France's New Anti-Capitalist Party: An exchange between Alex Callinicos (British SWP) and François Sabado (LCR)

LCR presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot

Below are two articles which first appeared in Critique Communiste, and in English in the November issue of International Viewpoint, the magazine of the Fourth International. The first is by Alex Callinicos, a leader of the British Socialist Workers Party. The second, "The NPA, a new experience of building an anti-capitalist party", is a reply by François Sabado, a leader of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR).

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Diverging paths

By Alex Callinicos

In the past couple of years the fortunes of the radical left have diverged sharply. The most important case on the negative side was provided by the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy. The party of Genoa and Florence moved from 2004 onwards sharply to the right and joined the centre-left coalition government of Romano Prodi that held office briefly in 2006-8. PRC deputies and senators voted for Prodi’s neoliberal economic programme and for the participation of Italian troops in the occupation of Afghanistan and in the United Nations ‘peace-keeping’ mission to Lebanon. They were punished in the general elections of April 2008 with the loss of all their parliamentary seats.

The radical left also suffered reverses elsewhere. In Britain first the Scottish Socialist Party and then Respect split: when the rival fragments ran against each other, both sides predictably suffered electoral eclipse. In the Danish general election of November 2007, the Red-Green Alliance lost two of the six seats it had previously held.

Fortunately, there are more positive experiences. The most exciting of these has been the initiative taken by the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) to launch a New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). In Germany, Die Linke, officially constituted as a party in June 2007 and the result of a convergence between dissident social democrats in western Germany and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the heir of the old East German ruling party, continues to make electoral inroads into the base of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

And even in Italy, the country that has seen the most catastrophic collapse of the radical left, the trend isn’t uniformly negative. In reaction to electoral eclipse, the PRC national congress, when it met in July 2008, moved left. Bertinotti and his allies were defeated by a coalition of left-wing currents led by Paolo Ferrero. The delegates, elected by meetings attended by 40,000 members, voted for a document calling for ‘a shift to the left’ and declaring an end to ‘organic collaboration [with the centre-left Democratic Party] in governing the country’.

The primacy of politics

Nevertheless, the sense of participating in a general forward movement that prevailed a few years ago has been replaced by a marked divergence. What has caused this shift? To answer this question we need to understand the driving forces behind the rise of the radical left, particularly in Europe. Two main objective coordinates were involved. First, the emergence of mass resistance to neoliberalism and war, starting with the French public sector strikes of 1995 but gaining momentum after Seattle. Second, the experience of social liberalism – social-democratic governments, brought to office all over Europe in the second half of the 1990s by popular opposition to neoliberalism, proceeded to implement neoliberal policies, and in some cases – New Labour under Tony Blair in Britain and the Red/Green coalition headed by Gerhard Schröder in Germany – to go further than their conservative predecessors had dared.

The rightward shift of mainstream social democracy opened up a space to its left. Furthermore, the revival of resistance created a pressure to fill this space. Various political formations, of very diverse origins and history collectively took on the role of trying to fill it. Generally they didn’t do so on an explicitly revolutionary programme. In some cases this reflected a tactical decision by far left organisations to attract allies and a broader audience, but as often it was a consequence of the fact that many of the leaders of the new formations were themselves reformists, often seeking to restore a more ‘authentic’ social democracy that, as they saw it, had been corrupted by the likes of Blair and Schröder.

The emergence of this radical left marked an extremely important, and positive development. It represented an opportunity to remake the left on a much more principled basis than had prevailed in the heyday of the social-democratic and Stalinist parties. But this, while a step forward, generated its own problems. The political field has its specific logic, which subjects to its hazards and contingencies all those who try to grapple with it.

After an initial period of forward movement, bounded roughly by the years 1998 and 2005 the various radical left formations were confronted with the question of how to continue in an environment that was somewhat less favourable – for example, because the tide of mass opposition to the war in Iraq was receding. A similar problem confronted the altermondialiste movement, which has failed to address it effectively and hence undergone a significant decline.

The response of the radical left formations was, of course, conditioned by the politics prevailing in them. This proved in the case of two key figures – Fausto Bertinotti in Italy and George Galloway in England – to be a reformism that began to shift rightwards. Bertinotti reacted to the decline of the Social Forums that had spread throughout Italy after Genoa and driven the mobilisations for Florence and the anti-war protests by turning back towards the centre-left, with the disastrous consequences already noted.

In the case of Galloway and the circle around him, the decline of the anti-war movement from the peak it achieved in 2003 combined with pessimism about the capacity of organised workers to mount effective resistance to the attacks mounted by New Labour and the bosses to generate the conclusion that the way forward for Respect lay in sustaining alliances with local Muslim notables who could deliver votes. But this reasoning – and the split that it produced in Respect – was overlain by a growing reconciliation between Galloway himself and New Labour. This was reflected first in his support for Ken Livingstone’s unsuccessful re-election campaign for Mayor of London in May 2008 and then in his rallying to the aid of Gordon Brown’s beleaguered government during the Glasgow East by-election that July, when a Blairite candidate was defeated by a massive swing to the Scottish National Party.

Elsewhere the politics has played out better, so far. Amidst general disarray on the French left. the majority in the LCR leadership seised the initiative – running Olivier Besancenot in the first round of the French presidential elections in April 2007 and then capitalising on his relative success to launch the NPA.

Die Linke is a much more solidly reformist formation than anything envisaged by the LCR. It is, however, defined by the struggle between two tendencies – a right-wing, powerful both numerically and in the apparatus, constituted largely by the ex-leadership of the PDS, and a more left reformist current that is dominated by the ex-SPD trade-union officials clustered around the figure of Oskar Lafontaine, who is pursuing a project of reconstituting German social democracy on a more left-wing basis.

What kind of party?

The recent advances of Die Linke and the LCR show that the objective coordinates responsible for the initial rise of the radical left remain. But the experiences of the PRC and Respect highlight the political dangers faced by these formations. How can these dangers best be addressed? The response of the LCR is particularly interesting. It is influenced by the negative examples of centre-left governments, not only in Italy, but in France itself and in Brazil.

Determination to avoid any repetition of a situation where the radical left could be integrated into a social-liberal coalition government shaped the attitude of the LCR majority towards the attempt to make the collectives that had driven the No campaign against the European Constitution in 2005 the launching pad for a unitary ‘anti-liberal’ candidate in the 2007 presidential campaign. The LCR’s scepticism about the project of a unitary anti-liberal candidate led to a negative and sometimes ultimatist attitude towards the collectives, which caused its temporary isolation. But the Ligue was at least partially vindicated by the behaviour of José Bové in the presidential campaign.

It is to ward off this kind of danger that the LCR insists that the new party must be anti-capitalist, and not simply opposed to neoliberalism. It is to be ‘a party for the revolutionary transformation of society’, but yet not a revolutionary party in the specific sense in which it has been understood in the classical Marxist tradition. In that tradition, particularly as a result of the experiences of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and the early years of the Communist International (1919-24), socialist revolution is assumed to take a particular form, involving mass strikes, the development of dual power counterposing institutions of workers’ democracy to the capitalist state, an armed insurrection to resolve this crisis by establishing the dominance of the workers’ councils, and, running through all this, the emergence of a mass revolutionary party with majority support in the working class.

On the LCR’s view, the NPA should not commit itself to this specific understanding of revolution, but simply to the necessity of ‘a rupture with capitalism’. If this notion may seem vague, its political significance lies in what it rules out: more specifically, the Ligue correctly argues, it’s not enough to oppose neoliberalism as a set of policies, but capitalism as a system. Failing to draw this distinction can lead participation in centre-left governments in the hope (usually the illusion) that they will produce a more benign mix of policies.

There is much to commend the LCR’s conception of the NPA. The political experience of the 20th century shows very clearly that, in the advanced capitalist countries, it is impossible to build a mass revolutionary party without breaking the hold of social democracy on the organised working class. In the era of the Russian Revolution it was possible for many European Communist parties to begin to do this by splitting social-democratic parties and winning substantial numbers of previously reformist workers directly to the revolutionary programme of the Communist International. October 1917 exercised an enormous attractive power on everyone around the world who wanted to fight the bosses and imperialism.

Alas, thanks to the experience of Stalinism, the opposite is true today. Social liberalism is repelling many working-class people today, but, in the first instance, what they seek is a more genuine version of the reformism that their traditional parties once promised them. Therefore, if the formations of the radical left are to be habitable to these refugees from social democracy, their programmes have not to foreclose the debate between reform and revolution by simply incorporating the distinctive strategic conceptions developed by revolutionary Marxists.

All the same, navigating between the Scylla of opportunism and the Charybdis of sectarianism is never easy. On the one hand, drawing the dividing line between anti-liberalism and anti-capitalism isn’t necessarily straightforward. Given that, as the LCR would put it, anti-capitalism has ‘incomplete strategic delimitations’ – i.e. it leaves open how the ‘rupture with capitalism’ would be achieved, there is plenty of room for debate about what concrete steps are necessary. There are perfectly respectable left-reformist strategies for achieving a break with capitalism that presumably would have a right to a hearing in these debates. But these strategies merge in with proposals that seek to target neoliberalism rather than capitalism itself.

On the other hand, while the LCR are entirely right to oppose as a matter of principle participation in a centre-left government, they can’t assume that everyone attracted to the NPA will share this attitude. On the contrary, many of them may want to see Besancenot in government. 18 per cent in a poll in August 2008 said the PS should come to an understanding with him.

The role of revolutionaries

The underlying problem at work here is that it is the breach in reformism that has given the radical left its opening: how then does it try to draw in people from a reformist background while avoiding the betrayals of reformism – betrayals recapitulated in a highly concentrated way by Bertinotti’s trajectory? The LCR’s solution to the problem seems to be to install a kind of programmatic security lock – commitment to anti-capitalism and opposition to centre-left governments. But this is unlikely to work; the more successful the NPA, the more it is likely to come under reformist pressures and temptations.

When it first became involved in the process of left regroupment at the beginning of the present decade, the Socialist Workers Party came up with its own conception of the nature of the new radical left formations. This was articulated by John Rees when he argued: ‘The Socialist Alliance [the precursor to Respect] is thus best seen as a united front of a particular kind applied to the electoral field. It seeks to unite left reformist activists and revolutionaries in a common campaign around a minimum programme.’ It is extremely fortunate that we refused to liquidate the SWP, since in that case the crisis in Respect would have led, not just to the temporary electoral eclipse of the radical left in Britain, but to a far deeper fragmentation and weakening of the organised socialist left.

The idea that the NPA should conceived as a united front of a particular kind has recently been criticised by one of the project’s main architects, François Sabado:

There isn’t a linear continuity between united front and party, just as ‘politics’ isn’t a simple continuation of the social. There are elements of continuity but also of discontinuity, of specificities, linked precisely to political struggle ... It is from this point of view that it is incorrect to consider the new party as a kind of united front. There is then a tendency to under-estimate the necessary delimitations, to consider the NPA as merely an alliance or a unitary framework – even of a particular kind – and therefore to underestimate its own construction as a framework or a mediation for building the revolutionary leaderships of tomorrow. There is the risk that if we consider the NPA as a kind of united front of making it wage only united front battles. For example, we don’t make the unity of action of the entire workers’ and social movement conditional on an agreement on the question of the government; but is this a reason for the NPA to relativise a struggle over the question of government? No, we don’t think so. The NPA makes the question of government – refusal to participate in governments of class-collaboration – a delimitation of its political fight. That shows, self-evidently on this issue, that the NPA isn’t a kind of united front. Our aim to construct it as a confluence of experiences and activists doesn’t mean that we must give up seeing this party as one of the decisive links of a global political alternative and of an accumulation of class-struggle and even revolutionary cadres for future crises.

Sabado is right in two important respects. First, successfully building the radical left today is a step towards, not away from, the construction of mass revolutionary parties. Second, the fact that radical left formations intervene in the political field shapes their character. Even if their organisational structure is that of a coalition, as that of Respect was, they need to define their global political identity by means of a programme, and function in many ways like a conventional political party, particularly when engaging in electoral activity.

But what the formula of a united front of a particular kind captures is the political heterogeneity that is characteristic of the contemporary radical left. This is more than a matter of the specific history of individual formations: the particular form taken by the crisis of social democracy today has created the conditions for a convergence among elements from the reformist and revolutionary lefts in opposition to social liberalism. The fact that this political convergence is only partial, and in particular doesn’t abolish the choice between reform and revolution, demands organisational structures that, if not explicitly those of a coalition, give the different currents space to breathe and to co-exist. But it also helps to explain the programmatic basis that Sabado seeks to give the NPA, which is essentially against social liberalism rather than against reformism altogether.

It’s very important not to take fright at the political ambiguities that inherent in the contemporary radical left. Any revolutionary worth his or her salt should throw themselves enthusiastically into building these formations. But this doesn’t alter the fact that these ambiguities can lead to a repetition of the kind of disasters to have overtaken the PRC and Respect. More positively, if the NPA is really to see what Sabado calls ‘an accumulation of class-struggle and even revolutionary cadres for future crises’, then this isn’t going to happen automatically. It will require a considerable effort to train the new activists won to the NPA and its like in the revolutionary Marxist tradition. But who is going to undertake this task? Some political education can occur within the framework of the party itself. But this can only be within well-defined limits; otherwise the revolutionaries in the NPA can justifiably be accused of violating the political openness of the party and seeking to exploit its structures to put over their own distinctive politics.

It is right to build the radical left on a broad and open basis, but within the resulting formations revolutionary socialists should organise and fight for their own politics. Both parts of this sentence deserve their proper emphasis. It is a mistake to try to define the boundaries of radical left parties too narrowly. But, while building on a broad and open basis, revolutionary socialists should maintain their own political and organisational identity. The precise form this may take will naturally vary – sometimes an independent organisation participating in a coalition, as the SWP did within the Socialist Alliance and Respect, sometimes a current in a larger organisation. A revolutionary socialist identity within the broader radical left is necessary not for reasons of narrow sectarian loyalty but because the theory and politics of revolutionary Marxism matter.

They matter because they provide an understanding of the logic of capitalism as a system and because they recapitulate the accumulated revolutionary experiences of the past two centuries. Of course, the relevance of such a tradition to the present isn’t something that can be taken for granted. On the contrary, it has to be shown in practice, and this always involves a process of selection, interpretation, and creative development of the tradition. But, because of the importance of practice, revolutionaries must retain the capacity to take their own initiatives. In other words, they should maintain their identity within the broader radical left not as a theoretical debating club but, whatever the circumstances, as an interventionist organisation.

Of course, the presence of organised revolutionaries can be a source of tension within a radical left formation. They can be targeted and denounced by the right within the party. This can be a particular issue if the revolutionaries have a relatively substantial weight, as the SWP did within Respect and as the former LCR will in the NPA. The far-left elements who broke away with Galloway have sought to justify their actions by accusing the SWP of seeking to dominate Respect. This was the opposite of our intention: we would have been very happy to have been a relatively smaller force within a much larger radical left coalition.

The problem was that despite the enormous political upheaval surrounding Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, Galloway was the only leading Labour figure who was prepared to break with the party over the issue. This meant there was a structural instability built into Respect from the start. The coalition was dominated by two forces – Galloway and the SWP. This was fine so long as they worked together relatively harmonious. But a conflict between a revolutionary organisation and a reformist politician was all too likely to develop sooner or later, and, once it happened, there were no other forces powerful enough to contain it.

This structural imbalance is a consequence of the particular form taken by the decline of social democracy today. The social base of reformism shrinks, not thanks to organisational splits, but through a gradual process of attrition. This doesn’t alter the fact that there is a space that the radical left can fill, but it will probably take the form of quite a long-term process of electoral interventions and other campaigns that gradually attract voters and activists. And the erosion of the old reformist social base gives the extreme right an opportunity to appeal to working-class people who feel disenfranchised and unrepresented, as is shown very starkly by the ugly racist forces unleashed by the victory of Berlusconi and his allies in Italy. Hence the importance of the case of Die Linke, where a real crack has taken place in the SPD monolith.

This is one reason why it would be unwise to claim that reformism singing its swan-song, as the LCR sometimes implies, as, for example, when it declares: ‘Social democracy is completing its mutation. After having explained that socialism can be built step by step within the framework of the institutions of the capitalist state, it henceforth accepts its conversion to capitalism, to neoliberal policies.’ This seems to posit a unilinear trend for social-democratic parties to transform themselves into straightforwardly capitalist parties like the Democrats in the United States. As such, it is mistaken.

Reformism can’t be identified simply with specific organisations but arises from workers’ tendency, as long as they lack confidence in their ability to overturn capitalism, to limit their struggles winning improvements within the framework of the existing system. This tendency finds political expression despite the development of social liberalism.

Understanding this is important for immediate political reasons. The attractive power of reformist politics means there is no programmatic or organisational magic bullet that can exclude its influence from the new formations of the radical left. It is precisely for this reason that revolutionaries need to maintain their identity within these formations. The radical left has to be open to reformists if it is to fulfil its potential, but the examples of Bertinotti and Galloway should serve as a reminder that left reformists can move right as well as left.

This is important to bear in mind in the case of Die Linke. Lafontaine has been a bulwark of the left, but, should he decide the time has come to cut a deal with the SPD, he is quite capable of turning on it brutally. But revolutionaries preserving their political and organisational autonomy shouldn’t be seen as a form of sectarian defensiveness. On the contrary, this autonomy should give us the confidence boldly to build the radical left on the broadest and most dynamic basis – but preserving an instrument that will be needed to wage the political battles that any real success will bring.

[Alex Callinicos is professor of politics at the University of York in Britain and a leading member of the SWP.]

The NPA, a new experience of building an anti-capitalist party; a reply to Alex Callinicos

By François Sabado

Certain experiences involve a diversity of currents. Although the political frontiers between these currents do not always appear clearly, on the other hand, in order to go forward, the question of support for or participation in centre-left or social-liberal governments is a fundamental dividing line in the politics of alliances or regroupment.

There are not only “paths that diverge”, but different politics and distinct projects. When Callinicos’s article, “Where is the radical left going?”, evokes “more positive experiences” in connection with Die Linke in Germany and the NPA in France, it is in fact a question of two different projects.

In the case of Die Linke, we are dealing with a left reformist party: a party integrated into the institutions of the German State, a party the great majority of whose members come from the ex-PDS -- the party of the bureaucracy of the former GDR -- a party which has come out in favour of a common government with the SPD, lastly a party whose project of society comes down to the “return to the Welfare State”. Admittedly, this party also reflects, in the west of Germany, a movement of radicalisation of certain sectors of the social movement, a step forward for the workers’ movement. But revolutionaries should not confuse these processes with the leadership of Die Linke, its reformist policies, its subordination to capitalist institutions, and its objectives of participation in government with the SPD.

The NPA on the other hand presents itself as an anti-capitalist party. A party whose centre of gravity is centred on struggles, on the social movements and not in parliamentary institutions, a party whose founding characteristic is the rejection of any alliance or any participation in government with the centre-left or with social-liberalism, a party which does not stop at anti-liberalism but all of whose politics is directed towards a break with capitalism and the overthrow of the power of the ruling classes.

In all these cases, we are confronted with political formations: there are delimitations, programmes, policies, but they are not the same ones.

Anti-capitalist party or united front of a particular kind?

Also, we cannot share the approach of Callinicos on the characterisation of the new formations of the radical left as “a united front of a particular kind”… The SWP’s conceptions were formulated by John Rees, one of their leaders, in the following way: “The Socialist Alliance [the precursor of Respect] is thus best seen as a united front of a particular kind applied to the electoral field. It seeks to unite left reformist activists and revolutionaries in a common campaign around a minimum programme”. [1] This conception, originally linked to the British experience, was generalised as “the SWP’s conception of the nature of the new formations of the radical left”. We disagree with this conception.

To use the term “united front” for the building of a party or a political formation really is an innovation.

The united front is a response to the problems that are posed by the united action or the unification of the workers or of the social movement and of their organisations. The united front and the building of a party are two distinct things. An anti-capitalist and/or revolutionary workers’ party – over and above its precise definition - is a delimited political formation, on the basis of a programme and a comprehensive strategy of conquest of power by and for the workers. An anti-capitalist party cannot be the organic expression of “the whole class”. Even though it must seek to constitute “a new representation of the workers”, or the convergence of a series of political currents, it will nevertheless not make the other currents of the social movement or even the organisations that are “reformist or of reformist origin” led by bureaucratic apparatuses, disappear The question of the united front remains posed.

Why should we not regard anti-capitalist parties as frameworks of the united front? Because if that were the case, it would amount to regarding these parties as a simple alliance or unitary framework - even of a particular kind - and thus to underestimating building them as a framework or a mediation necessary for the emergence of the revolutionary leaderships of tomorrow. To consider the NPA as a united front framework would amount to “toning down” its political positions to make them compatible with the realisation of this united front. For example, we do not make the unity of action of the workers’ and social movement conditional on an agreement on the question of government. Is that a reason for the NPA to give up or even relativise a battle on the question of government? No, we do not think so. The NPA made the question of government – the refusal to participate in governments of class collaboration - a decisive delimitation of its political combat. This example obviously demonstrates, but we could also evoke other examples, that the NPA is not a united front framework. We want to build it as a coming together of experiences, activists and currents but especially as a party. To regard it as a “united front of a particular kind” amounts to underestimating the battles that are necessary in order to build a political alternative. This conception of “a united front of a particular kind around a minimum programme” led the leadership of the SWP to reproach the leadership of the LCR with having “a negative and sometimes ultimatist attitude towards the collectives”, when the LCR was putting at the centre of its political battle the refusal to take part in a government with the leadership of the Socialist Party (PS). With hindsight, dos the leadership of the SWP still think that these reproaches were well-founded?

And today, when Jean Luc Mélenchon, one of the organisers of the socialist left, leaves the PS, while maintaining the continuity of his reformist conceptions, his positions on participation in or support for the Mitterrand and Jospin governments, and declaring that he wants to build a French “Die Linke”, what should be the attitude of revolutionaries? To support him and join in his proposals and projects for alliances with the French Communist Party, which maintains the perspective of governing tomorrow… with the PS, or to take into account his break with the PS, have a positive approach to unity of action with his current, but not confuse the building of an anti-capitalist left with the building of a left reformist party… Once again, yes to unity of action - as we engaged in at the time of the No campaign in the referendum on Europe - and to debate, but knowing that the differences on the relationship to representative institutions and the attitudes concerning the question of government separate the electoral alternatives and the projects of building parties. The building of a French Die Linke, in relation to the history of the revolutionary movement and to what has been accumulated by the NPA, would constitute a retreat for the building of an anti-capitalist alternative. Whereas a whole sector influenced by the anti-capitalist left has taken its distance from the leaderships of the traditional left, to constitute a new left reformist force would represent a a step back for the workers’ movement. We would once again involve all this sector in “reformist manoeuvres”. Conceptions of the type of the “united front of a particular kind” could then disarm us in defining a clear policy vis-à-vis this type of current.

This conception, which underestimates the strategic range of the differences on the questions of government and representative institutions, throws light on some of your international positions. It can thus explain, in the policy of the comrades of the IST in Germany, a relativisation of the critique of the policies of the leadership of Die Linke on the question of participation in governments with the SPD.

In the same way, we can also note the indulgence of the comrades towards the new leadership of bloc Rifondazione Comunista in Italy. At the last congress of Rifondazione, a “left” reaction by its members put the partisans of Bertinotti in a minority. However the policy followed by the new leadership is in continuity with the historical positions of Rifondazione Comunista, and continues to endorse the policy of alliances with the Democratic Party in all the regional executives governed by the centre-left.

Lastly, didn’t this conception of “a united front of a particular kind around a minimum programme” contribute to disarming the leadership of the SWP vis-à-vis Galloway, for whom Respect had to “[sustain] alliances with local Muslim notables who could deliver votes”?

To consider an anti-capitalist party as a united front framework can also lead to sectarian deviations… If the united front is realised, even in a particular form, might we not be tempted to make everything go through the channel of the party, precisely underestimating the real battles for unity of action? Because the anti-capitalist party must combine the party activities of a party and an orientation of unitary action… because we have not forgotten, contrary to what Callinicos suggests, that reformism continues to exist, that the movement of the workers has divisions, differentiations, and that it is necessary to intervene to draw it together, to unify the workers and their organisations.

Once again, the united front, in all its varieties, is one thing. Another thing is the building of a political alternative, which is the choice of the NPA.

What kind of revolutionary party?

Alex Callinicos tries to catch us out by explaining to us that, although the NPA is an anti-capitalist party, it is “not a revolutionary party in the specific sense in which it has been understood in the classical Marxist tradition”. We can discuss the classical Marxist tradition, extremely rich in its diversity.

Depending on the history, the degree of strategic clarification, on principles and organisational tactics, without forgetting the various interpretations of this or that revolutionary current, there are several models. It is true that the NPA is not the replica of the revolutionary organisations of the period after May ‘68. Anti-capitalist parties like the NPA do not start from general historical or ideological definitions. Their starting point is “a common understanding of events and tasks” on the questions that are key for intervening in the class struggle. Not a sum of tactical questions, but the key political questions, like the question of a programme for political intervention around an orientation of class unity and independence.

In this movement, there is a place and even a necessity for other histories, other references coming from the most varied origins.

Does that make it a party without a history, a programme and delimitations? No. It has a history, a continuity: that of class struggles, the best of the socialist, communist, libertarian and revolutionary Marxist traditions. It situates itself in the revolutionary traditions of the contemporary world, basing itself, more precisely, on the long chain of French revolutions from1793 to May ‘68, via the days of 1848, the Paris Commune and the general strike of 1936.

The NPA is also a type of party which tries to answer the needs of a new historical period – which opened at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century - and to the need to refound a socialist programme faced with the combined historical crisis of capitalism and of the environment of the planet.

Faced with such challenges, the NPA affirms itself as a revolutionary party rather in the sense given by Ernest Mandel in the following lines.

“What is a revolution?

A revolution is the radical overthrow, in a short time, of economic structures and (or) political power, by the tumultuous action of broad masses. It is also the abrupt transformation of the mass of the people from a more or less passive object into a decisive actor of political life.

A revolution breaks out when these masses decide to put an end to conditions of existence that seem to them unbearable. It thus always expresses a grave crisis of a given society. This crisis has its roots in a crisis of the structures of domination. But it also expresses a loss of legitimacy of governments, a loss of patience, on the part of broad popular sectors.

Revolutions are, in the end, inevitable – the real locomotives of historical progress - precisely because domination by a class cannot be eliminated by the road of reforms. Reforms can at the most soften it, not suppress it. Slavery was not abolished by reforms. The absolutist monarchy of the ancien regime was not abolished by reforms. Revolutions were necessary in order to eliminate them.”

“Why are we revolutionaries today?”

Ernest Mandel, La Gauche January 10, 1989.

It is true that this definition is more general than the strategic, even politico-military hypotheses which provided the framework for the debates of the 1970s, which were at that time illuminated by the revolutionary crises of the 20th century.

Anti-capitalist parties like the NPA are “revolutionary”, in the sense that they want to put an end to capitalism - “ the radical overthrow of economic and political structures (thus state structures) of power” - and the building of a socialist society implies revolutions where those below drive out those above, and “take the power to change the world”.

They have a strategic programme and delimitations, but these are not completed. Let us recall that Lenin, including against part of the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, changed or substantially modified his strategic framework in April 1917, in the middle of a revolutionary crisis. He went from the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” to the need for a socialist revolution and the power of the workers’ councils… Certainly, Lenin had consolidated over the years a party based on the objective of a radical overthrow of Tsarism, on the refusal of any alliance with the democratic bourgeoisie, and on the independence of the forces of the working-class allied with the peasantry. And this preparatory phase was decisive. But many questions were decided in the very course of the revolutionary process.

Many things have changed compared to the period after May ‘68, and more generally compared to a whole historical period marked by the driving power of the Russian Revolution. It is more than thirty years since the advanced capitalist countries experienced revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations. The examples that we can use are based on the revolutions of the past. But, once again, we do not know what the revolutions of the 21st century will be like. The new generations will learn much from experience and many questions remain open.

What we can and must do is to solidly base the parties that we build on a series of “strong” references, drawn from the experience and the intervention of recent years, which constitute a programmatic and strategic foundation. Let us recall them: an anti-capitalist transitional programme which combines immediate demands and transitional demands, a redistribution of wealth, the challenging of capitalist property, social appropriation of the economy, class unity and independence, a break with the economy and the central institutions of the capitalist state, the rejection of any policy of class collaboration, the taking into account of the ecosocialist perspective, the revolutionary transformation of society…

Recent debates have led us to make more precise our conceptions of violence. We have reaffirmed that “it was not the revolutions that were violent but the counter-revolutions”, as in Spain in 1936 or in Chile in 1973, that the use of violence aimed at protecting a revolutionary process against violence from the ruling classes.

So in what respect does this new party constitute a change with regard to the LCR? It must be a party that is broader than the LCR. A party which does not incorporate the entire history of Trotskyism and which has the ambition of making possible new revolutionary syntheses. A party which is not reduced to the unity of revolutionaries. A party which dialogues with millions of workers and young people. A party which translates its fundamental programmatic references into popular explanations, agitation and formulas. From this point of view, the campaigns of Olivier Besancenot constitute a formidable starting point. A party which is capable of conducting wide-ranging debates on the fundamental questions which affect society: the crisis of capitalism, global warming, bio-ethics, etc. A party of activists and adherents which makes it possible to integrate thousands of young people and workers with their social and political experience, preserving their links with the backgrounds they come from. A pluralist party which brings together a whole series of anti-capitalist currents. We do not want a second LCR or an enlarged and broader version of the LCR. To make a success of the gamble we are taking, this party must represent a new political reality, follow in the tradition of the revolutionary movement, and contribute to inventing the revolutions and the socialism of the 21st century.

To avoid reformist temptations, really build an anti-capitalist party!

In spite of these delimitations, Callinicos remains sceptical: “The LCR’s solution to the problem seems to be to install a kind of programmatic security-lock – commitment to anti-capitalism and opposition to centre-left governments. But this is unlikely to work: the more successful the NPA, the more it is likely to come under reformist pressures and temptations”.

Why such fatalism? Why would the development of the NPA automatically lead to reformist temptations? It is necessary from this point of view to make the difference between a “spontaneous trade-unionism” [2], to take up a formula of Lenin, and reformism as a political project and organisation, and even an apparatus… And this “spontaneous trade-unionism”, although it can constitute an environment that is favourable to reformist ideas, can also, faced with the increasing alignment of the reformist apparatuses on capitalist politics, move towards radical anti-capitalist, even revolutionary, positions, especially when the capitalist system is entering a phase where it is reaching its historical limits. It is logical, if we build a popular, pluralist, broad, open party, that this party will come under all sorts of pressures. If it did not, that would be abnormal. But why should these pressures be expressed in crystallised reformist positions? There is and there can be a tension between the anti-capitalist character of the new party and the fact that workers, young people, even a series of personalities, join the new party quite simply because they seek a real left party, starting in particular from the interventions of Olivier Besancenot.

These new members can indeed be combative but full of illusions. This is the case with every mass party, even one that is in a minority.

That is when it will be necessary to discuss and educate. That implies even more giving a “strong” content to the political responses of the NPA and carefully maintaining the radical character and the independence of the party.

In the same way, if these parties want to play a part in the reorganisation of the social movements, they must be pluralist. Many sensibilities must find their place in their ranks, including “consistent reformist” activists and currents, but that does not automatically mean that the problem is posed in terms of struggles between the revolutionary current and crystallised reformist currents which would have to be fought. The key question is that all the currents and activists of the NPA, over and above their positions on “reform and revolution”, put “the class struggle” at the centre and subordinate their positions in representative institutions to struggles and social movements. Of course, we cannot exclude the hypothesis of a confrontation between reformists and revolutionaries. But it is not very probable, with the present political delimitations of the NPA, that bureaucratic reformist currents will join or crystallise… In a first historical phase of building the party, the role of revolutionaries is to do everything they can so that the process of constitution of the party really does give birth to a new political reality. That implies that revolutionaries avoid projecting the debates of the former revolutionary organisation into the new party. As soon as the NPA has taken off, there will of course be discussions, differentiations, currents. Perhaps certain debates will correspond to cleavages between revolutionary perspectives and more or less consistent reformism. But even in these cases, the debate will not take the form of a political battle opposing a bureaucratic reformist bloc to the revolutionaries. Things will be more mixed, depending on the experience of the new party itself.

Is it necessary to organise, in a separate way, a revolutionary current in the NPA?

There too, there is no model. In many anti-capitalist parties, there are one or more revolutionary currents, when these parties are in fact fronts or federations of currents. This is the case of the militants of the Fourth International in Brazil, in the framework of the “Enlace” current. Without organising themselves as political currents related to the national political life of these parties, certain sections of the Fourth International can be organised in ideological associations or sensibilities. This is for example the case of the ASR within the Left Bloc in Portugal, and of the SAP within the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark. We can also find this type of current in other broader organisations or parties. This schema does not work for the NPA.

First of all for fundamental reasons, namely the anti-capitalist and revolutionary “in the broad sense” character of the NPA, and the general identity of views between the positions of the LCR and those of the NPA. There are and there will of course be political differences between the LCR and the NPA, a greater heterogeneity and a great diversity of positions within the NPA, but the political bases under discussion for the founding congress of the new party already show political convergences between the ex-LCR and the future NPA.

Also, even though the NPA already constitutes another reality than the LCR, even though it is the possible crucible of an anti-capitalist pluralism, it is not justified today to build a separate revolutionary current in the NPA.

There is also a specific relation between the ex-LCR and the NPA. The ex-LCR represents the only national organisation taking part in the constitution of the NPA. There are other currents, like the Fraction of Lutte Ouvriere, the Gauche revolutionnaire, communist activists, libertarians, but there are not, unfortunately, at this stage, organisations of a weight equivalent to that of the LCR.

If that had been the case, the problem would be posed in different terms.

In the present relationship of forces, the separate organisation of the ex-LCR in the NPA would block the process of building the new party. It would install a system of Russian dolls which would only create mistrust and dysfunctions.

Lastly, the NPA does not start from nothing. It results from a whole experience of members of the ex-LCR, but also of thousands of others who have forged an opinion in a battle to defend a line of independence with respect to social liberalism and reformism.

There is thus a militant synergy within the NPA, where revolutionary positions intersect with other political positions coming from other origins, other histories, other experiences. Only new political tests will lead to new alignments within the NPA, not former political attachments…

It is an unprecedented gamble in the history of the revolutionary workers’ movement, but the game is worth the candle.

We will advance as we walk…

[François Sabado is a member of the executive bureau of the Fourth International and of the national leadership of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR, French section of the Fourth International).

Comments

Rival `Left party' formed in France

Der Spiegel 12/01/2008 01:54 PM

COPYCAT REVOLUTIONARIES

France's Brand New 'Left Party'

Over the weekend, ex-Socialist minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon held the "founding meeting" for a new left-wing political force in France. He was joined by a thousand supporters, including Oskar Lafontaine, founder of the German Left Party.

France's crowded and confusing political spectrum got even more complicated over the weekend as an ex-Socialist Senator proclaimed a new "Parti de Gauche" (PG) in a suburban gymnasium outside Paris.

 

Peas in a pod: Jean-Luc Mélenchon (left), launched the first meeting of France's new Left Party on Saturday. In attendance was Oskar Lafontaine, leader and founder of the German Left Party.
DPA

Peas in a pod: Jean-Luc Mélenchon (left), launched the first meeting of France's new Left Party on Saturday. In attendance was Oskar Lafontaine, leader and founder of the German Left Party.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who quit France's troubled Socialist Party (PS) the day before its fractious November conference in Reims, declared his intention at the meeting to "assemble a majority of the left to govern the country," envisaging a broad "front" of left-wing parties, including the French Communist Party (PCF).

Among the meeting's most prominent guests was the German leftist Oskar Lafontaine, who, like Mélenchon, left his own country's Socialist party to found a new grouping under the label "the Left." Lafontaine's success has served as a model and an inspiration for Mélenchon, and he received a long ovation from the supporters in attendance. In a speech given in French, Lafontaine ridiculed the French Socialist Party as "a mouse" and called for a united European left that "refuses to accept rotten compromises."

Also in attendance was the Bolivian ambassador, who read a letter from Bolivian President Evo Morales offering encouragement to his "revolutionary friends" and proclaiming his "excitement" at the "idea of proposing an alternative to fight against capitalism."

A Popular Front against Brussels

The 57-year-old Mélenchon, who was still in secondary school during the student revolts of 1968, served as Trotskyist student leader while at university before joining Mitterand's Socialists in 1977. He started to become disenchanted with the PS after its decision to support the European constitution in France's failed 2005 referendum. Now Mélenchon says he wants to build an alliance with others on the left who formed part the "No" coalition that defeated the Brussels-backed constitution.

"The France of rebellion and revolution has once again found a will, a flag, and a party," declared Mélenchon at the meeting, adding that "there is tremendous opportunity on the left to confront capitalism" and to veer away from "the impotence incarnated by social-liberalism."

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Mélenchon said that he was borrowing his "method" from the German example. The key, as he sees it, is "to first build a front and then see what is possible, instead of -- before setting to work -- proclaiming the need for full political, ideological, and organizational consensus." As he was once advised by Lafontaine, "the best adhesive you can have is (political) success."

Mélenchon's new party faces an already crowded field on the left side of France's political scene. His biggest competition is the young and popular Trotskyist politician Olivier Besancenot, who earlier this year announced his intention to form a "New Anti-Capitalist Party" (NPA).

So far, Mélenchon admits, it is "mostly former Socialist Party colleagues who are flocking to us." Besancenot has been chilly toward Mélenchon thus far, but prospects are looking strong for an alliance between the Left Party and the Communist party during next June's European elections.

Still, the idea of furnishing France with yet another left-wing party is generating its share of skepticism. "All those who have decided to leave the Socialists have flopped," says political scientist Roland Cayrol, founder of the polling institute CSA. Mélenchon's latest contribution to the left-wing deviationist tradition is "an adventure without a future," Cayrol says.

cpg -- with wire reports

URL:

New Left party to compete with Socialists in France

Published: Monday 1 December 2008   

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a senator who left the French Socialist party earlier this month, launched a new radical political force this weekend in a move that is set to further divide socialists in the country ahead of next year's European elections.

Mélenchon officially launched the Left Party ('Parti de gaucheexternal '; PG) together with co-founder Marc Dolez on Saturday (29 November) during a meeting held in the Seine Saint-Denis region near Paris. 

The meeting, which gathered between 1,000 and 2,000 activists according to AFP (3,000 according to the PG), was attended by Oskar Lafontaine, a former finance minister under Gerhard Schröder who left the German SPD to found Die Linke in 2005.

The PG's immediate objective will be to launch a "left front", in association with the Communist Party, that will compete with the Socialists in view of the European elections next June, Mélenchon said.

Speaking at the meeting, Lafontaine said the left front would stand resolutely and "refuse the rotten compromises" of the Socialist parties in France, Germany and the rest of Europe. There is "an immense availability on the left to fight capitalism, to go off the beaten track of powerlessness embodied by social liberalism," added Mélenchon.

Writing on his blog, Mélenchon denouncedexternal  "the decay of the Socialist Party" in France, which was torn by internal rivalries when it elected its new leader a week ago. He said the party had now "collapsed" as a result of its "dreams of an alliance with the centre that would put it in line with the other social democratic parties of Europe".

On Europe, the PG vows to "pull together" voters for the European elections in June, via a programme based on "the refusal of the Lisbon Treaty and of the liberal policies which it contains."

"The Left Party is the tool which is at the service of this task."

Benoît Hamon, a French Socialist MEP who leads the left wing of the Socialist Party, reacted with scepticism to the creation of the PG. "One will need to explain how something which divides the Left can bring it back to power with a clear line," he told Canal+ television. "Here is one additional house on the Left, I think we have enough already." 

The PG's launch took place just days before a congress of the Party of European Socialists, which meets on 1-2 December to adopt its manifesto for the European elections. The French Socialist Party will be represented by its new leader, Martine Aubry, who is seen as the embodiment of the party's more leftist wing.

Links

Political Groups Parti de Gauche: Website

New Statesman: Socialism's comeback

Neil Clark

Published 04 December 2008

http://www.newstatesman.com/europe/2008/12/socialist-party-socialism

At the beginning of the century, the chances of socialism making a return looked close to zero. Yet now, all around Europe, the red flag is flying again

"If socialism signifies a political and economic system in which the government controls a large part of the economy and redistributes wealth to produce social equality, then I think it is safe to say the likelihood of its making a comeback any time in the next generation is close to zero," wrote Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, in Time magazine in 2000.

He should take a trip around Europe today.

Make no mistake, socialism - pure, unadulterated socialism, an ideology that was taken for dead by liberal capitalists - is making a strong comeback. Across the continent, there is a definite trend in which long-established parties of the centre left that bought in to globalisation and neoliberalism are seeing their electoral dominance challenged by unequivocally socialist parties which have not.

The parties in question offer policies which mark a clean break from the Thatcherist agenda that many of Europe's centre-left parties have embraced over the past 20 years. They advocate renationalisation of privatised state enterprises and a halt to further liberalisation of the public sector. They call for new wealth taxes to be imposed and for a radical redistribution of wealth. They defend the welfare state and the rights of all citizens to a decent pension and free health care. They strongly oppose war - and any further expansion of Nato.

Most fundamentally of all, they challenge an economic system in which the interests of ordinary working people are subordinated to those of capital.

Nowhere is this new leftward trend more apparent than in Germany, home to the meteoric rise of Die Linke ("The Left"), a political grouping formed only 18 months ago - and co-led by the veteran socialist "Red" Oskar Lafontaine, a long-standing scourge of big business. The party, already the main opposition to the Christian Democrats in eastern Germany, has made significant inroads into the vote for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in elections to western parliaments this year, gaining representation in Lower Saxony, Hamburg and Hesse. Die Linke's unapologetically socialist policies, which include the renation alisation of electricity and gas, the banning of hedge funds and the introduction of a maximum wage, chime with a population concerned at the dismantling of Germany's mixed economic model and the adoption of Anglo-Saxon capitalism - a shift that occurred while the SPD was in government.

An opinion poll last year showed that 45 per cent of west Germans (and 57 per cent of east Germans) consider socialism "a good idea"; in October, another poll showed that Germans overwhelmingly favour nationalisation of large segments of the economy. Two-thirds of all Germans say they agree with all or some of Die Linke's programme.

It's a similar story of left-wing revival in neighbouring Holland. There the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), which almost trebled its parliamentary representation in the most recent general election (2006), and which made huge gains in last year's provincial elections, continues to make headway.

Led by a charismatic 41-year-old epidemiologist, Agnes Kant, the SP is on course to surpass the Dutch Labour Party, a member of the ruling conservative-led coalition, as the Netherlands' main left-of centre grouping.

The SP has gained popularity by being the only left-wing Dutch parliamentary party to campaign for a "No" vote during the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty and for its opposition to large-scale immigration, which it regards as being part of a neoliberal package that encourages flexible labour markets.

The party calls for a society where the values of "human dignity, equality and solidarity" are most prominent, and has been scathing in its attacks on what it describes as "the culture of greed", brought about by "a capitalism based on inflated bonuses and easy money". Like Die Linke, the SP campaigns on a staunchly anti-war platform - demanding an end to Holland's role as "the US's lapdog".

In Greece, the party on the up is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), the surprise package in last year's general election. As public opposition to the neoliberal econo mic policies of the ruling New Democracy government builds, SYRIZA's opinion-poll ratings have risen to almost 20 per cent - putting it within touching distance of PASOK, the historical left-of-centre opposition, which has lurched sharply to the right in recent years. SYRIZA is particularly popular with young voters: its support among those aged 35 and under stands at roughly 30 per cent in the polls, ahead of PASOK.

In Norway, socialists are already in power; the ruling "red-green" coalition consists of the Socialist Left Party, the Labour Party and the Centre Party. Since coming to power three years ago, the coalition - which has been labelled the most left-wing government in Europe, has halted the privatisation of state-owned companies and made further development of the welfare state, public health care and improving care for the elderly its priorities.

The success of such forces shows that there can be an electoral dividend for left-wing parties if voters see them responding to the crisis of modern capitalism by offering boldly socialist solutions. Their success also demonstrates the benefits to electoral support for socialist groupings as they put aside their differences to unite behind a commonly agreed programme.

For example, Die Linke consists of a number of internal caucuses - or forums - including the "Anti-Capitalist Left", "Communist Platform" and "Democratic Socialist Forum". SYRIZA is a coalition of more than ten Greek political groups. And the Dutch Socialist Party - which was originally called the Communist Party of the Netherlands, has successfully brought socialists and communists together to support its collectivist programme.

It is worth noting that those European parties of the centre left which have not fully embraced the neoliberal agenda are retaining their dominant position. In Spain, the governing Socialist Workers' Party has managed to maintain its broad left base and was re-elected for another four-year term in March, with Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero promising a "socialist economic policy" that would focus on the needs of workers and the poor.

There are exceptions to the European continent's shift towards socialism. Despite the recent election of leftist Martine Aubry as leader of the French Socialist Party, the French left has been torn apart by divisions, at the very moment when it could be exploiting the growing unpopularity of the Sarkozy administration.

And, in Britain, despite opinion being argu ably more to the left on economic issues than at any time since 1945, few are calling for a return to socialism.

The British left, despite promising initiatives such as September's Convention of the Left in Manchester, which gathered representatives from several socialist groups, still remains fragmented and divided. The left's espousal of unrestricted or loosely controlled immigration is also, arguably, a major vote loser among working-class voters who should provide its core support. No socialist group in Britain has as yet articulated a critique of mass immigration from an anti-capitalist and anti-racist viewpoint in the way the Socialist Party of the Netherlands has.

And even if a Die Linke-style coalition of progressive forces could be built and put on a formal footing in time for the next general election, Britain's first-past-the-post system provides a formidable obstacle to change.

Nevertheless, the prognosis for socialism in Britain and the rest of Europe is good. As the recession bites, and neoliberalism is discredited, the phenomenon of unequivocally socialist parties with clear, anti-capitalist, anti-globalist messages gaining ground, and even replacing "Third Way" parties in Europe, is likely to continue.

Even in Britain, where the electoral system grants huge advantage to the established parties, pressure on Labour to jettison its commitment to neoliberal policies and to adopt a more socialist agenda is sure to intensify.

 

Alan Krivine on France’s new Anti-Capitalist Party

Socialist Worker (UK), December 9, 2008

Alain Krivine of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) spoke to Socialist Worker about the conference in January that will found a new party, now known as the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA).

Alain explained that the new party has emerged out of a period of consultations involving some 400 local committees across France.

These meetings have involved tens of thousands of people in a discussion on forming a party that can give expression to growing anger at the neoliberal policies of president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The meetings have drawn in activists from the women’s, anti-racist and environmental movements as well as communists, socialists, revolutionaries and libertarians.

Alain said that the size and diversity of the meetings has raised the confidence of the revolutionary left in France.

He said, “For many people this is a new experience, as they have never been in a political organisation. It is taking time to explain the work we need to do, how parties work, and even the vocabulary that is being used.

“These people are shaping the foundations of this new party.

“Many of the discussions, especially with the young people, are on questions such as whether we should be part of trade unions – many of them feel that union leaders have betrayed us.”

In an open letter to members and sympathisers the LCR recently announced, “We want to establish a new political movement more important than our party.

“One that will have a presence in all schools, colleges and universities, towns villages and working class areas.

“Even though the new party has not yet been officially launched we are already part of the politics in France.

“Whenever there is a political debate on the radio or TV we are invited on.”

The most well-known person in the LCR is Olivier Besancenot, a postal worker and the LCR’s presidential candidate. Besancenot is a regular guest on political talk shows and debates.

Movements

There have been huge movements in France over the past few years against the European Constitution – which was defeated – and a new labour law that attacked young and part-time workers.

Social discontent among the belts of misery that surround most French towns and cities exploded into weeks of rioting in 2005.

The new party will be launched during a period of deep crisis in capitalism, Alain said.

Its main aim is to give a political and organisational expression to this mood of rebellion and defiance.

“It has become a real political subject across the left in France,” Alain said.

“The Socialist Party and the Communist Party have had to take account of this new party.

“It is already involved in the social campaigns and the strikes. Already on demonstrations we have contingents marching behind the NPA banner.

“Next June we expect to stand candidates in the European elections.”

Discussions about the NPA’s formation have now reached a crucial stage as “initiative committees” will produce three documents to be presented at the founding conference of the party at the end of January.

Alain explained, “The first document will set out our programme.

“It is not definitive, but it will outline some of the principles and political points of the new party.

“There are questions such as what kind of party we want, its links to the state, of reform and revolution, and so on.

“The second document includes political resolutions that will guide us for the next few months such as decisions concerning standing candidates in the upcoming European elections.

Discussing

“The third document will set out how the party will function over the next two or three years.

“These will not be the statutes of the new party, as we need to spend more time on discussing the details.

“These documents will be presented to a vote at the congress which will then elect a leadership.”

Alain said that those involved in this new formation are feeling optimistic.

“Our confidence comes from the present situation – especially the economic crisis – because now many people understand that capitalism is not the only way to organise society.

“Many people also feel that with the political crisis inside the reformist left many members of the Socialist Party will join us.”

© Copyright Socialist Worker (unless otherwise stated). You may republish if you include an active link to the original and leave this notice in place.

Debate erupts within SWP over Respect, party democracy

All at http://www.socialistunity.com/

14 December, 2008
SWP - WHERE WE STAND
Filed under: SWP — admin @ 2:17 pm

Editorial Note: We are advised by the person who sent it to us that the following is not an internal SWP document, it has been distributed beyond the ranks of the membership.

by John Rees

Many people have asked me in recent weeks what are the politics behind the current
argument in the SWP. The debate is currently focussed on what happened in Respect.
Many of us were deeply involved with the Respect project, and felt a great deal of
disappointment at its outcome. We all deserve a full examination of this experience. But this is not what we are getting in the pre-conference period. And the debate concerns a lot
more than Respect and most comrades have been given no information about these wider
disagreements.

I have always hesitated to take these arguments beyond the Central Committee. I remember from the internal fights in the 1970s that such debates can be damaging as well as enlightening. But I now think that we have no choice but to initiate a full and wideranging debate in the SWP. This document deals with the following key issues.

1 There is a serious debate to be had about the experience of Respect. But this
should be an informed political discussion not a personalised blame-game that
distorts both the facts and the general lessons that can be drawn from our recent
electoral work.

2 The personalised and restricted nature of the discussion so far obscures the fact
that four Central Committee members (Lindsey German, Chris Nineham, Chris
Bambery and I) have raised a number of issues that have resulted in sharp
disagreements on the CC over the last year. These are: recruitment to the party,
the SWP’s slow response to the recession and the CC majority’s failure to support
the Charter.

3 The nature of leadership in our party. This is now being contested by a number of
comrades, including those who support Neil Davidson’s document in Internal Bulletin 3, but also by some CC members.

I’d like now to look at these issues in turn.

The context of the debate

The crisis in the SWP is the most serious for many years. There are many issues in this
debate. But one aspect of the debate, the crisis in Respect, is being handled in a
personalised and destructive way. The decision to remove me from the CC slate for
conference has not been argued in political terms. It was taken so late in the preconference discussion period that there could be no written discussion on the reasons for this decision.

The CC majority has since rejected the proposal of Chris Bambery and Chris Nineham
that it should produce an additional bulletin to allow for this discussion before Christmas.
This document attempts to discuss some of the political differences that have arisen in the
last year. It also examines what actually happened in Respect and answers some of the
charges against those of us involved in it. Finally, it examines wider problems in the
party and it attempts to take up some of the points made in Neil Davidson’s document
‘Leadership, membership and democracy in the revolutionary party’ in Internal Bulletin
#3.

The immediate problem has been that despite the fact that all important decisions taken
during the Respect crisis were agreed, argued out and defended collectively by the
Central Committee, the majority of the CC have since decided to respond to disquiet in
the party by personalising the issues rather than continuing to discuss and argue them out in a serious way.

But there are deeper, underlying issues that have contributed to the crisis. First the
weakness of our recruitment and, second, a failure to convince a large enough section of
the party of the importance of the various united fronts we have been involved in since
Seattle. In the process what has also emerged is a more general move away the traditional style of leadership in a Leninist party.

Taken together these problems have generated a sense of paralysis in the party that has
meant that we have been unable to respond with anything like our usual decisiveness and
élan to the worst economic crisis since the 1930’s.

The Respect crisis

The demise of Respect led to disorientation and disappointment in the party. Many
people put a great deal into building it and hoped that it would be a genuine left
alternative to Labour. The split not only meant that both sides failed to create that
alternative and for many that hope is now more distant. The CC document deals with a
number of the more general points about how the project went wrong. Here I want to add
my own views and to explain the actions that I took.

Firstly, Respect was always a coalition involving forces that came together in the antiwar
movement. Much of the left including the Communist Party of Britain abstained
from the beginning, as did other left Labour MPs. So we were left with George Galloway,
a talented and high profile anti-war campaigner but one whose record historically was not
on the hard left of Labour; radicalised Muslims; a number of other activists radicalised by
the war and disenchanted with Labour, and the far left, predominantly ourselves.

This coalition worked relatively well for the first two years and reached a high point with
the election of Galloway in 2005. But things began to go wrong after that, largely as the
result of the pressures of electoralism. Political differences in Tower Hamlets and
Birmingham especially turned into acrimonious disputes over questions such as selection
of candidates. But these arguments were about much more than tactical decisions made
by local or national comrades.

They expressed two very different approaches to building Respect that became
increasingly polarised: on the one hand our comrades and our allies tried to pull it
leftwards by emphasising trade union work and OFFU, attempting to broaden Respect
generally and by campaigning over issues such as LGBT and women’s rights. On the
other a growing opportunist strand increasingly prioritised electoral success at almost any
cost. This strengthening of the right took place against the ebbing of the very strong anti
war sentiment. The events of 7/7 also had a profoundly demoralising effect on sections of
the Muslim community.

As we tacked left tensions grew. And once Gordon Brown made his (eventually abortive)
run for an early general election in the late summer of 2007 it became clear that George
Galloway was not going to wait for the London mayoral election before he struck.

It is sometimes said by CC members that they knew nothing of these tensions. That is
simply untrue; they were repeatedly brought to the CC. And in early 2007 an NC was
devoted to the emerging problems and the strategy of tacking left was discussed. Kevin
Ovenden and Nick Wrack both made coded defences of the status quo in Respect. Kevin
Ovenden argued we couldn’t move beyond the ‘three-legged stool’ of the SWP plus
Galloway plus radicalised Muslims and was criticised by other comrades, notably Charlie
Kimber.

We also attempted to strengthen the Respect office politically and asked two comrades,
one now on the CC and one a former CC member to take on the work. Both refused for
different reasons, and maybe we should have tried harder to find other people to work
there. In my speech on Strategy and Tactics to 400 people at Marxism 2007 I placed
heavy emphasis on the need for a revolutionary party to be able to act independently of
its allies and flagged up the problems in Respect as fully as was possible in a public
forum. It is therefore obviously the case that the CC recognised a series of political
problems and tried to address them.

This political account of the history of Respect has been presented before. No doubt it
can be added to. Unfortunately at the moment it appears that in some circles it is being
abandoned. To reduce the complex history of the very real successes and the
demoralising demise of Respect to the failures of one comrade is doing a disservice to
everyone who was involved or wants to learn from the experience.

But the real question before the party now is how we handle this reverse. First let us
gauge the dimensions of the reverse. It is a reverse in one area of the SWP’s work and it
is a reverse for the left, not for the whole working class. It cannot be compared, for
instance, to the defeat of the 1984-85 miners strike.

Nevertheless, for the SWP, it is a serious issue. There are two possible ways we could go.
We can handle it as we did the decline and eventual closure of the ANL in the late 1970s
and early 1980s. As the threat of the Nazis receded we gradually, though not without
argument, altered the focus of our activity and kept with us many who had joined the
SWP as a result of the ANL’s activity. We were then in the best position to resume action
on this front when, year’s later, it became necessary. Or we can go the way of the
Militant after they led the anti-poll tax campaign~internal recrimination, splits and
decline.

It would be better if we laid aside the whole framework of personal recrimination and
focussed on the emerging political debate in the SWP, much of which is not about what
happened in Respect. But to do this we must address some issues repeatedly raised by the
CC majority either in public debate or as part of a whispering campaign.

The first is the issue of accountability. Of course every member and especially CC
members have to be accountable. In general CC members are accountable given the high
visibility of their work, and rightly so. However, there has never been an area of party
work that has undergone such scrutiny as the Respect work. The CC, or sub committees
of it, met daily or several times a week during the Respect crisis. It is certainly true that if
other areas of work were subject to the same detailed investigation there would be many
things that could be questioned. And it is worth repeating that the Central Committee
agreed all the substantive decisions that were made. The question is thus raised why have
the CC majority chosen to focus on this issue when they know that there are wider
political differences at stake that have been debated at the CC across the last 12 months?

The central question raised in discussions about my accountability is the OFFU cheque.
But the issue of the OFFU cheque was supposed to have been resolved at last year’s
conference, when I apologised to the whole conference. It is being deliberately used a
year later to renew a factional attack on the CC minority. I apologised for not having
looked at the background of the cheque more carefully and for only reporting it to Alex
Callinicos, Chris Bambery and Lindsey German (the sub-group of the CC who were
involved in the discussions with Galloway) rather than the whole CC.

It should however be recalled that after the first meeting with Galloway where he raised
this issue there was a report back meeting held at ULU on the following Friday evening
which was attended by hundreds of SWP members. Alex Callinicos gave the report of the
meeting with Galloway. He reported the cheque issue as a ‘minor financial issue of the
sort that always arises in faction fights.’ When the PFI element of the argument was
introduced into the discussion by Galloway’s press officer in a later letter Alex described
this as ‘just more psychological warfare from Galloway’. At no time did he think it
sufficiently important to report it to the whole CC himself or to revise his account given
to the SWP members meeting.

But contrast treatment of the OFFU cheque with another donation made to a united front
earlier this year. UAF received a £75,000 cheque from the singer Morrissey in the run up
to the LMHR Carnival. This was never reported to the CC. Morrissey was at that time
embroiled in the court case arising from the NME’s accusation that he had made racist
remarks during an interview with an NME journalist. The donor of the OFFU cheque got
nothing in return for his money~no publicity, no soft-peddling on PFI. But Morrissey did
get something for his money~anti-racist credentials during a court case in which he was
accused of racism.

Should we have accepted this cheque? We were never given the chance to discuss it.
Earlier money for the Carnival from the NME might also be an issue for debate. The
NME is published by IPC, a firm with an anti-union record. Moreover it also publishes
Nuts and Loaded. The former’s advertising slogan was ‘The best boobs in Britain, get
them every week’. Should we have taken the money?

My view is that if the only way of saving the Carnival was to take the money, then we
should have done. We are not moralists but Marxists for whom the advance of the
struggle sometimes requires difficult compromises. After all, Lenin accepted the help of
the German state in the midst of war to return to Russia even though he was accused of
being a German spy ever after.

What is objectionable is that those who took this money, didn’t report it to the CC, and
then attack the decision over the OFFU cheque. The only difference in these cases is that
Galloway cynically used the OFFU cheque and reported it to a state body in order to
destroy OFFU and embarrass the SWP. The CC majority should have said this, while
acknowledging the mistake. Instead they divided their own leadership over an issue that
had no bearing on the split in Respect since Galloway only used the issue after the split
had happened.

The other major episode cited in the debate is the Left Alternative NC in early September
at which Lindsey German, Chris Bambery and I resigned. Martin Smith has claimed we
‘blew up’ the NC and that our plans were unknown to the rest of the CC. This is untrue. It
was agreed some weeks previously with a sub committee of the CC that none of us would
stay on the NC since we all took collective responsibility for what had happened. We
assumed that this would be communicated to the rest of the CC, since we had also given
up responsibility for the work. I personally raised at three successive CC’s that someone
needed to take responsibility for the LA, although we were then accused of not
sufficiently preparing for the meeting.

We did not ‘blow up’ the meeting. It would always going to be a difficult meeting
because many people on the committee, especially the non-members but also some
members, did not agree with the decision. What was needed was a recognition that
actions by the party leadership were not popular among some Left Alternative members
and a degree of patient argument was needed to win those people over.

As in the case of the OFFU cheque, these events were debated in a highly confrontational
manner at the party NC. The majority produced a resolution saying that I was no longer
responsible for electoral work (a resolution which had already been agreed some time
before by the whole CC). The minority was told that no resolution would be put before
the NC. An hour before the meeting we were told that there would be a resolution and we
were not given the opportunity to put our names to it. We were then baited when we
argued, truthfully, that we had no disagreement with it, as it was in fact a CC document
previously circulated to the SWP members on the Left Alternative NC at my specific
request.

However traumatic that meeting was, we were told by Martin Smith and others that it
would be the end of the matter. Alex Callinicos said in the meeting itself that there was
no question of this episode bringing in to question my membership of the Central
Committee. Far from being the end of the affair, the NC became the launch pad for a
series of lies. First that Lindsey never told CC members about her resignation plans and,
second, that Lindsey, Chris and I broke party discipline even though the one other CC
member at the Left Alternative NC meeting, Charlie Kimber, has clearly stated that there
was no breach of discipline.

We are also told that the CC minority ‘want to continue electoral work’. This is a
continuing accusation despite the fact that in my resignation speech to the Left
Alternative NC I said that: ‘there will be no opening for a left of Labour electoral project
at least until after the next general election’. This was exactly in line with the original
assessment that he gave at the Left Alternative NC on June 28th and which is recorded in
the minutes of that meeting:

‘John Rees, National Secretary, delivered a report on the recent defections of the councillors and opened a discussion on our direction for the future.
It was agreed that we need to adapt as an organisation to the changing political climate and concentrate on grass roots campaigns as opposed to a top-down approach.

There was agreement that we could not work in the same way as the immediate past but that our role in campaigns should be as a unifying factor that provides a wider political argument and in the wider political movements as providing links via some activities and newsletters.

It was noted that the political situation outside of London is different and more positive. It was agreed that we assemble work around the Charter.’

This is precisely the formulation still be used by the rest of the CC. But the CC majority
need to invent a difference on this issue to justify their attacks on the CC minority.
If we are to have a full assessment of the Respect experience we have to look at the
whole context as well as the series of tactical decisions made. In this light we should
acknowledge the present difficulties of those who stayed in Respect: George Galloway is
clearly moving back towards Labour, witness his endorsement not just of Ken
Livingstone but of the candidates in the Glasgow East and Glenrothes elections. It looks
extremely unlikely that he will contest Poplar and Limehouse in the next election,
Respect having come third behind Labour and the Tories in a recent by election in Tower
Hamlets. Alan Thornett’s group have now produced a document arguing that they have to
try to pull Respect to the left _ exactly the argument that the SWP put in the past. This is
further evidence that the tensions in Respect were not about individuals but about
politics.

There has been a personalising of the argument to an extent unprecedented inside the
party. The CC majority claim that I am the problem and they are happy to continue with
Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and Chris Bambery on the CC. Yet they know that all
four of us have held the same political positions throughout this crisis. We are already
hearing that some CC members are telling people that they want others of us removed
from the CC. Of course this will be denied. But then Alex Callinicos solemnly promised
the last NC that the resolution over electoral work and my removal from the work had
nothing to do with trying to get me off the CC and that he would personally oppose such
a move. Comrades will judge for themselves how to take his more recent assurances.

How the division began: the first argument over recruitment

The first serious division on the CC was not over the crisis in Respect. But immediately
after the Respect split last November there was a discussion on the CC about SWP
recruitment. It seemed obvious to us that party recruitment was lower than it should be
and that the end of the Respect project and the interregnum in the ‘war on terror’ meant
that we could launch full scale a recruitment campaign.

Lindsey German produced a paper for the CC suggesting this and that another worker
should be appointed to assist Martin Smith in recruitment (see Appendix 1). The reaction
from Martin Smith was instantaneous: he refused to discuss the idea with Lindsey and
attacked her so forcefully at the CC that Alex Callinicos, the chair of the CC, later
apologised for not having stopped this attack. Lindsey withdrew the proposal over
recruitment. Two weeks later Martin Smith launched the attack over the OFFU cheque.
Why was recruitment such an important and explosive issue? The lack of party growth
stands behind much of the discontent in the SWP at the moment. The question behind the
questions is ‘Why have we not grown as much as we should have done through the
period of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements?’

The SWP has thrown itself into these movements, led many of them, and gained
enormous respect. We have recruited from among the best activists in the movements and
there is no doubt we would now be much a smaller and older organisation had we not
taken this turn. However it is also true that recruitment has not fully matched
expectations. Why?

There is part of the explanation that is objective: the nature of the radicalisation that has
taken place. This has largely been a deep seated (but nevertheless mostly) political
reaction to neo-liberalism and war. And in Britain at least, the lack of a real specifically
class dimension, the decay of the Labour left and the level of industrial struggle made the
argument for socialism and the power of the working class less obvious than would
otherwise be the case.

Nevertheless, even within this limitation we should have grown more. On reflection it
appears we made a double error in the course of the last 10 years. Firstly we did not insist
that every SWP member should fight to build the united fronts. Secondly we did not
party-build systematically enough while we were involved in the united front. These are,
of course, contradictory aims and therefore hard to combine in practice. But we could
have done better than we did.

To understand what is necessary, lets look at these two propositions more carefully. First,
the turn to the united fronts in the 1990s, especially forcefully after 1999. The eruption of
this phase of struggle came after a long 20-year period of stability in the SWP. The basic
branch structure and propaganda orientation established in the early 1980s was still in
place. Of course we had been involved in struggles and united front activity during this
period as well~but not on the scale, duration or in the same depth as we were after 1999.
When we helped create Globalise Resistance, the Stop the War Coalition and Respect we
largely adopted a method of charging forward with those comrades who were willing to
move. The demands of the time were great and time was short. We argued a perspective,
largely accepted by the party, and fought to make as much progress in building these
mass campaigns as we could. But a significant section of the membership, while not
openly or effectively opposing the perspective, remained rooted in the old party
structures and habits of mind. They felt uncomfortable with the party’s evolution, critical
of a ‘move away from Leninism’ and so on.

Over time this produced a differential experience among party members. Some
understanding the needs and challenges of the united front, others unhappy that the SWP
seemed to be forgetting the truths of revolutionary socialism as they had been taught
them in an earlier phase of the struggle. This gap mattered less as we rushed forward and
encountered no reverses. But it has cost us a great deal when we encountered a problem
in Respect. Too many people encountered this as an external threat caused by the specific
behaviour of comrades in this area of work rather than as a problem that we were all
engaged in and had to solve collectively.

We should have done more to win these comrades to active involvement in the united
front so that we all shared the view that we needed to party build through the united front
and not in opposition to it.

But these comrades also had a point. The SWP should have found ways of recruiting
more effectively from the movements. But this error cannot be blamed only on those
comrades who were most centrally involved in Stop the War. There is always a division
of labour in the party, and that applies to the leadership as well. We attempted to continue
to play a central role in party building long after the united fronts began. Lindsey German
and I continued to edit Socialist Review and the ISJ respectively until 2004 _ several
years after we began Stop the War. The truth is that there has not been single minded and
systematic attention to recruitment. That is the responsibility of the whole leadership.
The recruitment figures given in Internal Bulletin 1 show some success but they do not
tell us about party growth because they only tell us about those who have joined not those
who have left. Retention is the vital issue here. But because of the permanent financial
crisis in the SWP retention is primarily addressed by the CC majority as a question of
paying direct debit. This is not necessarily a sign of active engagement in the party. A
member can pay a direct debit and be just as passive and inactive as those who do not.
The retention issue is not being addressed politically by strategy of actively engaging
members in both the work of the united fronts and the party.

The recruitment issue was, as we have seen, the origin of the first major conflict on the
CC last November~not the Respect crisis. The weakness of recruitment~alongside the
leaderships handling of events~has been a major reason why the split in Respect has
turned into a crisis for the SWP. It has contributed to a sense of paralysis in the party.
Even now recruitment takes place at sporadically organised rallies rather than at monthly
public meetings. Such regular recruitment meetings would act as a focus for branches and
improve the flow of new recruits, making the branches more habitable for new and old
comrades alike. In the past Socialist Worker would have been used as a bridge pulling
people from the movements into recruitment events, interviewing new members,
reporting on recruitment rallies. But for the paper to act in this way it has to have
something more than the current rate of recruitment to report.

The result of not following this course is that the party structure and the active
membership are in a worse condition than at any time since the early 1980s. Preconference
aggregates involved perhaps a sixth of the membership. It is unlikely that total
branch attendance is any greater on average. There is a division in the membership and
the active membership is in crisis.

The apparatus of the party has increased its weight in relation to the membership. The
full-timers now often substitute for an active membership rather than being given a
strategy to develop an active membership. This has, in the recent debate, created a
bullying and intimidatory atmosphere where the apparatus of the party plays a far larger
role in the internal debate than it has done in the past when the membership was more
active and party structures better attended. The recruitment crisis has also become a
financial crisis as the membership cannot sustain the apparatus inherited from a previous
era.

The majority of the leadership have reacted to this crisis by blaming it all on the reverse
in Respect~generating an atmosphere in which any united front is now being viewed with
suspicion by some sections of the membership. This view is not being effectively
countered by a divided leadership and is being encouraged by some sections of the
leadership.

This situation has had its impact on the SWPs response to the recession that has been late
in general and especially hesitant on the question of the united front.

The recession and the confusion in the SWP leadership
The current economic crisis did not begin with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in
September 2008. It was obvious at least from the collapse Northern Rock a year ago.
There is no theoretical agreement on the CC about the likely depth and length of the
recession. In the course of attacking me for saying that the SWP had been late in
responding to the recession Chris Harman told the last NC that we had no idea how deep
the recession would be on the very day that Lehman Brothers collapsed. Just a day later
Martin Smith opened a joint CC and local organisers meeting with the words ‘we’ve been
late on the recession.’ In the Manchester pre-conference aggregate Alex Callinicos
admitted that he had been late in seeing the depth of the recession because he did not
want to seem like one of those Marxists who are always claiming there is going to be a
crisis of capitalism.

The division in the CC that began over the double crisis over weak recruitment and
Respect, widened by the response to the OFFU cheque, has impeded our response to the
recession. When Lindsey German and I first raised the issue of the Charter in May it was
rejected by the CC. When it was eventually won Martin Smith introduced it to the NC as
a petition, but had to retreat under criticism from the floor from comrades who saw in it
much greater potential.

This attitude towards the Charter still persists. The lines of division are slightly different
to those over Respect but they have still badly hampered our ability to respond to the
unrolling economic crisis. Despite the fact that the Charter has been the most successful
form of united front response to the recession the SWP did not prioritise the recent
Charter/UCU rally with Tony Benn, as Charlie Kimber admitted. The result was the
almost impossible to achieve audience of just 120 for a Benn rally.

For a substantial period of the summer and autumn this confusion took another form: the
John McDonnell/PCS initiative Public Sector not Private Profit was run by the CC as a
possible response to the recession. In the discussion at the CC on this issue we pointed
out that this initiative, though having the advantage of some union support, was slow and
controlled by forces hostile to the SWP, notably McDonnell’s office. The Charter was in
some ways as broad and it was faster to move and it allowed the SWP to play a leading
role, we argued. Nevertheless SWP members had to go through months of organising
PSNPP meetings before Martin Smith finally announced at the autumn Party Council that
PSNPP was ‘too slow’ to respond to the recession. Since then this initiative has been
unceremoniously dropped without discussion or debate.

Some of the practical confusion about the Charter has now resulted in theoretical
confusion about the Charter and the united front in general. The current International
Socialism doesn’t actually name the Charter but it is clear that this it is the intended target
of this passage: ‘Struggles will arise over wages, housing, fuel poverty, the health
service, against racism and war. Inevitably many of these will break out when people
least expect them. There cannot be a single plan, drawn up in advance, on how to react.
What will matter will be the capacity to respond pragmatically to movements and
struggles that arise locally or nationally…’ (p.11)

Now of course there will be unforeseen struggles and of course we will have to relate to
them and attempt to influence them. But the recession is well underway and we know
some of the issues that concern people. We should be already developing tools (like the
Charter but not exclusively the Charter) that seek to provide a political focus for
resistance and to organise protest.

It is simply not a perspective to say ‘something will turn up’. Politics is always
unpredictable. But this should not prevent us from developing a perspective even if we
have to change it (or even abandon it) at a later date. To do anything else is simply
‘tailism’ as the Bolsheviks used to call it. It leaves us disarmed in the face of initiatives
taken by other political forces, often smaller than us, who are not content to ‘wait and
see’.

There are undoubtedly great opportunities for socialist propaganda at the moment. But
our perspectives cannot be reduced to propaganda only. It was regrettable that at the
mini-Marxism in early December Alex Callinicos’ final rally speech did just this. In front
of a the biggest left audience any of us will address for many months Alex effectively
made a number of good points about the failures of capitalism, the desirability of
socialism and the need to join the SWP. But he did not mention the Stop the War
Coalition, The Charter or any other united front. Neither did he mention the mobilisation
against the G20 or the anti NATO protest next April, the major mobilisations of the
coming months.

Surely there can be little useful argument designed to prove that an adequate
revolutionary strategy in the recession is only combined of two elements: propaganda for
socialism on the one hand and reacting to the spontaneous struggles of the class on the
other~no matter how essential both of these must also be in a total strategic response to
the crisis.

We cannot go into the most serious economic crisis in a generation with a response only
based on propaganda and reacting after the event to resistance as it arises. We have also
to work with others to try and generate resistance and to shape it politically as it emerges.
Besides which our Charter is not the only one out there. John McDonnell has one. So do
the Morning Star. It is not a choice between our version of the Charter and no charter. It’s
a choice between our vision of the Charter and a poorer, less political, less dynamic
version led by someone else. There is, as ever, a premium on speed of reaction. Had we
not formed the Stop the War Coalition then others would have protested against the war
with less adequate, less broad and less effective forms of organisation. It is always thus.
Leadership and democracy

The fundamental problem of the leadership in the SWP is not the constitution of the
party, as Neil Davidson argues and as the CC majority seems to partially have accepted.
Frankly the constitution is a very general document that has remained unchanged while
the real structure of the party and the relationship between its parts has altered
considerably. We need to look beneath the words and study the real active relationship
between the party and its leadership.

The main problem has already been addressed: we have not grown as quickly as we
should have done. There is no general culture of recruitment and the leadership has not
fought hard enough to construct it. We have made some quantative advances in
recruitment levels (as you would hope given the political climate) but there is no
centralised, systematic prioritising of this issue. There is an ‘increased emphasis’ on
recruitment~but not a recruitment campaign. The recruitment meetings are, as we have
said, too sporadic. Recruitment is not regularly discussed at party committees, lists of the
next ten recruits are not drawn up and the visits arranged. There are not recruitment
campaigns carried in all the party publications. It is not the second item in Party Notes
every week~and nor could it be because there is not enough going on to report.

This simple fact reflects itself in every area of party life. Why should long-standing party
members go to branches that don’t have new people at them? Why should they do
educational meetings if there aren’t new people to listen? Too many branches are small in
size and become places where people who have been doing the same things for years
discuss the party routine. Lack of recruitment means lack of energy feeding into the party
from the mass movements.

Moreover, the financial crisis (itself a product of lack of recruitment) means that a huge
internal engine is necessarily devoted to raising money rather than raising the number of
members.

This problem has been discussed at the CC and was the original cause of the split on the
CC. Some of us raised the model of recruitment that Cliff used to speak about. This was
that we would push out and recruit in large numbers even if we then lost some people.
Cliff used to say, ‘if we recruit 2,000 and lose 1,000 at least we will have kept 1,000. If
we didn’t aim to recruit 2,000 we will only get 250’.

Cliff’s method in this was right. To do anything in the party the leadership must, in a
certain sense, exaggerate. You have to overcome the natural inertia that exists in any
organisation. Organisations have set patterns of work inherited from the past, ways of
doing things, tried and tested methods that were developed and set in place for good
reason. People have jobs, homes, lives around which political activity has to be fitted in.
If you want organisations and the people who compose them to change they must be
political convinced, motivated and the inertia within them has to be counteracted. You
have to ‘bend the stick’.

The majority of the CC has now specifically and consciously set this method aside. Their
claim that it is ‘too divisive’, ‘too argumentative’, risks ‘alienating people’ and is ‘too
polemical’. Arguing too determinedly is seen as not ‘treating every member as golddust’.
Now, of course, this method can be over-used. Necessary exaggeration can tip over into
the kind of fantasy perspective that has sometimes gripped some of the left sects. And
‘bending the stick’ can exaggerate an error~as we did with the ‘punk paper’ at the height
of the ANL mobilisations in the 1970s.

But properly used it is indispensable. There is simply no other effective way of leading a
revolutionary party (at any level) than identifying the key link in the objective situation,
prioritising it, polemiscing to get the party to prioritise it and arguing through this
necessity with other members.

The alternative is what we are too often getting from the CC majority now~a confusing
mush of different perspectives with no prioritisation or consistency over time. This is the
‘buffet lunch’ approach to leadership~come whenever you like and take a bit of whatever
takes your fancy. Organisers and branches are bombarded with a series of demands from
the centre that override priorities even when they are given by the CC.

The outbreak of the recession has made this weakness all the clearer. It has raised
confusion to the level of theory. It is clear that these divisions on the CC are only allowed
to surface as if they are about the Respect crisis. The CC majority are using the
understandable disquiet that a reverse causes in the party to try and remove and
intimidate those on the CC who have a different notion of leadership. It is convenient for
them to centre the attack on me because I was most closely involved with Respect but it
is aimed at Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and Chris Bambery as well.

The SWP is now at a turning point. If the entire leadership group associated with the Stop
the War Coalition is removed or silenced it will send the message to SWP members and
to the whole left that we are in full scale retreat from united front work. This process is
already underway. While some CC members have been stressing the continued centrality
of the Stop the War Coalition, Alex Callinicos told the South London aggregate that ‘Its
clear that Stop the War will be less important in the future.’ The divisions on the CC are
already undermining the Charter. Chris Harman told the Bristol aggregate that the
Charter is ‘a national united front that we don’t have’ and insisted that the SWP is
isolated in its response to the recession. This will be a self-fulfilling prophecy if one
rejects the Charter where Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Larry Elliot, Paul Mason, Sally
Hunt, Tony Kearns, Caroline Lucas and many others do work with us.

But even more seriously it will mark a transition from one kind of leadership to another.
This is not the conventional issue for an argument inside a revolutionary organisation but
it could not be more important.

If the ‘steady as she goes’ method takes hold, as it has done in other left organisations,
then a slow decline into a shrivelled caricature of the former state of the organisation is
likely.

But if we recover the polemical and dynamic methods of leadership at every level, meet
the challenges of the recession head on, redouble our efforts to recruit from the
radicalisation around us, we can emerge stronger than we have ever been. Splitting the
leadership over electoral work, which is in any case and rightly a secondary concern at
present, and persisting in this split is a massive diversion from this central task.

In reply to Neil Davidson
I do not agree with much of Neil Davidson’s argument but it does at least raise important
issues. Chris Harman has made a reply widely circulated at his request by other
comrades. I agree with many of the historical and theoretical points that Chris makes in
criticism of Neil. But he agrees with many of Neil’s most immediate proposals on party
democracy. I believe that this is a dangerous course on which the CC majority has
embarked for purely pragmatic reasons. Like the decision to divide the leadership over
the OFFU cheque it is being made to conciliate critics not for principled reasons.
An independent critical examination of his document may therefore help us.

Neil argues that from 1968 to the present the SWP has failed to grow as much as it might
have done because it has failed to be precise about the nature and purposes of the united
fronts it which it has been engaged and because its democratic structures have impeded
its ability to react correctly to events.

Specifically Neil believes that we have incorrectly designated the attempts at building
new radical parties as united fronts and that this has contributed to the reverses that have
taken place in our electoral work. Finally, Neil suggests that if there were a less
professional leadership that included those who hold down jobs and which was drawn
from different parts of the country we would be more able to deal with these issues. He is
more generally critical of a ‘top down’ and anti-democratic culture of debate in the SWP
that closes off necessary discussion prematurely.

Neil is at pains to insist that he wishes to focus on the subjective barriers to recruitment
and that he is suspicious of explanations that stress limits imposed by objective
conditions. Thus he quotes George Lukacs to the effect that what we should focus on is
the gap between what seems objectively possible for a revolutionary party in any given
period and what it actually achieves, accounting for any discrepancy with an explanation
that focuses on what we might do to close that gap.

I agree, but the relevant timescale is not the entire period from 1968 but the more recent
period since the rise of the anti-globalisation movement in 1999. Let’s first look at why I
think Neil’s timescale is wrong and then say where the problem he refers to has come
from.

It is surely not credible to claim that the main barriers to growth over a 40-year period are
subjective.

This period has after all encompassed an enormous worldwide radicalisation and upsurge
in industrial struggle after 1968, the defeat of that wave of struggle, the onset of neoliberalism
and a global offensive against the gains of the upturn, the destruction of the
state capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia, the emergence of a radical antineoliberal
mood and the growth of a mass, global anti-war movement.

It is demonstrably the case the fortunes of the whole left, and of the SWP, were related to
these events. Indeed it might be an equally if not more valuable task to compare our
fortunes with those of other currents on the left. In other words, why not ask the question:
given the same objective conditions how did the SWP fare in comparison with other
organisations on the left?

A brief overview might conclude something like this: in the upturn we did well emerging
as the most important organisation to the left of the CP. As the upturn turned to downturn
and the far-left was attracted into the Labour Party by the rise of Bennism we survived
better than most, although this was not apparent until the collapse of Bennism. While
Bennism lasted other forces, including the Militant, looked more prominent than we did.
We only finally emerged as the most significant left of Labour organisation with the dual
collapse of Bennism in the second half of the 1980s as Kinnock finished off the Labour
left and the demise of the CP after the revolutions of 1989. It is however worth noting
that we underestimated the effect that the damage done to the rest of the left would have
on us While the revolutions clarified arguments among the left they also brought into
question for many the whole project of building a socialist party.

The left’s crisis evaporated a wider environment in which socialist ideas were current and
therefore made the case for socialism harder to make to newly radicalised audiences in
the movements that arose in the 1990s and after. This is one of the reasons why
autonomist and anarchist ideas made a return during the birth of the anti-capitalist
movement.

Neil is right, however, to highlight the one big subjective error that we made in this
period: the ultra left attitude to the Poll Tax in Scotland. This cost us a leadership role in
the anti-poll tax campaign, gave Militant an extra lease of life, allowed the disastrous
condemnation of the anti-poll tax rioters by the movement’s Militant leadership in 1991
and, in the longer term, assisted in allowing Tommy Sheridan and the former Militant
cadre to a lot us a subordinate position in the SSP. There are few more dramatic
demonstrations of the cost of sectarianism in our history.

There were, of course, other errors. We took a long time to adjust to the downturn. In the
Miners Strike we zig-zagged over the correct forms of solidarity and the right slogans to
raise in different phases of the strike. But none of these made a substantial difference to
the size or standing of the SWP in the longer run.

This example points to a better way of assessing our subjective errors: we have to look at
what is possible within each phase of the struggle, noting of course how success or failure
in one phase impacts on successive phases. It we don’t do this then trans-historical
explanations begin to creep in~here the classical traditions definition of the united front
and the SWP constitution.

Neil Davidson’s document wishes to narrow almost to vanishing point our definition of
the united front. But first lets step away from definitions for a moment and state directly
the relationship we wish to have with reformists, leaders as well as rank and file
members. Surely it is this: we wish to co-operate in specific fields of action while
retaining the independence of our revolutionary politics and organisation.

The most widely applicable definition of this experience would seem to be the united
front, but it would smell as sweet by any other name. I used the term ‘united front of a
special kind’ in the debate with the SSP. I used it because in the united front it is quite
clear that revolutionaries retain their political and organisational independence. This
allowed us to contrast this form of co-operation with the model of the SSP that requires
the dissolution of separate revolutionary organisation. This is still the model that the LCR
is about to adopt in France where it is due to dissolve itself into the New Anti-Capitalist
Party. I still think that SSP-LCR model is a mistake and that the virtue of the united front
definition is that it underlines the continued organisational independence of the
revolutionary party.

Now Neil doesn’t say a lot about the SSP. In fact he says more about It’s a Wonderful
Life. But I assume that he acknowledges that this form of the radical left party generated
all the same problems as Respect and ended in at least as damaging a split. It seems
therefore that the ‘new party’ formula is no more of a defence against failure than the
united front approach.

So the problem remains: how do we build a wider political formation without losing the
identity of a revolutionary party? It seems to me that limiting the classical tradition’s
approach to the united front will not help us here. Trotsky’s examples (actually most of
the quotations in the Charter article in the IB are from the Comintern theses which
Trotsky wrote but which Lenin and the rest of the Comintern supported) may not be
perfect. But creatively applied their general approach remains valid because they reflect
the underlying structure of uneven consciousness in the working class.

Neil reminds us of the valuable remarks made by Cliff about the decay of reformist
organisation and the problems this creates for a united front of the classical kind. And he
is right to remind us also of Duncan Hallas’ injunction that we must act in ‘spirit of the
united front’. But it seems odd to recall these sentiments and then to insist on an even
more restrictive notion of the united front than that found in the Comintern. The point, for
me, about both Respect and the Charter in their different ways was that they were a
creative adaptation of the general united front approach. But perhaps Neil didn’t mean
that we should be quite that creative!

So if it’s not an incorrect theoretical approach to the united front that is at the root of our
difficulties will they perhaps be resolved by altering our constitution? The CC propose
setting up a ‘democracy commission’ meeting once a month, but I doubt this will prove
to be a solution.

I’m sure there are valuable improvements that could be made to the party constitution and
to party democracy. The important thing is to find ways of increasing our political clarity
by involving more comrades in discussion of and participation in our political strategy.
Crucially this involves strengthening the branches, the basic democratic unit of the party.
As well as recruiting, this means getting members back to the branches by making them
places where politics is discussed in the context of activity, where we develop
explanations of events but also discuss and organise the broadest possible campaigning
activity.

It also means diminishing the weight of the apparatus and its abuse of the existing
democratic structures. It is obvious for instance that the current delegate entitlement,
where there are sometimes more people elected to conference than there are people in the
room to elect them, needs to be reformed. But these sorts of proposals should be brought
directly before conference.

But a semi-permanent ‘democracy commission’, especially at a time when the CC has
been weakened, will become a House of Lords for the SWP that will review the work of
the CC either formally or informally. It will be resonator for the kind of factionalism that
we have seen in the current debate and it will be a step towards the kind of semiprofessional
CC that Neil desires.

This will be another step away from the clear and decisive leadership the party really
needs. To get that political clarity is the essential thing, not organisational reform. I hope
this document will assist in developing that clarity.

Lindsey German’s recruitment document, November 2007. Opposed by Martin
Filed under: Uncategorized — Andy Newman @ 2:11 pm

Lindsey German’s recruitment document, November 2007. Opposed by Martin
Smith.

Recruitment
The SWP has played a central and unprecedented role in the movements over the past
nearly ten years now. From the events of Seattle onwards we recognised a new
radicalisation and the possibility of revolutionary socialists placing themselves at the
centre of much of the activity that went on. We founded STW, joined with the National
Assembly against Racism to form Unite, helped found DCH, and played a pivotal role in
the ESF/WSF movement, most successfully around Genoa and Florence in 2002.
Our whole orientation is towards unity through the form of the united front, where
socialists organise alongside other forces around key demands that can forward the
interests of the whole working class. Despite the witchunt in Respect, that too has been a
successful electoral united front, achieving results not seen on the left since the Second
World War, results which would have been impossible without the principled and
unselfish work of the SWP.

The SWP has provided much of its cadre to running these campaigns nationally and
locally, proving the exact opposite of our opponents’ claim that we are only interested in
building our own organisation. Indeed one of the party’s problems in recent years has
been the stretching of resources sometimes at least short term cost to our branches, paper
sales etc.

But any weakening or stagnation of the party does not help the united fronts _ successful
united fronts go hand in hand with a strong SWP, capable of acting independently at
crucial times. We need to build a bigger and more rooted SWP, one that genuinely
reflects our implantation and work in the movements.

The objective conditions are there to do so, as we have seen over the past year. There is a
major space on the left of Labour, which needs to be partly be filled by an electoral
alternative. The political and ideological struggle required over issues such as war,
immigration, racism and imperialism require a high level of theoretical engagement and
clarity. The rest of the organised left has broadly failed at building such an alternative, to
such an extent that the SWP is now by far the largest organisation to the left of Labour.
The growing anger over Brown, the increasing minority of industrial workers prepared to
break with Labour, and the radicalisation over issues from Venezuela to Iraq are all part
of the background.

The argument in Respect, far from weakening the party’s appeal, has led to a political
polarisation where many people are thinking about which side they want to be on and
acting accordingly. There have been instances of lapsed members rejoining to show
support for the party, and of non members joining out of solidarity and in opposition to
what is now very clearly a witchunt against the organised left (or at least the organised
left which is able to affect anything).

For all these reasons we should seize the time and push recruitment much higher up the
party agenda. That means a much more public profile for our recruitment campaign.
There should a CC member responsible for keeping track of recruitment. Cliff very often
was appointed membership secretary during a recruitment campaign and his method was
to get daily phone updates about who had joined where. He also did many meetings
himself and was single minded about it. He was a CC member ‘without portfolio’ so he
was able to take on such roles and it is clearly not so easy for many of us to take on this
job. But we should think whether one of us could do this role as a major priority.
There should be a series of recruitment meetings in districts with rally type speakers
where the pitch should be about joining, why a party is essential, why a strong party
strengthens the movement. We already do recruit at many of our public meetings but this
is about targeting very clearly those of our contacts we think can join and trying to
persuade them.

The campaign should be covered in SW with both general arguments about the politics of
revolution and specific facts about meetings, people who have joined, 5 minute
interviews about why they joined etc.

Recruitment should be a major part of the organiser’s job and should be discussed
regularly at district level. There should be serious discussion about who our periphery is,
who we want to join, and targets in each district. Any organiser should be a recruiter
because that is part of the way they shape the district.

Problems
The major problem is perhaps that people feel in the past we have had such drives and
have recruited or claimed members who in fact were not seen again, didn’t know what
they were joining and didn’t pay us money. This sort of recruitment can be counter
productive. But to be honest it is not the sort of recruitment of the last year or two, where
we have retained a relatively high number of new members. However the pace of present
recruitment is not fast enough so we need to learn from the mistakes of the past without
allowing them to prevent us from taking advantage of opportunities in the future.

Any recruitment drive is only partly successful: to recruit 100 genuine members requires
200 to sign up initially. There is no getting round this and it is the way we have recruited
successfully in the past. There are things we can do to minimise the losses but there will
always be some. This is not to say that we are asking organisers to sign up 20 people on a
demo every week, but we do have to take very seriously people we meet on Saturday
sales, our trade union and united front contacts, school students and students who are
very political, all the people who give us money and buy the publications.

We don’t want to be hectoring or sectarian to these people, nor do we want to create false
expectations about who will join, but we do want to engage in a serious argument about
why they should join.

Integration
Joining is only the start of the process and we want to develop and integrate every new
member. Our national schools have been a very successful way of doing so and they
should be continued and extended where possible. One of the most important ways of
integrating new members is to have high expectations of them. That’s why we try to get
them on direct debit immediately, because we know paying money helps keep them with
the party. We also need the new members selling SW, running branches, setting up new
branches, doing meetings and all the other range of party activity.

This is important for them, because it is how they will learn our politics, but also for us.
We need new blood constantly in the party so that we can grow and expand and we need
to win the best fighters of this generation to our politics.

14 December, 2008
Chris Bambery’s Letter to Alex Callincos, July 2008
Filed under: Uncategorized — Andy Newman @ 2:09 pm

Chris Bambery’s Letter to Alex Callincos, July 2008

It is clear from last week’s CC and from events over the first days of Marxism that there
is the danger that a factional situation on the CC may arise, which, for the second time,
can paralyse the effective work of the CC. We are unlikely to agree on the causes of this
situation but I must make it clear to you that I and other members of the CC find this an
intolerable situation.

If we are to prevent this situation from developing into a full-scale crisis there needs to be
some urgent changes in the way the CC works. Let me suggest the following:

We should return to the previous practice of the CC in that if there are problems in a
particular area of work these are raised first with the CC member responsible for that
work not made the subject of a factional position which is then raised at the CC without
prior discussion.

Any communication with national office about a particular area of work should be
forwarded to the CC member responsible immediately.

We should not have a policy of micro-managing areas of work. Currently the Respect
work is routinely subject to this kind of scrutiny in way that is not true of other areas of
work.

We urgently need to end the separation of the party centre from some of the CC. It is an
anomaly that some CC members have no desk or computer at the centre. This has
encouraged the situation to arise where some CC members are separated from party
organisational work. Lindsey, Chris and John should immediately be given these
facilities at the centre.

There should be no more organisers meetings, even on individual areas of work, to which
the whole CC are not invited. This was the practice in the past and it should be reinstated
now even if not all CC members will wish to exercise this right on all occasions.

All CC members should be invited to and given the chance to report the discussions of
the CC to the national office staff.

Perhaps, I hope, if these changes are agreed and implemented immediately they will help
resolve this situation and we will be able to prevent any further damage to the SWP.

***********

16 December, 2008
SWP - A RESPONSE TO NEIL DAVIDSON AND JOHN REES
Filed under: SWP — admin @ 4:14 pm

by John Molyneux

Response to Neil Davidson

I warmly welcome the appearance of Neil Davidson’s major article in [SWP Pre-conference Internal Bulletin] IB3. It is clear from the contents of the IBs as a whole that a significant democratic upsurge is taking place in the ranks of the SWP and I regard this overall as a positive, not a threatening, development (regardless of my agreement or disagreement with particular contributions) in that I believe this discussion and debate can help the party improve its understanding of the situation we face and our ability to operate politically within it. At the moment the CC being internally divided cannot close down the debate, but I hope that once its internal divisions are resolved it does not succumb to the temptation to try to reimpose the old conformity.

Two things are crucial here: one is the CC internal united front against dissidents, which has meant that differences within the CC are kept hidden from the membership while any critic is met with an overwhelming rebuttal. I will give a personal example (unimportant in itself and it happened to many others) just to make clear what I mean .Some years ago, at a Party Council, I questioned the estimation and figures given for a demonstration (the Birmingham demo against the closure of Longbridge). I was immediately replied to by five members of the CC, but, of course, given no right of reply to them. The other, less important but still of significance, is tone. Critics can be replied to politically and strong arguments put, without making the victim feel like they never want to speak at an SWP conference or council again. Such practices, once prevalent, have dramatically declined recently. They should not be brought back.

In this context Neil’s article plays a very useful role in helping to kick start and focus the debate. In particular the question he raises about the SWP’s failure to grow substantially over thirty years is important and needs to be addressed. However I do not agree with his answer to it, or at least partially disagree. Neil notes, correctly, that ‘since the late eighties at any rate, the Central Committee (CC) has never seriously allowed that any objective conditions can impede the possibilities for party growth. Indeed, comrades suggesting that there might actually be reasons outwith our control for failing to build were denounced for their pessimism,’ but then basically agrees with the CC saying ‘One can accept that conditions have not been uniformly conducive to growth, but clearly the objective circumstances have not posed an insuperable barrier either. As it happens, I think the CC was right most of the time about the opportunities,’ and concludes by quoting Shakespeare to the effect that ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’

I disagree. I think that the root of the problem lies in the objective circumstances. I take this view for several reasons. First I have a general historical materialist bias towards to objective explanations that take as their point of departure the economy, the class struggle, mass consciousness etc. I am emphatically not a fatalist who wishes to deny the role of the subjective factor but I want the subjective factor to appear as the final link in the chain of explanation rather than the first. Secondly it is clear from history that when the circumstances were favourable all sorts of would be radical organisations, with politics and organisational practices FAR worse than the SWP (Maoists in Nepal, for example) have been able to grow far more successfully than us. Moreover the fact is that in Britain NO left political party has been able to do better than us on any sustained basis. Indeed, as far as the revolutionary socialist left is concerned, this is more or less true internationally.

There are, in my judgment, three main objective reasons for our lack of growth which are staring us in the face. First the state of the economy: however severe the crisis may be now and however much this may vindicate the fundamental Marxist theory of capitalist crisis, the fact remains that the years 1992-2007 were years of sustained growth in which the British economy did better than we expected or predicted. Second, these were also years of exceptionally low industrial struggle, in which serious or large scale strikes (apart from 1-day affairs) all but disappeared. By 2005 the level of strikes had fallen to one tenth of what it was when Cliff analysed the ‘downturn’. This collapse, which I believe had structural rather just circumstantial causes (lack of confidence, the failings of union leaders etc) was the most important constraint and it profoundly shaped the third factor, which was the state of mass consciousness. This is a subjective factor as far as the masses are concerned, but an objective factor in relation to a small party like the SWP.

At various times since the late 80s there was mass opposition to the government of the day over the poll tax, the sacking of the miners, the criminal justice bill, and above all the war; there was also widespread generalised hatred of the Tories, massive cynicism about politics and politicians, and a degree of anti-capitalist, anti-corporate feeling, but all this NEGATIVE oppositional consciousness was never matched (even partially) by a corresponding POSITIVE pro socialist consciousness. On the contrary the defeats of the late seventies and the eighties, particularly the great miners’ strike, the general weakening of trade unionism, the decline of Bennism, the Labour Party’s move to the right and, above all, the collapse of the Stalinist regimes were taken by the large majority as signifying that socialism was finished. This should not surprise us: working class self emancipation is the heart of socialism so a long period in which working class struggle was weak was bound to affect the level of socialist consciousness, as well as weakening the confidence of conscious socialists.

[One side effect of this was the decline in student radicalism As someone actively involved in student work in the late sixties and through the seventies and then a lecturer in the eighties and nineties I thought the change was palpable but could never get any acknowledgement of this from the party leadership. But if we recall that in the early seventies the common slur against IS was that we were all just students, and that Marxism began as a student event and, on occasion we had specifically Student Marxisms with about 1000 attendance we can see that the decline must had a real affect on our recruitment possibilities.]

These factors set real limits to the growth we could achieve, limits which were often more restricted than we ourselves realized (especially during the onwards and upwards period of the 90s). Could we have done better? Yes, certainly we could. Did we make mistakes? Of course we did and it is necessary to identify and analyse at least the main ones. In my opinion these were as follows: 1) an ultra-left attitude to the miners strike committees and their food collections (fortunately corrected just about in time), 2) a sectarian position on the poll tax struggle ( again corrected just about in time for England , but not Scotland), 3) the split the branches into ever smaller units strategy of the 90s, 4) the attempted mass recruitment on demos and attempts to browbeat people into membership at Marxism and elsewhere, which led to a substantial layer of ‘phoney’ members on the Centre’s books. The first two were probably mainly side effects of the ‘circling the wagons’ strategy adopted to deal with the downturn. The second two were a result of impatience and voluntarism, an attempt to push or even bully the party into growing faster than the objective situation allowed.

The worst mistake however was the failure to admit or correct mistakes even after they had long become evident (this applies much more to 3 and 4 than to 1 and 2). A couple of examples. Somewhere in the anti-nazi struggle of the mid nineties there was a splendid South Wales Against Racism demo which mobilised several thousand people. On this demo we ‘recruited’ 107 members (the figure is etched on my brain). Two weeks later, after intensive phoning, visiting etc, no more than a handful, if that, remained ‘live’. It was time for the penny to drop, for a reassessment, especially as this was only a dramatic case of an experience that was being repeated round the country. But it didn’t happen. It was the same with the small branches. I don’t blame the leadership for trying this – in certain favourable circumstances it would be a good way to build. But when there was abundant evidence of it failing it was persisted with, almost to the point of destruction. And the combination of these mistakes led to the grievous situation where the leadership were misleading themselves, the party, and the world about the real size of our membership.

Obviously all this leads straight back to the question of the party regime, structures, democracy etc. What SHOULD have happened in the above examples is that the members should have insisted on the reality on the ground as they experienced it, and called the leadership to account, but as we know it was extremely difficult, in those years, to speak up. Which is why I very much welcome the current debate about the membership of the CC, the Davidson document and others, and the proposed Commission. Hopefully they will all contribute to a shift in the culture of the party so that comrades feel more able to speak their minds.

However the emphasis I place on the objective constraints on our growth does affect both my assessment of the SWP’s record over the last thirty odd years and the question of what we do now. Clearly we could have done better, but given the difficulties we faced we have not done that badly and compared with most of the left we have done very well. Much of this can be attributed to the brilliant political legacy we inherited from the likes of the younger Cliff, Kidron, Hallas, Harris, Harman etc as well as the activist tradition forged particularly by Cliff, rather than the sagacity of the more recent leadership (including, I would say, some aspects of the older Cliff). Nevertheless the party has, right up to the present, remained focused on the external world and responsive to the demands of the struggle, hence our very positive achievements in terms of the Anti- Nazi League, the anti- capitalist movement, Stop the War and Respect for a period.

In so far as a lot our problems seem to have been internal – failure to retain membership, alienation of some members etc – they have been rooted in either an overestimation of the objective situation or an impatience with it, which in turn has led to attempts to forcibly grow the organisation hot house fashion (splitting and abolishing the branches), followed by increasing impatience (on the part of some of the leadership) with the members, when this didn’t work.

This impatience also led, I think, to some comrades seeing Respect as, perhaps, a short cut or even an alternative to building the revolutionary party. This was most obviously the case with the likes of Kevin Ovenden, Rob Hoveman and Ger Hicks, who abandoned the party project for Respect Renewal, but also seems to have been a factor with Paul Holborrow and his co-thinkers, who didn’t want to resist Galloway. Moreover, I think, something similar lies behind the idea, currently circulating among some comrades, that the main way to build the party, now and maybe always, is through the united front.

Care needs to be taken not to fetishise the concept of the united front or we will make mistakes both in relation to the past and the present. Many of the discussions about whether or not particular campaigns and organisations are united fronts or ‘united fronts of a special type’ seem based on the idea that somewhere there is a Platonic ideal of the true united front to which current initiatives should roughly conform. It is worth remembering that the term united front was never used by Marx or Engels and did not appear in the Marxist movement until after the Russian Revolution. It owes its its position in the classical Marxist canon to two episodes: first its adoption by the Comintern at the behest of Lenin and Trotsky in 1921-22 in opposition to the lunatic ultraleftism of the German CPs March Action; second its advocacy by Trotsky in order to combat the rise of fascism, in opposition to the even more lunatic ultraleftism of the Stalinist ‘third period’ and to the betrayals of the Popular Front. In both cases it was a particular tactical/ strategic response to particular instances of what is a permanent problem, which was addressed by Marx and Engels as far back as the Communists and Proletarians section of The Communist Manifesto, namely how to combine maximising the fighting unity of the working class with maintaining the political independence and clarity of the revolutionaries.

I think there are serious problems involved in trying to construct a national united front in response to the recession, especially one that in some way follows the model of Stop the War. The basic difficulty is simply who to unite with. One possible set of candidates is left journalists, economists and academics such as Larry Elliot, Graham Turner and Paul Mason. These people are undoubtedly useful for the platforms of meetings and rallies, but they have no forces on the ground and this weakness matters much more in relation to the recession, where we need industrial action and community resistance than it did over the war where it was mainly a matter of getting people to demos. The other possible candidates, who do have real forces, are the left union leaders, but we know that when it comes to strike and other industrial disputes these people are likely to waiver or sell out and we will be forced to oppose them. It is much easier to have a united front with Tony Woodley (or Billy Hayes) over the war (or the BNP) where all they have to do is make statements than it is over the recession where leading real resistance is required. (For those who like historical precedents this is an issue that goes back to Trotsky v Stalin over the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee and the General Strike).

For these reasons I agree with those on the CC who are against going big on a formal united front of notables in advance of the development of the struggle from below. This absolutely does not mean ‘rejecting the united front method’, still less being reluctant to work with other people outside our ranks but it does mean that at present we have to remain flexible and experimental, taking and supporting various initiatives on the ground, using the organisational forms that fit locally ( which may often be the Charter but may sometimes be something else) until a clearer picture of the shape of resistance emerges. As comrades will know I have long been an advocate of a more democratic and open culture in the party but one reason why real but fraternal debate is essential right now is precisely so that in the coming weeks and months we can thrash out these issues and collectively arrive at the best way forward. Some comrades find this uncertainty disturbing but I think it is better than trying to preempt the movement on the basis of a solution imposed from above. Some comrades may yearn for the smack of firm leadership but I am not one of them.

This relates to the question of recruitment. I understand the argument put by Neil that it is not possible to build a mass party by individual recruitment and that this was not, for example, how the parties of the Comintern (especially the German CP) were built. But there are many steps between where we are now and the construction of the truly mass party necessary to overthrow capitalism and fortunate or unfortunately we are a long way from the situation in Europe in 1919-23. In the present circumstances I think our best option is not to cast about for a shortcut to mass recruitment but to engage in individual recruitment as best we can, so as to be in as strong a position as possible when the opportunity for mass recruitment opens up. Frankly I prefer to grow by ones and twos or threes and fours, and retain people than lose people hand over fist pursuing a grandiose but unrealisable perspective.

This response has not been written in a spirit of polemic. I have set out my disagreements at some length not to reject Neil’s document but because I hope they will prove pertinent to the current debate in the party in which neither I nor, I suspect anyone else, possesses a monopoly on the truth. Moreover it seems right to end where I began by expressing my agreement with Neil and his various co- or similar thinkers on the need to open up debate in the party and improve the state of our democracy, to which end I support the proposal for a ‘democracy commission’ to be established by conference and hope we can use it to reform our structures and practices in a positive way. If we do this, while it will not be a panacea or a substitute for correct politics, I think it will increase comrades’ pride and confidence in the party and raise the level of retention and active involvement.

And to John Rees

Just as I was completing this response to Neil Davidson, John Rees’s ‘Where we Stand’ document has appeared. It will be clear, I hope, from what I have already written in reply to Neil (especially on the united front) that I do not agree with JR so I do not intend to offer a point by point or comprehensive critique. Also a good deal of JRs article refers to happenings within the CC to which I have not been party and therefore cannot confirm or refute his account. Nevertheless since I am MORE in disagreement with John than I am with Neil it seems necessary to say why – albeit as briefly as possible.

‘Where we Stand’ is not an unimpressive document but I was opposed to John reelection to the CC before I read and after I read it I was even more strongly opposed.

My reasons for opposing John were primarily that he made a series of serious mistakes in the handling of Respect. It was the accumulation of these errors, not any one, that was decisive for me. They were:

1. Even when Respect was going well we got too close to Galloway. It became very difficult in the party to criticise GG at any but the most abstract level . John has a particular responsibility for this: there was far too much of the John-and-George double act, with joint standing ovations and the like which set a bad example to the party, and made it more difficult for us to deal with the split when it happened.
2. An extension of point 1, we should have been more critical of GG inside Respect over Big Brother. Perhaps we allowed ourselves to be blackmailed by threat that this was a man who would walk if he was criticised.
3. In the split in Respect we managed to lose most of the middle ground and a chunk of our own side. These people were politically mistaken but was it really necessary to lose Ken Loach, Victoria Britain, Alan Thornett, Linda Smith, Salma Yaqoub, Nick Wrack, Rob Hoveman, Ger Hicks and, almost, Paul Holborrow and Jan Neilson? I remember a conference speech by John in which he explained to us all in general, and to some hapless branch in particular, that the art of leadership in a united front consisted of maintaining the ground for the broadest unity and at the same time DEFEATING (JR’s word) your allies on key questions of strategy and tactics. In Respect he did neither.
4. The acceptance of the OFFU cheque. I don’t accept the parallel with Morrissey and LMHR but that’s by-the-by, the OFFU cheque was a mistake and it wrecked OFFU , period. If I had been John I would have resigned from the Respect/Left List secretaryship over this.
5. The disastrous election results, especially in London. Obviously this was not mainly caused by John but this area of work was his responsibility. If I had been him I would have again offered my resignation.
6. The debacle over the Tower Hamlets Councillors. First, the defection of one of our ‘left’ councillors to the Tories (!) which was preceded the night before (!) by an email statement saying he had been spoken to and was staying loyal. John did not cause the defection and the email was anonymous but this was his area of responsibility and somewhere, to put it mildly, the plot had been lost. Then Oli Rahman was made National Chair of Respect/ Left List and shortly after he and the other councillors defected. Again John should have offered his resignation. Instead he had to prized out of his position in a bitter internal battle on the CC.
7. The NC of Left Alternative at which JR, LG and CB announced their resignations. I was present at this meeting and the key question is not whether or not a technical breach of discipline occurred as the appalling impression and affect on the meeting that was caused by the melodramatic behaviour of our three leading comrades (it was the way they did it !) .

Enough! This list may not correspond exactly to the reasons given by the CC majority but they are my reasons. The strongest part of John’s defence is where he says that at various stages these matters were pronounced resolved by the CC majority, especially Alex saying they were not proposing removing JR from the CC at the NC meeting in September. I thought that was a mistake at the time. Why didn’t I say so? Because I supported the CC majority and didn’t want to get my head cut off for sticking it out too far! Probably that was a mistake too but I’m sure comrades will know how I felt.

Anyway pressure has built up among rank-and – file party members (eg in Sheffield) and this has pushed the CC into action. I believe it is the right decision and judging by the pre conference aggregates it is supported by the large majority of the membership

John and his supporters say that he is being scapegoated and that this is personalised and unfair. These are inappropriate terms. Obviously John is not the only one responsible for the difficulties in Respect/left List/ Left Alternative etc . In one sense the main responsibility lies with Galloway and co. In another sense it lies with all the CC, and in another sense with all leading party cadre. Nevertheless he was the CC member responsible for this area of work and this carries with it certain consequences when there are a series of mistakes, as I’m sure John, Lindsey, and Chris have had to explain to many a failing organiser in the past. Of course it is ‘personalised’ (in the sense of someone’s personal political record not their personal life) because the election of the CC is about the election of specific persons to lead the party. Fairness doesn’t come into it. No one has a right to be on the CC. The only right involved here is the right of the party membership to elect its leaders and it must elect the people who will serve it best, regardless of ‘fairness’. It might be ‘fair’ not to elect Lindsey or Chris B or Chris H or Alex or Martin and so on (they’ve all made mistakes) but it would damage the party so we shouldn’t do it. I stood for the CC – I was not elected, I wasn’t ‘scapegoated’. Sheila McGregor, Andy Strouthous, Julie Waterson, Sean Vernell, Pat Stack, Maxine Bowler among many others all left the CC and became rank- and- file members – they were not scapegoated.

On recruitment I do not accept John’s arguments at all. First I don’t accept that this is what the argument is really about. I am sure that when Sheffield, Tower Hamlets and Newham, Hackney, Birmingham, Glasgow, Portsmouth and Southampton aggregates came out for the CC majority the issue of recruitment had nothing to do with it. Second if I had been on the CC at the time I would have been opposed to Lindsey’s recruitment campaign proposal. This is not because I am against recruitment (I’ve recruited six people since Marxism 2008) or recruitment campaigns when the time is right (in the past some have been fruitful) but because I think a campaign with organisers and targets etc would have been counter productive at that time.I would have judged that a lot of the members were fed up with such campaigns from a few years ago, especially when there was no proper accounting for them. I remember one such campaign in the late nineties when it was boldly proclaimed that every branch should recruit five members in the next month (If that could be done by order each branch would grow by 60 in a year and we’d have had a mass party long ago) only for it to be silently dropped when branches manifestly failed to do so. I also remember when splitting and ‘abolishing’ the branches effectively derecruited large numbers of members and I seem to remember John having something to do with that. In short I think it was better just to get on and do it rather than have a formal campaign and also I think that since Martin Smith has been National Organiser the state of party branches has improved and real recruitment (with proper figures given) though modest has at least been taking place.

As far as the united front is concerned what I have written in response to Neil covers the main points, but I would just say that I did not agree that the problem was that not enough party members were won to the united front perspective. It is probably true that not all the members are ever won fully to any perspective but I do think that almost every member participated to some degree in Stop the War, mostly with great enthusiasm. What I object to here is the element of ‘it’s the backward membership’s fault’ which was precisely the concept used by some in the leadership to avoid facing up to reality in the 90s. This brings me to the aspect of the document which I most strongly disagree with and which most reinforces my wish not to continue with John on the CC.- this is John’s attitude to leadership and democracy.

Despite the odd nod in favour of democratic debate John makes it clear that really he is opposed to the idea of the ‘democracy commission’, while I strongly support it. John has never seen anything wrong with the state of democracy in the party and neither as far as I can tell have Lindsey or Chris B or Chris L . This may be true of other members of the CC as well but they at least seem to be shifting their position – John is not. John also makes it clear that he wants ‘firmer’ more ‘decisive’ leadership of the kind he has always been keen to provide. I have always disagreed with John about this. I always disliked those speeches John gave in which he would explain ‘the real nature of political leadership’ and it would turn out to be what he had done recently. Nor is this just a question of personal arrogance, I also think John holds an elitist theory of leadership derived from Lukacs’ concept of the party as bearer of working class consciousness (but perhaps that is a debate for another time). At any rate I think the question of John’s removal from the CC is bound up with the question of improving party democracy because it is seen by the members as asserting the principle that no one is ‘above’ accountability and that is why it is popular in the party.

John Molyneux
12 December 2008

17 December, 2008
LEADERSHIP, MEMBERSHIP AND DEMOCRACY IN THE REVOLUTIONARY PARTY
Filed under: SWP — admin @ 9:49 am

by Neil Davidson
from SWP Pre-conference Internal Bulletin 2008. #3.

In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) a trainee guardian angel gives suicidal small Savings and Loans owner George Bailey the opportunity to see what life would have been like in the town of Bedford Falls if he had never existed. What he sees is so shocking, so bleak, that he begins to understand the significance of his own contribution to avoiding this nightmare alternative future. Thus re-inspired, he abandons all thoughts of self-immolation and, supported by members of the community he has lived among and helped for so many years, he thwarts the plans of the evil millionaire Mr Potter to ruin him and take over the town in the interests of The Bank–a plot device which, given the hatred currently directed against finance capital, will probably help ensure this much-loved film’s popularity with a new generation of viewers.

What would British society be like if the SWP had never existed? What would we see if the guardian angel of revolutionary parties could show us a United Kingdom where the ship bearing Ygael Gluckstein to these shores in 1946 had sunk with all on board? Would it be any different? Attempts to credit our organisation with a general influence over events (as opposed to, say, the outcome of individual strikes) risks the danger of sounding bombastic and self-aggrandising, characteristics we rightly deride in other sections of the left. Nevertheless, while retaining an appropriate sense of proportion, a case can be made. Above all, the two great campaigning organisations which we initiated and sustained, the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), were interventions which actually changed social and political conditions for the better, by helping to marginalise the fascist threat, combat the broader racism in British society and integrate Muslims into political life. Both are models of how to successfully apply what the late Duncan Hallas used to call the “spirit” of the united front tactic in situations of real urgency. Both are a standing rebuke to ignorant accusations of “economism” to which we are regularly subjected by sectarians.

Testimony to the impact of these initiatives is easy enough to find. Reporting on a memorial meeting for SWP member David Widgery in 1992, Paul Foot quoted the comments of Darcus Howe, who “said he had fathered five children in Britain. The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against the racism all round them. The fifth child, he said, had grown up ‘black in ease’. Darcus attributed her ‘space’ to the Anti-Nazi League in general and to David Widgery in particular”. The editor of Race and Class, journal of the Institute of Race Relations, noted recently that for some politicised British Muslims at least, an important factor in their move away from “’pie in the sky’ debates on the Islamic state” was “the process of working with the Left in the anti-war movement”, which undercut the arguments of Islamist organisations like Hizb ut-Tahrir that this kind of cooperation is prohibited by the Koran: “The role of the anti-war movement and the coalitions it fostered between Islamists and the Left have obviously been central to this dynamic and given a wide range of Muslim groups a level of confidence to speak out on issues such as civil rights and foreign policy, despite the fear of being associated with terrorism.” We have much to learn from the way French workers and students have resisted neoliberal attacks on working conditions and social welfare, but we have only to contrast the trajectory of the anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggles in Britain with those in France to understand what the absence of a party like the SWP can mean: a fascist leader with enough support to stand as a Presidential candidate, anti-war demonstrations in which Muslims and the Left march separately, and a set of legal restrictions on Muslims extending to prohibitions on wearing the hijab by female school students.

But our impact has not been limited to united front activity. Most recently, we have shown our ability to respond directly to a dramatic change in economic conditions. When the financial collapse occurred in September the SWP was certainly not the only organisation on the left to explain what had happened in other than Keynesian terms, but it was the only one able to raise slogans which went beyond abstract denunciations of capitalism and propose concrete demands around which to mobilise, and it was alone in fielding a body of activists large and capable enough to carry both our explanations and demands into the streets, workplaces and universities. This in turn reflects the fact that the SWP is not only the largest revolutionary party in Britain; it is, for all practical purposes, the only one. What we do matters and the responsibility that imposes upon us, particularly in conditions of renewed economic crisis, is therefore very great indeed.

However, if we are to increase our influence to the extent that our ideas deserve and the situation requires, then we must also face some inconvenient facts and subject ourselves some unwelcome self-criticism. As Georg Lukacs wrote in the mid-1920s, self-criticism becomes important when “the actions of the party, at any given moment were not on the same level as might have been objectively possible in the given situation. In examining the causes of this discrepancy in level between actual activity and its concrete and objective possibility, one must not stick simply to establishing the objective cause, for such objectivism…looks, at best, like fatalism. Examination of the causes of a mistake is, on the contrary, directed towards the eradication of the causes.”

Limits to growth?
The problem is not that the SWP has failed to make a revolution in Britain. Revolutionary parties can help develop consciousness and organisation among the working class, and are necessary to provide political leadership in a revolutionary situation; but for a revolutionary situation to become a “concrete and objective possibility” depends on the capitalist crisis (which is not only economic, but expressed through war, environmental collapse, and so on) and the mass activity of the working class in response, neither of which are in our gift.

The problem is rather that there seems to be a limit beyond which the Party is unable to grow. In 1977, shortly after International Socialism (IS) had transformed itself into the SWP, Hallas wrote in The Socialist Register that “the SWP is ‘something approaching a small party’. But a small party has no merit unless it can become a much bigger party”. According to Hallas, the party at that time consisted of between 3,000 and 4,000 members. The first pre-conference bulletin this year, over three decades later, says we have 6,155 registered members and 2,000 ‘unregistered members’, defined as ‘comrades that have not returned a re-registration form to the centre for two years’. The Orwellian concept of an “un-registered member” suggests the level of self-delusion involved here: we should obviously try to re-recruit members who have left, but to pretend that they currently remain members is to assume an outcome which has still to be achieved. We have recently become aware of the extent to which the bourgeoisie rely on fictitious capital; revolutionary organisations have nothing to gain relying on fictitious members.

At best then, we have grown between two and three thousand members in the last thirty years. Expressed in percentage terms (an increase of between 50% and 100%) this sounds more impressive, but it is important to retain a sense of proportion. We have greater forces than the rest of the British revolutionary or even radical left added together, as indeed we did in 1977; but if our ambition is to build a mass party, then we are no nearer to doing so in real terms, particularly given the events that have taken place and the movements that have arisen over the last decade. In fact, our period of biggest membership growth, when we temporarily succeeded in pushing membership up towards 10,000, took place in the mid-1990s before either the election of New Labour or the emergence of the movement for alternative globalisation in Seattle. Peter Sedgwick, a talented comrade who regrettably opposed the transition from IS to the SWP, once noted the difficulty of retaining members for any socialist project: “It was possible to think, ‘All those marvellous young people’ at the first, second or even third Aldermaston or Young Socialist march, but by the seventh or ninth, when it was obvious that these were different young people each time, the effect was less rejuvenating.” And this, in a sense, has been our problem. A blood transfusion may keep a patient alive, but if they are simultaneously haemorrhaging the procedure simply postpones death rather than restores health. Each wave of recruits has left embedded new layers of comrades, but many more have passed through our ranks. Had we had retained even half of the socialists who did so over the last thirty years we would now have an organisation several tens of thousands strong. Our inability to retain members involves a greater structural problem than can be explained by, for example, a failure to persuade comrades to pay their subscriptions by direct debit.

One explanation might be that SWP members are simply inadequate to the task of building a revolutionary party: we are a collection of eccentrics, dilettantes, malcontents and middle-class do-gooders, incapable of relating to workers and the oppressed, and consequently without roots in the class or local communities. I do not intend to dwell on this proposition since, as I outlined in the introduction, it is obviously untrue. Indeed, on of the most frustrating things aspects of our failure to progress is precisely that the party is full of extremely talented individuals. Is it then because our members are too independent, too wilfully individualistic, and have failed or refused to implement Central Committee (CC) instructions? In fact, as I will argue below, we have done the opposite and followed them too closely, even when they have been contradictory or otherwise incoherent.

A second reason would be that the entire aim of building the revolutionary party is a delusional: the working class will simply never attain revolutionary class consciousness, at least in sufficient numbers, to make the project viable. At best, revolutionaries can act as a pressure group, pushing reformists in the trade union movement and social democracy further to the left than they would otherwise be prepared to go by standing fast to the ultimate, but unobtainable goal of total social transformation. At the time of his departure from IS in 1968, Alasdair MacIntyre invoked what he called the “law of diminishing socialist returns” whereby every political formation inevitably behaves further to the right than their formal political position would suggest. As a result, although “those with a revolutionary perspective” were unlikely to make a revolution, only they “are likely to promote genuine left wing reforms”. If socialism was genuinely impossible, was just the “utopia” that Trotsky was prepared to contemplate in the last months of his life, such a role would of course, still, be essential. But I do not accept this argument, nor, I trust, does anyone else reading this, apart from those who are also employed by Special Branch. (Although it is important to understand that many people on the left do not believe in the possibility of a complete socialist transformation of society and consequently regard the SWP as essential precisely because they see us playing the role described here.) The experiences of the twentieth century surely put paid to any notion of the inevitability of socialism. Consequently, we do not and cannot know that working class will ultimately be triumphant–that is the “wager” on revolution which many Marxist thinkers have invoked; but we still have good reasons to believe that it is possible and that our actions will be important in helping to bring that possibility about.

A third, and by far the most plausible reason, would be that we have faced a series of temporarily insurmountable objective conditions–not such as to make exponential growth an impossible goal, as in the previous reason, but to hold it within certain limits. There is obviously some truth in this; in particular, the period which we retrospectively identified as ‘the downturn’, beginning around 1975, did make growth extraordinarily difficult for the revolutionary left, as we recognised at the time after much internal debate–not coincidentally, the last such debate the party has conducted. However, since the late eighties at any rate, the Central Committee (CC) has never seriously allowed that any objective conditions can impede the possibilities for party growth. Indeed, comrades suggesting that there might actually be reasons outwith our control for failing to build were denounced for their pessimism, lack of involvement, failure to understand the new mood, inability to see the silver linings in every dark cloud, or whatever. One can accept that conditions have not been uniformly conducive to growth, but clearly the objective circumstances have not posed an insuperable barrier either. As it happens, I think the CC was right most of the time about the opportunities, particularly around the anti-war and alternative globalisation movements, but that merely strengthens my argument. In Julius Caesar, the most explicitly political of all his plays, Shakespeare makes Cassius say: “Men are some time masters of their fates: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Where does the fault lie?

Real and imaginary united fronts “of a special type”
What is our strategy for building the party? In the very early stages of party formation, with membership numbered in tens (as it was for the Socialist Review Group in the early 1950s), then there is no alternative to what Trotsky once called “the primitive accumulation of cadres”. But for most of the subsequent decades we continued to act as if the party could be built simply by adding individual members on an arithmetical basis, even though mass parties have never been built in this way, and certainly not those of the Communist International in its revolutionary period. The failure of this party-building strategy has, I think, now been tacitly recognised by the CC, but not openly discussed, as is usually the case when our practice is in breach of some notionally Leninist theoretical orthodoxy.

What alternatives are there to recruiting ones and twos as the basis for exponential growth? Historically, there have been four possible mechanisms–which can of course be combined–leading to a mass increase in membership, although others can be imagined: merger with several organisations of a comparable size; an influx of members following secession from a mass reformist organisations; affiliation by militants organised in a trans-union rank and file organisation; or collective adherence by elements of a campaign or social movement. None of these are likely to arise without a generalised move the left. None will leave the host organisation unaffected, so that exponential growth almost invariably means the original revolutionary party acts as the nucleus of a new formation, rather than simply undergoes quantitative growth: the Communist Party of Britain (CPGB) was not simply an enlarged British Socialist Party; the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was not merely an expanded Spartacus League.

The route the most relevant to us in recent years, at least in England, has been that involving a campaign or social movement, although we have not been at the stage where mass membership was prepared to transfer directly to a revolutionary party without passage through an intermediate political formation. Given the possibilities provided by StWC, we were clearly right to establish Respect with the forces it had mobilised. It was vitally important that the project of establishing an electoral left alternative went beyond shuffling the pack of existing left groups, as both Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Socialist Alliance (SA) had done–which is why, incidentally, the latter cannot be regarded as the “forerunner” to Respect in anything other than a chronological sense: Respect was qualitatively different in that it drew on a membership outwith the existing organisations. We were also right, when the crisis of Respect broke, to take the action we did–including, in my opinion, the expulsions–to save what we could of the situation. The problem lies in what happened in between these two points. Respect’s failure was not simply down to a collision between George Galloway’s rampant egoism and his growing pessimism about working class resistance, but to a lack of clarity about what the organisation was for and how it related to our central revolutionary goals. These problems were highlighted by the misguided attempt to brand Respect as a “united front of a special type”, a category which was first applied to the SA by John Rees in 2001 and is still applied to Respect by Alex Callinicos in the most recent issue of International Socialism. Now, the category of “united fronts of a special type” is perfectly valid; indeed, it should be clear that, given the size of our organisation compared to, say, the KPD pre-1933, we will almost inevitably be seeking “united fronts of a special type”, of which both the ANL and StWC are excellent examples. If we leave aside sterile textbook definitions of the united front based on an over-literal interpretation of the model unveiled at the Second Congress of the Communist International (revolutionary party invites larger reformist party to participate in joint activity, etc.), it has two main characteristics.

The first is that it is a coalition of both revolutionary and reformist forces to take action for the achievement of a specific goal, or a restricted set of specific goals, upon which both can agree. Outside of these specific goals the revolutionaries and reformists involved will not agree on broader sets of objectives, other than perhaps some notion of socialism itself, and in the case of groups organised on a confessional basis, like the Muslim Association of Britain, they may not even agree about that. As this suggests, “reformist” in this context does not simply mean “social democrat”, but rather anyone who is not a revolutionary but who is committed to fighting, for example, a specific fascist organisation or a particular war. The goal-directed nature of a united front means that its existence will be time-limited according to how successful it is: goals can of course change in response to events (in the way StWC shifted focus from stopping the Iraq War to bringing it to an end), or be put into semi-hibernation on a “awaken when required” basis (as the ANL was for years); but a permanent united front is a contradiction in terms.

The second is the way in which, during the process of achieving its goals, the revolutionary wing of the united front attempts to win individuals and groups within the reformist one by demonstrating, in practice, the superiority of our ideas, arguments and methods–although this also involves the revolutionaries learning in their turn from others: nothing could more alien to the united front tactic than the grotesque idea of all-knowing revolutionaries coming to enlighten the benighted reformists.

Defined in this way, what I earlier described as the “spirit” of the united front should be the basis of most of our activities, from moving a motion in a trade union branch, to agreeing the tactics on a demonstration, to deciding on the aims of a campaign. Where sectarians seek the point of difference, we seek the point of agreement. Of course, it may not always be possible to find agreement, there are some cases where revolutionaries simply have to stand alone on a point of principle, as our comrades on the PCS National Executive did recently over postponing the Civil Services strike day on 10 November, but these situations should be the exceptions, at least in the current period.

Invoking the spirit of the united front as a general approach does not however mean that every activity we undertake is a united front, in the sense of being an organised coalition. The ten points of the People Not Profit Charter could be the basis for individual united fronts. In relation to point 4 on repossessions and council housing, for example, rather than responding individually to attempted house repossessions, we should consider beginning a united front to systematically oppose all such attempts on the ground (on the model of the anti-poll tax union resistance to poindings and warrant sales) while campaigning politically for the government to take over all such homes and rent them back to the owners, while also demanding the resumption of council house construction. But the Charter itself is a petition, not a united front and to claim otherwise is a form of “concept-stretching” which renders the concept meaningless.

According to a CC contribution to IB2, we have Trotsky’s authority for describing trade unions, workers councils and even the Paris Commune as united fronts, but all this proves is that Lev Davidovitch was as capable of speaking complete rubbish as the rest of us. More seriously–although I don’t have time to pursue the point in detail here–many of these claims were made in periods when Trotsky was trying persuade sceptical comrades of the validity of the united front tactic, and was trying to “normalise” it with examples from historical turning points and analogies with historic class institutions with which his audience would already be familiar. Whatever might be said for this strategy in context, the arguments are of little help now, as moment’s reflection will show. Take the worker’s council or soviet as an example. These are the exact opposite of united fronts. In a united front revolutionaries and reformists agree to put aside their differences in order to concentrate on the achievement one or more key issues upon which they agree; in a worker’s council–and it is important to remember that they are not just instruments of class struggle but instruments of class rule–reformists and revolutionaries debate their differences in order to persuade delegates to endorse one or the other position as a basis for action; the first assumes common agreement by sections of the class on specific issues prior to taking action; the latter is a method of arriving at an agreed position for the class as a whole on every issue. Vague appeals to Trotsky’s authority will not do here: in his more concrete writings he nearly always used specific, restricted examples of how the tactic should be applied, often in relation to the Bolsheviks’ willingness to ally with Kerensky against Kornilov in September 1917. And as Trotsky himself pointed out in this context, “the question is not decided by a quotation, but by means of the correct method”–although I’m prepared to make an exception for this quotation. The specificity of the united front strategy is precisely why the term cannot be applied to Respect, which possessed neither of the characteristics outlined above.

First, to operate as a genuine united front, Respect would have had to focus exclusively on the three key demands of StWC: opposition to war; opposition to Islamophobia; and defence of civil liberties–in effect to act as a ”multiple issues” electoral campaign. But Respect was a political party which, by definition, must seek to intervene across the entire range of political, social and economic issues facing the workers and oppressed groups it wants to influence, from abortion to zero-tolerance policing. The result was predictably unstable and divisive, because the agreement did not exist over many of the fundamental issues with which Respect was faced.

Second, this might not have mattered had we attempted to win the non-SWP membership of Respect to revolutionary positions; but this does not appear to have happened in any consistent way. There were good local experiences, for example in Preston and Leicester, but at the national level, we seem to have taken an instrumental attitude, particularly to Muslim members, involving no real sense of mutual challenge or discussion, simply an unsustainable agreement not to mention certain issues which broke down as soon as the initial momentum of electoral success was spent.

Alex Callinicos claims to have found a precedent for treating Respect as a united front in the US Farmer-Labour Party. There are several reasons why this analogy is neither helpful nor, given the outcome, particularly encouraging, as Alex himself hints in a footnote. First, it was an early example of opportunistic “right” manoeuvring within the overall ultra-left turn taken by the Comintern after the failure of the German Revolution in 1923 and enshrined at the Fifth Congress in July 1924. Touted as a basis for achieving that chimera, a “worker-peasant (or worker-farmer) government” in the USA, it represented in embryonic form the catastrophic centrist position imposed by the Comintern later in the decade in which the British trade union bureaucrats and the Chinese bourgeois nationalists were treated as forces capable of bringing about the socialist revolution. Second, although claimed as an example of united front by the Comintern, it was even less of one than Respect. The American Worker’s Party (as the CPUSA was known at the time), simply entered an existing reformist organisation set up by the Chicago Federation of Labour in 1919 and successfully, if very briefly, succeeded into taking over leadership positions at the annual convention of 1923, leading to the mass departure of many of the native members. But the new national Federated Farmer-Labour Party had essentially the same politics as it Chicago-based predecessor, despite communist leadership. Third, because the revolutionaries had no real base in the new party outside their own ranks, they were themselves overturned by the remainder of the original membership when the more attractive possibility of standing the anti-Communist Robert La Follette as their Presidential candidate presented itself. In short, this episode, rightly described by Hallas as a “comic interlude” based on a “fantasy”, has precisely zero relevance to us today, except possibly in a negative sense. But, like the CC’s appeals to Trotsky in IB2, it is another example of the desperate search for historical precedents to justify a tactical turn which actually requires new thinking.

The project of building a “radical left” organisation, or New Anti-Capitalist Party on the French model, in which the SWP is organisationally distinct and independent but cooperates with other forces to our right, will be essential for building a coherent new left in which we can also grow; on this I agree with Alex. But we need to start thinking now about the nature of such a party, in terms of its composition, possible process of formation, and our relationship to it as a revolutionary component, and not leave it until the next opportunity arises, before conducting yet more improvisations, dignified with the spurious theoretical rational of the united front. A new party will not happen without our participation, but unless we change fundamental aspects of our current approach, there is a danger that it will not happen with our participation either. In effect, we wanted to restrict Respect to being a united front, while the logic of the situation called for building–and many of the other participants thought we were building–a new type of political formation altogether. The key problem is that at least sections of our leadership seem to have no conception of how to work with other forces in situations where they cannot control them, or where the Party might have to make political compromises. And that fact about our external relations tells us something about the kind of internal “guided democracy” that has operated in the SWP for far too long.

One, two, three, many Leninisms
IS first began considered moving to a Leninist model of organisation in response to the inability of the revolutionary left to outflank the Communist Party of France in May-June 1968. Peter Sedgwick sounded a warning note at the time: “The ‘responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition’ (i.e. the same people get elected) ‘and in their attitude to their political line’ (i.e. they pretend not to change their minds) belong to the traditions of a religious order (the Comintern) breathing the stench of an era of defeat and recession within the international proletariat. That era is not ours.” Sedgwick was right to highlight the dangers of establishing an unchanging leadership incapable of recognising, or at least admitting to its own errors, but wrong that this would come from following the traditions of the Comintern, at least in its revolutionary period. The SWP, to paraphrase the Labour Manifesto of 1945, is a Leninist Party and proud of it: but what kind of Leninist party? We are told that the SWP follows the Bolshevik party model as transmitted to the parties of the Communist International after 1920. In fact, there was no single model.
The Bolsheviks adopted several different organisational forms according to changing circumstances. Lenin famously wrote in 1906 that in order to bring workers into the party, ‘it is necessary for all comrades to devise new forms of organisation by their independent, creative joint efforts. It is impossible to lay down any predetermined standards for this, for we are working in an entirely new field: a knowledge of local conditions and above all the initiative of all Party members must be brought into play. The new form of organisational nucleus of the worker’s party, must be definitely much broader than were the old circles. Apart from this, the new nucleus will most likely have to be a less rigid, more “free”, more “loose” organisation.’ In a commentary on this passage and others like it, Hal Draper argues that there can be “no ‘concept of the party’ taken as a ‘principle’ divorced from time and place. Lenin’s ideas on party organisation, like those of most others, varied depending on conditions, especially such an immense difference in conditions as that between the underground conditions in an autocracy and the conditions of relative political liberty and open organisational opportunity that characterised Russia in the 1905-7 period”.

Nor is it true that by the time the Communist International was established the organisational form of the revolutionary party had been distilled or condensed into formula that could be applied anywhere, anytime, like the ingredients of a packet of soup reconstituted by the addition of water. The Bolsheviks had to ensure that the young and mostly immature Communist Parties had a basic knowledge of organisation and tactics, and this involved imposing a hastily-drafted set of political tests (the ‘21 conditions’) and a rough framework of what the party should look like. According to Pierre Broue, the KPD had around 220,000 dues-paying members in the third quarter of 1922. (Interestingly, the figures based on returns by branches suggested a membership over 100,000 bigger. In the case of the KPD, as in that of the SWP, the dues-paying figures are more reliable.) Whatever the precise figures, it clearly was a mass party. How was it organised? In large localities organisation was based on workplace fractions and subdivided into districts, sub-districts and ultimately “groups of ten” (actually groups of ten to twenty), each member of which ‘belonged to two basis structures, the “group of ten” and the [industrial] fraction’: “The leading members at the higher levels of the Party were appointed by elections conducted on this dual basis. The party’s shop-stewards in the workplaces elected the leaders in the districts, as well as half the members of the executive committees of the local groups, the other half being elected directly at general meetings of local activists which included all the members of the ‘groups of ten’. The executive of the local group appointed in this way invited to all its deliberations, with consultative vote, the leaders of the various fractions, workplace fractions or fractions in mass organisations such as the Communist Youth, Communist women, cooperatives, etc. … At every level, the cadres, whether they were delegated for a particular situation, or responsible for a certain period, were elected and subject to recall at any time by the units which had elected them, whether committees or general meetings, conferences or congresses. In accordance with the Bolshevik principle of democratic centralism, the supreme body of the Party was its Congress, which met at least once a year. The delegates to it were elected on the basis of pre-Congress discussions. In these discussions, different tendencies could confront each other and present their programmes and candidates at the same time. They had very wide freedom to express their differences, including at meetings of local groups in which they had no supporters. In the intervals between Congresses, authority belonged to the Central Committee, which itself was made up of people elected in two different ways. Some were directly elected by the Congress, but had to live where the leadership was resident… The others were also elected by the Congress, but from people nominated from the districts which they represented at the same time as they represented the Party as a whole. In this way, the Central Committee retained some of the features of the federal type of organisation which characterised the Spartacus League. Functionaries and delegates, whatever their functions, were closely dependent on the base which elected them and had the right to recall them, and permanent Party workers were never in the majority in the Executive organs outside the Central Committee.”

As should be obvious from Broue’s description, the organisation of this most important of Communist parties has some similarities to that of ours, but was also considerably more flexible and open–again, in a situation where civil war had recently occurred and where revolutionary opportunities were rightly thought to be expected to be imminent. In some respects, of course, many aspects of our party’s organisation and approach have changed since the early 1980s–the size and number of branches, our attitude to participation in electoral alliances, our willingness to stand for full-time union positions–but not the relationship of the CC to the rest of the party. At the heart of this relationship is the idea that the leadership will debate issues amongst themselves, then decide on a course of action and only then inform the membership what this decision is and what it will involve them in doing–although we are of course then invited to ratify the CC’s decisions at Annual Conference. And this attitude goes all the way down through the devolved nations and districts. In Scotland, for example, after the disintegration of the SSP the local SWP leadership had an essentially closed discussion about whether or not to join Solidarity–an approach for which I bear as much responsibility as anyone else on our Steering Group. The impulse is always to restrict the debate, or even to refuse to admit there is a debate, in case the “wrong” decision gets taken–the “right” one having been decided by us in advance.

The last occasion there was an open split within the CC was over the downturn in the late 1970s and that only because Cliff was in a minority and therefore felt he had the right to take the debate to the membership as a whole. Cliff was correct, both in the action he took and the position he argued, but surely this is not the only occasion in the last thirty years where this kind of debate would have helped us avoid error? More to the point, should the possibility of discussion simply rest on the personal initiative of one or more members of the CC? This leadership model may have been a regrettable necessity during the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, but it has been a block to any further growth since, above all since 1999. Why would activists looking for a party to take them beyond trade unionism, single-issue or community campaigning subject themselves to an internal regime which is less democratic than those to which they already belong? The party is organised as a small, revolutionary group with structures and procedures which make it difficult to become anything other than a small, revolutionary group.

The potential problems were identified even before the Leninist turn was complete. In April 1975 John Molyneux complained in this very bulletin of what members regarded as “the high-handed and undemocratic way in which certain important decisions are taken” leading to “disunity, bitterness and splits”. He also proposed an explanation: “the crucial factor I believe is the lack of an established tradition of organised political debate at all levels of the organisation. The branches discuss politics and debate issues, of course, but not in a way that systematically relates to the central strategic concerns of the group and so can contribute to the taking of important decisions. They cannot do this because they are not sufficiently informed on the strategic plans of the leadership or, more importantly, on the reasoning behind differences within the leadership”. We were not, of course, the first party to experience these difficulties. Lukacs highlighted them during the first attempt to build mass revolutionary parties following the Russian Revolution, in a book which I believe may be known to members of the CC: “If the party consists merely of a hierarchy of officials isolated from the mass of ordinary members who are normally given the role of passive onlookers, if the party only occasionally acts as a whole then this will produce in the members a certain indifference composed equally of blind trust and apathy with regard to the day-to-day actions of the leadership. Their criticism will at best be of the post festum variety (at congresses, etc.) which seldom exert any decisive influence on future actions.”

We constantly invoke the democratic freedoms of the Bolshevik Party, but actually have fewer democratic rights than its members did under conditions of autocracy, quasi-feudal barbarism and repression. In 1906, after the temporary reunification of the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party, Lenin could write of the structure that emerged: “We were all agreed on the principle of democratic centralism, on guarantees for the rights of all minorities and for all loyal opposition, on the autonomy of every party organisation, on recognising that all Party functionaries must be elected, accountable to the party and subject to recall.” (Comrades will note that there is one consistent theme between the Russian experience recounted here and that of the German party noted above: the recall of party officials.) Why is our leadership so anxious to retain a constitution and relationship to the membership which is less democratic than one which was possible during the first Russian Revolution? If we reject theories of the inevitability of oligarchy common to both anarchism and Weberian sociology, then the answer must be political. I think there are two reasons.

The first is that the leadership has to have a deep, although rarely openly expressed fear of a split in the party. At one level this is quite understandable. The history of international Trotskyism is characterised by a disabling fragmentation and division, often over minor doctrinal differences. And even where organisations manage to avoid this, it has often been at the expense of effectively establishing permanent factions with all the potential for political paralysis that involves. The experience of the International Marxist Group in Britain in the 1970s and–to a lesser extent–the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire in France today demonstrates the difficulties that can result. The IS/SWP itself had a debilitating experience of internal factions in the first half of the 1970s at the hands of an open entryist grouping called Worker’s Fight and several “native” oppositions. As I noted in the introduction, the SWP is not simply hegemonic on the British radical left–in the sense that no serious initiative can be attempted without our leadership or at least our participation–it is for all practical purposes the only serious revolutionary organisation left. In these circumstances the consequences of a split would be very serious indeed, as it would threaten the gains that we have made, particularly since any seceding organisation would inevitably have virtually the same theoretical and political positions as the SWP. Unfortunately, the attitude the CC has taken to avoid the problem is to suppress any debate beyond what it deems a reasonable level, which is usually about the practical or technical application of policies which members of the CC have decided among themselves. But this does not lead to the elimination of differences, just to their internalisation, which in turn leads to cynicism, inactivity and ultimately to comrades leaving the organisation. In effect, it produces the very situation it seeks to avoid, except that the lifeblood of the party is not transfused into another organisation, it simply drains away. The long term corrosive effect of this is actually far more debilitating than any open split would be. In the early 1950s the Italian writer Ignazio Silone once joked with Palmiro Togliatti, then leader of the Communist Party of Italy, that so many people had left the international Stalinist movement: “The final struggle will be between the Communists and the ex-Communists’”. This will not be our fate. Many, perhaps most, of our ex-members constitute a pool of individual socialists with politics identical to those of the party, whose talents are not only lost to us, but who very likely add to the general suspicion of our motives and activities by recounting the experiences that led to their departure. Paradoxically, many are also glad that the SWP exists–but simply do want to be part of it.

The second reason is that the SWP was born in a period of defeat, two years into the downturn, and bears all the birthmarks of that experience. The model of revolutionary organisation we developed between 1968 and 1976 was almost immediately elevated into an unalterable orthodoxy. Again, this is understandable at one level. We were operating an intensely hostile environment: industrially, the trade unions were experiencing defeat after defeat; politically, the Labour left initially grew in strength and acted as a pull on revolutionaries, then increasingly capitulated to electoral demands of the right; intellectually, the tone was set by postmodernism and the identity politics which were its popular manifestation. In these circumstances an essentially defensive posture, which aimed to preserve the organisational and theoretical integrity of the party, became our default position except in the infrequent irruptions of class struggle, above all in the Miner’s Strike, which characterised the period. We still cling to an organisational model established in a period that period is long over.

Fears of a split in the organisation on the one hand and of malign external influences on the other have apparently led the leadership to believe that the membership are incapable of making decisions about the direction of the party–actually making decisions, I mean, not simply ratifying them in the manner described by Lukacs. One of Cliff’s most unhelpful contributions to political theory is the concept of “the organised distrust of the members by the centre”–a position I found so shocking the first time it was confided to me during the Miner’s Strike I assumed the speaker (a local NC member long since departed) was joking: alas not. I am not of course suggesting that every single decision has to be put to a referendum of the entire membership. Apart from being unworkable, it is also unnecessary: the party leadership has to make day-to-day judgements and take day-to-day decisions. But large-scale strategic decisions–say over our response to long-signalled legislation, like the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland during 1989, or the establishment of a new political formation, like the launch of Respect in England during 2004, required a fundamental consideration by the entire party which they did not receive. The answer to complaints of this sort is usually twofold.

One is the argument from effectiveness, that the CC generally gets it right so any concerns about its judgement is simply “making a fetish of democracy”, or some such formulation. Unfortunately, as we have seen in relation to the cases mentioned above, nearly 20 years apart, the CC does not always get it right. Nor, when it was increasingly apparent to comrades on the ground that our positions involved huge problems, was action taken, except to denounce those trying to point out the facts. Although in the first case at least, the error of assuming that resistance to the Poll Tax would be trade union-based was eventually acknowledged and the position corrected, there was no assessment of what had led to the wrong decision being taken. And in the case of Respect, the debacle was simply put down to contingent factors outwith our control. CC members come and go, of course, and occasionally someone is made a scapegoat for particularly egregious failure (usually because they have become too enthusiastic for a policy just at the point when its failure is becoming apparent), but there is never any overall accounting or accountability, and attempts to secure it are generally deflected by exhortations not to dwell on the past, not to pick at old wounds, not to be inward looking–because, after all comrades, there are always new demonstrations to be organised, public meetings to be arranged, papers to be sold: move on, get over it. We never make mistakes.

The other argument is that, if comrades are unhappy with the role of the CC, its membership can be changed at conference. But this is virtually impossible, not merely because of the stage-managed nature of conference, but because there is no obvious leadership in waiting capable of challenging the CC. Of course, a potential national leadership does exist out in the country–indeed, if it did not, and there were really no cadres who could possibly take over from the core of the CC that has been in place since the early 1980s, then we would have utterly failed in one of our key tasks, which is surely to develop such a leadership. The problem is rather that they are generally operating in isolation from each other, have few means of making themselves known at a national level and are rarely consciously developed. In fact, with very few exceptions, most of the comrades who have been invited to join the CC since the early 1980s have been student or district organisers–in other words they are drawn from the ranks of the party’s paid officials, whose jobs had previously been to relay the views of the leadership to the members. Now, the organiser’s job is a necessary, difficult and not particularly well paid one. The comrades who undertake this task are hardly the basis of a privileged bureaucratic layer and they deserve our respect, but one has to ask whether they are the only members who are capable of performing this role–or indeed whether they do indeed perform it. The CC gives all the appearance of a two-tier body with one (superior) part consisting of the theoreticians and policy-makers, the other (inferior) part consisting of functionaries. This in itself constitutes a problem, since the former will effectively dominate the latter, thus narrowing the range of participants in decision-making still further. With one exception the entire CC consists of comrades who are paid full-timers, “professional revolutionaries”, all of whom live in the same city. Lukacs again: “Every hierarchy in the party (and while the struggle is raging it is inevitable that there should be a hierarchy), must be based on the suitability of certain talents for the objective requirements of the particular phase of the struggle. If the revolution leaves one phase behind, it will not be possible to adapt oneself to the exigencies of the new situation merely by changing one’s tactics, or even by changing the form of organisation… what is needed is needed in addition is a reshuffle in the party hierarchy: the selection of personnel must be exactly suited to the new phase of the struggle.” Clearly, some current members of the CC would remain as part of virtually any reconfigured body, but not all. Can there be anything more damaging to the idea of revolutionary leadership than the perception that members of what I call the superior part of the CC occupy a sinecure or permanent fixture, that its members will retain their posts–or some post, at any rate–regardless of what they do or fail to do in the exercise of their duties?

The CC needs to be reorganised, both in structure and composition. The leadership should at the very least, be weighted as much towards those who are actually leading in workplaces, universities, campaigns, communities and intellectual life, as towards party full-timers. It also needs to reflect the different spatial experiences of the class: the rhythms of political life are different now in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales and no decisions about the Britain as a whole can be taken without taking these differences into consideration. (Apart from anything else, this would prevent a repetition of the People before Profit Charter being issued across the UK as a whole with demands that have already been achieved north of the border!)

Understanding the present and preparing for the future
These changes are essential, but others are also required. We urgently need accurate intelligence from the field of battle which reflects the changes that are taking place in British society. In particular, a serious revolutionary strategy can only be based on an accurate assessment of the situation of the working class. Of course, preparation of such an assessment involves knowledge already acquired from ongoing practical intervention as much as from theoretical study, but even direct experience of the struggle has to be interpreted. I believe that an inadequate theoretical framework has prevented us from making the necessary analysis. At the moment, our decisions appear to be based on partial information filtered through a perspective which can envisage the future only as a repetition of the past.

Of course, there is much to be said for tradition and for maintaining positions until they have been decisively proved wrong, rather than light-mindedly abandoning them at the first opportunity. In some respects conservatism can be an under-appreciated revolutionary virtue, particularly in periods of stability. It can, for example, prevent the launching of inadequately thought-out initiatives or the adoption of fashionable stupidities. On the other hand, what we have exhibited for several decades is not simply theoretical conservatism, but a form of scholasticism which, as we have seen, seeks to explain every new phenomenon with reference to an historical analogy or a reference to one of the great Marxists. The prophets of the Old Testament believed that there was nothing new under the sun: we do not agree with them. There are new economic situations, new political formations and new forms of activism which cannot always be explained with reference to the first four Congresses of the Third International, or what Trotsky said (e.g.) to the French Section of the Left Opposition in 1934. Or course we need to be aware of historical parallels and learn from the insights of the Classical Tradition, as I have tried to do in this contribution; but there are limits to how useful this procedure is, particularly when it prevents us seeing where there are breaks, as well as continuities. The search for precedent in every situation is something we should leave to the peculiarities of the English legal system. We are in a situation where precedents are of limited use.

Specifically, I think we were ultimately led astray by the metaphor of “the downturn”. As a means of encapsulating the situation of retreat and demoralisation that the British working class were beginning to undergo in the late 1970s, this was a helpful contribution. The problem was that we then began to see developments entirely in terms of “downturn” or its opposite, “upturn” and this, on the other hand, was not helpful at all. For one thing, downturns and upturns are moments of sharp transition; by definition they have a limited timescale. Most of the history of the British working class cannot easily be allocated to one or the other: moments like 1910-14, 1919 or 1971-4 are highly exceptional. Yet we have been predicting an “upturn” since around 1989. Instead, the major flashpoints have been over the Poll Tax, the Criminal Justice Bill, the BNP, asylum seekers and imperialist war–issues which involved people in responding to attacks on their communities or opposition to geopolitical developments: trade union involvement there certainly was, but trade union action was minimal.

This misreading of the situation was caused by our severe underestimation of the effects of neo-liberalism on the working class, to the point that, until recently, we refused to recognise that it existed. The all-out frontal attacks on the labour movement and working class conditions characteristic of the first stage of neoliberalism largely ceased after the defeat of the Poll Tax. But this was not simply because the ruling class had become more cautious; it was also because the attacks had achieved their basic aim of weakening the ability of trade unions to effectively defend their members. This allowed three developments. One was to ensure that wage costs fell and stayed down, so that the share of profits going to capital was increased. The second was to enable corporate restructuring, the closing of “unproductive” units and the imposition of “the right of managers to manage” within the workplace. The third, and a more long-term tactical consideration, was to assist social democracy adapt to neoliberalism by weakening the main source of countervailing pressure from the broader labour movement. What followed, particularly after 1997, were two more molecular processes. One was to move production to geographical areas with low or non-existent levels of unionisation and prevent the culture of membership from becoming established: there are now areas of the economy, particularly in the private sector where unionisation is simply unknown. The other was the gradual commodification of huge new areas of social life: services which had been free at the point of use now had to be directly paid for; services where costs had previously been subsidised were now set on competitive lines: the naturalisation of the market is not only an ideological phenomenon–it is what people experience in the fabric of their daily lives. These changes have been more difficult to challenge than the earlier onslaughts, precisely because they did not in most cases involve set-piece confrontations, but they have had a cumulative impact on the working class.

Reformism, in the Gramscian sense of contradictory consciousness, is a permanent feature of working class life; but its consolidation or maintenance in political terms as a social democratic consciousness is not. What, for example, are the implications of social democratic organisations like the Labour Party, which used to embody this consciousness, becoming openly committed to capitalism? What are effects on working class expectations of over three decades of “anti-reforms” and the normalisation of market relations in areas where they were unknown even a hundred years ago–in the provision of local services, for example? What opportunities are there for workplace socialisation and unionisation for young people who were denied the opportunity to be exploited even before the financial collapse? Historically, we have argued that they have been swept up either by the economic effects of inter-imperialist war or peacetime economic boom. Are we relishing the thought of the former? Are we expecting the latter? It sometimes appears that while we recognise the existence of capitalist exploitation and oppression, we want to deny that they have any negative effects, that they only produce anger and resistance. But these are not all it produces. A report in The Observer quoted one GMB shop steward at JCB, where the workers recently agreed to accept a pay cut in order to save 322 jobs: “Industrial action is not on the cards. The days of strikes are long gone. No one ever gets their money back. With higher food and fuel bills, losing even a days’ wages is tough.” It also quoted the managing director of the HR consultancy Marshall-James: “People are less likely to go on strike today–they are less politicised, and also maybe more selfish.” This is not all that is going on in the class, but it needs to be explained–and explained without simply relying on those ever-popular, but often deeply ahistorical concepts, “betrayal by the bureaucracy” and “lack of confidence among the membership”.

These comments may sound like an expression of despair. They are not. In fact, I think the conditions are being prepared for major explosions of an entirely unpredictable sort. The argument can be made in both general and particular terms. The general was famously expressed by Lenin in 1920, but is true of any period of imperialist war and economic crisis, including our own: ‘History as a whole, and the history of revolutions in particular, is always richer in content, more varied, more multiform, more lively and ingenious than is imagined by even the best parties, the most class-conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes. … We do not and cannot know which spark–of all the innumerable sparks that are flying about in all countries as a result of the world economic and political crisis–will kindle the conflagration; we must therefore, with our new and communist principles, set to work to stir up all and sundry, even the oldest, mustiest and seemingly hopeless spheres, for otherwise we shall not be able to cope with our tasks, shall not be comprehensibly prepared…’ As French Marxist Daniel Bensaid once said at Marxism, this approach can be summed up by the notion of readiness: “Ready for the improbable, for the unexpected, for what happens.”
But there is also a more specific argument which was well captured by Cliff in 1968: “For decades Marxists used to infer the state of mass consciousness from a few institutional barometers–membership of organisations, readership of papers, etc. The deep alienation of workers from traditional organisations smashed all such barometers to pieces. This explains why there was no way of detecting the imminence of the upheaval in May 1968. And also, more important, it explains the extreme, explosive nature of the events. If the workers in France had been accustomed to participate in the branch life of the trade unions or the Communist Party, these institutions would have served both as an aid and as ballast preventing the rapid uncontrolled spread of the strike movement. The concept of apathy or privatisation is not a static concept. At a certain stage of development–when the path of individual reforms is being narrowed, or closed–apathy can transform into its opposite, swift mass action. … Workers who have lost their loyalty to the traditional organisations, which have shown themselves to be paralysed over the years, are forced into extreme, explosive struggles on their own.” The conditions described by Cliff have deteriorated further, much further in Britain today than they had in France forty years ago and effects are likely to be the same.

What does “readiness” mean in these circumstances? This brings us back to the relationship between the leadership and other members. Gramsci and Togliatti noted in 1926 that a crucial aspect of a revolutionary party was the “capacity of the local organisms and of individual comrades, to confront unforeseen circumstances and take up correct positions even before directives arrive from the leading bodies. It is necessary to combat the form of passivity…which consists in only being able to ‘wait from orders from above.’ The party must be characterised by ‘initiative’ at the base; in other words, the base organs must be able to react immediately to every unforeseen and unexpected situation.” What kind of scenarios are we looking at where “initiative” might be necessary? We are already responding to two immediate consequences of the current crisis. The first is the increase in repossessions and evictions, but I would also add personal bankruptcies, since it is equally vital that these are treated as social issues, not individual tragedies; as I wrote earlier this is the area where the united front is a genuinely relevant tactic. The second is the threat to jobs, as the collapse in bank lending begins to hit the service and manufacturing core of the economy. In both cases we have to argue against the logic of capital and assert the political economy of the working class as an alternative.

But there two other situations for which we should be ready, without being able to predict exactly where explosions are likely to come. One is the likely consequence of the persistence of high youth unemployment in the inner cities and estates, which could result in the type of riots last seen in the early 1980s (something made more likely by the increasingly repressive behaviour of the police and other state agencies), or it could be channelled into racist or fascist scapegoating of minorities: accepting that society is becoming polarised also means recognising that poles tend to come in twos. The other is the opposite situation of people who are in work, but remain un-unionised and here there is a historical precedent which strikes me as being more useful than most. In America during the 1930s the Depression was the backdrop to the re-emergence of trade unionism on an industrial rather than craft basis. These great unionisation movements in the USA during 1930s were motivated by the desire of a second-generation immigrant workforce to participate in a consumerist paradise from which they were excluded by low wages for the previous decade, and which now seemed to be put off again by the economic crisis. Even more important in igniting their resistance was the disciplinary regime of the foremen and pressure of keeping up with the production line. These conditions are quite similar, in terms of internal regime, to those which currently prevail in the great telesales office-factories, the hyper-markets and the financial institutions where, one suspects, things are going to get much tougher for those spared the corporate downsizing. One other aspect of the American experience is of particular importance to us: in each of successful strikes of the mid-thirties, political leadership effectively fell to whichever political organisation of the left was on the ground and had something intelligent to say to the workers–Communists, Trotskyists or the followers of A. J. Muste. We are the only real revolutionary party in Britain, but let us not be so complacent as to imagine that other forces, with superficially plausible arguments and strategies, will not seek to take advantage of a new upsurge, if we are not there to put our arguments.

What Next?
We need to extend our period of internal discussion beyond conference in order to allow for greater debate over both strategy and internal organisation, particularly since the CC has not yet recognised that we have problems in either area. (A conference motion containing a proposal along these lines follows this contribution.) One response to this proposal may be concern that our internal discussions may find their way into the websites and publications of the sectarian left, once rightly described by George Lichtheim as “tiny ferocious creatures devouring each other in a drop of water”. China Mieville and Richard Seymour have already dealt with this point in their timely call for a “culture of discussion” in IB2. An apparently more serious objection will be that the extent of crisis and consequently the urgency of the moment are simply too great to indulge in a debate over internal structures: we have demonstrations and public meetings to build, papers to sell, strikes to organise, and so on. We certainly need to do these things. But it is simply an evasion to argue that we cannot do both. If we have not clarified our ideas and renovated our organisation, then how will we attract the people we meet at these events? If we have not grown substantially over the past thirty years then why do we imagine that we will now, without some change? Simply hoping the depth of the crisis to deliver members to us while we carry on with business as usual, only at a more frenetic pace, is not a serious option. At the beginning and end of the revolutionary period between 1968 and 1975 we held additional conferences to agree the structure of our organisation. If we could find the time to have these considerations then, when the level of struggle was much higher than it is now, we can scarcely pretend that our current situation makes it impossible. If we fail to change, then we will almost certainly survive in some form–but our goal is surely something higher than survival–it is to earn the leadership of the British working class.

Neil Davidson
Edinburgh

Motion to conference

Notes:

Paul Foot, “David Widgery’” New Left Review I/196 (November/December 1992), p122.
Arund Kundnani, “Islamism and the Roots of Liberal Rage”, Race and Class, 50, 2 (October-December 2008), pp61-62.
Georg Lukacs, “Tailism and the Dialectic”, in A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2000), p78.
Duncan Hallas, “How Can we Move on?”, The Socialist Register 1977, edited by R. Milliband and J. Saville, p9.
http://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1977/xx/moveon.htm
Central Committee, “Building the Party during the Economic Crisis”, Pre-Conference Bulletin 1 (October 2008), p9.
Peter Sedgwick, “Introduction: Farewell Leicester Square”, in David Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1956-1968 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), pp20-21. http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1976/xx/grosvenorsquare.htm
Alasdair MacIntyre, “In Place of Harold Wilson?”, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s Engagement with Marxism: Selected Writings, 1953-1974, edited by Paul Blackledge and Neil Davidson (Leiden: Brill, 2008), p371.
Trotsky, Leon [1939], “The USSR in War”, in In Defence of Marxism (Against the Petty Bourgeois Opposition) (London: New Park, 1971), p11.
James Connolly [1915], “The Re-conquest of Ireland”, in Collected Works, vol. 1 (Dublin: New Books 1987), p263; Antonio Gramsci [1929-1935], “Problems of Marxism”, in Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, introduced and edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p438; Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God: a Study of the Tragic Vision in the Pensees of Pascal and the Tragedies of Racine (London: Routledge, 1964), p90; Alasdair MacIntyre [1964], “Pascal and Marx: on Lucien Goldmann’s Hidden God”, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s Engagement with Marxism, p314; Michael Lowy, [2001], Fire Alarm: on Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (London, Verso, 2005), p114.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, lines 139-141.
John Rees, “Anti-Capitalism, Reformism and Socialism”, International Socialism, Second Series, 90 (Spring 2001), p32; http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj90/rees/htm Alex Callinicos, “Where is the Radical Left Going?”, International Socialism, Second Series, 120 (Autumn 2008), p102-103. http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=484&issue=120
Central Committee, “The Economic Crisis, the United Front and the Charter”, Pre-Conference Bulletin 2 (November 2008), p9.
L. D. Trotsky, “For a Worker’s United Front Against Fascism”, in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, introduced by Ernest Mandel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), pp102-103, 107-108.
Callinicos, “Where is the Radical Left Going?”, p103.
Franz Borkenau [1939], World Communism: a History of the Communist International, new introduction by Raymond Aron (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), pp264-265; E. H. Carr, The Interregnum, 1923-1924 (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969), pp204-205; Socialism in One Country, vol. 3, 1924-1926 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp244-255; Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London: Bookmarks, 1985), pp112-113. http://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1985/comintern/ch5.htm#s1
Callinicos, “Where is the Radical Left Going?”, pp106-109.
Peter Sedgwick, “The French May…”, International Socialism, first series, 36 (April/May 1969), p40.
http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1969/xx/may.htm
V. I. Lenin [1906], “The Reorganisation of the Party”, in Collected Works, vol. 10 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1962), p34. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/reorg/ii.htm#v10pp65-03...
Hal Draper, “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Concept of the Party’: or what they did to What is to be Done?”, Historical Materialism 4 (Summer 1999), p208. http://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1990/myth/myth.htm#section3-1
Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923, translated by John Archer, edited by Ian Birchall and Brian Pearce, with an introduction by Eric Weitz (Leiden: Brill, 2005), pp628, 634-636.
John Molyneaux, “Democracy in IS”, Pre-Conference Discussion Documents (April 1975), p40.
Georg Lukacs, “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation”, in History and Class Consciousness: Essays on Marxist Dialectics (London: Merlin, 1971), p337. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/ch08.htm
V. I. Lenin [1906], “An Appeal to the Party by Delegates to the Unity Congress who Belonged to the Former ‘Bolshevik’ Group”, in Collected Works, vol. 10, p314. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/apr/26.htm
Ignazio Silone, in A Koestler et al, The God that Failed: Six Studies in Communism, with an Introduction by Richard Crossman (London: The Right Book Club, 1951), p118.
Lukacs, “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation”, p336.
http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/ch08.htm
Ecclesiastes, 1:9.
Tim Webb, “Workers Reject Strike Weapon”, The Observer, 2 November 2008.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/nov/02/trade-unions-recession
V I. Lenin [1920], ‘”Left-Wing” Communism–an Infantile Disorder’, in Collected Works, vol. 31 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1966), pp95, 99. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch10.htm
Daniel Bensaid, “Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!”, International Socialism, first series, 95 (Summer 2002), p77; Lenin Reloaded: towards a Politics of Truth, edited by Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007), p153. http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj95/bensaid.htm
Tony Cliff, “On Perspectives”, International Socialism, first series, 36 (April/May 1969), p17; In the Thick of Worker’s Struggles, Selected Writings, vol. 2 (London: Bookmarks, 2002), p134;
http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1969/04/perspectives.htm My emphasis.
Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)”, in Selections from the Political Writings, 1921-1926, translated and edited by Quintin Hoare (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977), p367.
Mike Davis, “The Barren Marriage of American Labour and the Democratic Party”, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1986), pp55-56.
George Lichtheim, Imperialism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p17.
China Mieville and Richard Seymour, “Dissent and Discussion: an Analysis and Proposal”, Pre-Conference Bulletin 2 (November 2008).
2 Comments »

1.

Apologies to Neil Davidson. A number of well respected comrades in the wider movement asked for this to be published, and I am doing so in what I regard as the best interests of the socialist movement.

Comment by Andy Newman — 17 December, 2008 @ 9:53 am
2.

BTW - I will publish the SWP cc’s response to neil davidson tomorrow.

Comment by Andy Newman — 17 December, 2008 @ 10:01 am

18 December, 2008
SWP - CHRIS HARMAN’S RESPONSE TO NEIL DAVIDSON
Filed under: SWP — admin @ 9:59 am

Some comments on Neil Davidson’s document

Neil Davidson’s document for IB3 has provoked considerable discussion in the party, circulating among a considerable number of members in digital form even before appearing in print. Such discussion is good thing. There has been a sense of malaise among wide sections of party activists over the outcome of the Respect crisis of a year ago—the malaise that was summed up in the Sheffield document in IB2. It is not that people think we took a wrong decision in resisting Galloway. Even most of the minority who disagreed at the time now feel we had no choice. But there are worries about tactical moves that led to us losing most of the centre ground to Galloway and over what has happened since. And this had led to questions about how we came to make such mistakes.

NeIl rightly notes the positive moves the party has been able to make. “Most recently, we have shown our ability to respond directly to a dramatic change in economic conditions. When the financial collapse occurred in September the SWP was certainly not the only organisation on the left to explain what had happened in other than Keynesian terms, but it was the only one able to raise slogans which went beyond abstract denunciations of capitalism and propose concrete demands around which to mobilise, and it was alone in fielding a body of activists large and capable enough to carry both our explanations and demands into the streets, workplaces and universities.” He could have added by noting our work in the run up the joint PCS-NUT strike in April, around the Scottish local government workers action, the bus strikes in London and the best successes among students for many years. But again, rightly, patting ourselves on the back is never good enough, particularly now. If we do not deal with the causes of the feeling of malaise in the party, we will be unable to rise to the challenge of the new phase of capitalist crisis that opened up since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid September. And we cannot come to terms with the problems without widespread discussion.

Underlying the discontent is a clear sense that the CC failed to prevent some of its members making mistakes in the building of Respect, in dealing with Galloway’s decisions to smash it if it did not suit his own purposes, and then in coping with the aftermath of the split. But that raises the additional question as to why the wider party membership were not able to call the CC to account for its omissions through the party conferences, the National Committee and the Party Councils

It is clear that we need to find ways of modifying our structures so that accountability applies to the CC as much as to anyone else in the party. Neil is quite right to say we need to find a way to open up discussions over strategic turns to wider sections of the party. Only in this way can we do our utmost to avoid mistakes (although it would be short-sighted to imagine there will not be further mistakes); and only in this way can we give the wider membership of the party the experience in making strategic and tactical decisions which they need if indeed every member is to be a leader. In my view it would have been much better had there, for instance, been a wider discussion in the party at the time of the launch of Respect, wider discussions about how to react as Galloway began to orient to Muslim notables and right wing Islamists at the time of the General Election in 2005, and wider discussion on our running in the London mayoral election (even though on this I think we had no choice.)

That is why the CC is proposing that that the conference elects a commission to make recommendations on strengthening party democracy and accountability.

Neil is right to say this is not the first time we have made mistakes. He reaches back to the mistaken position we took over the Poll Tax struggle in Scotland to generalise the argument about the inadequacy of the way the party leadership works. Others see the inadequacy expressed in the way we moved from talking about a “revolution in the branches” in the 1990s to the abortive attempt to replace them by cells in 2000, leaving us with very weak local organisation. The feeling is that on such occasions our structures –or as it is sometime put, “the atmosphere in the party”–allowed mistakes by the CC to go unrectified.

The picture as regards the Poll Tax in Scotland is not quite as simple as Neil presents its. The abstract approach we took to the Poll Tax struggle in Scotland was not just a question of mistakes by the CC in London but also of comrades on the ground in Scotland (on the paper on more than one occasion we had to tone down material we got from Scotland as putting too crude a line). And we did, as Neil recognises, learn the lessons when it came to the introduction of the Poll Tax in England and Wales. Most members of the current CC would probably recognise that the CC of eight years ago made mistakes over the branches at the time—mistakes we are still suffering from in some areas. But the mistakes were in response to the real problem that many party branches were becoming stultified and routinist (with members beginning not to attend out of boredom). It is easy to forget that a good many members felt a sense of relief at the decision taken by the CC. We chose the wrong solution, but there was a problem. The real point is that simply announcing a change without a thorough discussion at National Committees or Party Councils—with people presenting alternative views—was not the way to arrive at an answer to the problem.

So in principle I agree with Neil on the need to re-examine or decision making and accountability structures. I think the CC’s suggestion that conference elects a commission to report on the working of the party’s democratic structures provides a way to do this which can lead to a structured debate in the party about the matter.

However, I cannot follow Neil in many of the particular points he makes to justify his case.

First, it is simply not true that party members have fewer rights than members of unions. We do not have the mass purges and intimidation of dissidents that characterises UNISON at the moment. Any comrade or group of comrades can raise matters directly at party councils.—a far more direct route than in any union. We actually have a disputes committee whose reports most years are characterised by the fact that they involve no expulsions—and the committee is chaired by a comrade who was outspoken in defending certain positions opposed to the CC just three years ago. There has never been any restriction on what people write for the preconference bulletins. There has often been vigorous discussion at union fraction meetings—for instance over the discussions on how to relate to the rest of lefts in the PCS, NUT and UNISON, or in the arguments of how to campaign over Palestine in the UCU—and in districts. Some important national decisions have involved intense debate at the National Committee level—for instance, the decisions to join the SSP in Scotland and to break with the ISO in the US. There were very vigorous arguments when John Molyneux and a good number of other members (including at least one former member of the CC) challenged the leadership at a Party Council and then the conference three years ago, but there was no suppression of their right to do so. And there were three months of intense discussion right through the organisation when the split in Respect occurred in the last three months of 2007, with the small minority who opposed the CC decision to resist what Galloway was doing, putting their positions forcefully and without hindrance. You certainly did not need to access the blogosphere to hear the arguments (although you could read title tattle, such as a claim that I must have opposed the CC line because I had not signed a petition the party put out– I was in Barcelona on party business that weekend!!)

Nevertheless, there has been and remains a real problem. It is not that comrades lack democratic rights in the abstract. As Neil recognises, conference is free to replace or change the composition of the CC every year, it chooses a new National Committee each year, and the National Committee can censure the CC if it the majority of its members want to. On top of this there are national delegate meetings at least twice a year. I don’t know of any union with such formally democratic structures, while the LCR only has a congress every two or three years without ceasing to be democratic. The problem is that our structures have not in practice encouraged people to participate actively in decision making. There has been a tendency for comrades to rely on the CC to make decisions, even if this is in part because on very important decisions, such as the attitude to the anti-capitalist movement and the initiative to launch Stop the War, they could see that the CC was correct. The result is precisely the vicious circle of people leaving decisions to the CC and CC members falling into the easy trap of assuming that only they have the capacity to make the decisions. This is what we have to deal with. We need a national leadership which is wider than just the full time members of the CC.

There will be no easy magic remedy. In periods when the working class is on the defensive, it is difficult for people who work fulltime (particularly if they also have children) to commit themselves to serious involvement in the national decision making structures of the party. One long standing problem with the National Committee has been that people who stand for it at conference then often find it difficult to attend its meetings, let alone prepare themselves in advance for arguments. The very responsibilities in the wider working class movement that make their presence important often make it difficult to for them attend. A greater culture of debate at the national level in the party would hopefully make them see the importance of trying to deal with the problems they face when it comes to this. But it would be a mistake to assume they will always find it easy. Much the same applies to people who have to travel long distances to attend national leadership meetings. There can be great willingness to do so when the issue are contentious (as at the time of the Respect split a year ago), but there is a danger of people ordering their priorities differently when things seem to be going well for the party. Our experience of having a nationally based rather than a London based central leadership in the early 1970s was that people felt very frustrated coming all the way to London to discuss the humdrum issues that are often the stuff of politics for weeks or even months at a time.

We have to try to work out some structures better than the present ones. But that means confronting the practical difficulties as well as any attitudinal approaches that have developed in recent years. That is why it seems to me that a conference-elected commission to make recommendations is a better way forward than three months of discussion in internal bulletins. Hopefully such a commission could look at other experiences from the history of the movement and internationally, talk through the issues with long established lay members of the party, and suggest clear proposals (or alternative proposals) to be voted on.

I should add that I think it would be disastrous not to choose a new CC at conference. We need a elected by the conference if we are to respond a situation that is changing so rapidly as the global economic crisis unfolds so quickly that much of what was written in the first conference document (not just by the CC, but also in critical pieces like that of Unujm etc) already needs updating and will need further updating at the conference itself in six weeks time.

I suspect that whatever new structures we adopt may well need to be further reshaped in the light of practical experience. Neil points to the structures of the German Communist Party in 1922. He will be aware that it is a far from perfect example for us. The party had only the year before lost up to half its members and expelled one of its leading figures, Paul Levi. And it was plagued by a fight between two factions, one led by Heinrich Brandler, with years of exemplary practical experience, rooted in a strong working class district; the other led by the young intellectuals with ultra left tendencies, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow. When Germany entered a new phase of very intense economic, social and political crisis in 1923, neither grouping was able to provide the leadership needed. The ultra lefts saw a revolutionary situation where none existed in the first months of the year, while Brandler did not have the confidence to follow his own instincts and fight for a decisive shift to the left required when the situation changed in June. The result was a party which certainly was not “considerably more flexible and open” than us, as Neil seems to believe.

The problem is not formal democracy (which exists as much in the SWP today as in the German CP in 1922-3), but the creation of structures that permit the party to have a leadership that can make sharp strategic and tactical turns and fight to get the party as a whole to undertake them without at the same time cutting itself off from the experience, advice and, ultimately, control of the party at large. Neil objects to the phrase “organised distrust by the leadership of the rank and file”, and I do not see it as one of the finest quotations from Cliff. But what it tries to express is the idea that when the leadership decides on a certain course of action it has to struggle vigorously for it in the party, rather than just waiting on the membership to take action – even at the same time as being responsible to the membership when it becomes clear the course of action does not fit. That is the essence of Leninism, in whichever organisational form it takes, which distinguishes it as fighting party from a merely propagandist organisation or from parties of the Second International sort. My fear is that some of Neil’s formulations involve throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There may be occasions in which a party leadership jumps too quickly, not taking advantage of the time which exists to consult with the party at large; but equally there are many occasions in which the leadership has no choice but to make an immediate response. We could not, for instance, wait in the party as whole to carry through the discussion before making our decisions on how to react to the outbreak of the Falkland War in 1982 or the events of 9/11. I was editing the paper on those occasions, and we had to decide headlines that committed the party at short notice and with no possibility of organising any sort of national meeting first. What matters in such instances is that the structures and political understanding exists in the party to bring us to account if we get things wrong (and, as Neil must recognise they did exist on both occasions, but were not used because comrades recognised we got things right).

Neil harks back to the argument put forward by Peter Sedgwick about calling ourselves a party in 1977, and suggests that it was a mistake to do so once the class struggle has entered into the downturn and that led us to develop inappropriate structures. But it was not simply a change of name that led us to ensure we had structures that could provide some degree of leadership in struggles. It was that by the late 1970s, precisely because of the downturn in struggle, we were faced with responsibilities we had not faced in the past. The exemplary case was our role in organising the mass action against the National Front demonstrations at Wood Green and Lewisham, and then initiating the Anti-Nazi League. We could not have done such things without behaving like a miniparty, whatever we called ourselves. The same applied to building the Right to Work campaign (the only organised national movement against unemployment so long as the Labour government was in office), the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the first Iraq war, the poll tax riot in London, the pit closures crisis, the revival of the ANL after Beackon got elected in the Isle of Dogs, the Liverpool dockworkers strike, the outbreak of the “war on terror”, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon two years ago,

Unfortunately, Neil’s account of our past abstracts from all these things. Looking at this record, it is facile in the extreme for Neil to claim that “Sedgwick was right to highlight the dangers of establishing an unchanging leadership incapable of recognising, or at least admitting to its own errors.” I am sorry, but most of what the leadership did through the two and a half decades after Peter made this comments was correct, as Neil himself would admit. At least part of the reason why the experienced members who have served on the score or more of national committees since have not been as critical of the CC in the past as many of them have been over recent months is that they thought the decisions the CC took were generally correct. And if Neil looked more closely at the various documents he consulted in writing his document, he would see that it is a mistake to refer to an “unchanging leadership”. Me and Alex are the only members of the CC from 1977, and Chris Bambery and Lindsey German the only ones who were on it alongside us at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Iraq war and the Poll tax riot. Those who have joined the CC in recent years include a former nationally known militant in the Civil Service, a long time activist in South Africa under apartheid, someone who was thrown out of the TUC programme for union recruiters for encouraging strikes, a comrade who led our student work in its most successful year for more than a decade, and a former teacher union activist with a record of successfully defusing an attempt by the Nazis to win over white working class youth. Hardly a bunch of tame apparatchiks!!

More seriously, in my view, Neil abstracts from the wider situation of the left nationally and internationally when it comes to the problems we have faced with growth. He implies these have been caused by Tony Cliff’s version of Leninism. He recognises there were problem beyond our control in the early period of downturn, but downgrades their importance in the years after that. The period after the mid 1970s itself was not just one of industrial downturn in Britain. It was one that was dire for the left as a whole nationally and internationally. In countries like the US, Germany, Italy and Spain organisations with tens of thousands of activists simply disappeared; in Latin America outside Brazil they disintegrated into small, quarrelling sects cut off from wider struggles for most of the 1980s and 1990s. It was not only the far left that disappeared; figures who had once been part of the reformist or Eurocommunist left ended up backing the third way, and embracing neoliberal ideas. The exciting left wing cultural fruits of the 1960s withered. The wave of academic Marxism of the early 1970s gave way to post structuralism and postmodernism.

If things were not so bad in Britain it was to an important extent due to the role of the SWP (just as the LCR and Lutte Ouvriere were, for all their faults, were able to play a somewhat similar role in France). Nevertheless, this country witnessed the collapse of the old International Marxist Group, the disintegration of a Communist Party that still had about 30,000 members at the time we adopted the name SWP and the complete disappearance of the Bennite left in the Labour Party; the social movements of the 1970s gave way to one issue campaigns centred on identity politics in the 1990s, a once flourishing quasi Marxist intellectual milieu to the dominance of post modernism in one form or another. These were the years in which half the jobs in manufacturing industries disappeared (a higher proportion than anywhere else in the advanced industrial world), and the most militant sections of workers in the 1970s, the dockers, the printers and the miners suffered devastating defeats (much greater than in France or Germany, for instance). A whole swathe of militants from the early 1970s lost their jobs through victimisation and redundancy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We had militant electricians who had to go to Saudi Arabia to find work, car worker militants who ended up in teaching jobs, working in local government or driving taxis. Neil must know a few in Scotland who ended up as university lecturers. In such a situation people could be won to the idea of workers power as the alternative to capitalism in their “ones and twos”, as Cliff insisted in the early 1980s, but it could come to seem a very distant goal, not worth putting in the effort week after week year after year. Our work within and around the miners strike of 1984-5 enabled us to win a whole new layer of comrades to the organisation—and it was these who held it together, selling the paper, building the branches, maintaining a base for us in some unions in two decades after. But they had to do so in an environment which was in some ways more difficult than that previously. The defeat of the miners spelt the final end of the swing to the left which the Labour Party had experienced at the beginning of 1980s—and down with the Labour Left also went the Militant (now the Socialist Party), with its former base in Liverpool turning into a wasteland for the left. Union leaderships were still using the miners’ defeat 15 years afterward to argue than strikes could not win, and allowed themselves to be constrained by the anti-unions laws in a way still unimaginable in the early 1980s. To this must be added the impact on the wider left internationally of the collapse of the USSR. It did not affect our membership, and we were left as the only substantial left force intact as the rest of the left declined in one way or another. But it did affect the wider milieu in which we operated, adding to the common sense argument that “socialism cannot work”. The result was that revolutionary socialists found ourselves swimming against the tide, even when our role in things like the First Iraq war, the poll tax riot, the pit closure revolt, the ANL, the Timex strike and the CJB provided us with a visibility.

For about four or five months at the time of the pit closure revolt there was a real feel of revival of the workers movement and we picked up enormously. But we did not have the weight in the working class to counter the do-nothing approach of the union leaderships (with Scargill opposing our efforts to get pit occupations) and the feeling soon dissipated. We were honestly able to claim a membership of up to 10,000 (a careful audit of our membership in the late 1990s showed it as 8,500). But in retrospect it is clear that many who signed membership forms to join the party did so not because they wanted to be active but because they liked what we were doing without intending to do it themselves. The sort of mass class struggle needed to provide concrete reality to the struggle for workers’ power still seemed very distant. And then the visceral anger within the working class against Thatcherism transmuted into a belief that New Labour was the answer (the Labour Party put on about 200,000 new members in the run up to the 1997 election).

All of us older members know people who dropped out in that period. They felt that transitory successes for the party could not overcome a more general feeling that we were banging our heads against a brick wall and would never break through. Most still valued the SWP but did not have the energy to remain active members. We lost by attrition what we gained by recruitment. Some remained nominal members (an important chunk of the “unregistered member” category Neil picks up on); others simply drifted away. I cannot honestly think the “regime” in the party had much, if anything, to do with that—except that the structures of the party, for all their possible faults, did keep pressure on comrades to be active.

What about the nine years since Seattle? We were quite rightly excited by the rise of the anticapitalist movement and then the anti war movement. We were no longer isolated as we had been in the 1990s and were quite right to make a turn to the new movements. But we recognised (in for instance the article I wrote in ISJ in 2000, “The Theory and Practice of Anticapitalism,”) that the ideas that predominated within the new movement were pre-Marxist rather than Marxist, and that it would take time and fraternal discussion for us to shift this. We had to go backward, in a certain sense, in order to go forward.

The leadership we played in the anti-war movement gained the party great credit. But in the course of the movement it also became clear that opposition to war was not automatically the same as anti-imperialism, and that anti-imperialism was not automatically the same as anticapitalism (I remember student meetings where young people opposed to the war would defend the market, “enterprise” etc). As I put it in my article “Anticapitalism five years after Seattle” in IS 104 (Autumn 2004) autonomists and reformist ideas were still very dominant in the movement: “The revolutionary left was small at the time of Seattle and it is not surprising that the many thousands who took part in the great mobilisations rarely identified with its arguments”. Or as Sheila MacGregor summed it up at a party council about four years ago. “We had a bigger mass movement than in Britain in 1968, but we did not have anything like the French May events.”

I felt at the time, and I still do, that were a bit slow in putting more effort in building the party. I made the point in the Journal that a measure of the party’s success in broader party fronts was winning people to its full set of ideas. Of the experience internationally I wrote, “The omission of the far left has been its failure to build links with at least a proportion of those who have voted for it, finding ways to involve them in non-electoral struggles and winning them to readership of its press.” It was such feelings that led me to I turn a series of articles I had written into Socialist Worker into the little book, Revolution in the 21st Century (although at least one other member of the CC indicated to me that they thought this was not what the party needed at the time, and it took two years to appear in print). It was only when Martin Smith moved from the industrial department to become national organiser that real effort was put into party building effort, although even then there were people in the party (including in the CC) who in practice behaved as if it was a diversion from what we were doing in the united fronts.

Be that as it may, the objective situation has changed in our favour since then, even if not as quickly as I had hoped. The last two or three years have seen a revival of interest in Marxism internationally in a way in which was not the case in the early 2000s (if nothing else, the attendance at the Historical Materialism annual events, which have quadrupled in size in four years shows that), and it the interest is increasing by the day as a result of the ideological crisis since the bank collapses and nationalisations We have to seize the opportunities before us. We cannot do so without coming to terms at the conference with past mistakes. But we also have to ensure this does not absorb our time and energy when we have chance of moving forward.

Neil refers, quite correctly, to the hopeful sight of the LCR building the New Anticapitalist Party in France, But until five years ago the LCR’s record of growth was even more dismal than ours. It had shrunk from perhaps 6000 “militants” in 1982 when Mitterrand was elected for the first time to about 2000. Its growth since and the prospects for the new party are very much a product of the successive waves of workers and students struggles in France since 1995. We have maintained ourselves and gained a certain, if limited, influence on British politics in the absence of struggles on anything like that scale. It is no mean achievement. But now we have to seize the opportunities to build on it—even if they are not as great as in countries like France and Greece where we have already seen mass struggles.

In this respect, there are, however, two things on which Neal’s document that confuse rather than enlighten.

The first concerns electoral interventions and the united front. Its strikes me that there is danger of an almost metaphysical discussion in the party at the moment as to what is a united front and what is not. The concept was developed by Lenin and Trotsky in 1920 and 1921 to deal with situations where revolutionaries had not won the majority of workers to their revolutionary views, but were able to work with them for limited objectives. Because such workers were still under the influence of reformist politicians and trade union bureaucrats, it was often necessary to formally call upon these to engage in united struggle with the revolutionary organisation around specific demands which they claimed to accept. If they are agreed, it would make it easier for revolutionaries to engage in united action with reformist workers and win them to revolutionary ideas—and win victories for the class which would strengthen its confidence. If the leaders refused it would expose them in the eyes of their supporters. This became known as “the united front from above.” There were also situations in which it was possible to win reformist workers to united action even without their leaders. This became known as the “united front from below”—not in itself necessarily a bad thing, but unlikely to have the impact of the united front from above and in important instances (like Germany in 1930-33) an ultraleft substitute for it. In either sort of united front there were opportunities as well as dangers. The revolutionaries could pull the reformists towards them, but the reformists could also exercise pressure on the revolutionaries. Which way things went depended on the tempo of struggle, but also the clarity and tactical skill of the revolutionaries.

The particular demands which would make a united front possible depended on the concrete situation. It could be about one demand, it could be about ten. The United Front could start from above, as a result of a formal agreement with union or reformist leaders; it could start from below –for instance by drawing rank and file reformist workers with us into common action (some of the most effective rank and file movements of the early 1970s, like that around the Dockworker paper, started on a basis similar to this). So there is no reason in principle why a petition should not form the basis for a united front. Any argument must be over what is the best basis at a particular point in time. What does matter is that the demands are concrete and specific enough to put the reformist leaders to the test of practice in front of their supporters. General propaganda calls would not do this. Reformists have often been willing to make apparently far reaching calls for change at some point in the future while ducking struggle in the here and now. A united front around such calls, far from drawing their followers into action, only serves to provide a left cover for the leaders’ inaction.

It also has to be remembered, at every moment, that the leaders will seize every opportunity to back off from their commitment even to the minimal points of agreement with us. For this reason no united front will last forever. Neil is therefore overstating the case when he writes that the “cases where revolutionaries simply have to stand alone on a point of principle…should be the exceptions, at least in the current period.” We have to assume in any united front that a breaking point will come. Our responsibility is to build links with those influenced by reformism so that when the break comes, we do not break alone.

By these criteria Respect was an attempt at a united front –and so, for that matter, is the New Anticapitalist Party in France, since it unites people around the quite correct demand of “no coalition with the Socialist Party”, but does not raise the question of the overthrow of the state and workers power. Neil thinks we were right to launch Respect and agrees it necessarily involved us working with people who were not revolutionaries. But he then writes that it could not have been a united front because “Respect was a political party which, by definition, must seek to intervene across the entire range of political, social and economic issues facing the workers and oppressed groups it wants to influence, from abortion to zero-tolerance policing.” I feel like echoing Engels and writing, “dialectics, gentlemen, dialectics.” The left across Europe today is faced with a contradictory situation. People who have not broken with reformism are breaking with existing reformist parties and want to vote against them from the left. We can work alongside them in political formations around demands of a limited nature that do not have the total programme one would normally expect from a political party. That is a united front with them. Where Neil is right is that such a united front presents particular problems, in the case of Respect “because the agreement did not exist over many of the fundamental issues with which Respect was faced”. He is also right to say that the result would predictably be “unstable and divisive” and that therefore we should have done more to win Respect supporters to revolutionary politics.

It is a pity that in is eagerness to score a point at Alex’s expense in his piece that Neil did not take up more seriously the question of Trotsky and the Labor Party in the US. There was a real problem, similar in some ways to that which revolutionary socialists face in Europe today, and one we could learn from. The socialist movement was weak in the US in the 1920s and the Communist Party even weaker, with much of its influence restricted to the “foreign language” federations of recent immigrants. A move began to establish a Labor Party in the Chicago region, which has seen two great, but defeated, strikes in 1919-20 (in the stockyards and in steel). Centrally involved was one of the key leaders of those strike, John Fitzpatrick (portrayed in the film The killing floor). Another of the key strike leaders, William Z Foster, had joined the Communist Party, and it seemed that the party could gain in influence by taking part in the Labor Party initiative. At first things went well, but then the hierarchy of the US trade union movement put pressure on Fitzpatrick and he turned against the Communists, destroying the movement for a Labor Party and damaging the Communists. Up to this point, the incident shows incredible similarities with our experience with Galloway in Respect. When I read Theodor Draper’s account of the events earlier this year, I felt as if I was reading a script acted out by us and Galloway). The fact that the American CP, under the influence of the Zinovievite Comintern delegate Pepper, then went off into cloud cuckoo land is beside the point. The issue raised by the incident had been a real issue. It re-emerged in the 1930s, among Trotsky’s supporters in the US. Trotsky’s advice to them at first was that they should oppose agitation for a Labor Party as a diversion from winning workers to revolutionary socialism. But after the great strike wave of the mid 1930s he gave new thought to the question in long discussions with revolutionaries from the US. His conclusion was that revolutionaries should support such agitation insofar as it struck a response among the militant workers, but at the same time be aware that there would be struggle with reformist influences, which would grow if the workers’ movement suffered set backs.

As Daniel Bensaid summarised his arguments a few years ago:

“To the revolutionary militants who asked him why they were going to take part in the founding of a reformist party, he replied that what was necessary was not the founding of a reformist party, but a party of the class independent of the bourgeoisie. What happens after that is an open question. What becomes of the party depends on the class struggle, the balance of forces, the experiences, and the intervention of revolutionaries within it. To those who said it was necessary to create a workers’ party with revolutionary references, he replied that was abstract and formal. In the context of the time, of 500 workers at a public meeting who were ready to understand the need for an independent workers party, perhaps only five, not more, would be ready to understand that it was necessary to destroy the state and fight Stalinism. The five could be recruited to the section of the Fourth International and the 500 to the workers’ party. Each would respond according to their level of consciousness.”

The mistake the young American Communist Party made in the early 1920s was not to be prepared for its reformist allies to turn against it, and then to avoid drawing an honest balance sheet when they did. We made the first mistake in Respect, and we have avoid making the second one if we are going to be able to respond correctly if, as is possible, forces bigger than us try to build a formation to the left of Labour in future. Denying that what is involved is some form of united front– one which creates special difficulties– is not helpful. Nor is it helpful now for us to try to delineate in detail in advance, long before the conditions for a new formation exists, how we would respond. On this point I think Neil’s call for us now “to start thinking now about the nature of such a party, in terms of its composition, possible process of formation, and our relationship to it as a revolutionary component” is pie in the sky, since we have no ideas of under what circumstances and with what forces we would be working. He says the alternative is “yet more improvisations, dignified with the spurious theoretical rationale of the united front.” It is not. The alternative is one aspect of Leninism which I am sure Neil wants to keep, “the concrete analysis of concrete situations.” What is true is that we can get lessons on how to do that from the experiences taking place at present in France, Greece, Germany and elsewhere, and from the record of Respect,the SSP and Rifondazione. In my view, I think we would have been better prepared for what happened in Respect if instead of seeing it as something new we had looked at how people like Trotsky related to previous similar attempts, with the balance sheet of their outcome. This is not, as Neil implies, treating the classic writings of Marxism as scriptural texts—or as Alasdair Macintyre and Brian Behan put it before abandoning revolutionary Marxism, “waving the dead bones of Trotsky”. It is not snide comments about past revolutionary experiences we need, but learning from them in an effort to change the future.

It is also worth adding that one problem we faced—and might well face again—is that so far the willingness of a minority of people to vote to the left of the social democratic parties has not in general been matched by a corresponding level of activism. This has been true in France, and is so even now. Ten thousand members of the New Anticapitalist Party is magnificent. But it is less than one percent of the people prepared to vote for Besancenot. In Britain the proportions were probably worse with both with the SSP and Respect. In Hackney, where I live we got between 5 and 10 per cent of the vote (a very good vote by European standards–except in Europe proportional representation means the far left win seats with such figures). Yet there were only a handful of activists in Respect who were not SWP members, and despite all our efforts Respect public meetings were no bigger than those of the SWP (a very different state of affairs to that with Stop the War). The number of activists we could potentially have won from Respect to our wider politics was not very great. My impression is that the low level of non party participation in Respect was fairly general, except in a handful of predominantly Muslim localities, a few other places and among students. One problem with our Respect work was that we never discussed the implications of this at a national level.

The other point on which I think Neil is very confusing is in his references to the state of the working class organisation. He objects to the formula of “bureaucracy on the one hand, lack of confidence on the other.” I don’t agree. In my view that is precisely the lesson that flows from the union leaderships’ ignoring the votes for action in the PCS and NUT, and the union membership then accepting the leaderships decisions. Trade unionists in the public sector and important parts of the private sector are quite prepared to vote in their majority for strike action when they are given some sort of lead; but they do not have the confidence to take action without an official lead. This does not seem to me to imply some radical transformation in the consciousness of the class as a result of neoliberalism—and I feel that in holding this position Neil is too influenced by an orthodoxy that unites third way social democrats like Anthony Giddens and Manuel Castells with autonomists. In my view it is a complete exaggeration to write about “normalisation of market relations in areas where they were unknown even a hundred years ago”. Does Neil really mean that things are now worse in this respect that before the Lloyd George budget of 1909 and the National Insurance Act of 1911?

Our publications have contained analyses and reanalyses of the restructuring of the working class over the last three decades – the articles by me and Alex in the mid-1980s that were turned into a little book, the debate between Martin Smith and Gregor Gall in ISJ two years ago, my article “Theorising neoliberalism”, Paul Blackledge’s review of Bill Dunn’s book Global Restructuring and the Power of Labour, and so on. It is not good enough to say we have not provided “explanation.” Neil may not agree with the explanation, and I would certainly welcome it if he was write a serious article for the Journal outlining a different approach. But it is really silly in a serious and important contribution to the problems facing the party to typify working class consciousness with a typical Observer quotation from a steward justifying not fighting back against the attacks on his members conditions. Our activists in the unions face that stuff everyday (it was, after all the excuse for the lay officials in the NUT and PCS ignoring a majority vote of their members to take action). Let us have serious discussions on these issues in publications, not second hand anecdotes in internal documents.

This leads me to my last couple of points. First, there is clearly going to be more internal discussion. But many of the points Neil and other comrades want to take up can and should appear in the open publications, and not be confined to Internal Bulletins. SW and SR both print in virtually every issue letters questioning what they have argued. The journal has carried important debates over the last four years—over the character of imperialism today, over the character of the present crisis, over the state of the class struggle. Let’s have more from comrades who think the positions we express on particular issues are wrong or simplistic. I personally was bit disappointed when I wrote what I thought was a provocative article on neoliberalism and no one responded to it.

Finally, in my view there is a there is a right and a wrong way to deal with the important issues that Neil’s document raises. We need to open up discussion over the real questions as to how we respond to a rapidly changing global economic and political situation. We need the conference to take these issues seriously. And we need it to elect a commission (including experienced non-full time members) to make suggestions how we change our structures. So I agree with the sentiments in Neil’s document about opening up and leadership accountability. I cannot, however, accept the present CC remains intact, without conference choosing a leadership for next year. It is clear from articles in the bulletin and from the preconference aggregates that there enormous feeling in the party that the important issues have been fudged over the last year because of divisions within the CC. It would be a serious mistake for conference to agree to this state of affairs continuing. We need a unified CC, capable of acting decisively. That is the only way the party can respond to sudden changes in the objective circumstances as the crisis develops—and it is the only way the party as a whole can judge whether the leadership is responding correctly.

*****

21 December, 2008
WHAT’S GOING ON - A REPLY TO JOHN REES
Filed under: SWP — admin @ 12:38 am

By Alex Callinicos, from SWP pre-confernce Internal Bulletin #4

The Socialist Workers Party is currently facing a double challenge – to come to terms with the damage caused by the collapse of Respect and to reorient in the face of what appears to be the most serious economic crisis the capitalist system has faced since the 1930s. Not surprisingly, the result has been a vigorous and many-sided debate on a variety of different though largely inter-connected issues. This is nothing to be afraid of – indeed, some of us might say that this is what the party has needed for years. Conducted in a responsible and comradely way, this debate can strengthen the party.

John Rees certainly has a very powerful claim to have his voice heard in this debate. He was a major protagonist in the Respect crisis. He was consistently advocated a strategy for the party in response to the economic slump – though thoroughly misconceived, this strategy deserves a hearing. Finally, the outgoing Central Committee has not included him on the slate for the new CC we are recommending to January’s national conference. For all these reasons, every member of the SWP will be interested in what John has to say.

Unfortunately, John’s document, ‘Where We Stand’ (already circulated by email in a somewhat different form from the version that appears here) doesn’t really rise to the level demanded by such an important set of debates. In order to defend his personal position John has sought to turn the real, but in many ways quite localized disagreements on the CC into a set of systematic differences. In the process he has had to engage in quite a lot of inflation, distortion, and innuendo. He has also attacked aspects of the party’s work on which he raised no significant disagreements in the past.

In this reply, I’ll try to stay on the high ground and concentrate on the main political questions, though I will, from time to time, have to correct various factual assertions and misrepresentations made by John. Let’s start with the issues that John emphasizes as a way of providing himself with protective cover – namely the party’s response to the economic crisis
and the CC majority’s alleged opposition to recruitment – before considering the origins of the differences in the leadership and concluding on the question of democracy. In the course of this I shall make some comments on Lindsey German’s document, though I think it adds little of substance to the debate.

On perspectives
The most important political question facing the SWP concerns how we respond to a rapidly developing global economic crisis that looks set to be at least as serious as that of the mid-1970s and conceivably as bad as that of the 1930s. John offers a systematic critique of the CC majority, claiming that we have been slow to wake up to the severity of the crisis or to orient the party towards it, that we are abandoning the stress we have put in recent years on building united fronts, and that we have failed to grasp the centrality of the People before Profit Charter. All this is associated with a break with the method of building the party through decisive leadership that Tony Cliff learned from Lenin and its replacement by a ‘‘‘buffet lunch’ approach to leadership – come whenever you like and take a bit of whatever takes your fancy’

I’m tempted to follow the American Trotskyist Max Shachtman and say that even the punctuation marks in these statements are false. But it’s dangerous to make jokes in a factional situation. One I made at the Manchester aggregate is twisted by John in the original version of his document into the admission that I’d ‘been late in seeing the depth of the recession’. Let’s try and get at the substance involved.

In the first place, I completely reject the claim that the present leadership has been slow to face up to the impact of the crisis. As a theoretical tendency we have consistently defended an analysis of the prolonged period of crises and slow growth that capitalism entered at the end of the 1960s as a result of a pronounced fall in the general rate of profit against bourgeois boosters of globalization, sundry reformists and academic leftists, and even some of our sister organizations (this analysis was an issue in the debates with the International Socialist Organization in the United States at the end of the 1990s).

Far from being taken aback by the onset of the financial crisis in August 2007, we saw it as a vindication of our analysis and have placed the developing slump at the centre of our arguments. This is evident from – among a plethora of examples – successive issues of International Socialism, the two Political Economy schools in autumn 2007 and 2008, numerous of my weekly Socialist Worker columns, the articles by Chris Harman and me in the October issue of Socialist Review, the interventions both of us made at successive Historical Materialism conferences, the document on the economic crisis in IB2, and the IS Tendency statement on the crisis reprinted in IB3.

This body of analysis – that will be further developed in the books that Chris Harman and I have written, due to be published in 2009, and another one I have been commissioned to write – may contain all sorts of errors. It certainly will need correction, updating, and further development. But it bears witness to the seriousness with which the present CC takes the economic crisis.

John makes the mystifying statement that ‘There is no theoretical agreement on the CC about the likely depth and length of the recession.’ What’s puzzling about this is that John has said or written nothing of any substance about the crisis since the financial markets froze in the summer of 2007. Of course, in fairness, he has had other preoccupations, but it’s still news that he has any distinctive theoretical position on these questions.

Instead, John objects when those of us who have contributed to our analysis of the crisis exercise a degree of caution about making precise predictions. For example, I wrote in the October Socialist Review: ‘The complexity of the capitalist economic system, in which different mechanisms and tendencies interact, means that it’s hard to predict the course and severity of the present crisis.’ Such remarks would seem to any serious student of Marxist political economy a statement of the obvious. But for John they are admissions of weakness. He and his supporters go around saying: ‘The CC majority think we can’t have a perspective because we can’t predict anything.’ This is ridiculous.

A Marxist understanding of the world allows us to anticipate the broad line of development, but not to predict precise turns of events. For example, the crisis in the financial markets turned into a full-scale crash after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September. This event arose from the interaction between an ideologically motivated (and catastrophically miscalculated) decision by the Bush administration not to rescue Lehman’s and a conflict between US and British company law that prevented Barclay’s from mounting a private takeover. If John really thinks he can predict the precise form of such complex turns of events then he could be making a lot of money working for a hedge fund.

What about the accusations of the majority’s ‘slowness’ in developing a practical response to the economic crisis? In the first half of the year, the crisis took mainly the form of paralysed financial markets. The most important effect on ordinary people’s lives was the collapse of house prices and the drying up of mortgages. There has been a quantum-leap in the severity of the crisis since the summer, with output beginning to fall fast, and soaring closures and redundancies. Maybe we could have done more to prepare for the development of the recession in the early part of 2008, though it would have been difficult to have gone beyond discussion and some planning. There were practical reasons why our focus was elsewhere.

In the first place, the most significant external development had nothing to do with signs of a developing recession, but was in response to another dimension of the economic crisis, namely the impact of accelerating inflation on living standards – the pay revolt, especially, though not exclusively, in the public sector.

Secondly, at the same time as relating to the pay revolt (in some success in a number of unions), the party had to put considerable energy and resources into campaigning in the May elections in London and other parts of the country. The returns of this intervention were, of course, pretty negative in London (though somewhat better elsewhere). Does John now think we were mistaken to have run in the GLA elections? Does he think the SWP Industrial Department shouldn’t have thrown everything it could at the pay revolt?

If he does, then he should have the honesty to acknowledge that he didn’t oppose either of these interventions at the time (indeed, of course, he led the Left List campaign) and therefore must take his share of responsibilityfor what he now believes – wrongly, in my view – to be mistaken decisions.

What leadership of a revolutionary party requires above all is, first, as Lenin put it, ‘the concrete analysis of concrete situations’, and, secondly, the capacity to respond quickly to sharp turns in the objective situation. The present CC has certainly been hampered this year by its internal differences. But that hasn’t prevented us from correctly weighing the objective situation and from pointing the party in the right direction.

In particular, the September National Committee was really important – less because of the row over the Left Alternative National Council than because this was preceded by a sharp argument over perspectives.

The clarity achieved by this debate – as well as the support the CC majority received from the NC – gave the impetus to turn the party sharply towards a focus on responding to the economic crisis and building resistance to its effects on working people. This is reflected in, for example, in the ‘Socialists and the Crisis’ meeting to mobilize the party in London on 8 October, the protests at the Bank of England and Canary Wharf, the Bookmarks pamphlet on the crisis by Chris Harman, and the mini-Marxism on 6December,

This is not to say that our response to the crisis hasn’t faced difficulties. The problem is not, as John claims, that the CC has failed to bend the stick. On the contrary, we have bent it too far for his liking. Thus he complains that I ‘told the South London aggregate that “It’s clear that Stop the War will be less important in the future.”’ What I did, in the first place, make clear (not just in South London but at all the other aggregates I spoke at) was the strategic long-term importance of the Stop the War Campaign, reflecting the analysis that John helped to develop at the end of the Cold War and that stresses that American imperialism has no choice but to rely on its military power to help maintain its competitive position.

But I went on to argue that Stop the War could have the kind of over-arching centrality to our work that it has had since it was launched in the aftermath of 9/11. It can’t be what Galloway called ‘the mother ship’, from which all other initiatives spring. This is partly because the economic crisis has come to occupy centre-stage. But it’s also true that, though popular opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remains very high, the mobilizing power of the issue has declined. Compare the demonstration against Bush’s visit to London in October 2003, when more than 300,000 people marched on a weekday, with that against his return last June when a few thousand turned out.

To repeat: this isn’t an argument for abandoning Stop the War – Obama wants to escalate the Afghan war and may perpetrate atrocities elsewhere. And it’s perfectly possible that the result may be an upsurge in mobilization, as took place in response to Israel’s Lebanon war in the summer of 2006. But this doesn’t alter the current situation. If John wants to challenge this analysis, then he’ll have to come up with one of his own.

John’s complaint occurs in the context of the accusation that the CC majority is engineering a ‘full scale retreat from united front work’. This is nonsense. We need to continue to build and develop the existing united fronts – Stop the War, UAF, Defend Council Housing, and so on. We also want to help initiate and build united fronts that combat the effects of the recession.

Here there is a real disagreement. John accuses the majority failing to recognize the centrality of the Charter to our response to the recession. His error is instructive because in a certain sense it dovetails in with the criticism of the CC raised by some comrades – notably Ian Allinson, Neil Davidson, and Unjum Mirza – who, though hostile to the Charter and to John personally, accuse us of failing to provide the party with a strategy for the recession.

It’s important to see that, for John, Stop the War provides the model for the Charter. At the NC in September he called for ‘a massive centralized effort’ to build the Charter. At a CC meeting during the summer he said ‘the recession is the new war’. In other words, John believes that the SWP is in a position to initiate a mass united front campaign comparable to what Stop the War during its upswing in 2001-5.

The reason why John is mistaken can be seen at two levels. First, the economic class struggle is different from that of the struggle against war. In autumn 2001 the existing peace organizations were weak and conservative. The sheer shock of 9/11 and fear of the American response created a space where, by moving very quickly, we (including John, to his great credit), along with other anti-imperialists who shared our sense of urgency, could rapidly initiate a new kind of anti-war movement that grew very rapidly through a cycle of dynamic and expanding mobilizations.

In the economic class struggle, the organized working class is, of course, of central importance. That means there’s no getting round the trade union bureaucracy, which is an immense conservative force, relative to which our weight is much less than it in the anti-war movement. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing than we can do. On the contrary, we have been able to do a lot in the unions where we have some base – eg the NUT, PCS, and UCU. But getting support for initiatives is a much more complicated business in the unions.

Of course, the bulk of the union bureaucracy is involved in Stop the War as well. But the situation is different there. It costs a trade union general secretary nothing to make a speech at an anti-war rally and only money to make a donation to Stop the War. But united fronts are about action and action against the recession means, for example, resisting the public sector pay limit or fighting pay-cuts in the private sector. Leading trade union bureaucrats are only going to sign up to that under immense pressure from below.

Though John attacks the idea of the Charter as a petition, his own conception of it seems to be as a series of big rallies. He lists some of the speakers at these meetings – Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Larry Elliot, Paul Mason, Sally Hunt, Tony Kearns, and Caroline Lucas. This is impressive enough, but MPs and journalists can’t deliver action, and the trade-union officials have shown no sign of doing so.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we have seen the most important working- class action this year – the public-sector pay revolt – collapse in the last couple of months. This is all the more significant because it was the doing of the left wing of the union bureaucracy. This partly because of the pessimism of large sections of the left – the apparent belief of the Socialist Party, for example, that economic recession automatically means a collapse in working-class resistance.

But the larger picture is important, as well. By apparently moving leftwards, pumping money into the banks, adopting Keynesian measures to stimulate the economy, and moderately increasing taxes on the rich, Gordon Brown has brigaded the bulk of the Labour Party and the union bureaucracy – who were openly in revolt against him at the time of the party conference in September – behind the government. In the short term, at least, this has seriously undercut our ability to find national partners in fighting the recession.

This analysis is important for the comrades demanding a detailed ‘strategy’ against the recession. Marxist thought is necessarily strategic because it’s about not just analysing, but about intervening in the objective situation, pressing at the knotty points where all the social contradictions are concentrated. But strategic interventions depend on a realistic assessment of the alignment of forces. And the truth is that, at the moment, the alignment of forces isn’t very favourable to building united fronts against the effects of the recession at the national level.

The implication of this assessment isn’t that we should sit and wait for the situation to shift. We need to seize every opportunity we can to build united resistance to the effects of the recession. This will often meet taking primarily local initiatives to resist closures, redundancies, and repossessions. But local campaigns plainly aren’t enough. We need to look for openings at the national level, as well. The Charter has a role to play here, so long as it’s understood as one initiative among others.

The G20 summit on 2 April is an opportunity to build a broad mobilization that includes opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but that focuses on saying no to the ruling-class efforts to make working people and the poor pay for the crisis. If successful, this mobilization might facilitate continuing united action.

John will no doubt dismiss the open and experimental approach that I am setting forward as ‘reacting after the event to resistance as it arises’. This is an astonishing attitude for someone who parades their affinity with Tony Cliff – the same Tony Cliff one of whose favourite mottoes was ‘suck it and see’, his more down to earth version of Lenin’s misquotation of Napoleon: ‘You commit yourself and then you see.’ Any serious revolutionary intervention involves a pragmatic element – of taking up a position, translating it into action, and then assessing how successful the intervention was. There is absolutely no shame in saying that the perspective that has emerged over the past few months is a work in progress.

We have carried out a sharp turn in the party’s work and we are still in the process of establishing the most effective way of operating in a rapidly changing situation. New perspectives after a big shift in the objective situation are always a work-in-progress.

Cliff first formulated his analysis of a downturn in the British class struggle in early 1978. It took over four years for the party to develop, through a process of trial-and-error, a detailed perspective involving retreating from rank-and-file groups, focusing on general Marxist propaganda around geographical branches, and changing the nature of Socialist Worker. We first began to sense the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement in mid- 1999. It took two and a half years – and a fierce factional struggle in the IS Tendency – before it became clear how we should be working (and even then, as we will see below, there were difficulties).

Anyone who thinks a complete perspective should spring fully-formed from the head of the leadership is just kidding themselves. With luck, we can speed up the process of developing the new perspectives, but this will involve the party as a whole, individual comrades, branches, and districts, as well as the Central Committee itself, taking initiatives and then assessing the results through collective discussion. John’s grand-standing about the Charter is of little help in this task

Building the party
The logic of John’s accusation that the CC majority is abandoning united-front work is that we are retreating into a party-building propagandist perspective. Indeed he does accuse us of this, but he also charges us with being bad at party-building. To assess these charges, let’s turn to the much more objective way of addressing the issue that is offered by Neil Davidson in his document in IB3.

Neil offers a wide-ranging critique of the whole model of party-building we developed in the mid-1970s. Like Chris Harman and John Molyneux, I welcome Neil’s document because of the clarity and provocation with which it poses important questions, even though I disagree with him on many points of detail and in the conclusions he draws.

Plainly merely doubling our membership, from 3-4,000 in the mid 1970s, to 8-10,000 in the late 1990s is a disappointing record given how high our ambitions were (and still remain) – to build a mass revolutionary party capable of leading the working class in a struggle for political power. But – given that the quarter century in question encompassed the most decisive defeats that the British workers’ movement suffered during the 20th century – not simply maintaining our organization, but doubling its membership looks like a pretty solid achievement, of which we can be can be proud.

The really interesting question is why the SWP hasn’t grown in the period since Seattle and 9/11. If a decade ago someone had told be that we would help lead a movement that would organize a demonstration of two million, I would have predicted that the party would grow to 20,000 or 30,000. Instead we have had to run to stay in the same place. Why?

John’s explanation seems to be largely subjective error on the part of the SWP leadership: On reflection it appears we made a double error in the course of the last 10 years. Firstly we did not insist that every SWP member should fight to build the united fronts. Secondly we did not party-build systematically enough while we were involved in the united front.

These are, of course, contradictory aims and therefore hard to combine in practice. But we could have done better than we did. Since John has been a member of the CC for the past ten years, this seems to be a rare moment of self-criticism in a document all too eager to attack others. And what he says isn’t wholly mistaken. But it is the wrong way, in my view, to approach the problem.

To put the emphasis on our own failures ignores the fact that nowhere else in Europe, or indeed the world, has any other far left current succeeded in achieving a major qualitative breakthrough in the era of Seattle. Thus the LCR in France hopes that the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) it is launching at the end of January will have 10,000 members. This would be a step forward compared to the Ligue’s membership of 3,500, but hardly a leap into a qualitatively different terrain.

It therefore seems much wiser to start, as we normally do, with the objective situation. The nine years since Seattle have seen a massive political radicalization directed against neoliberalism and war. At the level of mass mobilization on street demonstrations this radicalization has been unrivalled. But Marxism of any kind has had the smallest influence it has enjoyed since the revolutions of 1848. The most coherent and influential alternative worldview has been what one might call Chomskyanism – an ideology that is firmly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist but that is different from Marxism in its denial to the working class of a central role and its rejection of socialist political organization.

It isn’t hard to explain the relative weakness of Marxism. Two objective factors seem important. The different sectors of the traditional left suffered in the decades before Seattle a prolonged crisis as a result of the defeats of the later 1970s and the 1980s that was reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the liberal triumphalism that followed it, and the progressive shift of the social-democratic parties in a social-liberal direction,. Secondly, while there have been significant victories for workers in different countries, there has been no generalized reversal of the earlier defeats, let alone anything resembling workers’ resuming the offensive struggles of the last upturn of 1967-76.

So, on the one hand, Marxism has been a weaker ideological reference point, and, on the other, it has been harder to prove in practice the centrality of workers’ struggle to any project for social and political emancipation. (This is, incidentally, one reason why the Greek explosion is so interesting, since it occurred in the European society where the conditions of the 1970s have survived most strongly.)

None of this means that it is impossible to win people to organized Marxist politics. On the contrary, we do it all the time. But it is more an effort to do so in a period of undoubted radicalization where the natural terminus point is no longer (as it was from the 1880s through to the 1970s) some version of Marxism. This brings us to the subjective factor. Is the problem that we just haven’t tried hard enough, as John suggests? Again, the answer is a bit more complicated. After Seattle we were confronted with the development of new movements of resistance, initially against neoliberal globalization, but increasingly, in this country at least, against the war on terrorism. We decided very quickly to put the emphasis on what united us with the other forces in these movements, irrespective of their political backgrounds – reformist, Stalinist, orthodox Trotskyist, liberal, anarchist, or whatever, rather than on our differences with them, and to give priority to building these movements on a united front basis. This choice was hotly contested within the IS Tendency by the ISO (US), which responded to these movements in a sectarian way, starting with the differences, but it was, I still believe, correct.

Nevertheless, this strategic reorientation has significant practical implications. In the first place, deciding priorities is above all about allocating resources. Many of our best, most active comrades threw themselves fully into the movements – a shift represented by the fact that three prominent, very talented CC members worked effectively full-time for Stop the War, but that was reflected at every level of activity. This took resources away from party building.

John complains that we should have built both the united fronts and the party, and indeed we emphasized that building the movements was the key to building the party. In a fundamental strategic sense this was right: if we hadn’t made the turn to the movements we would have withered into a sect. All the same, resources devoted to one purpose are taken away from another. Try as hard we could, giving priority to building the movements meant there was less energy and people for the SWP.

John might say that the problem was compounded by fact that quite a lot of comrades were not actively involved in the new movements. In some cases this may have political resistance – the feeling we were liquidating our politics, distrust of Galloway, etc. But more common, I suspect, was the problem of attrition – of comrades who had joined in the 1980s and 1990s, drifting into middle age, and using a shift in party work as an excuse to take a back seat. Perhaps we could have won more of these, but a feature of the practice of party-building developed by Tony Cliff that John normally so commends is that we lead by example, ‘create facts’, and then use our successes to bring other comrades along.

This problem was exacerbated by a second one, that of the branches. A party life centred on geographical branches had allowed us to survive the 1980s and 1990s but in the course of the latter decade the tendency of the branches to become too self enclosed and passive became an increasing preoccupation. There was a lot of tinkering around with the branches that didn’t overcome the problem and that many comrades think were counter-productive.

Then came the era of Seattle. The CC decided that the branches had become an obstacle to the necessary turn outwards and in effect scrapped them. The suspension of branch meetings in London during the GLA elections in 2000 symbolized this shift. I accept my share of this responsibility for this decision, which may indeed have been justified in order sharply to break with the past. But, right or wrong, scrapping the branches had consequences directly relevant to John’s and Lindsey’s complaints about party organization.

Scrapping the branches removed one key agency in recruiting comrades. More important, it meant that if we recruited someone, they had nowhere to go. Unless they were firmly attached to one of the united fronts, the individuals would drift into a shapeless mass of semi-detached members and all too often disappear.

But the collapse of the branches meant that all sorts of other party activities were undermined. The distribution and sale of party publications was, for example, badly weakened. In his effort to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the present CC majority, John complains about the chronic difficulties of party finances. This is surprising since these difficulties date back at least a decade, and John has, like the rest of us, taken part in many discussions about how to overcome our financial problems,.

There are various causes, but the most important, in my view, lies in the obstacles we have faced in achieving and maintaining the level of subs income that we could realistically expect, given the size of the membership, and that is required to finance the activities in which we need politically to engage. If branch organization were stronger, it would be much easier to overcome these problems.

These facts are important because, in their eagerness to rubbish the party, John and Lindsey conveniently forget that they, like me, took part in the decisions that led to the collapse of the branches. Indeed, when in the summer of 2003 Chris Bambery made the modest proposal that party branches should start meeting fortnightly, Lindsey, with the support of Chris Nineham, vehemently opposed him (though John, to his credit, did not).

The weakness of the branches nevertheless became a matter of increasing concern inside the party in 2003-4: on the Central Committee this concern was consistently articulated by Chris Harman. One of the most important initiatives that Martin Smith took after he took over as National Secretary in the summer of 2004 was to give priority to methodically rebuilding party organization. This has involved developed a team of comrades around Martin at the National Office, some of whom have joined the Central Committee. Their collective achievement is visible – in the recruitment figures, in the revival of the branches, in the successes we have had in student work, and in the good run of Marxisms we have enjoyed in the past few years. These results are so evident that they make John’s assertion that the origins of the divisions on the CC lie in Martin’s opposition to Lindsey’s November 2007 document on recruitment (appended to John’s document) seem quite ridiculous. Saying that Martin Smith is against recruitment is like saying the Pope isn’t a Catholic. One of the main things he has done is to organize several waves of Why You Should be a Socialist rallies whose aim is – recruitment.

John, following Lindsey here, counterposes to these rallies monthly branch public meetings. Why on earth we should have to choose between these is beyond me. Of course we should aim to have regular good local public meetings where we recruit. But why shouldn’t we have more less frequent rallies with a couple of national speakers, special publicity, and extra support from the centre? Is this really an issue that it’s worth dividing the party over?

Lindsey’s November 2007 document actually seems to argue for these rallies, but it also proposes what she calls a ‘recruitment drive’, which she compares with the kind of blitzes that Cliff directed on several occasions, notably in 1973 and 1977, and which were more recently pursued in the early 1990s. These were operations were recruitment took priority over everything else the organization was doing.

Personally I have no objection to such campaigns in principle, but they make sense only in very specific conditions. Did these prevail in November 2007, when the party was still reeling from the split in Respect? I very much doubt it. Pursuing a highly centralized recruitment campaign would probably not have produced very good results and might well have exacerbated all the problems – for example, the divisions between active and passive members and overreliance on the centre – that John rails against in an exaggerated way.

To sum up, there is certainly no reason to be complacent about either the size or the functioning of the party. But the problems involved are quite deep-seated, to a large degree long predating the present divisions of the CC. It is to the credit of the present majority that it includes the comrades who have made a concentrated effort to strengthen party organization. John’s and Lindsey’s portrayal of various real or exaggerated weaknesses in their polemic against the majority is evidence more of desperation than of any resembling a serious and constructive analysis.

Origins of the present crisis

So how on earth did we get to this point? The answer has nothing to do with any arguments, real or imagined, about recruitment. It was the crisis in Respect that has fractured the Central Committee. It’s true that shortly before news of John’s disastrous acceptance of the donation appeared in East London Advertiser in early December 2007 there was a row over Lindsey’s proposals on recruitment. But the real dynamic driving the row was a displacement of the tensions that had been building up in the CC for the previous three months. In itself the blow-up over Lindsey’s proposals was a storm in a teacup that would have soon been forgotten if a much deeper fracture hadn’t opened up on the CC.

The Central Committee has produced a detailed assessment of the Respect crisis and the party’s response, and it would not be useful to rehearse the arguments set out there in much detail. But that document makes absolutely clear that political responsibility for the destruction of Respect lies with George Galloway and his allies.

Therefore Lindsey’s claim that John is being made a scapegoat for this disaster is nonsense. The problem was rather that the crisis in Respect exposed certain systematic weaknesses in John’s methods of working – in particular a failure to respect the collective decision-making of the party and, in large part as a result, to make serious mistakes that caused him to lose the confidence of the majority, not just of the leadership, but of the party cadre as well.

If one wants to set a date for the beginnings of the crisis, it would be 25 August 2007, when the CC held a special meeting to discuss our response to George Galloway’s letter denouncing John. A meeting had already been fixed for 4 September between representatives of the CC and Galloway and his allies. The CC discussion was dominated, one might say paralysed, by John’s adamant insistence that he issue a public response to Galloway in advance of the 4 September meeting.

Most members of the CC thought it would be unwise to prejudge the results of this meeting. This was a tactical issue with no issue of principle at stake on either side. But most comrades there were taken aback by the vehemence with which John, with the support of Lindsey German (and also with a degree of sympathy from me), insisted on having his way. The tone was ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’.

It was that argument began the fracture on the CC. What produced the polarization was the assumption on John’s part was that he should define the leadership’s line on Respect. This reflected, more generally, how work on both Respect tended to be reported to the CC. While quite a lot of information would be shared with the CC, it wasn’t on a basis that really invited discussion or dissent.

In retrospect, this represented a breach with how the party has intervened in united fronts. It was always taken for granted comrades involved in leading united fronts would be under particular pressure to adapt to their reformist allies. The role of the Central Committee would be to support these comrades, but also to act as a counter-pressure to any tendency of rightward adaptation.

This mechanism broke down in the case of Respect. No doubt this was a consequence of how this united front was established – as an initiative in which two comrades who were both already powerful members of the CC and also central to Stop the War played a leading part – but it was a failure on the part on the leadership as a whole to allow it to become entrenched. In any case, once the Respect crisis had exploded, this pattern had to change. John complains ‘there never has been an area of party work that has undergone such scrutiny as the Respect work.’ What else did he expect? In effect, he appealed to the party’s aid to fend off an attack from the Galloway faction that developed into a potentially mortal threat to the SWP itself. Of course, the Central Committee and the party membership as a whole were going to demand a detailed say in how we responded.

The real problem was that, under the spotlight, John committed a series of errors that both undermined our confidence in him and exposed a persistent tendency to flout collective decisions. Rather than descending to the level of tittle-tattle, let’s concentrate on the most visible of these errors, the OFFU donation – not, as Lindsey asserts, in breach of double jeopardy, but it exposed John’s weaknesses most starkly.

There were three things wrong about what he did. First of all, John shouldn’t have accepted the donation without the prior approval of the CC. Just because of the growing tensions with Galloway, the fact that the latter’s adviser expressed his opposition to diverting the money to OFFU should have been a reason for extreme caution. Instead, the first I knew of the donation was just before we were to meet Galloway on 4 September 2007, long after John had accepted it. The fact of the donation was reported to the CC on 5 September, but – because they were on holiday – Weyman Bennett, Judith Orr, and Martin Smith only found out in December. This was a failure of communication for which the four comrades who met Galloway – Chris Bambery, Lindsey German, John Rees, and myself – must share responsibility.

Secondly, John shouldn’t have accepted the donation all. While it would be a mistake to say that workers’ organizations should never accept money from bosses, it was wrong to accept a donation for a rank-and file body from a businessman with privatizing associations. It’s true that, when I first became aware of these associations, about ten days after the meeting with Galloway, I was slow to alert the rest of the CC to them. But of course, by then it was too late to do anything about the use of the cheque. There was no intention to cover anything up on my part; I was simply too preoccupied with other aspects of the fight. I apologized at the January 2008 conference. John draws attention to my error, though you might have thought he should be more worried about the beam in his own eye than with the splinter in mine.

Thirdly, revelation of the donation destroyed OFFU, a very promising trade union initiative that would have come in very handy now. John completely fails to acknowledge this fact – rather surprisingly given his apparent preoccupation with building a united front against the recession.

John tries to throw dust in our eyes by comparing the donation to Morrissey’s financial support for the Love Music Hate Racism Carnival back in April. This shows that John still doesn’t get it about what he did wrong. There is simply no comparison between the two cases. Ten days before the Carnival UNISON withdrew its financial support for the Carnival, essentially because of its political opposition to Lindsey German, Left List candidate for Mayor, speaking there. Morrissey offered £28,000, and another associate £7,000, to help cover the gap. There was nothing secret about this – it was, for example, openly discussed at the LMHR steering committee, nor was there anything to be embarrassed about.

You would have thought that John would have been grateful that this rescue had been mounted, since otherwise the Left List might have been blamed for damaging the Carnival. Instead he tries to make a factional issue of the affair. Worse still, he doesn’t even bother to get his facts right, claiming that the donation was for £75,000 and was made to Unite against Fascism – assertions that are likely to cause problems in both LMHR and UAF. Not content with being involved in the collapse of Respect and having blown OFFU apart, John is now undermining two other united fronts. This is typical of the reckless behaviour that led us to decide that he could no longer remain on the Central Committee.

It was the revelation of similar recklessness over the OFFU donation that caused the accumulated tensions in the CC to explode in December 2007. It determined the majority of the committee to demand that John stand down as National Secretary of Respect. This was something that it was entirely within our rights to do so. Over the years, numerous
members of the CC have had their responsibilities changed or have been told that the rest of us thought they shouldn’t be re-nominated at the next conference. Most haven’t liked this, but they accepted the collective decision. But in this case we encountered intense resistance, not just from John, but from Lindsey, Chris Nineham, and (in a considerably more measured way) Chris Bambery.

In the end, the majority decided not to insist on their rights and agreed on a compromise proposed by Lindsey, under which John’s position would be reviewed in a few months’ time. In the circumstances, I think this was the right thing to do. The party was still reeling from the Respect split and we had the London elections to confront. The compromise allowed the CC to fight on a united basis for our GLA campaign – something that John never acknowledges.

But the GLA campaign was a disastrous failure, compounded by the desertion of the Tower Hamlets councillors (and another important ally, Mukul Hira, who stood in Camden in 2006 and 2008). I think it’s fair to say that most people in John’s position would have acknowledged the extent of the setback and resigned as National Secretary of the Left List (as our bit of Respect had become). Had he done this in May or June then I think he would have received much sympathy and been able to begin to rebuild his standing in the party and in the wider movement.

Instead John tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. Indeed, he gave the impression that the Left Alternative (yet another name-change) would try to continue as a national electoral project. This was too much for the CC majority. There was the mother of all rows about this at our meeting before Marxism 2008. Subsequently we insisted that John stand down as National Secretary of the Left Alternative and give up responsibility for the party’s electoral work. This involved a laboriously negotiated compromise whose aim was not simply to keep John on the CC but to give him a continuing prominent role in our external work through a shared responsibility for the Charter.

This seemed to me, particularly in comparison with how various leading comrades were in the past bundled unceremoniously off the CC, a pretty good deal. But John effectively blew it up at the Left Alternative National Council on 6 September 2008. What this witnessed was a coordinated announcement of three resignations from this body – by John, Lindsey, and Chris Bambery. This amounted to a public protest against the CC’s decision to remove John from responsibility for our electoral work. It made what would have in any case been a difficult meeting quite unmanageable.

Lindsey tries to justify her resignation speech by saying that the CC were aware that she would be making it. It’s true that both during the negotiations over John’s removal and at subsequent CC meetings she had expressed, as she puts it, her ‘decision to resign’, from the Left Alternative NC. Of course, as comrades have pointed out, this wasn’t up to her – it was a decision for the leadership as a whole. But the feeling in the majority was that it would have silly to have insisted on this. Nevertheless, expressing an intention to do something isn’t the same as deciding how it will be done. There was no need for Lindsey to announce her resignation in a speech (particularly one that made references to ‘scapegoating’ that many of those there interpreted as an attack on the party). She could have resigned so by email or letter.

Lindsey didn’t make any effort to discuss the different options at the CC, even though the Left Alternative was a regular item on the agenda, nor did she or John attend the SWP caucus the night before the LA NC. She may indeed sincerely believe that she did nothing wrong – but this belief is a symptom of how far the normal accountability of the most leading comrades had broken down in Respect. The handful of comrades who did make the pre-NC caucus can confirm that the only resignation that was discussed there was John’s, reflecting the fact that we were not expecting Lindsey to make a resignation speech, let alone that Chris Bambery would announce that he would be standing down from the NC at the Left Alternative conference.

When at the next meeting of the CC the majority expressed their anger at what happened we were warned that if we went public this might split the party. We took this as a threat. This blackmail had the opposite effect to that intended. It determined us to take the issue to the SWP National Committee the following weekend since the alternative would be a permanently divided and paralysed leadership.

A resolution from the majority endorsed the CC’s decision to remove him from this responsibility, and did not restrict itself, as John asserts, to ‘saying that [he] was no longer responsible for electoral work’.

Confronted with this resolution and realizing that they were isolated, the minority responded by ducking and diving, refusing to address the arguments. Lindsey, for example, claimed to support the resolution and John’s removal – even though at the CC she had given her disagreement with this decision as her reason for wanting to resign from the Left Alternative NC, but refused to acknowledge that she had do anything wrong or to apologize for her speech the previous weekend.

These evasions did not prevent a overwhelming majority of the NC passing a resolution clearly intended as a rebuke to the three comrades’ actions at the Left Alternative meeting. Since I spoke on behalf of the CC majority, I want to correct two misrepresentations of what I said. First, I did not endorse Lindsey’s insistence that we ‘draw a line’ under the affair. I said that we had to try to establish the leadership as an effective, politically coherent collective: whether or not a line should be drawn would depend on whether it would contribute to achieving this aim.

Secondly, I gave no ‘assurances’, absolute or otherwise, about my support for John’s continuing membership of the CC. I explained that the compromise in the summer had been a way of allowing John to continue as an active member of the leadership and for the party to make full use of his talents. I said nothing about the future, because the point of the NC
meeting was to settle the party’s attitude to what had just happened. The question of future membership of the CC was a matter for the conference and the discussion leading up to it. Which brings us to where we are now.

The Central Committee, by ten votes to two (John and Lindsey absented themselves from the meeting), have decided not to re-nominate John. Some comrades ask why we are not suggesting Conference should not re-elect the other three comrades who supported him at the beginning of this fight. It’s true that Lindsey and Chris Bambery were involved in the
orchestrated resignations at the LA NC. They were wrong to have done so.

But neither they nor Chris Nineham have shown the same pattern of recklessness and unaccountability that John has consistently displayed. Lindsey and Chris Nineham appear to support John’s efforts to generalize the disagreements, but Chris Bambery does not. There is no case at present for treating all four comrades as a homogenous group. As far as the Central Committee is concerned, the issue is John.

This doesn’t mean that the issues at stake are, as some comrades say, ‘about personalities’. Holding even the most prominent comrades accountable is a political issue. Of course, this is an inconvenient position for John himself. Hence the constant effort to widen the front and involve others – symbolized by a document written by John, but called ‘Where We Stand’. In doing so he not only exaggerates the real, but quite limited political differences on perspectives and party-building that exist on the CC, but mounts an assault on the condition of the party that, if anyone else had made it, he and Lindsey would have been the first to denounce.

Moving on
Neil Davidson’s document has been widely welcomed because it articulated a widespread feeling that the Respect crisis revealed that something had gone wrong with the party’s democracy. John has blown hot and cold on Neil’s document – responding positively when he believed he could extract some factional advantage from it, becoming more hostile when
he realized that Neil and his co-thinkers weren’t prepared to join an unprincipled bloc against the CC majority. In the first, emailed version of his document he accuses the majority of this kind of manoeuvring, asserting that we have welcomed Neil’s document ‘to conciliate critics [,] not for principled reasons’.

In fact, my own attitude to Neil’s arguments is very similar to Chris Harman’s, who has been privately been expressing for many years the kind of views stated publicly in his reply to Neil. Like Chris, I think the problem is less one of structure than of ethos. In other words, formally party structures are highly democratic, but the culture of internal debate has been much weaker in recent years, and more broadly the party has been over-reliant on top-down initiatives from the CC.

This doesn’t mean I agree with Neil when he questions the broader model of party-building we have followed since the 1970s (Neil is, of course, right that there is more than one way of being a Leninist organization, but there are real strengths in this particular version). The combination that we have of evolved of a strong centralized political leadership supported by a relative large apparatus of full-time workers and an activist membership sharing widely diffused and sophisticated Marxist theoretical culture gives us extraordinary capacities of intervention. We could have had nothing like the impact on the movements here in Britain and internationally without these particular organizational qualities, which are the inheritance of how we have worked for the past 30 years.

But Neil is right that the Central Committee, scarred by the crisis of the late 1970s, has been very cautious about expressing public disagreements, and indeed has become more cautious over about this over time. This tendency has been reinforced by features that become more prominent in the 1990s. Sustaining party activity in a period when, after a series of big, though unconnected mobilizations in 1990-4, was remarkably lacking in serious struggles required increasing doses of voluntarism on the part of the centre. At the centre itself a certain hothouse atmosphere and excessive preoccupation with trivial internal infighting and backbiting developed.

Contrary to what John says, it was in these years that the weight of the centre relative the membership was strongest.

The post-Seattle period offered a welcome opening of the windows and gave many comrades the opportunity of developing stronger roots in different movements and unions. This has generated its own problems – above all the danger of fragmentation – but it has produced a stronger and more self-confident cadre. It is this cadre that, having stood firm amid the splendours and miseries of the Respect experience, is now calling not just John as an individual, but the entire CC to account. This too is welcome. Some of the CC majority were at the centre of the party in the 1990s. We became deeply unhappy about some of the things that happened then.

As strongly as Neil, we want to see party democracy strengthened. What that will involve needs to be discussed in a thorough and open-minded way. The CC has suggested that the election by the forthcoming Conference of a Commission on Party Democracy would provide a good framework for this discussion, but that is for Conference for decide.

John, consistently enough, sets himself against this discussion. Or, more precisely, he’s only concerned about democracy when it favours his own case. Thus he complains that that the CC decided not to produce a fourth pre-conference Bulletin, insinuating that this was an attempt to suppress discussion. What we in fact decided was that the brute reality of the
Christmas break made it impossible to produce a Bulletin that would be open to the party as a whole with deadlines that would give comrades a fair chance of contributing to that Bulletin.

Instead, to facilitate the discussion, we decided to produce and circulate a set of documents, including an updated perspectives document and whatever John wanted to write in his defence. John decided instead initially to circulate his document electronically – apparently toall and sundry, whether or not they are party members.

One of the great advantages of the Democracy Commission would be that it could review and seek improvements in how we conduct internal debates (the issue of how documents are circulated is one thing we need to look at, given the way in which some have been distributed by email in a fairly random way).

But I don’t think we need feel particularly ashamed of the present one. It’s true that the Central Committee didn’t launch the preconference debate by announcing a decision to drop John from the slate. That was because we were preoccupied with turning the party towards resistance to the recession and so started with the economic crisis and political perspectives.
But, as soon as we decided on the recommended slate, we announced it to the party, more than six weeks before Conference – the first time the slate hasn’t been announced only at the Conference itself.

This allowed the slate to be discussed at most aggregates, again for the first time in the party’s history. Some aggregates missed it. If Conference does decide to elect a Democracy Commission, it should take a look at how to ensure things work better in future. But no one can deny that we are having a rich and thorough-going debate.

John appears to see this opening up as a threat. In fact, in many ways it resembles what happened thirty years ago, when the party experienced another crisis of adjustment (in that case to the downturn in class struggle) and the leadership split. Revolutionary parties don’t develop through a smooth, simple process of quantitative growth. If they are living organizations embedded in wider movements and struggles, then they undergo sometimes sharp and painful crises.

That’s how I see the present crisis – as a sign the party is alive. If we respond to it in a political, responsible, and honest way, whatever our different views, then we can emerge from it strengthened.

The problem with John isn’t that he disagrees with the CC majority. Disagreements are necessary to the development of a living party. But John sees everything through the distorting lens of the struggle to maintain his personal position. This leads him to inflate real, but quite specific disagreements into systematic differences and to rubbish aspects of the party’s work for which, as a CC member for the past 14 years, he must share responsibility.

For a year now the Central Committee has had to grapple with the unrelenting struggle of an undeniably talented comrade to shield himself for being held to account for the mistakes he has made. For those of us with a long history of party membership, who remember the many personal sacrifices made by individual comrades and their disciplined acceptance of unwelcome decisions, John’s behaviour is nothing short of a scandal. It is time that this conflict was brought to an end. That is why I support the CC’s decision not to recommend John for re-election.

**************

http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=3210

21 December, 2008
SWP - LINDSEY GERMAN REPLIES
Filed under: SWP — Andy Newman @ 10:02 pm

From SWP Pre-Conference Internal Bulletin #4,

Reply to Respect document, by Lindsey German

The debate in the party has reached an extremely serious stage, not just concerning the Respect crisis but also about our future perspectives. This seems incongruous because looked at overall, there is much that the party has to be proud of in terms of our achievements in recent years.

We have led the biggest mass movement in British history over the war and have been central to other united fronts against fascism and in defence of council housing. We are now in the middle of the deepest economic crisis the world has seen for decades, which should give many opportunities for socialists to grow and increase their influence.

The danger is, however some of the interpretation of the experiences of recent years and especially that of Respect, will lead us to retreat from the politics which have informed our work in recent years, especially the centrality of the united front, which it seems to me is now being downgraded.

Indeed, history itself seems to be being rewritten. The CC document on Respect claims that ‘Respect also reflected some of the weaknesses of the anti-war movement – most particularly a somewhat top-down style and a tendency to lionise notables’.

This is a criticism of the Stop the War Coalition which flies in the face of the reality of an organisation which, unlike so many other united fronts, has always had an active and organised base in almost every area of the country. It is also a criticism which has never been articulated in the CC, including when we discussed the CC document in IB1 about Stop the War, but now finds its way into a document about another issue.

Since I have played a central role in the electoral work and in the anti-war movement, and have played a key role in most other areas of party work in my many years on the CC, I have watched the development of the current debate with increasing dismay.

I have held back from replying to some earlier criticisms because I hoped that the CC document on Respect in IB3 would deal with some of the misconceptions and inaccuracies, as well as give a general overview of the situation. When I read the document I found that, while I agreed with much of its overview and conclusions, there were also important differences or omissions which should not go unchallenged.

I therefore asked to be allowed to write a reply, which has been agreed.

I want in this document to spell out my analysis of what happened in Respect and my role in it. Though the debate has been personalised in the most unacceptable way, I think Extremely important issues are at stake about our perspectives and united front work, and I want to comment on these in the run up to conference. It is clear to me that the perspectives which we all agreed as a CC in September are being interpreted in very different ways by different leading members.

We all have a duty as party members to try to clarify these disagreements and unite behind a perspective which can help us intervene round the recession and build the party. That means that while we have to have a realistic and honest assessment of the mistakes we have made, we also have to put them into perspective rather than allowing what is one issue mainly about what we have done in the past to dominate.

Respect
There are so many issues raised in the bulletins over this issue that it is impossible to deal with them all but I will try to highlight a few what I see as key points.

1. We were right to do it: it is hard to remember now how much enthusiasm there was for an electoral alternative to Labour in the aftermath of the Iraq war. It was palpable and could have organised tens of thousands.

But Respect faced problems from the very beginning, principally that no Labour MP other than Galloway broke from Labour, and that we didn’t win significant trade union or other left forces. That was to do with the enduring, if decaying, hold of Labour, and the refusal of especially the CPB to join us.

The result was that the project at a national level revolved around an agreement between George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and the SWP. There was a tension from the beginning in the sense that both our main allies refused to accept an overtly socialist name and that Salma always tended to follow her own agenda (including rewriting the agreed founding statement when she got back to Birmingham and pressurising the rest of us to accept the changes).

It is not true to say, as the CC document does, that the party ‘lacked a distinctive and independent standing in its internal discussions’.

Of course the individuals who had worked in STW played a central role, but they always did so as CC members and only as a result of extensive consultation and discussions with the rest of the CC.

It is also untrue to state, as Chris Harman did at the central London aggregate, that there was little discussion throughout the party about the establishment of Respect.

The project was discussed at CC, NC, Party Council and branch levels. It is true, however, that a sizeable minority of comrades always remained aloof, and perhaps one of our failings was not putting more effort into winning them. The very real successes we did have however prove to me beyond doubt that we were right to pursue the project.

2. The role of accident and mistakes: there is huge scope for discussing the many mistakes and errors national and local comrades made. It is impossible and probably fruitless to deal with them all, but of course we made many mistakes.

No doubt we were too soft at some times and too hard at others. But we also have to be completely honest about these mistakes. In the context of building an organisation like Respect, it is impossible to work with people and always get the balance right. Over Big Brother for example, we had to steer a position between those who wanted to break with George completely, to severely criticise him, and those who were totally uncritical. I think we took the right position (although I sometimes feel that life would have been easier subsequently if we had broken with Galloway).

But the whole fiasco weakened Respect, especially among trade union activists. In a united front public criticism is often hard; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t take place, but it carries high risks and sometimes we were caught between a rock and a hard place.

Accident also played a role: if I had been elected to the London Assembly in 2004 (as I very nearly was) then the balance of forces in Respect would have been very different. If white socialists had been elected in 2006 in Newham and Tower Hamlets (as they very nearly were) then the balance of forces and level of politics in those areas would have been raised. If Gordon Brown had not flirted with calling an election in autumn 2007 then maybe Galloway would not have attacked so rapidly.

The important thing to assess is what, if anything, we could have done differently and to understand why we didn’t do it.

3. A collective leadership: one thing I find unacceptable about this whole debate is the way in which responsibility for mistakes is placed on the shoulders of one person. Nearly all the decisions taken at national level were collective ones, usually discussed either at the CC or with CC members not directly involved in the work. We made a decision after 2006 to ‘steer left’, stressing the need for trade union work, LGBT etc.

There is no question that this helped to exacerbate the tensions with Galloway but it was the right direction politically. The alternative was to allow more opportunism and tendencies towards communalism, which we all agreed we could not do.

The argument that the individual responsible for the work should resign ignores that collective responsibility. Every CC member makes mistakes and misjudgements. Our attitude to the poll tax in Scotland was disastrously abstentionist, allowing the Militant to hegemonise the campaign and leading to our later marginalisation round the SSP. The CC member responsible suffered no sanction.

More recently, issues such as our defeat at the UCU conference over pay by 7 votes (when the CC member responsible did not attend the caucus), or the very small size of the UAF demo in the summer compared to the predictions of the CC members responsible for it, were never discussed in an accusatory way or blamed on individuals.

That is the way we have always worked and it seems to me essentially correct if we are to build a genuine party leadership, not one terrified of taking initiatives for fear of failing or scapegoating.

4. The London elections: we always knew that the London Assembly and mayoral elections would be hard following the split in Respect. We lost the name through no fault of our own (a point never acknowledged by our critics in all this), lost a lot of our support in our strongest areas and were short of money and resources. Because of the rows since the autumn we were very late in the campaign and many of us had little enthusiasm for it.

I seriously considered not standing (and incidentally was put under some pressure by people outside the party not to stand). However I felt that if we did stand, I had to be the candidate. It is no good putting yourself forward in conditions where you expect to do relatively well, and then expecting someone else to carry the work when those conditions change.

Comrades now argue this might have been a mistake. In judging this we have to consider the alternative outcome: we would have been totally marginalised, there would have been no left candidate standing against an increasingly right moving Livingstone, and we would have left the field open for Galloway – and, in particular, his argument that we should go soft on some New Labour figures. Had Galloway won a London assembly seat (unlikely as this now appears), we would have been in a substantially weaker position to argue the case for an independent Left.

Livingstone’s continued defence of the Met over Jean Charles de Menezes and his continued support for pro-City economic policies indicates we were right to fight the election. We discussed collectively at the CC my standing; all agreed that I should and I was the only person who raised the possibility of not standing. All the CC campaigned in the election and I have absolutely no problem with what was done by them. I think we all expected to do better than we did, certainly many of us did.

Did we raise false expectations? Maybe, but it is virtually impossible and completely pointless to go into an election saying ‘we are going to get a poor vote’ even if you think it. It is clear that we under estimated the pull to Livingstone (even the very high profile Green campaign only got 3% to their bitter disappointment), and the impact of the loss of the name.

All the reports from polling stations indicated huge confusion over who was standing and for what party. We also under estimated the effective abstention by large numbers of our members in parts of London.

5. Events since the election: We held a party council shortly after the election at which there was near unanimity that the vote wasn’t good, that we should operate Left List/Alternative at a lower level, concentrating on areas where we did well, and that the result should not prevent us from involvement in other work. What has changed since then?

Firstly, we became aware that our remaining three Tower Hamlets councillors were being pulled towards Labour. Various comrades spent some weeks trying very hard to win them back but failed. The reason for this was simple; they felt they were more likely to get elected as Labour but recognised they would not if they stayed with us.

To imply this decision might be the fault of any individual in the circumstances is completely absurd.

There were various issues such as the number of placards on the Unite demo (too many but we all thought the demo would be much bigger), changing the name (a necessity following the elections but nothing like a relaunch as is being alleged) and discussing whether we would stand in the Euro elections (we wanted to keep our options open vis a vis both those on the European left and Galloway and anyway this was surely a point worth considering). Maybe all these were errors, but if so they were errors of not adjusting quickly enough to the situation rather than anything else.

They were all tactical decisions taken in line with the NC position of keeping an electoral operation on the road but in the slow lane. However, they were enough for the majority CC to demand John Rees’s resignation in the summer, to which, after much debate, he acceded.

6. The Left Alternative NC: much criticism of me has centred on this meeting in September. Indeed half the SWP NC a week later was given over to the issue. We were told at the time that the NC would draw a line under the issue.

But it is clear from some IB articles and the attitude of the CC majority that this is not the case. I would therefore like to set out my side of the story. First let me dispel some myths. No one blackmailed the CC or threatened to split the party, even though this allegation is regularly repeated without substantiation.

No one broke party discipline, a point acknowledged to me by Charlie Kimber subsequently and agreed at the CC meeting following the Left Alternative NC. These are canards thrown into the discussion at various times and unfortunately not rebutted by the CC but encouraged and repeated so that they now have the status of fact.

These are the facts: when a group from the CC met after Marxism to discuss John’s future, Chris Bambery and I made clear that we would also resign, me at the September meeting and CB by the time of the Left Alternative conference in November. This was agreed, as was the idea that we would hand over responsibility for Left Alternative work to other comrades.

In the run up to the September NC, there appeared to be no preparation for the meeting, which we knew would be difficult because of John’s resignation, and we raised on several occasions that someone had to take on the work. I assumed (wrongly) that all CC members would be informed about my decision to resign, but responsibility for that lies not just with me but with all the CC who knew of that decision. (In fact some other CC members did know. Charlie Kimber for example admitted that he did, before the meeting.)

The meeting was always going to be difficult because many of the non-SWP members and some of the SWP members on the Left Alternative NC were not happy with the CC’s decision to remove John from the NC and from responsibility for the party’s work.

They were also not happy with the insistence of the SWP CC that there should be no Left Alternative placards on the upcoming anti-war demonstration in Manchester. This was indeed a bizarre demand from the CC, committed as they apparently were to keeping Left Alternative on the road. It was a decision that I and others on the CC had disagreed with but of course accepted once we had lost the argument.

It is therefore quite extraordinary that John, Chris Bambery and myself are being blamed for any controversy that arose from the meeting. John’s crime appears to have been to resign when told to, mine and Chris’s to resign when it was agreed we would. Let me underline; no member of the CC has ever criticised anything John or I said in our resignation speeches. Of what then do we stand accused?

7.Accountability: much has been written on this subject quite rightly. All party members should be accountable for their work, and at CC level they have to be especially accountable because they are carrying the whole direction of the party. But we need to go a little bit further than that if the whole debate is not to descend into personal and unpolitical attacks but is to clarify how we behave in the future. Firstly, we have been highly accountable.

John Rees apologised for the OFFU cheque at last year’s conference, and we were told a line had been drawn. Now it is being used to remove him from the CC, even though he had already been held to account. Even under bourgeois law, you can’t be tried twice for the same offence.

I was accountable when I stood in the elections, because I had my personal doubts about doing it but didn’t want to let the party down. I was prepared to debate at the last NC although I was subject to some personal abuse which effectively accused me of lying and I accepted the majority view.

But accountability is a two way street. Some of the national leadership of Respect/ Left List effectively abstained after last year’s conference. Both Maxine Bowler and Michael Lavalette, who had some of the strongest support electorally and high standing in the organisation, attended few if any national meetings, unhelpful at a difficult time of transition, especially when some decisions made at those meetings are now being criticised by the same comrades.

It is common knowledge that many comrades in London abstained from doing anything to help the election campaign; should they not also be held accountable? Perhaps most importantly, are we seriously going to base a model of party accountability on criticising those who are active, or those who stick their necks out and take risks, while those who remain passive or criticise from the sidelines remain totally unaccountable?

It seems to me we have gone some way down this road and it has regrettable consequences both for party structures and democracy.

8. How the argument has been conducted: in the end of the day there will be many different interpretations of the strengths and weaknesses of Respect and what went wrong. That in itself is not a problem if we can learn appropriate lessons.

To me, one of the main lessons is that we must never conduct a debate in this way again. Gossip, rumour and innuendo have taken the place of clear public debate in too many instances. If CC members had the doubts or disagreements over the conduct of Respect they now claim, they had an absolute duty to raise them at the time.

Having taken a series of collective decisions and defended them collectively it is simply unacceptable to renounce them in hindsight in favour of personal attacks. This technique has been extended to the record of Stop the War.

I was amazed to read in the document on Respect the criticisms of Stop the War – criticism which has never been raised to me by anyone on the CC. Some praise the Sheffield document as the acme of democracy. I don’t agree. To have a district meeting which I was told took place without anyone from the CC knowing, which passed a resolution only sent to the CC some time later, and where no one who was attacked was told of the meeting or invited to put their point of view, seems to be falling short of hearing a full and rounded debate.

I understand that Sheffield delegates were subsequently elected on the basis of support for that document. The party has always taken the view that delegates should not be mandated but should make up their minds when they have heard the arguments at conference; in addition, delegates should not be elected on what they think about one issue out of many at conference. Even within the CC, there is too much reliance on sounding out opinion in private rather than open debate. When challenged as to who the people are who feel strongly, we are told they are private conversations. Fair enough, but then they shouldn’t be used politically.

We should have debated the Left Alternative at Marxism, where we could have held a members’ meeting, as I suggested. We did not and were then told that everyone in the bars was talking about it. This is simply not an acceptable way of judging opinion in the party, and leads to manoeuvre and secrecy rather than open politics.

Real differences, much more serious than the ones that divide us, can be debated openly but it has to be done in a democratic and political manner. The Paul McGarr et al document in IB3, with which I differ over some issues, deals with points rationally and politically. Unfortunately some others descend into pettiness and personalism, without understanding that point scoring is not a substitute for political analysis.

Where do we go from here?
These are some of the issues about Respect, but it is clear that whatever is decided at conference there are wider issues which need to be addressed. Firstly we must not allow the past and mistakes that have been made to colour our judgement on the future.

Some CC members have said that it is difficult to predict the future at the moment because events are moving too fast. That is a mistake.

It is at times of crisis when events are moving fast that we most need an assessment of what is going on and how we can respond to it. We have always been characterised by boldness and audacity, yet our response to the recession has been slow and cautious.

There has grown up a belief by some in the party leadership that we are isolated on the left and in the movement because of the Respect crisis and because of John Rees personally. This is utterly absurd. Look at the list of prominent left individuals who have signed the Charter unhesitatingly.

It includes Tony Benn, George Monbiot, Caroline Lucas, Jeremy Dear, Jeremy Corbyn, etc Look at the number of individuals who have spoken with our comrades on platforms in the last few months. These include Sally Hunt of the UCU and Kevin Courtney from London NUT, Britain’s most prominent left economists Paul Mason, Larry Elliot and Graham Turner, if anything a widening spectrum of anti-war figures including Jonathan Steele, Inayat Bungawala from the MCB, Nick Davies, Moazzam Begg.

A number of successful People Before Profit Charter meetings, continuing support for Stop the War, the size of some student meetings (500 students came to a Goldsmiths Stop the War meeting with Tony Benn a few weeks ago on the same night that a similar number attended a left forum about the economy at LSE) as well as the success of some of our recent SWP public meetings all show there is a big constituency on the left looking for a way to respond to the current situation.

How then is this argument being pursued? For the first time in many years we are in danger of not providing a way forward for these people.

This caution will if we are not careful lead to an internalised perspective rather than pushing outwards. While some comrades will justify this on the grounds that we need to preserve the party and that paper selling and branch meetings have to be our priority, such activity without pushing outwards, or just relying on the occasional stunt, will be self-defeating.

The party can only grow and prosper insofar as it relates to the movement and the wider periphery around us. That is why it is disturbing to hear reports of organisers telling people to downplay STW, not to attend STW organising meetings rather party meetings.

As the perspectives document in IB1 put it, we need more united front work as well as more party building. At present, relatively few comrades are involved in united front work in any ongoing way, and this has consequences for the party.

Perhaps the major problem facing the party, over and above any specific strengths and weaknesses in any area of work, is that the level of passivity remains extremely high. Of around 6,000 registered members, probably the majority are totally or near totally passive. Perhaps a tenth of this figure attended pre-conference aggregates, despite controversies which usually help raise attendance.

Branch meetings remain in most instances small, and they clearly do not, despite the hard work of a small number of activists, meet the needs of many comrades in the party. This has consequences for the health of the party and for its democracy. Comrades want to discuss party structures and their shortcomings at national level but there is at least as great a problem at local level.

We have a situation where our paper membership bears little relation to our active membership. It is very good that comrades are prepared to give money and stay committed but there has to be a level of involvement and activity as well. At most aggregates, the number of delegates allocated was not much different from the number of people in the room. In situations with little or no contest for places to conference, comrades who have been inactive sometimes for years were able to win places supposedly to represent the district.

We have to fight for a more active and engaged party whose members are involved in a wide number of united fronts, trade union work and local campaigns. That means rediscovering our methods of party building and winning arguments within the party.

I like many older members was brought up on the idea that the party does not develop arithmetically. We move forward and grow by grasping the overall nature of the period and then deciding the most appropriate course of action. We polemicise for that course of action hard and try to win all comrades to it so that the party moves forward together.

Always, however, the most advanced party members move forward and hope to win those who are more dubious or passive.

In Cliff’s vol 1 of Lenin he stresses the need for constant tactical turns, for seizing the key link in the chain and for bending the stick to emphasise the most important issue at any time. This was, of course, Cliff’s own method which he always applied. While a number of people resented this method, it was the way in which the party was built. Compare it with today: everyone can take what he or she want from the perspective, so it is unclear. The result is little polemic and further lack of clarity. No wonder many people say they don’t know what the perspective is supposed to be.

The argument which broke out over recruitment just over a year ago reflects the problem here (see John Rees’s document for more details). It is argued in response to my criticisms that of course everyone is in favour of recruitment, which is of course true. But what I argued for was a recruitment campaign, highlighted every week in the paper and party notes. I also argued for open recruitment, ie that we open the doors of the party to anyone who generally agrees with us and that we recruit on a big scale, knowing that we will lose a number of the recruits but that overall the size of the party will still be much bigger than if we recruit incrementally. That is always how we have built the party in the past. But it is a method which appears to be rejected by at least some of the CC.

Recruitment is rarely mentioned without talking about retention, and retention is equated with being on direct debit, as though these are the only ‘real’ members. Yet as has already been stated above, many comrades give money without being at all integrated into the party. The key to retention is involvement in activity, which means we have a problem.

If this were one isolated instance that wouldn’t matter. But if it is part of a general retrenchment then that is a different matter. An even more serious development it seems to me is coming not from the CC itself but in some documents, especially that by Neil Davidson, which appear to involve a whole rethinking of the methods of organisation we have followed since 1968 and which have got us to where we are.

There is a kind of revisionism going on which appears to be challenging the whole way in which Cliff built the party. Neil argues that a sign of the maturity of the party will be when it can have a more objective assessment of Cliff’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. I don’t think anyone who worked with Cliff, as I did closely for many years, was unaware of his weaknesses: his falling in and out of love with comrades, his great enthusiasms, his many ideas some of which came to nothing and his complete single mindedness which sometimes tried the patience of us all. But overall he should be judged on whether his method was right and whether he achieved what in my opinion others could not – the building of the largest revolutionary party in Britain, capable of intervening in the major issues of British politics as we have done.

A sign of true maturity in the party would not be that it abandoned bending the stick, but that it stopped tearing itself apart over one issue. Cliff used to quote an old Russian proverb that ‘a fish rots from its head’. He was right, and all CC members have to take responsibility for the failings of the party and try to find ways out of it.

The trouble is that the main action being proposed and promoted by the majority is scapegoating one individual which is not a substitute for charting a way forward.

The Respect split has caused a very serious crisis for us but whatever happens about it at conference will not provide a strategy for the present or the future. It is argued that John Rees has to go because somehow removing him will end paralysis. That is at least recognition that there is a problem. But we aren’t paralysed because we’re divided; we’re divided because we’re paralysed, caught between a past that we can do little about and a fear of the future. Take the arguments about the Charter which have been rehearsed elsewhere, with a range of different responses.

There are those strongly against it, strongly for it, and agnostic to various degrees. All these positions are perfectly acceptable within a revolutionary party. But all these positions are at present held within the CC and CC members argue different ones publicly. This despite the fact that work with the Charter is supposed to be central to our perspective. No wonder confusion reigns.

I hope that this conference can resolve some of these questions but I am becoming worried. Some of the most important issues facing us – the united front, why the left hasn’t grown – are not even on the agenda.

The Respect debate threatens to be a blame game rather than a serious assessment. There is a new perspectives document being written which will not be discussed by the party before conference. We need a thoroughgoing debate about where we are going and how to address these weaknesses – a debate which could not be more urgent.

A reply to Alex Callinicos on Respect - Alan Thornett

A reply to Alex Callinicos on Respect - Alan Thornett
Posted on December 21, 2008 by Liam
Cover of issue 120

Alex Callinicos’s article in the current edition of the SWP’s International Socialism ‘Where is the Radical Left going?’ is significant in terms of the current debate in the SWP as well as the line of argument he defends.It marks the end of the era of John Rees’s leadership of the SWP electoral work, and its transition to the new Central Committee majority. It sets out to take a controversial look at the development of radical parties of the left across Europe and beyond over the past eight or nine years but its backdrop is the removal of John Rees and the developing debate inside the SWP which has emerged as a result.

The issue of broad parties and the radical left is a very important subject, of course — and Callinicos is right to stress that the objective conditions remain strong for such parties despite the setbacks which have undoubtedly occurred. He argues that: “Any revolutionary worth his or her salt should throw themselves enthusiastically into building these formations”. Indeed they should. But this approach is hardly reflected in the current practice of the SWP under the new majority, since the Left List is now firmly on the SWP’s back burner if not on its way out.

Callinicos, in dealing with the situation in Britain (a big section of the article deals with the emergence of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France), fully defends the line and actions of the SWP during and after the split in Respect despite the removal of John Rees. The criticisms of John Rees seem to be confined to a few specific mistakes not the overall strategic line he developed. Alex Callinicos even repeats the myth that following the split in Respect both sides in the dispute (Respect and the Left List) “suffered electoral eclipse” in the London Assembly elections in June. Whilst this was clearly true of the Left List a glance at the Respect results show that it held its own very well.

The other myth he repeats is that the split in Respect in November 2008 was a left/right division — with George Galloway and others following the Brazilian PT and the Italian PRC to the right with the SWP defending a left-wing line.

This is no closer to reality. The issue involved was not left wing versus right wing politics but party democracy and the role and functioning of the SWP within the structures of Respect. It was the refusal of the SWP to loosen its grip on those structures and to respond positively to a proposal from George Galloway for more plurality at the top which triggered the crisis. The Galloway proposal, which involved the appointment of someone with equal authority to John Rees, was presented by the leadership of the SWP as a declaration of war on their organisation. Callinicos, himself describes the letter as an “attack on the SWP”. It was this which triggered the dispute.

What emerged after the split as Respect Renewal was not a rightist section of the old version of Respect but a section of the old Respect which defended the democracy of the organisation. Within that there was and clearly still are a range of political positions, debates, and approaches to building Respect. In fact some of the debates prevalent in the old Respect continue in the new one.

An important factor underpinning the SWP’s approach to all this was its refusal to treat Respect as a political party but to insist on seeing it (famously) as a ‘united front of a special kind’. This approach was developed by John Rees and is strongly defended by Alex Callinicos. It placed Respect as just one united front amongst four or five the SWP was involved in — this one being the electoral version. Callinicos attacks electoralism, but the SWP approach has always had electoralism in its DNA, since it only really catered for electoral situations. It meant that Respect could not develop as an all-round political party because it only came into its own when there was an election about. Most other campaigns were conducted by the SWP itself through its own structures and under its own direction.

It is not true, however — as Alex Callinicos alleges — that either myself, or Socialist Resistance, ever advocated that the SWP should dissolve itself into Respect. In fact we have argued the opposite — that it is essential that revolutionary socialists maintain an organised presence in an organisation like Respect. Such parties are by their nature multi-tendency, and this should be transparent and open and a natural part of the political life and development of such a party. Also because revolutionary socialists have a range of political ideas which go beyond those of a broad party and which need to be developed and defended in their own right. This is the situation in most of the broad parties across Europe which have emerged in recent years — in particular the successful ones.

It is true that myself, and others, have advocated the SSP model, and we still do. But we have always advocated this in general principal and not every detail of its functioning — some aspects of which could not be transported to the English situation. The size of the SWP relative to the other forces likely to be in such a party at this stage is completely different in England to Scotland and this has implications for the shape and functioning of a broad party. The issue was not that the SWP functioned as an organisation both inside and outside Respect. It was how it functioned inside and outside Respect, and the relationship between the two.

It is also true that the issue of the size of the SWP in relation to other forces was not an easy issue, but it could have been overcome given the political will on the part of the SWP. It meant that the SWP had to self-limit its numerical weight in the decision-making processes of Respect and allow it room to breathe. It meant allowing SWP members to participate without mandate. It meant the SWP doing most of its agitational work though Respect. It meant prioritising the profile of Respect over that of the SWP at public events. The SWP was not prepared to do any of these things — why would it if Respect was simply a united front and not a political party.

Alex Callinicos argues that the SWP did not want to exercise the overwhelming control that it in fact did have in Respect. This is not true. The SWP, under the leadership of John Rees, presumably with the agreement of the CC, took a conscious decision to do exactly that a long time ago — in the latter days of the Socialist Alliance in fact. They decided that they were not prepared to participate in such organisations unless they had a degree of control which, in their view, reflected their size and input into the project. It was posed in exactly those terms. It was a conscious choice. As a result if this they increased the size of the SWP delegation on the SA NC from 5 to 15 (if I remember rightly) with a caucus in advance of meetings. In reality it was a negative turning point in the positive move the SWP had made towards building broad parties in 2000 — 2001 period.

This approach was carried into Respect from the outset. Within a couple of years it resulted in a situation where there was little real point in anyone else participating on the elected bodies. You may as well just ask the SWP what they wanted to do and not bother going. It meant that the real decisions were not being made in the leadership bodies of Respect, but in the leadership structures of the SWP and transported into Respect ready made. It was this, or a refusal to cease to operate in this way, and not some fictitious development of a left/right polarisation over the summer of 2007 which resulted in the split in Respect.

With John Rees removed from this area of work the new majority is starting to dismantle some of the achievements of the ‘broad party’ period as they establish the new ‘build the (SWP) party’ line. A good indicator of the extent of this is the attitude Alex Callinicos now displays towards the Muslim component of Respect — something in which John Rees very much took the lead when Muslims were radicalising against the war, even if he did blow it later on in Tower hamlets. It was this which led Respect to make the most important breakthrough into a migrant community ever made by a left wing organisation in Britain. Callinicos in his article now retails the standard jibe typical of many of Respect’s left critics that it was not making a genuine development in these communities at all but was simply seeking to “win votes opportunistically through community leaders”. The SWP used to rebut these crass jibes when it was leading Respect by pointing out that such an approach would not even work. They often characterizing them as Islamophobic. How things have changed.

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