From Tony Cliff to Alex Callinicos
Peter Manson looks at the leadership pecking order and calls for the SWP to open up
Organisationally the Socialist Workers Party’s annual Marxism festival took a step forward this year with the relocation to University College London and the nearby Friends Meeting House. The June 30-July 4 school took place within a smaller, more compact area - at its centre the imposing UCL quad. And the SWP claimed a bigger attendance than in recent years. According to Socialist Worker, it was 4,500 - the most for a decade.
However, while more of the SWP’s members, supporters and contacts came along, there was unfortunately little sign of the scores of newly radicalised public sector strikers the organisation was hoping to attract - Marxism began on the very day of the June 30 mass action. But, needless to say, the SWP remains uninterested in debating with those to its left, and continues to discourage the participation of other revolutionary groups.
For example, the new venue could have been used to much greater effect. There were only a handful of stalls within the quad and the left groups who turned up had to set up outside on the narrow Gower Street pavement. Why not take a leaf out of Lutte Ouvrière’s book? The French Trotskyist group positively welcomes the stalls of all sorts of left political organisations at its annual fete and organises a specially designated area to house them. There is plenty of room for a similar feature within the lawned UCL quad - why not try to make Marxism a carnival of vibrant, contending ideas? What is the SWP afraid of?
The major international theme at Marxism was the “Arab revolts” that have dominated the news in the recent period. For the SWP this is clearly linked to the major domestic theme, the “struggle against austerity” in Britain, which it hopes will lead to similar direct action. In this context, the organisation views the establishment’s turn away from multiculturalism as an attempt to divide the resistance to cuts. And it goes without saying that opposition to racism, fascism and the English Defence League remains at the very centre of the SWP’s agenda.
It fell to national secretary Charlie Kimber to pull together these themes in his Saturday morning rallying speech in the session entitled ‘Crisis, austerity, resistance: perspectives for socialists today’. In a way his speech was most notable for what he did not say, and what was added from the floor by Alex Callinicos, the SWP international secretary.
Comrade Kimber’s competent, but rather plodding performance (in comparison to previous national secretaries he is no orator) certainly outlined the SWP’s priorities. However, clearly in comrade Callinicos’s view, it was too unambitious and uninspiring. Kimber had pointed out to the rally that the SWP had been criticised “a few months ago” for “making June 30 a key focus”. But, he said, “We were right: June 30 has transformed the political landscape. Now there is the potential to bring down the government.” There were likely to be strikes in the autumn of three-four million workers, but it was now important to put pressure on the trade union leaders to “name the day”.
In passing, comrade Kimber also mentioned other SWP priorities: the “huge demo” to be organised by Right to Work at the Tory Party conference on October 2; and before that the September 3 national demonstration against the EDL in Tower Hamlets - “another key struggle”.
But it’s not just about strikes and demonstrations, he said: “we need a political struggle”. Our demands must include ‘tax the rich’ and ‘nationalise the banks’ (under workers’ control). After all, “Even a very high level of strike action doesn’t answer the question of ‘which way forward?’” That is why the Marxism event is so important: it is where the ideas are hammered out and should be regarded as a “council of war”.
Comrade Kimber added that the SWP “is not the linchpin - I wish we were”. But it is playing an important role in the struggles. And it is central in “putting forward a vision of an alternative world” (one where the rich are taxed and the banks are nationalised). We need more people in order to mount a “higher, harder fight for the socialist future”.
When he made his contribution from the floor, comrade Callinicos also sniped at “those who claim to be on our left” over their criticisms of the SWP’s focus on June 30 and likewise proclaimed the organisation’s mobilising role. But, turning to the need for escalation, he stated: “We have to say, not just ‘Name the day’, but ‘All out, stay out.’
In his reply comrade Kimber virtually repeated Callinicos’s words - we not only demand, “Name the day”, but “All out, stay out” too. The art of leadership, he said, was in identifying the “key link”. In this case it was to urge that when workers come out, they must stay out.
This incident said a lot about the current SWP hierarchy. After Tony Cliff died in April 2000 there was no doubting that John Rees had replaced him as the SWP’s number one. But, when comrade Rees was ousted in 2008 it appeared to some that Martin Smith, the national secretary, had become the main driving force. In reality, however, as with Charlie Kimber, he was a bureaucratic functionary (and a somewhat wild and hamfisted one). Without doubt comrade Callinicos is the power behind the throne.
And it looks for all the world as though Martin Smith’s article, ‘30 June pensions strikes: let’s set a date for next wave’, in the pre-Marxism edition of Socialist Worker underwent a similar ‘correction’. Commenting on the remarks of Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, comrade Smith wrote: “He argued in Manchester, ‘To those who say name the day, I say a day is not enough … We will strike to defend our pensions. A campaign of strike action without precedent.’”
To which comrade Smith responded: “Of course, a one-day general strike is not enough, but it would be a very good start!”
But then, and seemingly in total contradiction, Smith’s article ends in this way: “If we’re going to defeat the government our demand to the union leaders should be: ‘Name the day’ - and our slogan should be: ‘All out and stay out’” (Socialist Worker July 2). This conclusion, appearing out of the blue, bears the hallmarks of another intervention from the SWP’s real leader.
All out, stay out
That was the first time the slogan had been raised publicly. It had, however, appeared internally in the June 16 Industrial Notes special, issued by SWP central committee member and industrial organiser Michael Bradley. Comrade Bradley had written: “We need to call for more coordinated strikes in the autumn, and we need to urge Unison, GMB and Unite to join the fight. After June 30 our slogan will become ‘All out - stay out’.”
But the phrase did not resurface for another two weeks - not even internally, in the more widely read internal Party Notes, for instance. So it seems that comrade Callinicos took it upon himself to make sure it was prioritised. However, in the latest Socialist Worker it has once more disappeared from sight. The reports of June 30 feature lots of calls for further coordinated action and even talk of an eventual general strike, but nowhere is the slogan, ‘All out, stay out’ - or anything implying that an indefinite general strike is the order of the day - raised.
Here is part of a report on the SWP’s festival: “Marxism 2011 was not a talking shop, but a springboard to further action. Participants debated how we step up the fight against the Tories. Many trade unionists said that socialists should push for another wave of coordinated strikes in the autumn - but this time involving more unions ... Many want a general strike to bring down the Tories, and some raised the idea of staying out for more than one day” (Socialist Worker July 9).
Ah, I see. “Some” comrades “raised the idea” of staying out “for more than one day”. Hopefully this ‘re-interpretation’ of comrade Callinicos’s call represents a rejection of such foolish and irresponsible adventurism on the part of the central committee majority.
In truth, unless it is viewed as militant-sounding, but basically empty verbiage, the slogan, ‘All out, stay out’, is totally at odds with current reality. This was clear from the other interventions from the floor following comrade Kimber’s Marxism speech. SWP comrades were perfectly comfortable describing their experiences of building for June 30 and mobilising for further coordinated action in the autumn. But nobody said anything about an indefinite general strike, or how it could come about.
There are huge problems with both parts of the slogan. To take the second part first, for how long should workers “stay out”? Until what demands are met? Until the government agrees to withdraw all cuts or, more realistically perhaps, collapses under the pressure of the mass strike? Of course, demands that are made at the beginning of an action can be expanded and solidified during it. But it would be crazy to undertake such an action without first setting out clear aims around which support can be mobilised.
Even more seriously, however, the call for an indefinite general strike in reality represents a call to challenge for power. If such a strike really was ‘general’ - ie, backed by all the most important sections of the working class - it would bring everything to a halt. Our class would have to organise and arrange the distribution of essential goods and services. In short it would have to overturn the current order through a revolution.
An attractive idea, to be sure. However, as the SWP knows full well (it did, after all, run a series of sessions at Marxism entitled ‘Anarchism and autonomism’), there can be no revolution without a mass revolutionary party. And a couple of thousand members grouped in the SWP is not it. An attempt to seriously challenge for power would be ruthlessly crushed by a ruling class which is armed to the teeth.
What about the first part of the slogan? What is meant by “all”? Getting out those in the private-sector will doubtless be a difficult task. There is a low density of organisation and most of the union bureaucracy will plead that there is no ‘legitimate industrial dispute’ against the immediate employer. They fear new draconian government moves against the unions. A bold call for coordinated strike action in the autumn has every chance of inspiring millions of workers, organised and unorganised. But we should avoid leftist posturing, especially of the kind that is first and foremost about building the sect, not the actual combativity of the working class.
Multi or inter?
The session later on the Saturday on ‘Why we defend multiculturalism’ proved to be surprisingly interesting - not for the entirely predictable and infantile rant from Martin Smith or the bog-standard left liberalism of Salma Yaqoob, but for the considered and useful contribution from SWP member Michael Rosen, the writer and poet.
Introducing the session, chair Hassan Mahamdallie made clear where the SWP stands on this issue: “Our multicultural way of life that we have fought so hard to build” is under threat, he said, before handing the baton to comrade Smith.
The former national secretary alleged: “The Tories want to put the anti-racist agenda back to the 50s and 60s. This government is going to play the race card more and more.” He went so far as to state that we have “never seen such racism since the 1930s”. But “don’t expect anything else from the Tories - they’ve always been racist”. And that was about as sophisticated as it got. He did, however, make the interesting claim that the EDL was “dancing to David Cameron’s tune”. Usually the SWP puts it the other way round: the Tories are adopting the agenda of the EDL or British National Party in order to shore up their rightwing vote.
Salma Yaqoob was also “worried about losing this precious thing”. She said: “Multiculturalist Britain is working - leave it alone.” According to her, the Tories believe that “We can’t get on and work together because our differences are too vast.” And the answer? We should go out and promote “muscular multiculturalism”.
Admittedly Yaqoob made some good points. For example, we should defend the right of women to wear the hijab, but at the same time encourage people to support Slutwalk: “People should have the right to wear what they like - no matter how much or how little”. She also pointed out (although not in as many words) that anti-migrant sentiment is not quite the same as racism: you hear Pakistanis saying, “Those Somalis are taking our jobs,” said Yaqoob.
The truth is, in times of cutbacks, workers do tend to prioritise their own means of living when it is under attack and - especially in the absence of a strong, collective, working class consciousness - turn to ‘obvious’ solutions: keep out the immigrants, look after ‘our own’ first. But why is this confused with racism? The logic it follows is that there are only a certain number of jobs, houses and services to go round, so it ‘makes sense’ not to increase the numbers chasing after them. ‘Our own’ usually means those already here, irrespective of their ethnicity.
It is also mistaken to dub the imposition of ever tighter border controls as straightforward racism, as comrade Smith did. We all know that the capitalist class favours the importation of labour from abroad. Not only to plug the so-called shortage of skilled labour that employers perennially complain about, but attract underpaid semi and unskilled labour which whole sectors of the economy rely on. It is the bourgeois state and bourgeois politicians that bang on about immigration controls. It is the very same bourgeois state and bourgeois politicians that strive to unite British people as against outsiders. Given post-World War II mass migration, the British people are no longer almost exclusively white. Hence the old, racist, ideologies and forms of control have largely given way to what is a ‘colour-blind’ nationalist ideology that rests on so-called British values such as fair play, democracy and equality before the law.
We in the CPGB do not argue that the bourgeoisie’s official ideology of anti-racist British nationalism is a victory for the left, for the forces of rationality and humanism. No, on the contrary, we want comrades in the SWP to understand this rearticulated ideology of British nationalism the better to combat it. What is the point of condemning Cameron’s Munich speech in February for seeking to divide us on ethnic grounds (Smith again) when the Tory leader specified that the aim must be to “encourage integration” rather than “separation”?
Of course, it is integration on the bourgeoisie’s terms, not ours. They want to see us united - black, brown and white - behind the queen and country. Yes, we are “all in it together”, British labour and British capital - our ‘common interest’ ranged against that of rival labour and rival capital.
But the previous bourgeois majority consensus in favour of multiculturalism has been overturned. Not because it was bringing us together, but because it was dividing us. Anyone could see that allocating resources on the basis of the religion or ethnicity of the recipient group or ‘community’ was divisive. It was divisive from the British nationalist point of view and divisive from our, proletarian internationalist, point of view too. And, in these times of massive cuts, there is an added incentive to do away with the promotion through monetary grants of rival supplicant groupings. The multiculturalist notion that the encouragement of ethnic or religious sub-identities would somehow supplement and cement an overriding, unifying British identity was always dubious in any case.
Yet all this is lost on the SWP leadership, for whom ‘multiculturalism’ simply means people from different backgrounds finding common cause and getting on together. The term often seems interchangeable with ‘anti-racism’. As comrade Smith states, the Tories have “always been racist” and it is second nature to them to foment racial divisions when they are in difficulties.
The only problem is, there is no evidence of such racial divisions being fomented. Quite the opposite in fact. The comrades should try switching on their televisions some time. Every programme, from Eastenders to A question of sport, attempts to reinforce the nationalist, ‘official anti-racist’ message: black, white and brown, rich and poor, we British are one. We can and do ‘get on together’.
In view of all this it was very heartening to hear an SWP comrade who is actually prepared to think about the question. True, it would have been a brave man who opposed head-on the multiculturalist ‘truths’ accepted by the overwhelming majority in the hall - far from embracing and celebrating the existence in perpetuity of separate (and often rival) cultural identities, our job is to work for the creation of a higher, working class culture that combines and incorporates the best, the richest of all cultures. It goes without saying that this process must be a voluntary one.
So Michael Rosen chose to undermine the left-liberal multiculturalist consensus from within. Yes, of course we should “defend multiculturalism”, he said, but we need to go further: “We should actually be defending interculturalism”. What this means is, first of all, upholding “the right of every human being to migrate” - they usually do so to escape political or economic repression. Furthermore, it is natural for people arriving in a new country to group together in order to secure their preferred food, music, religious practices and so on - we should not call this segregation.
Comrade Rosen warned that the “assimilation” proposed by the establishment was “a con”. It was assimilation into the ideal Britishness of the ruling class - “none of us are going to bloody get there”. But that clearly did not mean that he was against the coming together, the merging of separate cultures: his term ‘interculturalism’ said it all. He gave the example of his own family: three generations ago, they spoke Polish and Yiddish; now he speaks English. “How did that happen?” he asked us to consider. He might have added, ‘Where is the “multi” in that?’
Clearly the overwhelming majority in the room - including comrade Smith, it has to be said - just did not get it. Everyone knows that we must “defend multiculturalism” and not undermine it by wild talk of separate cultures being unified and thus superseded.
Comrade Rosen has taken the first step in combating the SWP’s multiculturalist illusions. Let us hope they can be dispelled. But for that to happen there would probably have to be a revolution within the organisation. There would have to be a culture of open, democratic debate - not that of the wise leaders handing down the line, to the loyal, three-minute echoes of the rank and file.