The fear of unity
Eager for ammunition, the SWP has delighted in the NSSN's looming split. James Turley reports
Among those who would lead the anti-cuts resistance, sectarianism is reaching the level of tragicomedy.
The Socialist Party in England and Wales now intends to use a conference in January to relaunch its National Shop Stewards Network as a pole of unity among the different anti-cuts campaigns, as the ‘NSSN - all-Britain anti-cuts campaign’. Its prime slogan is to be comparably clumsy: “Unions and communities together to save jobs and services”.
Having noticed that students are in revolt, its Youth Fight for Jobs front now has its own clone offspring, Youth Fight for Education. It has literally appeared overnight; in ‘adult’ politics, SPEW at least has the good graces to justify it remaining separate from other campaigns with political criticisms of their competitors. With student politics, alas, it has always been different - Socialist Students, its main student front, has always stood in splendid isolation from unity campaigns.
Sure enough, instead of involving itself in the Socialist Workers Party’s Education Activist Network or the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, SPEW prefers to spawn an utterly redundant campaign, at literally the last possible second, which will serve only to keep its members out of more profitable cooperative activity with other forces in the student movement.
Conversely, in a piece introducing its readership to the new developments in the NSSN, The Socialist makes some effort to distinguish it from other forces already out there. The SWP, as always, looms large in this discussion - in the last decade, it has been SPEW’s major competitor, particularly over influence in the trade union movement. The SWP is criticised for launching its Right to Work front in direct competition with the NSSN, and consistently using its own activity to keep its activists out of the reach of SPEW.
“The SWP are now opposing the NSSN conference under the cloak of ‘unity’”, the comrades write. “However, we are not able to take at face value the declarations of the SWP for unity when their actions in practice have been so divisive” (The Socialist, December 1). They insisted on calling a Unite Against Fascism demonstration to coincide with SPEW’s Socialism school; now they have called their own Right to Work conference at much the same time as NSSN’s.
But why limit divisive actions to the national political stage? “When Chris Bambery of the SWP spoke on behalf of Right to Work at the Coalition of Resistance conference on Saturday 27 November he declared that: ‘we do not want different anti-cuts campaigns in the same town or city’. We agree, but just a day later the SWP’s Party Notes again re-emphasised the importance of building separate Right to Work groups in every local area!”
Oddly, the Coalition of Resistance - launched recently to much fanfare at certainly the best-attended anti-cuts conference so far - gets only the most fleeting of mentions, barring a few quotations from Chris Bambery’s intervention. SPEW complains, again accurately, “there was no opportunity for genuine discussion and debate on how best to defeat the cuts. By contrast, the NSSN conference will be open and democratic with full rights for all trends to put forward their point view.”
It was certainly true that not nearly enough time was set aside for discussion - and the conference ran so overtime that in the end there was effectively no discussion at all. SPEW, however, has the opportunity to try and prise open some space for discussion in it; it would certainly have the support of most of the smaller forces involved in CoR. Instead, SPEW sets up its own front - which will be formally democratic, I’m sure, but clearly self-selecting in terms of its political composition.
After all, it is not only the SWP that has a chequered record on the unity question. Militant, SPEW’s former incarnation, could barely be drawn to acknowledge the existence of “the sects”, and treated all others on the left as parasites and distractions. More recently, SPEW exited the Socialist Alliance, which brought together the main organisations of the British revolutionary left, above all because the SWP had the temerity of being in the majority. Obviously totally unacceptable.
That said, at least SPEW is prepared to talk politics - the SWP is roundly criticised for its newfound softness on Labour figures. The anti-cuts campaigns, SPEW not unreasonably argues, must be steadfast in their opposition to all cuts, and must take a hard line on Labour councils which implement the government’s plans. Indeed - it is quite right for us to put serious pressure on Labour councils to resign rather than be a party to social devastation.
The SWP, however, by all appearances completely rudderless, is in no position to talk politics with any degree of seriousness. This can, in one sense, be summed up in the story of a slogan; for many years, its student operations were wedded to calling for free education, in opposition to those rightwingers for whom keeping a £3,000-odd cap on fees was quite radical enough.
This was always insufficient, and we in the CPGB have consistently criticised the view that this was the best we could offer students. At this point, however, the SWP has fallen into what can only be described as collective schizophrenia on the issue. Free education is dropped whenever there are student union bureaucrats to be appeased - and then, the same people who argued in the last meeting that opposition to all fees was an obstacle to unity will chant on the next demonstration for free education.
There are so many levels on which this is harmful that one is at a loss where to begin. It is clearly a political retreat from an already insufficient position, which is one thing. It is motivated by the perceived need to surrender political initiative to the official bureaucracy - and not just any part of it, but the most degraded and inconsistent section, the National Union of Students.
Perhaps worst of all, it is harmful to the SWP itself. Can they really imagine some of their youngest and least experienced members are to be transformed into effective, clear-headed class fighters by imposing different political lines on a day by day basis? Is this supposed to inculcate the SWP’s political tradition in young recruits? Not likely - already, the low level of political education has the effect of sending SWP members in all manner of political directions, mostly rightward. Imposing the politics of the NUS bureaucracy, of all things, is hardly likely to stem that particular tide.
However, the fact of the matter is that NSSN is split down the middle. Its chair, Dave Chapple, and all other non-SPEW officers, ie, Jane Bassett (vice chair), Bob Archer (website/press officer), George Binette (treasurer), Ray Morell (national organiser), Becca Kirkpatrick (affiliations/fund-raising), and all the non-SPEW steering committee members are in open rebellion. They have issued a joint statement strongly objecting to how SPEW used its majority on the NSSN steering committee to steamroller through the launch of “yet another” anti-cults campaign. These comrades are from various leftwing backgrounds, but include SWPers.
Indeed the latest SWP Party Notes takes a certain pleasure in condemning SPEW’s sectarianism. For Martin Smith, unity is supposedly the only question - “we should all hang up our holsters and guns outside”, John McDonnell is quoted as saying.
Apart from the vexed question of the Labour right, formally the priorities of RtW and NSSN are almost identical. Crucially, both plan to link trade union activists with community campaign groups, and so both are fighting over the same constituency. Neither are keen to fight for their full programmes in any capacity. And, though SPEW make a better show of being the victims of crude manoeuvring, neither will countenance the possibility of not being in control of whatever resistance springs up.
On the SWP’s part, this fear is perfectly obvious, and has marked their entire political evolution over the past decade and longer. The chasm between Chris Bambery’s repeated admonitions against those who would appoint themselves leaders, and the SWP’s actual behaviour in the anti-cuts movement, is so enormous that only those wilfully blinded by uncritical political loyalties could fail to see it. SPEW display the same shrinking from meaningful unity in their inept attempts to split the student movement further, and their overplaying of the remote possibility that NSSN will become a serious competitor to RtW or CoR.
This mode of behaviour is already well beyond a joke. Three anti-cuts fronts, all mouthing commitments to unity while stubbornly undermining it; all criticising control-freakery while surreptitiously clinging to private ownership of their members’ political work; the obligatory reference to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (splitters!) no longer cuts the mustard, now that reality has outdone fiction in its absurdity.
The left needs to break with this culture once and for all. Not for many decades has this need been more urgent. We must make meaningful moves towards unity - not simply of anti-cuts campaigns, but of our separate organisations in themselves, through an open process of polemic and discussion about the urgent questions of our time. Marxists do not agree on what constitutes Marxist politics, it is certainly true. But this is no obstacle to unity if we are prepared to exist in a minority and fight to win a majority.
That is not something to which the SPEW and SWP leaderships are accustomed - they are used to their will being implemented by loyal full-timers. It is up to thinking members of these organisations, and their smaller brethren, to impose their own will on their groups - and overcome the political obstacles to unity in an open and democratic fashion.