval.

In summing up, Firmin made another important point - because he did not believe the Labour Party was ever socialist, unlike Militant/SPEW, he did not have to make any wrenching theoretical gymnastics to account for cyclical mutations in Labour politics.

Indeed, SPEW has never had a correct conception of the Labour Party. Alas, we can project that it will remain in a state of confusion on the matter for some time.