Illusion of being a master of strategy

Ben Lewis reviews John Rees 'Strategy and tactics: how the left can unite to transform society' Counterfire, 2010, pp65, £4

This short pamphlet is the first written by former Socialist Workers Party leader John Rees under the aegis of his new organisation, Counterfire. If this project's recent news sheet is anything to go by, Counterfire understands itself as "an organisation of socialists dedicated to building the broadest possible movements of resistance", with the "fundamental transformation of society" as its aim (November 20). This may or may not represent a slight shift away from the initial emphasis on media commentary and news analysis, with Counterfire making itself "available for interviews, commissions and quotes ... sensitive to the needs of 24-hour news").[1] But what its recent propaganda definitely reveals is an organisation attempting to carve out a space for itself in the swathe of competing sects that is today's left.

Thus far the signs are that it is a group fully rooted within the sectarian modus operandi of the left. Like far too many groups, it is keen to portray itself as something emerging fully-formed, pure and ready for battle, rather like Athena from the head of Zeus. There is no mention anywhere that the Counterfire project is actually the post-Socialist Workers Party project of comrades associated with the short-lived SWP faction, the Left Platform, once headed by long-time SWP central committee members like Rees and Lindsey German. So the pamphlet's back-cover blurb introduces comrade Rees as "a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition and the author of The algebra of revolution and Imperialism and resistance" who is "on the editorial board of Counterfire, and writes and presents the Timeline political history series" (on the Iranian regime's Press TV).

Nor, of course, is there any actual explicit accounting for what happened in the SWP, what positive and negative lessons these comrades have taken with them in the decision to add yet another pasting table to the far-left jamboree. Not exactly irrelevant to a pamphlet on tactics and strategy, I would have thought. (In all fairness though, nor has there been any accounting for the split in the SWP either, as shown by the absence of any material on it in the Pre-conference Bulletin.) To the extent that there is any of this at all, it is between the lines or hidden in talk about unnamed "sections of the left". But only the initiated will see the coded defence of the STWC under Rees and German.

No, Rees is out to build his own organisation, to speak to and recruit 'new layers' who will not know, or presumably not want to know, about his past and where he received his political training. Yet in seeking to present himself as something 'new', this pamphlet underlines how Rees falls back on the 'old' - ie, his SWPism.

Yet there are two overriding reasons why it is of interest to the workers' movement as a whole. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, as presently constituted the purportedly revolutionary far left does not currently possess anything like a strategy to unite and organise itself, let alone to organise millions behind its banner and 'transform society'. Anything that attempts to at least partially address the disunity of the left and our current amateurish inefficacy should be taken seriously by us all. Secondly, the Coalition of Resistance, set up on the initiative of Rees, is pulling a lot of different forces behind it as a national anti-cuts campaign.

Comrades Rees and German are looking to model their anti-cuts approach on that of the Stop the War Coalition and the dizzy heights of February 2003. As its November 20 news sheet puts it, "There are no guarantees, but we live in an age of mass movements. If we can build one broad enough and militant enough, then we can see off this government of millionaires."

As we will see, though, despite covering territory as far-ranging as ultra-leftism, the united front, revolutionary organisation and much else besides in its 13 short sections, the pamphlet does not really address the question of how the left can move out of its current impasse and establish itself as a real force - beyond plugging Counterfire, that is. In so doing, it provides us with an odd mixture of SWP dogma, read-between-the-lines polemic with his former SWP comrades, an elitist, manipulative conception of revolution and self-aggrandising or even semi-delusional analogies (the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 and the formation of the Stop the War Coalition are cited as two examples of the crucial factor of "timing" in revolutionary politics).

Party and class

Rees introduces his strategic musings by correctly asserting that, at root, Marxism is a political strategy addressing the question of 'what is to be done'. He refers to Lenin's seminal yet widely misunderstood pamphlet of that name, in which he sketched out his vision for a Russian-wide, revolutionary organisation striving to emulate German Social Democracy under the autocratic conditions of Russian tsarism.

Yet in a fashion similar to Rees's own teacher and SWP founding member, Tony Cliff, comrade Rees understands the Leninist party model, as outlined in What is to be done?, as a "minority" or "vanguard" grouping. Rees explains the logic of this "party of a new type" (p15) by quoting - surprise, surprise - Georg Lukács, for whom 'the party' assumed the status of a semi-deity, the only conscious factor in a successful revolutionary upheaval. For Lukács, and for Rees, "the militant minority must assemble in the form of an organisation" (my emphasis, p16), the need for this being conditioned "by the existence of contradictory consciousness among workers" (p60).

Of course, under present conditions, there is an element of truth to this talk of a "militant minority". If tomorrow the wasteland of sects were to overcome their narrowness and organise a convention to found a genuine Communist Party, this organisation would, at least initially, constitute a "militant minority" of about 10,000-15,000 people at the most. But, especially in these times, a bold revolutionary message, dedicated activism, open discussion and education, a genuine united front approach to Labour and patient work to build roots in working class communities in and beyond the workplace (an expansive press, pubs, social centres, sports clubs, etc) could ensure this situation changed quite quickly. Those 15,000 people pulling in the same partyist direction could rapidly see growth to 150,000, one million and many more.

But if, as comrade Rees himself admits, "revolution is the democratic act of the majority of the working class", the "self-emancipation of the working class", then how do we achieve it? For him, "the core question of revolutionary strategy" is how "an organisation of the militant minority relate[s] to this wider movement" (my emphasis, p17). As we shall see, this involves all manner of small cogs driving larger wheels, the militant minority responding quickly to rapid changes in events so as to give leadership and guidance to 'broad' movements of resistance.

For orthodox Marxism, however, the core question is about the working class majority fashioning itself into a political party. Otherwise, according to Karl Marx at least, the working class "cannot act as a class".[2]

However, is Rees actually still an advocate of a party at all? It is not clear whether this is an aspect of his politics which has been squeezed out in his rather starry-eyed espousal of the "age of mass movements". Perhaps it is a mere oversight that the word 'party' occurs so seldom in the pamphlet. Perhaps it is mere positioning in order to be more appealing to layers of activists wary of the left's so-called 'parties' and their approach.

Yet the reader cannot help but sense a hint of liquidationism. Rees is certainly convinced that there must be an organisation to provide the "best form of continuity between all these different fronts and different phases of struggle" (p33). But he also makes clear that strategy and tactics are "all about finding those organisations, slogans and ideas that counteract conservatism and passivity among workers and encourage them to fight back" (p13), with the enlightened small group pulling the levers behind closed doors, seizing the "key link" (p31), putting the proper amount of energy into the appropriate issues, as and when the situation demands. But this grouping is referred to repeatedly as a "network of activists", "a network of the revolutionary minority" and "a revolutionary network" and hardly at all as a party. The choice of the name, Counterfire, is perhaps also indicative in this regard. It gives the impression of a media network 'countering' the lies and falsehoods of the Murdoch empire rather than an overtly political 'party' like the SWP.

One of Marx's and Engels' major contribution to the workers' movement was to unite socialism with democracy. In doing so they made a clean break with the utopian, elitist and 'educative dictatorship' conceptions of socialism that were predominant in their time. For sure, these movements possessed extremely dedicated activists and minds devoting their talents and energy to ridding the world of sexual inequality, crowned rulers and capitalist exploitation. However, Marx and Engels found that their strategies to supersede capitalism were totally illusory, based as they were on the actions of small minority groups. By organising the working class to win "the battle of democracy" in a majority assault on the capitalist state, Marx and Engels provided a feasible road towards human liberation.

Yet Rees, like so many of our comrades on today's far left, does not appear to start from such a premise. Fully in Tony Cliff mode, he almost takes the left's current minority status for granted. Drawing on an anecdote of Leon Trotsky, Rees seems to eternalise the situation described by Trotsky and base his strategy on it. According to this anecdote, among every five workers there will be a "dyed-in-the-wool-reactionary"; another the "exact opposite" - a "good socialist"; and between them the other three workers who could "sometimes be swayed by the arguments of the reactionary, leaving the socialist isolated" (p15). For comrade Rees, "the effect of alienation, the separation between the interests and the consciousness of the working class, the effects of the media, the education system, and so on, mean that a majority of workers, most of the time, will not share the overall or general views of the radical socialist minority" (my emphasis, p16).

But there is nothing fixed and timeless about the left's current impotence and our collective lack of what our Socialist Party in England and Wales comrade, Clive Heemskerk, labels "social weight" (only he thinks SPEW possesses that commodity). Rees fails to see that for Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Lenin and others there was no distinction between 'mass' and 'vanguard' organisations. He tries to pass off some of the mass parties of Marxism established in the Second International as "the model for electoralist Labour [!] and social democratic parties" both "between the 1880s and 1917" and "ever since" (p16). Here, comrade Rees is setting up a false dichotomy. He simply cannot see that a party can be a mass, even a majority party, if it openly fights for Marxism. Therefore, he not only insufficiently deals with German Social Democracy with its one million members, huge following amongst the population, etc, but at the same time he ignores the hitherto only successful mass revolutionary party: the Bolsheviks.

After all, the Bolsheviks sought to copy the German SPD and its programme, seeking to adapt this model as best they could to Russian conditions. As Lenin put it, "we are in no way ashamed to say that we look to model ourselves on the Erfurt programme".[3] And, contrary to popular myth, although the Bolsheviks updated and adapted their programme to changing conditions and new insights, they stuck to this approach right up to power and beyond, with the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) programme of 1919. Writing in 1920 Lenin was adamant: German revolutionary social democracy "came closest to being the party the revolutionary proletariat needs in order to achieve victory."[4]

Comrade Rees's theoretical framework fits, of course, into his general ahistorical perspective on the Second International, as in his book The algebra of revolution. There is not sufficient space to deal with his many misunderstandings on the subject here,[5] but many of the pamphlet's shortcomings flow from his failure to seriously deal with or understand the good and the bad aspects of 'Second International Marxism'.

Popular fronts

Rees recognises that the many problems faced by humanity today are "actually a series of related issues, all of which trace their origin back to the essential class contradictions of capitalist society" (p32).

However, possibly because he sees the Marxist programme as something carried out by the "militant minority", what he and Counterfire fail to propose is a general programme with a clear perspective on all of these different issues, uniting them as part of the same struggle for power. Instead he falls back on movementism and spontaneity, quite possibly the hallmarks of Cliffism. Once a star pupil of Tony Cliff, Rees, of course, sees a programme as akin to tying one's hands behind one's back, a likely hindrance when faced with the twists and turns of the class struggle. One of Lenin's main strengths, said Cliff, lay not in his strategy or programme, but in his 'good nose' for seizing on such developments. For this aloofness to programme, Cliff has been ironically described as a man "with a whim of iron".[6]

Indeed, it is clear what such non-Marxist programmophobia elicits - the SWP's uncritical tailing of the politics of other classes in the name of a 'fighting unity': not taking a position on who to vote for against the war; 'united front' slogans restricted to opposing 'Tory cuts' for the benefit of the Labour right, ditching women's and gay rights to accommodate Muslim 'community leaders' in Respect, and so on. This produces an activism that has nothing to do with what Marxist political activity ought to be about: promoting the independent programme of the international proletariat, as opposed to the ideas of pacifism, third worldism, Labourism or cross-class popular frontism.

Comrade Rees puts the problem in this way: "In recent years, in Britain, we have often seen small groups on the left stand aside from, or take a sectarian attitude towards, the anti-war movement because it is not, in their view, sufficiently 'anti-imperialist'. What they mean is that not everyone involved is opposed in principle to imperialism as a global system. This is true, but if revolutionaries do not throw themselves into the anti-war movement, how will they ever persuade anti-war activists that the best way to oppose war is to be consistently anti-imperialist?" (p21).

While there are no doubt some "small groups" who "stand aside from" the anti-war movement for the reason Rees gives, he is being totally disingenuous in posing the question in these terms. The problem is not the different views within the movement per se, but the fact that comrade Rees point-blank refuses to be "consistently anti-imperialist" within STWC: ie, by forcefully arguing for the politics of Marxism. Instead he does his best to keep those politics off STWC platforms - certainly in his own speeches and those of his co-thinkers.

To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, revolutionaries advocate their principles in order to become a majority. They do not become a majority in order to advocate their principles. If a bunch of well-meaning pacifists had set up STWC or Respect then, of course, it would be the duty of every communist within them to fight for a principled working class perspective. But the point is, it was the supposed Marxists like Rees and German themselves who were the brains behind both projects.

But such a method is fully in keeping with the elitist, 'vanguard party' approach of those like Rees, for whom 'revolutionary theory' is fine for the anointed few, while the masses will forever be in thrall to the alien ideas of other classes.

By downplaying party and programme, all Rees is really left with is these so-called 'united fronts', along with issue-by-issue trade union campaigns. Ironically Rees warns against "limiting the actions of the working class by subordinating them to their bourgeois allies - who might be frightened off by radicalism and militancy" (p46). He correctly states: "The popular front wanted to unite working class organisations with middle class, liberal and bourgeois parties … The cost was very high" (ibid). Yet those who know him as more than a small-time TV presenter will be aware that in the past few years he has been one of the main proponents of popular frontism. In Respect, for example, it was he who justified ditching principle after principle in order to curry favour with (largely phantom) allies to his right. And it was German who spoke about not turning women's and gay rights into "shibboleths".[7]

In fact, this popular frontist approach in the STWC is precisely what is meant by Counterfire's plans for the coalition to be "broad enough and militant enough". By "broad" he means being uncritical of those to his right and - as we have seen both in Respect and the STWC - bureaucratically hostile to those on his left putting forward awkward criticisms and making calls for socialism. "Militant" simply means that there is a lot of 'action' in which the Counterfire group are seen to be the 'best fighters' for the project and are able thereby to recruit.


From this unpromising starting point, it follows that Rees, like so many others on the left, is actually hostile to democracy. Naturally he pays lip service to it, but in reality sees it as a diversion. After all, if you think that the masses can be led from one sectional struggle to the next and then on to soviets and power by an ideologically tight-knit organisation pulling the strings from behind the scenes, then what matters is the enlightened leader and getting the chosen few to act according to his wishes without confusing the benighted many.

Internal democracy is only briefly alluded to by Rees in terms of the party - sorry, 'network' - analysing the world around it in order to decide upon the next step. This "inevitably requires internal discussion and argument inside an organisation" (my emphasis, p33). It is rather unfortunate that he cites Lenin winning the party around to his April theses in 1917 as an example of such a turn, because the debates around a second revolution were also, of course, held in public in the party press. An anathema for Rees and his close allies.

Yet the manner in which we organise now is inseparable from the sort of society we aim to achieve. If democracy is to flourish and the law of conscious, controlled planning from below is to sweep away the chaos of the market, then a democratic internal culture is required. The party and its structures are a political question to be taken seriously now. The absence of any ideas at all on this question, apart from a few straw-man Trotsky quotes to underline the "barren scholasticism of endless debate" (p9) should make one thing clear: the Counterfire project has not emerged from the SWP with any sort of criticism of the latter's bureaucratic centralist party regime. How could it? Comrade Rees was a principal upholder of that regime.

After he was deposed he sneered at the SWP central committee's so-called 'democracy commission' - not because it was a sop to disgruntled members, but because he thought it went too far. After all, Rees and German had presided over a regime that has hacked into emails, expelled comrades over the telephone and ensured that dissenting voices were excluded from conferences.

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether the pledge in Counterfire's news sheet to organise "open, democratic and well-promoted planning meetings between the big set pieces that involve as many new people as possible" (my emphasis) goes any way towards tackling this thorny problem. Meanwhile, the 'revolutionary network' pulls the strings. To the extent they occur at all, the debates necessary to train working class politicians will be limited to the confines of the 'revolutionary network' itself.

The enormous upsurge of anti-war sentiment in 2003 brought many young people - myself included - into active politics for the first time. But what has it left behind? Where are the millions who could have been won to a revolutionary message? What palpable increase in working class organisational muscle has there been? What enduring lessons about the nature of imperialism and the British state, the need for independent working class organisation?

Yet the Counterfire comrades are refusing to learn from the mistakes and failures of the past 10 years. For Rees the method of the STWC leadership needs to be repeated and adapted in whatever new 'united front' life throws up. There are none so blind as those who will not see



1. Quoted in M Fischer, 'SWPism without the SWP' Weekly Worker April 1

2. K Marx, F Engels Collected works Vol 23, London 1988, p243

3. VI Lenin Collected works Vol 4, Moscow 1977, p235

4. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/pdf/Lenin_Left_wing_Communism.pdf - Lenin also notes that the German movement had produced the best leaders, who also responded well to the challenge of their party capitulating before imperialism: hence the Spartacist league and Independent Social Democracy (USPD).

5. Mike Macnair discusses Rees's theoretical misunderstandings around 'Second International Marxism' in a review of The algebra of revolution in Weekly Worker September 11 2003. Unfortunately, much of the confusion around the Second International is not confined to Rees and his tradition.

6. J Higgins More years to the locust (www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1997/locust/chap01.htm): "For Cliff, the group is like something he owns and, in the final analysis, can dispose of as he wishes even on a whim; for he has a whim of iron."

7. M Neira, 'Socialism: the final shibboleth' Weekly Worker January 29 2004.