Shipwreck of dreams

Daniel Harvey looks at the lessons of the Socialist Alliance for today

Reading about the Socialist Alliance, which included all the main leftwing groups during its few years of existence from 1999, you get a creeping sense of déjà vu. You see the SA’s flaws recurring in Left Unity today, and not even with a different cast: many of the same actors appear again. In fact in some ways what is happening in LU is slightly, but unmistakably, worse.

Back then, with the Socialist Alliance, there was the possibility of a real organisational advance. The failure of Arthur Scargill’s god-awful Socialist Labour Party within a few years of its founding in 1996 was clear to all. Scargill had excluded the entire organised left and launched a witch-hunt against anyone suspecting of being a “supporter” of any other group, most notably the CPGB.

The Socialist Alliances, not yet integrated the Socialist Alliance proper, were set up originally on the initiative of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, then known as Militant Labour, in the early 1990s. But when the Network of Socialist Alliances was renamed the Socialist Alliance in 1999, and the largest left group, the Socialist Workers Party, decided to come on board a year later, it looked like a real step forward.

For the CPGB, naturally this state of affairs was something to be superseded by aiming to integrate the “six principal supporting organisations”, to use a phrase coined by the SWP, together with many of the ‘flotsam and jetsam’ individuals who were mostly former members of revolutionary groups, into a single party.

In 1998 we had noted:

Certain rightwing elements want to purge the left, in this way hoping to make the Socialist Alliances appear more welcoming to Labour defectors and non-socialist greens. The CPGB, on the other hand, would not attempt to exclude the right, although this did not mean that we would hold back on the fight for what is necessary - a Communist Party.1

The largest group involved was the now renamed SPEW. But when the SWP did start to move tentatively towards the SA - at first within the London Socialist Alliance - it was touch and go whether the CPGB would be allowed to stay. At one early LSA meeting there was a move - supported, amongst others, by the SWP’s Rob Hoveman and a certain Toby Abse, who sometimes now writes for this paper, to show us the door (but no hard feelings!). The move was defeated - by a single vote.

Disunited front

For the SWP, getting involved was clearly a difficult decision - there was the risk of seeing its cadre ‘contaminated’ through contact with SPEW, the International Socialist Group (now Socialist Resistance), Workers Power, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the CPGB.

Alone of all the participating groups, the CPGB wanted to see the SA form the basis of a united Marxist party. SPEW favoured a federal, decentralised structure, because it was smaller than the SWP and feared domination. The SWP, on the other hand, favoured some centralisation, but its idea was for the alliance to remain merely an electoral coalition that would effectively be closed down between elections.

At first the SWP was hesitant to take advantage of its numerical superiority. This led to an odd situation for the CPGB, where in the first national conference involving the SWP on September 30 2000 in Coventry (the venue was double-booked with a wedding, meaning that guests had to fight past an army of left paper sellers to get in) our group held the balance of power between two evenly sized blocs. This fortunate situation allowed the CPGB to ensure the success of best of the proposals from both sides - a degree of centralisation from the SWP, and minority rights from SPEW. But the two big blocs were still able to band together to shoot down things they did not like. Things like self-determination for Scotland and Wales in a British federal republic. Or a minimum programme which might have the temerity to support basic things like anti-statism, internationalism and so forth, or a minimum wage allowing workers to fully reproduce themselves, rather than set by the European Union.2

Both sides were adamant that the Socialist Alliance should stick to economistic policies in support of trade union-type struggles, and even then on minimalist terms. At this time they opposed CPGB proposals for the SA to field enough candidates in the following year’s general election to be entitled to a party political broadcast (although by the time that election was held in May 2001 that opposition had well and truly dissipated and the SA stood no fewer than 98 candidates across the country). And the idea that the SA should actually publish its own paper was ridiculed: as the SWP’s Lindsey German said, “We need a paper like a hole in the head”.3 That was a very sectarian “we” - the SWP was thinking only of the fortunes of Socialist Worker. In fact, between the organisations involved there were no less than three functioning printing presses - not to mention scores of the talented journalist comrades on the left. Also even small groups like the Communist Party of Britain, and the miniscule rump of the Workers Revolutionary Party were able to maintain daily papers.

John Rees - like comrade German an SWP leader at that time, of course - was absolutely infuriated by our role in Coventry, telling CPGB comrades: “That will never happen again!”4 After that the SWP always swamped meetings, mobilising its membership to ensure all its motions were carried.5 That was its right, of course, and the full participation of the SWP was welcomed by our side - but not by SPEW, which fairly quickly abandoned the SA for good. Peter Taaffe and co wanted a commitment from the SA to allow SPEW candidates to contest elections under its own name, not as ‘Socialist Alliance’. Comrade Taaffe claimed this meant that SPEW could no longer be able to stand on its own programme, but that was nonsense - SPEW’s amendment on the right of candidates to put forward their own politics whilst standing for the alliance was won against the SWP with our help.6

After SPEW walked out in December 2001, it was the SWP that was left in total control. The SA was supposed to be a “united front of a special type”, a position ‘theorised’ by comrade Rees the following year7 (interestingly the same phrase was later used to describe the Respect popular front, after the SWP ditched the SA). This did not mean it was particularly different from when SPEW had been around, but it was a harder and more cynical continuation of the same. According to this logic, the SA was not a party, it could never be a party - the only party was the “smallest mass party in the world”, the SWP sect.8

Last one out …

In hindsight, after this it was more or less inevitable that the Socialist Alliance would not last. The SWP spent the next decade in various electoral fronts: the anti-war Respect, and then, following the split with George Galloway in 2007, the laughable Left Alternative, which comrades in the International Socialist Network remember participating in with some discomfort. The SA was too messy for the SWP recruitment machine - it still had an annoying ‘awkward squad’ to contend with in the shape of the minority Democracy Platform, which involved the CPGB, AWL, Revolutionary Democratic Group and others.

The SWP leadership was adamant that the SA had to be closed down so as to give Respect, dubbed an alliance between “revolutionary socialists and Muslim activists”,9 a clear run. So, along with the ISG, it used legal ownership of the SA title to make it impossible for the minority to continue as Socialist Alliance or stand in elections using that name.

Amongst the remaining groups a long debate ensued about whether to declare the SA dead, or whether it was possible to fight on and save it.10 On this one has to emphasise the role played by SWPers - like Nick Wrack, for instance, who for a short time in 2004 was chair of both the SA and Respect, and who did his best, as a newly recruited SWPer at that time, to make opposition to the SA’s demise impossible.11

It was a really hopeless situation, despite the fact that many were reluctant to give up on the possibility of a party that united all the major left groups in Britain for the first time since the 1920 founding of the Communist Party. Much anger was directed against the cynicism of those who wound it up.

In 2004, there was a sizeable opposition within the CPGB against giving up on the rump SA. The Red Platform faction was formed, one of whose members was a certain Ben Lewis, which opposed any kind of support for Respect out of attachment to the SA project. Some still blame the CPGB for finally getting out. Dave Parks, for instance, says:

… as I remember, the CPGB was part of the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform, but it later withdrew, leading to a number of CPGB supporters resigning from the organisation. This was over the opportunist position of the CPGB to support Respect and not build an alternative from those who opposed the move to Respect. I remember sending some sharp emails to some individual CPGB members at the time expressing my deep disappointment.12

It is grossly unfair to say that the CPGB decision to abandon the doomed SA and continue our fight for a Marxist party within Respect was “opportunist”. Our “support” for Respect consisted mainly of opposing the SWP’s further watering down of its professed programme and exposing its rotten popular frontist politics. We proposed a elements of the SWP’s own ‘What we stand for’ column for adoption by Respect, which saw the SWP rank and file loyally voting it down in the name of appealing to ‘the thousands out there’ rather than ‘those in this room’. They refused to support the notion of a workers’ wage for party representatives, knowing George Galloway would not countenance it.


In reality, the SA could never have become the basis of a new, united Marxist party unless there had been a sizable rebellion inside the existing left groups, particularly SPEW and the SWP, with the aim of defeating the sectarianism of their leaderships and embarking upon a principled regroupment project. A lot of comrades are hoping that something good can emerge from the recent splits from the SWP (and WP) in the shape of a viable left grouping. The International Socialist Network and Anti-Capitalist Initiative have been staggering towards some kind of unity, but they are not doing very well at courting the latest batch of comrades resigning from the SWP. Their alliance with Socialist Resistance certainly looks precarious.

These comrades have not broken from the politics of John Rees at all. In Left Unity, they overwhelmingly backed the Left Party Platform, which was a rerun of the SWP’s and SPEW’s economism and minimalist policies in the Socialist Alliance. They still fetishise the sect/front model of organisation, where whatever ‘Marxist unity’ they achieve amongst themselves will not be advocated for Left Unity itself - LU is just another “united front of a special type”. Even the supposedly ‘orthoTrot’ Workers Power put forward an ‘action programme’ for LU which basically relegated serious Marxist politics to some ill defined future.

If Left Unity ends up as the latest examples of the left’s long list of failures, this time we will not be able to blame the bureaucratic cynicism of the SWP central committee: rather the stubborn insistence on repeating the same old mistakes over and over again. The main mistake being treating the working class like children - ‘We know what’s best, but we’ll keep it to ourselves - you dumdums can only understand simple trade union demands.’ How sad.

So far, there have been no bureaucratic moves against the left - although that does not mean that possibility is not raised in some quarters. As Don Milligan on the Left Unity site helpfully told us after founding conference,

The conference, wisely I thought, decided not to proscribe groups like the CPGB, who clearly intend publicly to campaign against the majority decisions of the new party. Most of those present appeared to be well aware that banning such groups would merely involve us in a round of acrimonious disputes, disciplinary hearings, and a debilitating round of expulsions.13

So for the moment we can still continue the fight we undertook within the SLP, Respect and most definitely in the Socialist Alliance to win the only kind of unity that can seriously advance our class’s interests: the unity of a single Marxist party.

But then, as now, we continue to run up against the same poverty of aspiration - including from comrades no doubt so wounded by bureaucratic culture and stultified in their political education, that the bright lights of real Marxist politics are now too blinding. What we still need to unite around are the fundamental revolutionary principles the CPGB promoted in the Socialist Alliance. They can still be read in our 2001 booklet, Towards a Socialist Alliance party: a communist contribution, which is full of awkward little phrases like “rule of the working class”, “communism” and “revolutionary programme”.


1. ‘Open fight for communism’ Weekly Worker July 16 1998: web.archive.org/web/20050215112652/http://cpgb.org.uk/worker/249/openfight.html.

2. See ‘Coventry by numbers: two unions, three rooms and three trendsWeekly Worker October 5 2000.

3. See J Conrad Towards a Socialist Alliance party London 2001.

4. Ibid.

5. See ‘Towards an SA pro-party bloc’ Weekly Worker March 29 2001.

6. ‘Socialism 2003: still justifying SA walkout’ Weekly Worker July 3 2003.

7. International Socialist Journal winter 2002: www.marxists.org/history/etol//writers/rees-j/2002/xx/party.htm.

8. See ‘Towards an SA pro-party blocWeekly Worker March 29 2001.

9. Alex Callinicos writing in Socialist Worker November 20 2004.

10. ‘Defend the Socialist Alliance’ Weekly Worker April 8 2004.

11. ‘Reject SWP control-freakeryWeekly Worker March 11 2004.

12 https://www.facebook.com/nick.wrack/activity/10151893509362263.

13. http://leftunity.org/left-unity-cuddling-up-for-warmth-or-striking-out-in-a-new-direction.