Peter Taaffe: mass party first

Socialist Party: Unity of the left can wait

No it cannot, says Peter Manson

The talk by SPEW general secretary Peter Taaffe - ‘Can capitalism escape economic crisis? Is socialism viable?’ - was largely standard fare. The answer to the two questions that made up the title of the session was, rather obviously, ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively.

Of course, both parts of the talk contained what might be termed SPEWisms. For example, Liverpool council, when it was run by Militant in the 1980s, was a “living example of what planning can achieve”, said comrade Taaffe. Which struck me as a rather mundane use of the word ‘planning’ - a handful of people making policy decisions within capitalism - rather than an inspiring glimpse of the future socialist society, as it was intended.

Then there was the statement that a workers’ state represents “a transitional regime leading to socialism”. Which makes me wonder what comrade Taaffe understands socialism to be: probably what most of us call ‘communism’ - a word long banished from the official Militant/SPEW lexicon.

But in my intervention in the subsequent discussion I ignored such details. Pointing out that I agreed overwhelmingly with the thrust of comrade Taaffe’s presentation, I said that for the most part it could have been delivered at Marxism, the annual school of the Socialist Workers Party. The difference being that, whereas the immediate conclusion drawn by comrade Taaffe was ‘Join the Socialist Party’, that drawn at Marxism would be ‘Join the SWP’. This struck me as a wasteful duplication of energy. Shouldn’t we be looking to unite within a single, democratic-centralist Marxist party, rather than maintaining our own sectarian grouplets?

Former Liverpool councillor Tony Mulhearn thought that this was a totally different question - one that would be better dealt with in a session on the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, he said. This was evidently incorrect for two reasons: first, because Tusc is not considered by anyone as a step towards a single Marxist party; and, secondly, because there was no such session at Socialism 2012 (which, by the way, demonstrates how much ‘priority’ Tusc really has in SPEW’s eyes).

The question was, however, taken up by other SPEW members. A Cardiff comrade agreed that it was “time the left unified”, but another activist said that unity was easier said than done - the “real, practical difficulties” could not be ignored. A Manchester member thought that left unity was a “great idea”, but only if it brought the class together. The first priority must therefore be a “new working class party” - a specifically non-Marxist formation is what he meant. Another south Wales comrade thought there was potential for “left parties” to come together - he mentioned SPEW, the SWP and CPGB - and we could best do that in a replacement Labour Party.

In his reply comrade Taaffe reiterated that left unity would have to be “cemented by real forces”, the implication being that Marxist regroupment would be just a waste of time in the absence of a mass working class party. He took issue with my use of the word ‘sectarian’. The Socialist Party’s position was the very opposite of sectarian, he said, since it was based on the need to unite the whole class, not further the interests of SPEW.

Having comforted himself with that thought, he went on to describe the role of SPEW within a future workers’ party: it would provide the “Marxist, revolutionary spine” - although he conceded that other left groups might be involved too. But Marxist unity? The left reminded him of Marx’s own words: “If that’s Marxism, I am not a Marxist.”

But the main reason why a “broad party” was needed “in the first instance” was that the movement had been “thrown back”. Admittedly at a “certain stage” there will have to be a mass revolutionary party, he said. But in the meantime unity can wait. It was obvious from this whole argument that everything would depend on the SPEW embryonic party-in-waiting: “If the Socialist Party didn’t exist the working class would eventually come up with socialist answers,” said comrade Taaffe. In other words, the working class could not possibly get those answers from any other leftwing group.

He also responded to a question from comrade Yassamine Mather of Hands Off the People of Iran relating to SPEW’s propaganda for a general strike to bring down the government. Surely under current circumstances that would only lead to a Labour administration under Miliband, she said. Comrade Taaffe’s answer was that a Labour government brought to power through a general strike would be a creature of the new situation. There would be opportunities for socialists and the possibility of splits, leading to a “government based on the movement”.

But, if Labour is now just another “bourgeois party”, in what way would it be more susceptible to working class pressure than the Tories and Liberal Democrats?