Broad parties and narrow visions: the SWP and Respect

By Murray Smith

January 4, 2008 -- The crisis which has led to a split in Respect is an important development, affecting as it does the principal force of the radical left in England. The future will tell us whether the current crisis represents just another failure, another dead-end, another missed opportunity for the English left, or whether, as seems increasingly possible, it offers Respect itself the chance for a renewal and is perhaps a step on the road towards a broader formation.

Whichever way you look at it, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) is at the centre of the crisis. It is or was the central component of Respect, as it had been of the Socialist Alliance which preceded it, and it has been one of the main protagonists in the conflict that has engulfed Respect. So I want to look at what has happened from the point of view of the relationship between the SWP, a traditional far-left organisation, and the broader left formation that Respect is. I think there are some lessons to be learned which go beyond Britain.

There is no need to go over again here the analysis which has been made many times before concerning the possibilities of building new parties of the radical left and the tasks of revolutionary Marxists in rebuilding the workers’ movement and new workers’ parties on the basis of refusal of neo-liberalism, and of fighting for consistently anti-capitalist politics in that framework (1). But this analysis obviously underpins our analysis of the crisis of Respect.

The forces that will rebuild the workers’ movement and build new parties will to a very large extent come from the new generations. But this will not happen spontaneously. A look at the experiences of new parties in different countries shows that the first steps along the road to new parties are taken by existing forces that refuse the neo-liberal consensus. The measure of their success can be judged by their ability to draw in new forces, which in the best of cases quickly outnumber the founding components. But to begin the process of building new parties, we start with the raw material we inherit – from traditional socialist and communist parties, trade unionists, ecologists and forces from various new movements, etc. - and from the traditional revolutionary groups.

The revolutionary left and its limits

In the context of the crisis of Respect, it is the last of these that concerns us. In Western Europe the revolutionary groups represent organised forces which originated in opposition to Social Democracy and Stalinism. Maoist organisations arose in the 1960s and were influential in many countries of Europe, though marginal in Britain. Those which survived generally did so by taking considerable distance from their origins. This is much less the case with Trotskyist organisations, which on the contrary attach great importance to the historical continuity of their struggle, and remain attached to their political heritage, though they often interpret it in radically different ways.

The far left in Britain has always been predominantly Trotskyist. Three significant organisations eventually developed from the wreckage of the post-war British section of the Fourth International – the WRP, which imploded in the 1980s, and the currents which are today represented by the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant). The section of the Fourth International reconstituted in the 1960s (represented today by the International Socialist Group -- ISG) came largely from outside that tradition.

These organisations represent organised forces which in spite of many weaknesses often carry on some of the best traditions of the workers’ movement. They also, because of their activist character, can usually have an influence out of proportion to their numbers. They can play a role, positively or negatively, in the recomposition of the workers’ movement and the building of new parties. Positive examples of this are the key role of Scottish Militant Labour (SML) in Scotland in establishing the SSP, and that of the (ex-Maoist) UDP and PSR (Fourth International) in setting up the Left Bloc in Portugal.

In spite of their tradition of political resistance to Stalinism, many Trotskyist groups developed internal regimes based on what can only be called bureaucratic centralism. There are particular reasons in the history of British Marxism for the sectarian and bureaucratic character of many Trotskyist groups. It is not a question of putting the three organisations cited above in the same basket, neither Tony Cliff nor Ted Grant deserves to be compared to Gerry Healy. But they share one thing in common, the inability to accept democratic debate, the confrontation between different platforms, for any length of time. It is not considered normal. This is not however a purely British phenomenon, it is common to, for example, Lutte Ouvriere and the Lambertist PT in France.

The Trotskyist movement as a whole, some of its components more than others, has paid a heavy price for decades of persecution and the pervasive influence of Stalinism, even on those who opposed it. It would be more correct to characterise these organisations and the international regroupments around them as factions rather than the parties they usually consider themselves to be.

The category “revolutionary/far-left organisation” has some pertinence. All these groups have or have had things in common – well-defined programmatic and historical references; a high level of activism such as to preclude a mass party except in times of revolution; tendencies towards “vanguardism” - a schematic counterposition between ‘vanguard’ and ‘masses’; the idea that they actually are a revolutionary party or at least represent the nucleus of one, etc. There is however a difference between some and others. The forces grouped in the Fourth International (FI) have abandoned crude vanguardist conceptions and the idea that they are the revolutionary party. And crucially, they have internal regimes that are democratic and pluralist, as members of the SWP’s international current the International Socialist Tendency (IST) have been able to experience for themselves in the FI’s largest section, the French LCR.

Genuine internal democracy, the right of currents to organise even outside of conference periods and to present different platforms at congresses, proportional representation of minorities on leading bodies, does not of course guarantee that no mistakes will be made nor offer absolute guarantees against splits. It does make errors easier to correct and to conduct sometimes sharp debates while preserving the unity of the organisation. The LCR’s pluralism does not make it able to be in and of itself, the new, and necessarily pluralist, broad anti-capitalist party that is necessary, something that a large majority of its members now seem to have understood. It does give it a serious advantage in building a pluralist party. The question that has often been posed, but that the SWP (or for that matter the Socialist Party) has never really answered, remains: if you are incapable of practising pluralism within your own organisations, why should anyone believe that you will be capable of doing so in a broader party?

The end of a cycle

The SWP, after a long period of sectarian isolation, made a turn in 1999-2000 towards working with other forces and towards building new political formations. It invested forces in the then moribund Socialist Alliance, which the Socialist Party had failed to do anything with. The first major result was the London election campaign in 2000, followed by participation in the 2001 general election and in local elections. Michael Lavalette was elected councillor in Preston in 2003.

In a parallel move, in 2001 the Scottish organisation of the SWP joined the SSP, which it had categorically refused to do when the party was formed in 1998 (we will come back to this later). This turn by what was at that point the biggest far left organisation in Britain was very welcome, but the sharpness of the turn justified some interrogations.

To try and probe, I wrote an article in Frontline 8 “Where is the SWP going?” In the same issue Nick McKerrell published “The United Front Today”. This turned out to be the beginning of a debate which was fruitful in its content, clarifying for us the SWP’s thinking. It was also fraternal and pluralist in its form, in that our contributions, a reply from Rees and my reply were published in International Socialism, and also in Links (2).There had already been exchanges with Alex Callinicos in the IST International Bulletin and there were again in 2004 after the European elections and the creation of Respect. And there were exchanges of correspondence between representatives of the leaderships of the SWP and the LCR, also published in the IST International Bulletin.

When I wrote that article in 2002 I did not know the answer to the question posed in the title. Simply, it was clear that the SWP was moving. We knew where it had been, not where it would go. It seemed useful to look at the question. After the exchanges with Rees and Callinicos, in particular the insistence on the concept of the “united front of a special type” and of coalitions as counterposed to parties, I was not entirely reassured. But the test of theory is practice. The SWP was in the SA, it was in the SSP, it was in the European Anti-capitalist Left, there would be time to see how things evolved.

SWP's orientation?

It is now possible to answer with some degree of certainty the question of the orientation of the SWP. We cannot predict exactly where it will go now, but it does seem that the cycle that began in 1999-2000 is over. The question as to whether the SWP is capable of playing, consistently, a positive role in the building of a broad party has been answered, for the moment at least, but quite definitely, in the negative. Not just or primarily in the pages of its documents, though we will quote some of those, but in practice. And not once but three times. First, with the Socialist Alliance. Second, with the SSP. And thirdly, and it would seem decisively, with Respect.

The SWP leadership chose consciously and deliberately to run the risk of a split rather than let Respect escape from the straitjacket of the “united front of a special type”. Neither the ham-fisted way they have gone about it, nor their widely rejected organizational practices, should hide what is essential. The reason for their line of conduct was a fundamental political incapacity or refusal to evolve in the necessary way, which would have involved the SWP itself changing radically.

Because, as we have often explained, revolutionary groups which want to play a constructive role in building new parties have to change. They have to break with certain aspects of their past. They don’t have to change their fundamental ideas, in the sense of programme. They do have to abandon the idea that they are the revolutionary party or its nucleus and that the “over-arching priority” (to quote a recent SWP document) is to build their own organisation. They do have to abandon the fetish of organisational independence. They have to work constructively as a current within the new party. I wrote five years ago: “The role of revolutionary Marxists today is to build broad socialist parties while defending their own Marxist positions within them, with the aim, not of building a revolutionary faction with an ‘entryist’ perspective, but of taking forward the whole party and solving together with the whole party the problems that arise, as they arise.” (3) On the basis of subsequent experience, there seems nothing to add or take away.

This is what the SWP has consistently refused to do. The theoretical justification for this has been the concept of the “united front of a special type”, which has become, without any difference of meaning that I can see, in Chris Harman’s latest offering (4), the “political united front”. There is no need to go over here the criticism of this concept. That was done five years ago. And Andy Newman has done so more recently (5). And from a point of view quite different from his or mine, so has the Australian group Socialist Alternative, which comes from a split in the IST’s Australian affiliate (6).

Respect is a formation which has policies, more or less clearly developed like those of any party, on a whole range of issues, which campaigns on them and stands in elections. Such a formation is what we call a party, people vote for it as such, people join it as such. If it is made to fit into the straitjacket of being a “united front”, albeit of a “special type”, or a coalition, its development will be stunted, it will fail to develop or do so in a deformed way. Which is just what happened to Respect.

There is of course nothing much in a name. Looking at the new formations in Europe, they can be called a bloc (Portugal), alliance (Denmark) party (Scotland, Netherlands) or a generic term like Respect or Die Linke (Germany). They are nevertheless parties, and define themselves as such. In his article “Regroupment and the Socialist Left Today’’ (7) , Alex Callinicos made a thoroughly artificial distinction between on the one hand the SSP as a party and the Portuguese Left Bloc and Danish Red Green Alliance which were in fact parties, and so described themselves, in other countries, but which he defined as coalitions. It was at odds with the reality then, it looks even more so now, and the SWP appears to have dropped that one.

Of course, all parties that represent real forces are also in some ways coalitions of tendencies, currents, interest groups. But organisations that, over and above these differences, are membership-based and organised around a programme are parties. At the last congress of the Left Bloc in June 2007, both delegates and the new leadership were elected proportionally to support given to each of four platforms. And the 4,000 plus members of the Red-Green Alliance vote directly to choose their slate of candidates for Parliament. Coalitions don’t work that way.

This poses a problem for the SWP leadership. The function of the concept of the “united front of a special type” was clear. To justify the fact that the SWP was building Respect, which was in reality clearly a party in the making, while continuing to build the SWP, which they considered to be a party, and indeed the revolutionary party, by refusing to define Respect as a party. Furthermore, there was what has been called the theory of concentric circles, with the SWP at the core, Respect as the second circle, the other united fronts as the outer circle. This in itself was not necessarily a problem. The fact of having a defective theory does not always prevent people doing the right thing.

For example the concept of concentric circles does not actually prevent you from prioritising the building of Respect in practice. And in a general sense, when the theory came into conflict with reality, it could have been the theory that was changed. Unfortunately it wasn’t.

The SWP’s approach had very concrete consequences, in terms of the building or not of Respect and the relationship between Respect and the SWP. These problems were at the heart of the crisis. It would be an over-simplification to say that Respect was simply seen, always and everywhere, as a united front to be trotted out at election times and put on the back burner in between times. In some areas that was not the case, and those were areas where Respect got councillors elected or had a good chance of doing so. But it was the case in most places. Overall the SWP’s approach stunted the growth of Respect – locally, with sporadic functioning of branches, no recruitment drives, nationally with no culture of internal democracy, no paper.

In fact the SWP behaved in the same way in Respect as it had in the Socialist Alliance. It frequently talks about the ‘limits’ of the Socialist Alliance, as in the Chris Harman article already quoted. But to a considerable extent, though not entirely, those limits were self-inflicted. It is true that the base of the SA was narrower than that of Respect. It is also true that not everything that could have been done to expand that base was done, far from it. The definitive example is the quite conscious choice that the SWP made to sideline the SA and intervene in the anti-war movement directly as the SWP. It is true that Respect had more potential, coming as it did from the massive 2003 antiwar movement and involving broader forces. But it met the same problem. One might say that the potential productive forces of Respect, its potential to grow, came into conflict with the constraints of its structures and functioning. That is what produced the crisis that began on August 23 with George Galloway’s letter.

It is now of course clear to everyone that tensions already existed before Galloway’s letter, between the SWP and the predominantly Muslim branches of Respect in Tower Hamlets and South Birmingham, and Salma Yaqoob in particular. It is also the case that some people in Respect – Socialist Resistance, later the Respect Party Platform – had argued for years that Respect had to evolve away from is hybrid half-party, half-coalition state towards being a broad pluralist party, with a newspaper, recruitment drive, properly functioning branches a leadership that was accountable to the membership, etc. But so long as Galloway and the SWP saw more or less eye to eye on how Respect should function, the status quo remained.

Galloway lights the fuse – unwittingly?

When George Galloway wrote his letter “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (8) on August 23, a snap autumn election was a real possibility, and Galloway’s initiative was undoubtedly prompted by the clear state of unpreparedness of Respect. Galloway recognised the successes and potential of Respect, making a special point of signalling three areas outside London where Respect was progressing, all of them branches dominated by the SWP. He then went on to detail the problems and weaknesses. His letter was fairly restrained in form but quite uncompromising in content.

“Despite being a rather well known political brand our membership has not grown. And in some areas it has gone into a steep decline. Whole areas of the country are effectively moribund as far as Respect activity is concerned. In some weeks there is not a single Respect activity anywhere in the country advertised in our media. No systematic effort has been able to be mounted - in fact, a major effort had to be launched to get back to the levels of membership we had, despite electoral successes, widespread publicity and the continuing absence of any serious rival on the left. This has left a small core of activists to shoulder burden after burden without much in the way of support from the centre, leading to exhaustion and enervation.

“We have stumbled from one financial crisis to another. And with the prospect of an early general election we are simply unable to challenge the major parties in our key constituencies. None of the Respect staff appears to have been tasked with either membership or fundraising responsibilities. Or if they have it isn’t working. There is a deep-seated culture of amateurism and irresponsibility on the question of money. Activities are not properly budgeted and even where budgets are set they are not adhered to.”

He then went on to confront the way in which the SWP ran Respect. Under the heading “staffing”, he wrote:

“This is a mystery to me and others. People pop up as staff members in jobs which have not been advertised, for which there have been no interviews and whose job descriptions are unclear and certainly unpublished. One staff member was appointed at a meeting at which that same staff member was present, making it obviously embarrassing for anyone to query whether they were the right person for the job, whether they could be afforded or why the job should go to them rather than someone else. This unnecessarily poor management leads to tensions, even animosity and the suspicion that staff are recruited for their political opinions on internal matters rather than on a proper basis.”

Under “internal relations”: “There is a custom of anathematisation in the organisation which is deeply unhealthy and has been the ruin of many a left-wing group before us. This began with Salma Yaqoob, once one of our star turns, promoted on virtually every platform, and who is responsible for some of the greatest election victories (and near misses) during our era.

“Now she has been airbrushed from our history at just the time when she is becoming a regular feature on the national media and her impact on the politics of Britain’s second city [Birmingham] has never been higher.

“There appears to be no plan to rescue her from this perdition, indeed every sign that her internal exile is a fixture. This is intolerable and must end now. Whatever personal differences may exist between leading members the rest of us cannot allow Respect to be hobbled in this way. We are not over-endowed with national figures”.

Under “decision-making and implementation”: “There is a marked tendency for decisions made at the national council or avenues signposted for exploration to be left to wither on the vine if they are not deemed to meet priorities (which themselves are not agreed).”

The criticism of the way Respect was functioning, the “whole areas of the country(…) effectively moribund as far as Respect is concerned” was implicitly a criticism of the SWP, which failed to build Respect in many areas where it had branches. The rest was even more direct. Finances were run by the SWP-dominated national office. And it was not necessary to be Sherlock Holmes to know that the staff members who “popped up” were SWP members, the decisions left to wither on the vine were those that did not correspond to the SWP’s priorities, and that it was the SWP and in particular John Rees who had “airbrushed” Salma Yaqoob.

The charges were sufficiently clear for everyone to know that it was the SWP that was being targeted and sufficiently diplomatically formulated for the SWP to take the message on board and open discussions. No one has ever demonstrated that at this point Galloway wanted a rupture with the SWP. But he did want some changes and proposed a new elections committee dominated by non-SWP members and a new post of National Organiser with equal status to the National Secretary. What was proposed was not the exclusion of the SWP but the creation of a counterweight to their influence, one with enough authority to reassure the non-SWP components and help pull Respect out of the doldrums.

The SWP’s reaction

The reaction of the SWP was violent. They “went nuclear”, to use the term that has been attributed to their National Secretary, Martin Smith. Local aggregates and national delegate meetings of its members were held, where Galloway and Yaqoob were designated as “communalists”, the problem in Respect was defined as a left-right split, as electoralism versus campaigning politics, there was supposedly a ”witch-hunt” against the SWP. A National Council meeting of Respect on September 22 saw 13 out of 14 SWP members present launch violent personal attacks on Galloway, who stormed out of the meeting. When he was persuaded to return, the NC began to adopt unanimously some of his proposals, a process that was completed at the next NC meeting on September 29. Basically, all of Galloway’s proposals were adopted. John Rees remained as National Secretary, but after much resistance the SWP backed down and accepted that the National Organiser should have equal status with the National Secretary.

This public outbreak of sweetness and light, quite at variance with what the SWP leadership was telling its own members, actually had nothing to do with a real desire to reach a compromise in the broader interests of Respect. It seems likely to have been motivated by the fact that the possibility of a snap election was still looming and hostilities might have to be suspended for the duration. At an SWP National Council meeting the following day (September 30) the tone was quite different, the Central Committee sought to put the organisation on a war footing. And omitted to inform its members that at the Respect National Council that day before it had given way on just about everything, including on the post of National Organiser. It would have been embarrassing to admit, and anyway the retreat was only tactical. Just look at the calendar of events.

Brown ruled out an autumn election on October 6. On October 8, Nick Wrack, an SWP member critical of the SWP Central Committee’s approach to Respect, proposed by Galloway as National Organiser (he was the only candidate) was instructed by the CC to withdraw his name. On October 12, SWP members Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoveman were ordered to resign from their posts in Galloway’s office. On October 14, Wrack, Hoveman and Ovenden were expelled from the SWP for refusing to comply. On October 15, the SWP-dominated officers meeting refused to apply the decision of the September 29 NC and appoint a National Organiser. On October 16, Respect national chair Linda Smith argued at a meeting of the Conference Arrangements Committee (the national conference was due to be held on November 17) that the CAC was unconstitutional as it had not been approved by the NC, and proposed additions to the committee to make it less weighted in favour of the SWP, which was refused. The same evening the Tower Hamlets Respect meeting broke up in disarray, whereby the SWP branch secretary reconvened the meeting with essentially SWP members and supporters and approved a list of delegates with a majority of SWP members on it, though the SWP are quite a small if active minority in the branch.

I think that at that point it was all over bar the shouting (of which there was of course rather a lot). On October 23, Socialist Worker published an editorial attacking Galloway and his supporters. On October 24 Linda Smith sent out a document “Respect at the Crossroads” signed by herself and 26 others, including Galloway, Salma Yaqoob, Ken Loach, Alan Thornett, Nick Wrack and the majority of Respect’s local councillors. From then on they began organising first of all as “Respect at the Crossroads”, then as “Respect Renewal”. There were some negotiations with the SWP aimed at concluding an amicable divorce, but they came to nothing. It is not clear if the SWP really meant them to.

By its reaction to Galloway’s letter the SWP had managed to create a situation, or at the very least accelerate the process, whereby all of those forces in Respect which disagreed with its approach to building Respect and/or its methods, had come together in a crystallised united opposition. And not simply on an anti-SWP line, but on a series of proposals that went in the direction of Respect beginning to function more like a party.

In a recent article that we will come back to (9) Salma Yaqoob explains how she now sees things: “The coalition model that Respect was founded upon had its merits. In the future, however, I am convinced that we need to organise much more along traditional party political lines. We need to be clear that we are building a political party, and not making some form of temporary agreement between rival interests for electoral purposes”.

This led to the situation of two conferences on November 17 in two places in London, with about the same number of participants, around 350 plus at each. The one organised by the SWP in Westminster claimed to be the 4th national conference of Respect, with delegates elected from the branches it controlled. The other, at Bishopsgate, was not a delegate meeting but included just about every prominent Respect member who was not in the SWP. Since November 17, SWP members have been claiming that Galloway and his supporters “split from Respect” and refused to attend the “national conference”, organising a “rally” on the same day.

This is silly. Respect Renewal has not split from Respect, there has been a split in Respect, there are two Respects. Respect Renewal supporters say they did not attend the SWP-run conference (which logically elected a “National Council” with over 60 per cent SWP members) because they argued that it had been organised unconstitutionally and did not recognise it. Since November 17, local branches have been choosing which of the two conferences they recognise. We will come back later to the prospects for the two wings of Respect.

The SWP’s explanation

Let us now look at the SWP’s explanation for the split. A left-right division? Nobody much outside the SWP takes this seriously. In Respect Renewal there are socialists like Alan Thornett, John Lister, Ken Loach, who have been arguing from the start not only that Respect should function as a party, but that it should have more clearly affirmed socialist policies, which the SWP systematically opposed. They have now been joined by those who have been expelled from the SWP.

Electoralism versus campaigning politics? But wasn’t it the SWP that wanted in most places to keep Respect moribund and only bring it out at election times? And wasn’t it many of those now in Respect Renewal who argued for Respect to be a campaigning organisation, because that was the role of a party aiming to represent working people, and also the best way to build an electoral base?

In the SWP CC statement “Respect, the United Front and the Revolutionary Party” published in Pre Conference Bulletin 1 (10) we can read “We have often said that Respect should exist between elections”. However we also read that Respect is clearly defined as “primarily an electoral party” and “this year-round presence is directed to reaping support in elections”. You can’t get much more electoralist than that. Maybe some people in Respect Renewal also see things that way – but many of them certainly don’t. In any case, what is happening is certainly not a left (SWP)-right (Respect Renewal) split.

As for the witch-hunt. One of Britain’s best left trade union leaders, Mark Serwotka, accepted the SWP’s line on that and spoke at their conference accordingly. That was a real windfall, most people outside the SWP (and some in it) don’t believe a word of it. If ever there was a case of the leadership of an organisation pressing the button of party loyalty this is it. The SWP has invented the do-it-yourself witch-hunt. But…one might say, hasn’t Galloway been going on about fighting Trotskyism and Leninism? Yes, he has. What Galloway actually thinks about Lenin and Trotsky, I have no idea. But he is far from the only person who is repulsed by the image that quite a few British Trotskyist groups give of Leninism and Trotskyism, usually experienced via their organisational practices.

From what can be seen from the outside neither the internal regime nor the modus operandi of the SWP has much to do with Leninism. Of course a group like the SWP is difficult to compare with the Bolshevik Party. But a group of comparable size, the French LCR, has an internal regime much closer to the real Bolshevik tradition. We will come back to that.

On the question of witch-hunts, there are a couple of leading members of Respect, Alan Thornett and Jerry Hicks, who know a thing or two about witch-hunts and victimisation, having been victims of them. In the 1980s supporters of Militant and other socialists knew what it was to be witch-hunted by the Labour Party machine and the media. But that was in the real world.

What about communalism? This is certainly the most outrageous and potentially damaging of the accusations brought by the SWP leadership. It means appealing to electors not on the basis of politics, programme or class but on the basis of being part of the same community – in this case, Bengali in Tower Hamlets, Pakistani or Kashmiri in Birmingham. Those accused being the majority of Respect councillors in Tower Hamlets and Salma Yaqoob and her supporters in Birmingham. This is dangerous, slippery ground.

An organisation like the SWP which has resolutely combated Islamophobia, should know that accusing leaders of Respect of communalism risks pandering to it. Salma Yaqoob has in the article quoted above, provided a devastating reply to the SWP’s accusations and exposed the threadbare nature of them. Respect’s other Birmingham councillor, Mohammad Ishtiaq, “explained [at the Respect Renewal conference] that he had been put under pressure not to stand against the Lib Dem candidate on the grounds he was from the same biraderi [extended clan], and by standing he would split the biraderi vote. Ishtiaq resisted those pressures out of a conviction that this kind of politics had to be broken” (11).

In PCB 2 Paul Holborrow and Jan Nielsen ask: “How have we managed to split Respect in Tower Hamlets into our section and the rest (overwhelmingly Bengali). This development is particularly disturbing given our recent reputation (of which we should be justifiably proud) as defenders of Muslims against the tide of Islamophobia. This has been a brilliant example to the whole of the European and British Left.”

The SWP should indeed be proud of its reputation in this field, and it has been a not always very well followed example. So what has happened?

The answer to their question seems to lie in the SWP’s unwillingness to accept the candidates chosen in Birmingham and Tower Hamlets, and the fact that those that they supported were either not chosen or not elected. There is a substantive issue here. When you choose candidates, you should choose candidates who are electable, who are rooted in their communities. In the areas we are talking about they will tend to be Bengali or Pakistani or Kashmiri, that does not automatically mean that they will appeal to the electorate on communalist grounds. And non-Muslim Respect candidates have also won support among Muslims, notably Michael Lavalette.

There is a related accusation of potential candidates signing up members to help them be selected. In her article Salma Yaqoob recognises that the phenomenon of “’pocket members’ bought and paid for by individuals with the sole intention of influencing selections meetings” exists and adds that “these undemocratic practices can be dealt with”. But she does more than that. She explains the reality of family and clan loyalties in South Asian communities with their positive and negative aspects and how the negative aspects can be combated.

There is, by the way, quite a history of undemocratic practices in the labour movement, they are in no way particularly characteristic of Muslims or Asians. Nor is the fact of group loyalties (Catholic, Protestant, certain unions) being used to further this or that political career.

Finally, as Salma Yaqoob points out, the SWP’s accusations would carry more weight if in the first place, they had been made before, and if in the second place the SWP’s own practices were above suspicion, which appears to be the case neither in Tower Hamlets nor in Student Respect.

Accusations – very vaguely formulated - of sexist behaviour have also been launched against Muslim men in Tower Hamlets. In the article previously mentioned, Chris Harman recognises that this is not a particular characteristic of Muslim men, it also happens in the labour movement, citing the example of miners. He adds, “The point, however, is that the left have always sought to resist such behaviour”. Well, yes…But if Harman is trying to argue that sexist attitudes occur among backward Muslims and miners, but not in “the left” (including the SWP), perhaps he should get out more.

Anyone who knows the left, and even the far left, knows that sexist attitudes and behaviour are far from having been vanquished in its ranks. In a recent post (12), the talented blogger Splintered Sunrise makes a number of allusive but pretty well targeted remarks concerning the SWP, which are perhaps clearer to those who know the party from the inside than they are to me. However he makes one clear reference that does correspond with first-hand reports I had of the run-up to the split in the SSP, where SWP members and other supporters of Tommy Sheridan behaved in an outrageously sexist fashion. This was perhaps the translation into practice of fighting against “the dominance of feminist ideas amongst a section of the party” which two leading SWP members criticised in a 2006 document (13). In a recent post (14), Andy Newman gives details of a case in Bristol SWP last year.

Anyway putting all that together, we get a situation where the (mainly white) SWP is accusing the leading figures in the (largely Asian) Respect branches in East London and Birmingham of communalism, vote-fixing and sexist behaviour. No problem? Does no one in the SWP feel uneasy about that?

What the split is really about is what kind of party Respect should be. In any normal living party you can and will have disagreements over the relative importance of elections and extra-parliamentary campaigns, community-based and industrial work, new movements and traditional trade union work. Those questions can be sources of tension, conflict, choices that have to be made. They do not necessarily need to lead to splits, though that can happen. But you have to have a large measure of agreement on what kind of party you are building, or indeed whether it is a party or something else that you are building. Behind all the external discourse about left-right splits and witch-hunts, that is what it is about. And in the SWP’s internal debate, that is the question they actually address.

Was the split really necessary?

Many people regret the split, many consider there was no political justification for it. Certainly it is regrettable. Certainly there were no differences of political programme that could not have been dealt with in the same organisation, notwithstanding the SWP’s discourse about a left/right division. But the clash with the SWP was an accident waiting to happen.

It is not possible to build a broad party while continuing to operate as a classical far-left group, with your newspaper, public activities, industrial intervention, etc., and where members’ time and money go in priority to the group. You cannot have your cake and eat it. You cannot have your broad party and still build your own group as before. And you cannot get round the problem by baptising what is clearly a party-in-formation a united front of a special type or a political united front. That way you just fall between two stools, which is what the SWP seems to have done.

If you want to build a broad party you have to: a) have the political clarity to see that that means that your own organisation will have to change radically in the way it operates, and conduct public activities and campaigns as the party; and b) have the political courage to commit material resources to the party.

When the SSP was launched, SML put the vast bulk of its human and material resources – offices, computers, its newspaper, full-timers – at the disposal of the party. On a more modest scale, but following the same approach, Socialist Resistance stopped publication of its own paper and put its human and material resources at the disposal of Respect, which made it possible to produce a Respect newspaper three weeks after the Bishopsgate conference. At present, the LCR is engaged in an attempt to launch a broad anti-capitalist party. It has said quite explicitly that if the project succeeds, the LCR in its present form will cease to exist.

If the SWP had been able to change, no split would have been necessary. Since it not only did not but dug its heels in when challenged, a split became probable and at a certain point inevitable.

Where now for the SWP?

In PCB 2 there is a remarkable, and in many ways astonishing, contribution from comedian and longtime (29 years) SWP member Mark Steel. He paints a bleak picture of an aging, shrinking organisation, which is missing out on many opportunities. In PCB 3 several contributions take issue with Steel’s contribution, notably one from Alex Callinicos. They challenge some aspects of what Steel says, without disproving his overall picture.

Now, Steel is clearly quite disillusioned with the SWP, and it also seems that he has not been very active in it recently, so he may be missing out on some positive developments. But he also has an advantage over most SWP members. He moves around the country a lot, which means that he can get an overview, albeit rough, of the state of the party, something that only the leadership normally gets. Furthermore, the picture he paints bears some relation to the observable level of SWP presence and activity on the ground, participation at its annual ``Marxism'' event, etc.

I do not know how many members the SWP has, but the figure of 8000 that Callinicos cites seems totally unbelievable, it does not correspond to what outsiders see and hear of the party. According to figures given in PCB 1, Socialist Worker sells 8700 copies a week. The last two “Marxism” events have attracted about 4000 participants. And take the much-mocked petition launched by the SWP against the “witch-hunt”, which obtained somewhat over 1000 signatures. Isn’t that strange? One would have thought that faced with a witch-hunt against the party, not only all its members but many sympathisers would have rallied round.

Let’s suppose that some people didn’t sign because they didn’t want to be identified as SWP members because of their jobs, and we know others didn’t sign because they didn’t agree with it. That still leaves several thousand on the missing list. The point of this is not to gloat over the SWP’s decline. It is to take note of the fact that we are not dealing with a party that is growing and expanding its influence. We are looking at a fairly stagnant organisation. The figure of 1500-2000 members does not seem too wide of the mark.

The SWP now finds itself with a supposed coalition in which there is no other organised political force and few individuals of any influence. It is probably the case that the repeated assertions that the SWP remains committed to the perspective of building a broad political coalition are sincere. The leading group probably thinks that corresponds to the situation and is the best way to build the SWP. The problem is that it requires partners who are no longer there. Having lost them, the SWP has little chance of attracting any others. It will therefore tend to fall back willy-nilly on the old ‘build the party’ line, well summed up in the concluding part of the Scottish Steering Committee document.

Whether this occurs using Respect as a front (assuming they are able to keep using the name) for a time is a secondary question. Giving up any serious attempt to build a broader force and retreating to the old party-building by ones and twos is the slow road to nowhere, a process which could be accelerated by internal divisions.

Of course the SWP leadership will not openly adopt such a position, just as their Scottish comrades were obliged to make a hasty and unconvincing denial that they were planning to leave Solidarity. But that is the logic of their situation. However having held the organisation on an open line for seven or eight years, care has to be taken in making a new turn. Of course, it seems clear that a certain number, probably not negligible, of SWP members has always resisted involvement in the SA, SSP and Respect, and is consequently relieved to get back to normal. In a note to the Salma Yaqoob article already quoted, Rob Hoveman gives the remarkable information that at the time the crisis erupted, 60 per cent of SWP members is Tower Hamlets were not members of Respect. And that was in Respect’s biggest branch, with real local roots.

There is another, much smaller number which is openly opposed to the sectarian turn. In between there are probably a lot of members who are following the leadership out of party loyalty or habit, who may be more or less clearly asking themselves questions about where the party is going.
It is therefore necessary to provide an explanation for what has happened, one that avoids dealing with either the ingrained sectarianism of the SWP or the way the CC has handled the crisis. This comes in the form of the appreciation contained in the CC document (24) of the tendencies at work in the radical left in Europe. A section of this document is entitled “Respect and the crisis of the radical left in Europe”.

Left crisis in Europe?

Whether there is what can be called a crisis is debatable. Certainly there are problems, but no one should have imagined there wouldn’t be. But according to the CC the decline of the global justice (“anti-capitalist’ in their terminology, which was always an over-optimistic definition) and anti-war movements which favoured the rise of new formations has led to rightist tendencies are developing in the various parties and to a left/right polarisation. We are it seems no longer in the “heady days” of 2001-2003. In passing, let us note that we see recurring the importance that the SWP leadership attaches to contingent factors (the global justice movement, the anti-war movement) as against the fundamental factor, which they also recognise, the space opened up by the neo-liberal path of social democracy and the demise of Stalinism.

But more fundamentally, any idea that we have simply gone back would have to be balanced by the fact that since those heady days we have seen the emergence of a new party, Die Linke, in a key country, Germany. And in another key country, France, it now appears much more likely than it has up to now that one way or another we will see the emergence of a new, broad formation of the radical left.

In the CC’s analysis, Galloway and Respect Renewal can be situated in the framework of a “polarisation left and right in the movements resisting neo-liberalism and war”. The first problem with this, of course, is that they have not demonstrated their assertion that Galloway and Respect Renewal are in fact moving to the right. Secondly, on a European level, the assertion is much too sweeping. To back up their argument, they cite the PRC’s participation in the Prodi government, “tensions” over a much more minor affair in Portugal, the confused but far from despairing situation of the radical left in France and the undoubted existence of a significant wing of Die Linke that is ready to go into coalition with the SPD. And of course, they never miss an occasion to prematurely bury the SSP. I await their demonstration that the undoubtedly severe setbacks for the SSP and the socialist movement in Scotland have anything to do with a left/right polarisation.

In fact the explanation for the various problems affecting the radical left in Europe is more complex. Experience is showing that there is no easy, conflict-free road to building a consistently anti-capitalist party. When you leave the margins of politics and begin to be present in national parliaments and local councils, you encounter problems that you did not have before – votes, alliances, the question of participation in government or local government.

Some of these pressures come from the way the institutions seek to domesticate and integrate anti-system parties. And some of them come from your own supporters, who want the party to ‘make a difference’, to get its hands on the levers of power, as they see it. The only way forward is to deal with these problems through democratic debate and sometimes confrontation. The stronger the revolutionary Marxist, class-struggle forces in these parties, the more likely it will be that they avoid the trap of, to take the worst-case scenario, participation in neo-liberal governments.

In the short term, the SWP’s appreciation of the situation of the radical left in Europe provides an explanation for their characterisation of Respect Renewal as rightward-moving. In the medium term, it may make it possible to say, “well, we tried to build a radical left coalition, but we failed through no fault of our own, we just have to build the SWP”.
The future for the SWP looks rather bleak. The leadership should not have major problems at its annual conference this weekend. A split of any numerical importance seems unlikely. The danger lies elsewhere, in drift and haemorrhage. Some of course will leave just because they are tired or demoralised.

However, the experience of the SA, SSP and Respect has left its mark on the SWP. A certain number of comrades, including some very experienced ones, have drawn some conclusions and become convinced of the need to build Respect as a real party, a broad party as against a coalition or front. One of the clearest expressions of this is the document “Out Towards the Open Sea”, by Nick Wrack and Paul Holborrow, in PCB 1.

This document argues: “Respect is not a classical united front. Nor is it helpful to describe it as a united front of a special kind, unless the “special kind” is more clearly explained. Without further explanation or clarification it can lead to errors in our work, particularly the periodic switching on and off of Respect work, which undermine the possibilities for developing Respect”. They go on to argue that whatever Respect is called, party or coalition, it is in fact a party and has to be built as such, and not just at election times.”

They continue by arguing that “we [the SWP] do not see Respect as the over-arching strategic objective for the party in this period(…) It has to be the most important area of work into which all other areas of work are brought together”. They also challenge the way in which the SWP operates in Respect: “we must not give the impression that we always want to be in control. The left and other new forces who we want to involve in Respect or whatever develops out of it will not get involved if they see the organisation dominated by the SWP.”

They conclude their document by saying: “In all this our approach should be: ‘firm in principle, flexible in tactics'.”

Several other contributions in the pre-conference bulletins are critical of the CC in relation to Respect, criticising all or part of the CC’s orientation and its application. But the Wrack-Holborrow document really outlines an alternative orientation. And the CC replies to it in the same PCB. In response to “firm in principle, flexible in tactics” they argue: “But separating principles and tactics in this way is completely un-Marxist. Tactics derive from principles”.

In a very interesting and pretty comprehensive critique of the SWP leadership, the New Zealand affiliate of the IST replies to this quite effectively: “It seems to us an uncontroversial statement that tactics must be based on much more than principles – a lesson which Lenin himself explained clearly in his famous `"Left-Wing” Communism'. Revolutionary tactics must be based on the objective realities of the time – the level of class consciousness, the balance of forces in society at any given moment, the resources and cadre available to a revolutionary organization. To derive tactics from principles is not the method of scientific socialism, but of a dogmatic or even sectarian approach, that the party is ‘schoolteacher to the class’.” (25)

The CC also replies, and here I think we get to the heart of the matter: “Of all the claims made against the SWP’s position [in the internal bulletin the CC’s position is always described by itself as `the SWP’s position' – a small but revealing detail] the argument that Respect must be our `over-arching strategic priority' must be the most ill-considered. Firstly, it ignores the fact that the building of the revolutionary party is the over-arching priority for any revolutionary Marxist. All other strategic decisions are subordinate to this goal.”

An interesting critical contribution in PCB 2 addresses the question of the concentric circles, and asks: “Does one circle expand in relation to the others? Does Respect grow into a mass party and we sink our roots into it or does the SWP build itself and Respect fall away like scaffolding? It isn’t clear.”

Actually, I think it is. The “over-arching priority” is to build the revolutionary party (= the SWP) and all the rest is scaffolding. The idea that the new parties that are coming into existence might in the course of time, through many debates and struggles, become revolutionary parties, i.e. parties capable of leading the socialist transformation of society, is obviously not within their terms of reference. But, as I put it in the debate with John Rees five years ago: “Building a broad socialist party today may in fact be the best way to advance to a mass revolutionary party tomorrow.”

The SWP still doesn’t agree with that, it still counterposes broad parties to revolutionary parties. The problem is, what other perspective does it have? Building the SWP by ones and twos?

A certain number of SWP members have now been expelled or have left. Trying to calculate whether they are 70 or 100, or more, or less, holds little interest. Some of them are apparently organising themselves into a group into which they can welcome new arrivals from the SWP. That in itself is not a problem for the SWP leadership. The problem for the SWP leadership is not that for those who leave there is a group to join – there was that in the 1970s. The problem is that this group has, along with others, a credible political perspective in the form of Respect Renewal. Those who leave will not just go into a small group, but into a small group that is helping to build a big party. That is a real threat for the SWP.

Is the SWP indispensable?

In 2004, Respect could not have been launched without the SWP. In that particular conjuncture, there was no way round the SWP. The other main far-left organisation, the Socialist Party, chose not to participate. That did not stop Respect taking off. The question now is – can Respect develop without the SWP? We have already said that far-left groups of a certain size can make a positive or negative contribution to building new parties.

What happens when they choose not to play a positive role? Well, they could end up like Lutte Ouvriere, a still substantial organisation that is simply off the board when it comes to the recomposition of the workers’ movement. Looking at the debates on the French left and the perspective of a new party, what the LCR, the Communist Party, the Socialist left and various other forces do can make a difference one way or the other. If LO suddenly decided that it was in favour of a broad anti-capitalist party and began to relate to other forces, that would be positive, though fairly astounding. If it does not, that will not stop the process.

The fact is that what revolutionary groups of a certain size do or do not do can accelerate or slow the process of forming new parties. But they cannot block the process for ever. They can be by-passed.
Fundamentally, the form of the traditional far-left, revolutionary group has probably passed its sell-by date.

Phil Hearse explains in the document previously quoted:
“The forms of the emergence of mass anti-capitalism and rejection of Stalinism and social democracy has thrown up a cacophony of social movements and social justice organisations, as well as a huge array of militant left political forces internationally. This poses new and complex tasks of organising and cohering the anti-capitalist left. And this cannot be done by building a small international current that regards itself as the unique depository of Marxist truth and regards itself as capable of giving the correct answer on every question, in every part of the planet.”

That is on the political level. On an organisational level there is little chance that young people will accept the old type of ‘revolutionary’ organisation. This is not because they are backward. It is obvious that it is more difficult to talk about socialism today, or indeed revolution, though current developments in Latin America are making it easier.

Although the kind of young people Mark Steel talks about who campaign around a multitude of issues and go to social forums may not be susceptible to ringing appeals to socialist revolution, they are certainly capable of joined-up thinking, of seeing that questions of global warming, war, neo-liberal economics and their consequences, are all linked to and flow from the same system, and that we need a global alternative to it.

We are operating, as Phil Hearse puts it, in a situation “where the working class itself has been transformed in terms of its cultural level, geographical distribution and political and trade union organisation; and where the experience of mass social movements and the balance sheet of Stalinism (and social democracy) has radically reaffirmed the centrality of self-organisation and democracy at the heart of the revolutionary project”.

In that situation the type of parties that young (and not so young people) will join will not be like the traditional left groups. Of course, some will. Some do join the SP, the Socialist Party, Lutte Ouvriere. And a recent sociological study shows that the new recruits to the LCR are having an effect that is both rejuvenating and proletarianising. But they are also demonstrating the limits of the ability of the type of organisation the LCR is, even though it is incomparably more democratic than the organisations we have just mentioned, to welcome these new members. Which is why how to build a broad anti-capitalist party qualitatively different from the traditional left groups is at the centre of the LCR’s preoccupations.

There is no certainty that any of the present formations of the radical left will evolve into revolutionary parties. Some might, some certainly won’t, there will be all sorts of regroupments and recompositions along the way, there will be conflicts and there will be failures and setbacks. But intervening in these processes, building these parties and conducting debates with them is the way forward. And it is certain that the end result, if we can use such a term, will be quite different from the present left groups or the idea some of them have of a future mass party.

Parties that will be able to build from the new generations will not just be vertical structures, even ones where the leadership will be under the control of the members and not vice versa. They will involve horizontal networks of sectors and interest groups, and forms of communication and diffusion of information that owe more to the new movements than to the old parties.

Revolutionary Marxist organisation in broad parties

In broad parties that involve many different currents and individuals, and many people who are new to politics, what should be the role of revolutionary Marxists? How should they organise? And indeed, should they organise?

Let us put one aspect out of the way before attempting to answer that. Any Marxist group, or indeed any non-Marxist group, that comes into a broad party, should have the right to organise as a current, platform or whatever. Whether what they have to say helps to take the party forward or is seen as mistaken or irrelevant, is of course another question. But they should have the right to try and convince the party.

When the SSP was founded there were several platforms. The biggest was the International Socialist Movement (ISM). Later the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) loyalists broke off and formed their own platform. There was the Republican Communist Network and the Scottish Socialist Republican Movement. Later the SWP joined. All these platforms had something in common. They were all imports, previously independent groups transformed into internal platforms. That was perfectly natural, but it always seemed to me that it was not set in stone and that over time new regroupments would arise based on new questions and not old loyalties. That process was underway when the crisis of the party erupted in 2006.

Many people outside Scotland think that the dissolution of the ISM at the beginning of 2006 was a mistake. Some think that its absence exacerbated the crisis of summer 2006. I think that there is no way that the ISM, as it was, could have continued, given the conflicts within it and the role some of its members played in subsequent events. Maybe it could have been maintained in some form. But what happened next was instructive. Faced with crisis that erupted in May 2006, the United Left was formed. It involved the bulk of the cadres of the ISM and some who had never been in the ISM, and it played a key role – not alone, with others, but a key role nevertheless – in stopping Tommy Sheridan and his supporters from taking over or destroying the SSP. And when the battle was over, they dissolved. And I think that was right.

We will come back to the ISM, but let’s first look at what the role of Marxism and Marxists should be within broad parties. On one, fundamental level, the role that Marx and Engels defined for Communists back in 1848, to “have no interests separate from those of the proletariat as a whole”, but while fighting for the attainment of immediate aims, to never lose sight of the final goal, the overthrow of capitalism, and the international nature of the struggle.

But that means, not abstract propaganda for the socialist future and internationalism, but being able to propose, at each stage of the struggle, a line of march, strategy, tactics, that take us closer to that goal, not further away and not down any side alleys. On another level, there is a role of diffusing and popularising the Marxist method of analysis, simply because Marxism, creatively applied, remains the best tool for understanding history, the economy, society.

As for forms of organisation, they depend on the concrete situation. Let us take three examples. To go back to the SSP, I am not convinced that today the party is so heterogeneous that there is a need for an organised Marxist intervention via a platform. From afar, that does not seem to be a crying necessity. There are other ways of developing the influence of Marxism, via the ordinary structures of the party, in educational activities and by publications such as Frontline.

On the other hand Die Linke in Germany and Respect are extremely heterogeneous and likely to become more so, so organised Marxist platforms seem to be on the order of the day. The way in which these platforms should be organised depends on the situation, but too tightly organised ones can have the effect of putting off many party members. It appears that in Die Linke, much of the left prefers to organise in a looser, more ‘network’ fashion. As for Respect, it seems important that the revolutionary Marxist forces – Socialist Resistance, ex-SWP, independents – find a way to organise and intervene that is both effective and provides an example that is radically different from the manipulative practices of the SWP.


(1) See my recent article, “The Radical Left in Western Europe” originally written for the German-language Inprekorr and available on the Socialist Unity site, 20 April 2007.

(2) The whole debate was published in Links 23.

(3) “The broad Party, the revolutionary party and the united front”, Links 23, January-April 2003.

(4) “The Crisis in Respect”, an article just published in International Socialism 117, but which was widely circulated internationally in draft form (by the SWP), with the obvious intention of giving their version of events. The quotes in this article are from the draft.

(5) “A reply to ‘The record: SWP and Respect’”, Socialist Unity, 12 November 2007

(6) “The Respect Fiasco in Britain”,

(7) IST Discussion Bulletin 2, January 2003, Links 23.

(8) Socialist Unity, 31 August 2007

(9) “The SWP takes a step backwards”, Socialist Unity, 3 January, 2008

(10) Some people disapprove of quoting from "internal” pre-conference bulletins. As a general rule, I’m in favour of open, public debate, and in this specific case the SWP debate concerns the whole left. I have only taken care only to quote the CC or well-known members, and not anyone who might not want their employer to know they are in the SWP.

(11) Report by Ger Francis on South Birmingham Respect meeting, Socialist Unity, 1 December 2007

(12) ”I am not a number!”, Splintered Sunrise blog, 17 December 2007. This the first time I have referred to an article by an anonymous blogger whose real identity I do not know. Not without some misgivings. But one has to move with the times, and blogs have played a key role in this debate. Without them much information necessary to have an overall vision of the situation would have been unavailable, certainly not in real time. I would cite in particular Socialist Unity and liammacuaid (the identity of whose authors I do as it happens know). The posts on these blogs have sometimes led via the “comments” button to some rather surreal exchanges. But their role has been overwhelmingly positive. One of the key weapons of bureaucratic leaderships, big and small, has always been control of information, retained and then distilled at a time and in a way that suited the leadership. The Internet, web sites, blogs have changed all that. There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle. And a very good thing too.

(13) “The crisis in the Scottish Socialist Party”, Iain Ferguson and Mike Gonzalez, IST Discussion Bulletin 8, July 2006

(14) “Sexism in the SWP and Respect”, Socialist Unity, 14 December 2007

(15) “Some remarks on democracy and debate in the Bolshevik Party”, Links, 26, July-December 2004.

(16) ”Trotsky on Substitutionism” International Socialism first series, 2, 1960.
(17) Phil Hearse, “Broad left parties and democratic centralism”, # January 2008.

(18) Harman, ‘The Crisis in Respect”.

(19) E-mail dated 14/10/07. Published by Socialist Unity 11 December 2007.

(20) Nick Bird, “I’ve had enough”, Weekly Worker 691, $ October 2007’.

(21) “SWP-Respect – Few Allies”, 26 November 2007.

(22) “Contribution to the debate for the Scottish congress [of the CWI], 21 September 1999.

(23) “Scotland’s Road to Revolution”, Socialist Review 226, January 1999]]

(24) CC document, “Respect, the United Front and the Revolutionary Party”.

(25) “A letter to all members of the SWP” (Britain) from Socialist Worker-New Zealand, Socialist Unity, 31 October 2007.

[Murray Smith is a member of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) in France and a former leading member of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). This article first appeared at the Socialist Unity website at .]



Ger Francis is a member of the Respect National Council, and a former full-time organiser for the SWP. Here he makes a valuable and interesting contribution to the debate of how Marxists should work in pluralist left parties, with particular reference to Respect.

The SWP, Marxists & Respect
by Ger Francis

1. Context

1.1 The background to this article is the recent split inside Respect. A number of us who were SWP members were expelled because of this split. Others simply left the party when practice came into conflict with a commitment to build a broad organisation to the left of Labour. The common thread is a decision to put class before party.

1.2 With the space once occupied by social democracy increasingly vacated, the emergence of Respect as an attempt to fill at least some of this space is an important stage in the rebuilding of working class political organisation. Respect is also defined by an unprecedented relationship between the left and parts of the most oppressed sections of British society. With racism now a defining feature of our age, this is a tremendous achievement. Marxists have something to offer in building this alliance, but also a great deal to learn from it. The purpose of this article is to make some suggestions towards the development of a Marxist current that is engaged in building Respect.

1.3 As a starting point I want to re-examine some of my own experience inside the SWP, focusing on two general areas of politics and practice. Firstly, a tendency of the SWP leadership to have perspectives regarding the prospects of class struggle so overblown as to render them badly defective. And secondly, a model of a Leninist party so top down as to engender a culture of self censorship and deference inside the SWP, massively hindering debate, self-criticism and the ability to internally readjust imbalances in perspectives. My comments necessarily emphasise some negative aspects of my experience in the SWP in order to draw out some lessons for future practice. They do not accurately reflect the totality of that experience, much of which was positive and enriching.[1]

2. A tendency to exaggerate

2.1 The events of 1989 have proved to be a severe test for the perspectives and analysis of the Marxist left in general. The perspectives of the SWP in the aftermath of the 1989 collapse of the regimes across East European were critically flawed. A celebratory tone and cheery optimism for the prospects of a growth of the international left stood out. This was wishful thinking.

2.2 The collapse of the Eastern bloc equalled in popular consciousness the collapse of the feasibility of any socialist project. If those regimes had been overthrown by forces trying to reclaim some more democratic version of socialism, or even social democracy, the wider consequences might have been different. Instead, they were overthrown and replaced by forces which embraced neo liberalism and Western bourgeois democracy.

2.3 The collapse allowed imperialism to go on the offensive, most dramatically in Iraq and later the Balkans. Neo-liberalism ran riot with massive consequences, not least on the living standards and life expectancy of those living in the countries worst affected. A wave of racism swept Europe, and far-right parties previously considered ‘beyond the pale’ won mass support and in some cases were integrated into bourgeois governments. Whole swathes of the left internationally were demoralised. In Western Europe mass parties of the working class split and declined and social democracy moved dramatically to the right. In Britain, these events gave momentum to the right inside the labour movement to go places hitherto unimagined, symbolised by Blair’s ascendancy. However one explains the causes of such a development, the consequences are unarguable. The imperialist offensive was deepened, and the working class movement was pushed even more on to the defensive.

2.4 This massive underestimation of the impact of the 1989 events on class consciousness was compounded by a theorisation of the period that drew radically more optimistic conclusions. The SWP claimed that many of the features of the crises of the 1930’s existed in the 1990’s. They were unfolding at a slower pace but nevertheless opened a favourable period for revolutionary advance.

2.5 The disconnection of theory from reality was perhaps summed up in the formulation that there were large numbers of radicalised youth who had ‘90 per cent agreement and only 10 per cent disagreement’ with the politics of the SWP, and were just waiting to be scooped up. Those in the IS Tendency who critised the ‘1930’s in slow motion’ perspective at the time as inaccurate and damaging have been vindicated by time.

2.6 On the basis of this perspective, whole chunks of the SWP’s infrastructure were literally destroyed by a process of endlessly splitting and re-splitting of branches in anticipation that great gains could be made by ‘pushing outwards’. Expansion was driven purely by voluntarism, sustained by an unreal perspective about ‘opportunities’ disconnected from the actual level of class consciousness. This illusion of growth was maintained by an open-door recruitment policy in which members were signed up on the basis of the most minimum connection with our politics, or even our activity.

2.7 A tendency to either to exaggerate class consciousness, or downplay weaknesses in social movements, also marked the analysis of the SWP after Seattle and again after 9/11. The post-Seattle mood, and the organisational forms it took in this country, was more accurately captured by the phrase ‘global justice movement’. The largest expression of this mood in the UK was around the issue of debt cancellation, which was driven by an alliance of NGO’s and Christian churches. Its political ambition is probably most accurately reflected in Naomi Klein’s brilliant recent book The Shock Doctrine. This is a swingeing critique of neo-liberalism which ends with a clarion call for a return to a social democratic model based on Keynesian economics.

2.8 It is important to say that, in light of just how defensive a position the Western labour movement finds itself in, and how all-persuasive the neo-liberal agenda has become, the development of strong labour movement currents around the programme Klein outlines would represent a huge move to the left. Even that is beyond the current stage of development in mass politics. Some of Klein’s views may find partial expression in individual campaigns, but the totality of them is far in advance of the kind of programme which any mass labour movement force is willing to fight for. Such politics are not the sum total of our ambitions as Marxists. But an honest assessment of where we are tells us a great deal about the current state of class consciousness.

2.9 The SWP inflated the significance of currents and eddies associated with the global justice movement. It was always a gross exaggeration to talk about an ‘anti-capitalist movement’ in this country, later downgraded into an ‘anti-capitalist mood’, as evidenced by the failure of its ‘anti-capitalist united front’, Globalise Resistance.[2] Attempts to explain this by saying the anti-capitalist movement had ‘morphed’ into the anti-war movement exaggerated the existence of the former and the political character of the latter.

2.10 There have been important turning points since 1989, which the SWP rightly tried to give leadership to – and for which it deserves credit. The anti-war movement does signify the discrediting of post-1989 imperialist propaganda about a new, peaceful, world order under their hegemony. Large numbers of people woke up to the reality that imperialist domination means war and conquest. It was an important ideological lesson, which gives us a starting point for the rebuilding of a socialist and Marxist movement.

2.11 However, it is also the case that the political impact of the anti-war movement itself has been partial. Tony Blair was, after all, re-elected in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. This is not to deny the huge significance of the Stop the War movement, both in terms of its contribution to the international anti-war movement or its contribution to creating a new generation of activists. But we cannot escape the fact that its political impact has been less enduring and comprehensive than hoped for.

Tariq Ali explains this relative weakness by arguing that “…the decline of the large working-class parties and the trade unions in the Western world has made it very difficult to sustain a permanent opposition to the war”. He rejects the view that it can be explained by the contrasting nature of the resistance or liberation movements, and looks for an answer in the blows dealt to working class organisation in Europe over several decades.[3]

The political impact of the anti-war movement itself was weakened by the legacy of a prolonged period of defeat for the labour movement. So, the most significant political advance out of this movement was the formation of Respect – which by any definition is an embryo rather than a fully formed political alternative to the parties of war and neo-liberalism.

2.12 It is fundamental to any development of political strategy or tactics that we correctly understand where we are: the strengths and weaknesses both of our side and theirs. Throughout the past 20 years – at least – there has been a pronounced tendency in the SWP to exaggerate the opportunities and downplay the threats.

3. A deformed internal political culture
3.1 The systematic problems of flawed perspectives are compounded by the SWP’s internal regime in which a model of democratic centralism prevails where the emphasis on ‘centralism’ far outweighs that on the ‘democratic’.

3.2 Authority inside the SWP is maintained by a highly centralised leadership, who employ full timers to execute their line, subject to almost immediate sacking if it is deemed they are not acting effectively. Conscious of having to stay in favour with the leadership if they want to retain their livelihood, and for many their sense of status, self-censorship among the full time staff becomes instinctive.

3.3 The advantage of this method is it creates an organisation with a very high degree of discipline, capable of intervening in a tight and coherent manner. The disadvantage is that without consciously seeking to create a political culture where members feel they can question and challenge the leadership, there can be a very fine line between discipline and deference.

This was compounded by the tendency to emphasise the positive, resulting in leading members exaggerating and distorting the reality of the work that they do in order to highlight the ‘opportunities’. The effect is too often an atmosphere in which members can easily slide from exaggeration to dishonesty.

One consequence of this culture has been the development of a widespread cynicism inside the organisation, especially among members with many years of membership. It was commonplace for experienced comrades simply not to take seriously much of what was said in ‘Party Notes’ and be very sceptical of reports in Socialist Worker.

3.4 The lack of a culture of internal party debate was accurately described by John Molyneaux:[4]

“…the nature of the problem can most clearly be seen if we look at the outcome of all these meetings, councils, conferences, elections, etc. The fact is that in the last 15 years (perhaps longer) there has not been a single substantial issue on which the CC has been defeated at a conference or party council or NC. Indeed I don’t think that in this period there has ever been even a serious challenge or a close vote. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of conference or council sessions have ended with the virtually unanimous endorsement of whatever is proposed by the leadership. Similarly, in this period there has never been a contested election for the CC: i.e., not one comrade has ever been proposed or proposed themselves for the CC other than those nominated by the CC themselves. It is worth emphasising that such a state of affairs is a long way from the norm in the history of the socialist movement. It was not the norm in the Bolshevik Party or the Communist International before its Stalinisation. It was not the norm at any point in the Trotskyist tradition under Trotsky.”

3.5 The recent debacle over their intervention in Respect serves to highlight the havoc the deformed political culture inside the organisation can wreak. When the dispute inside Respect first came into the open none of those sympathetic to the concerns expressed in George Galloway’s original letter, including its author, either desired or predicted a split with the SWP.

Indeed, like many observers on the left outside Respect, we watched with open mouths as the SWP responded to a rather mild rebuke by denouncing the most resolutely anti-imperialist MP in the country as ‘right-wing’ and claiming a ‘witch-hunt’ was being executed against them.[5] A reaction of incredulity turned into one of horror when the SWP started repeating the criticisms of the so-called ‘pro-war left’ in conjuring up the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism haunting Respect.[6]

3.6 The political premise of the SWP attacks was patently ludicrous. Tensions over candidate selection in two branches did not warrant their hysterical response. The SWP’s description of George Galloway was nonsensical, which even a cursory listen to his weekly radio programme shows. In a series of articles[7], Salma Yaqoob both demolished accusations of ‘communalism’ against her and the theoretical pretensions behind SWP allegations that Respect was in thrall to ‘community leaders i.e. small businessmen’. Claims of a ‘left/right’ split among the group of Tower Hamlets councillors were further discredited when one of those supposedly on the ‘left’, SWP member Ahmed Hussain, defected to join the Tory party! The SWP’s intention was to drive George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob out Respect in order to reassert their control. Instead their actions unified the overwhelming majority of the independents to take sides against them.

3.7 Inside the SWP itself, however, the picture was very different. Resistance to the leadership did not even manifest itself in a platform at conference. Critical members were easily expelled. The leadership were supported to the hilt, despite effectively destroying a central plank of SWP strategy. While John Rees had brought the SWP, Respect and OFFU into disrepute for accepting a politically tainted donation, the strongest rebuke he received from the SWP conference was praise for some very contrived apologies. Even to those of us familiar with the SWP’s mode of operation and lack of internal debate and dissent, the ease with which it could get its membership to swallow its sectarian nonsense was shocking.

3.8 This was made easier by the fact that the bulk of SWP members are largely inactive in Respect and very few were directly involved, even in East London and Birmingham, where Respect is strongest. Because of this lack of engagement, many SWP members were without any gauge against which to measure the actions and arguments of their leaders.

Marxist organisations can ultimately only survive on the basis of a bond of trust between membership and leadership. There is inevitable unevenness in any party. Not everybody is involved in the same arena of struggle at the same time and to the same intensity. Political assessments will be arrived at by a combination of independent judgement and influence of the views from those you politically trust. This kind of trust is built up over years and decades of joint work and it is not easily discarded.

Many of the arguments used to justify SWP behaviour have entailed cynically exploiting the trust of ordinary members in order to protect the reputations and standing of a clique inside the leadership. But there is a political sectarianism that underpins this focus on self-preservation. The SWP leadership appears to have drawn the conclusion that if they cannot dominate the space to the left of labour, they have to do everything possible to prevent any other left wing force emerging. This is classic sectarianism that runs counter to the instincts of many SWP members who are motivated by a desire to advance the struggle of the working class as a whole.

This has been made easier by a culture in which questioning of the leadership is often viewed with suspicion, and where members can feel bullied and intimidated from so doing. The consequence has been to make it more difficult internally to alter the sectarian route the SWP is now embarked on.

3.9 Internal democracy, and a culture of genuine debate and dissent, is therefore absolutely essential in all forms of political organisation. Without it political leaderships become atrophied. This culture is not automatic and is something that political leaderships have to be proactive in helping to create. It is not something to be turned on and off when politically expedient.

3.10 In an article[8] written in 1986 about the decline of the Workers Revolutionary Party, Duncan Hallas saw in their experience ‘a most salutary warning about the dangers of mistaking wishes for reality, of false perspectives uncorrected by experience, of virulent sectarianism and political dishonesty’ which culminated in a ‘tragic waste of the efforts and sacrifices of many well-intentioned revolutionaries’. While the current ultra-left lurch of the SWP has not reached the depths of the WRP’s ‘virulent sectarianism’, the exaggerated perspectives, lack of accountability and dishonesty of its leadership is enough to serve as a warning.

4. Conclusion

4.1 The SWP, from 2001 onwards, were on the verge of transforming their relationship with mass forces, and of becoming something very different from the SWP of the 1980’s and 1990’s. But their inability to genuinely absorb the lessons from their work in Stop the War and Respect, and adjust their practice and thinking accordingly, has led them to put this positive process into reverse, and retreat to safe, familiar and much more isolated ground. In the process, the SWP have become locked into a destructive sectarianism: they would be happier with a weak and broken Respect, but subordinate to their control, rather than a Respect strong and vibrant but outside of their control, for fear that it could act as a competitor to them in the political space to the left of labour.

4.2 Breaking with some of the perspectives and practices of the SWP does not have to mean however throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While the SWP provide a very poor model of applied Leninism in the 21st century, I see nothing in their practice that invalidates Leninist concepts of organisation per se. Similarly, a Marxist critique of capitalism as an inherently barbaric system, and a conception of the centrality of class struggle as the motor that drives fundamental change, remains no less valid now than it did before this split. Revolutionary change is required for human society to escape the threat of barbarism and build a new world on the basis of socialism. I remain convinced, too, that progress for the left as a whole in this country requires the development of Marxist currents which attempt to combine and test political method and practice.

4.3 What does this mean for our practice today? Our contribution to the international class struggle starts with the work we do to undermine British imperialism. In this context, the significance of the developments that have taken place around Respect, under the leadership of George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob, should not be underestimated. The demands made by Respect would probably have been accommodated by left social democracy in previous generations, but they have been given backbone by a resolute anti-imperialism, anti-racism and a critique of capitalism. This is the correct political orientation for mass politics.

In the context of British politics today the development of such a mass current would represent a huge shift to the left. It is inconceivable to me that such a development could emerge without an active engagement in electoral politics. Indeed it is also inconceivable to me how any serious Marxist current could emerge without also having such an engagement both with that electoral struggle and with the forces that are attracted to it.

4.4 The tasks of Marxists in Respect is to recognise the importance of what we have built out of the anti-war movement, do everything we can to facilitate it, while drawing on the best traditions and practices of Marxism and the broader socialist tradition to inform it. The actuality of building Respect provides the central arena in which the discussions we will have between us can acquire real meaning. Grappling with the issues posed by building a broad left wing party, by engagement in electoral work, by deepening our base in communities, by finding common ground with oppressed sections of the community from a religious background…all these are challenging tasks that require clear political strategies and tactics, and consistent work.

It is this engagement in building Respect which will define the nature of different Marxist currents. In my view there is no point in unity on the basis of a shared history if there is not the same unity on perspectives and strategy. And there is even less point if we are not testing and refining our views by extensive engagement in the practical problems of building Respect and relating to the forces that it attracts. This is a process, which will develop organically and at its own pace.

4.5 Another perspective sees the critical focus for Respect as being to unite ‘with other organised forces on the left…left-leaning activists and currents in the TUs, anti-globalisation and environmental movements’[9] I think this approach is mistaken. Such organised forces, in as much as they do exist, are extremely weak. A political orientation in this direction will inevitable find itself on barren terrain. Proposals for an ‘Action Programme’ which contain a wish list of demands, most of which have not emerged organically or are linked to any broader movement and therefore without forces to progress them, is abstract propaganda. Calls for Respect to rebrand itself as an ‘anti-capitalist’ party exaggerate developments to our left, underplay those to our right, and make a fetish of an orientation of those who call themselves socialists – whether or not they play any useful role in the real world at all.

4.6 Marxists can play a constructive role in the process of building a broad party but only if they drop an attitude of smug superiority to ‘reformists’, who are often regarded as there only to be used because they happen to have some temporary popularity denied the people who should really be leading the class. It is imperative that we have a sense of humility about who we are, what we represent, and where the success of Respect so far really lies.

4.7 Finally, how does all this relate to a commitment to socialist internationalism? We are politically active in the oldest imperialist power. The best contribution we can make to the international struggle for socialism is to progress the left here and undermine British imperialism and its capitalist class. If we can contribute to the emergence of a new generation of activists in Birmingham, East London or elsewhere, shaped by a progressive politics influenced by Marxism, such that it was capable of taking forward the struggle for working class representation and socialism, and if this experience could in any way aid the recomposition of the international left, then that would be no mean achievement.


[1] For example, there are valuable lessons in the way in which the SWP embedded its members with an ideology sufficient to ensure that on the fundamental questions of the day their instincts were to adopt a principled viewpoint. (That did not mean the correct tactics followed unfortunately). Some of these lessons and experiences are directly relevant to building Respect. As the recent case of Ahmed Hussain illustrates, electoral politics attracts opportunists. Here was somebody who was prepared to use the SWP because he saw it in his best interests to progress his career, and who was also used by the SWP to progress their unprincipled drive for control in Tower Hamlets. Cllr Hussain has since found a more effective vehicle for his ambitions – the Tory party. While the sight of an SWP councillor joining the Tories is in a category all of its own, the corrupting dangers of personal ambition are real wherever Respect has an electoral footprint. And while the Ahmed Hussain’s case is unique, I doubt it will be our last experience of councillor defection. The best way to inoculate Respect against this kind of opportunism is for it to have a strong sense of ideology rooted in principles of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, equality and social justice. Respect needs to have a stronger ideological foundation and its members need to be more rooted in it. Marxists have a valuable contribution to make to this task.

[2] In his recent book, “The Resources of Critique”, Alex Callinicos now provides a more sober and accurate assessment of the balance of class forces. Shame it comes at least two decades too late. He states the obvious but from within the SWP tradition the bluntness of his assertions stand out. He writes:

‘The revolutionary imagination of the twentieth century took as its social reference point the proletarian collectivity forged from the working class that emerged from the second Industrial Revolution, out of the great industrial plants of Petrograd and Turinm Berlin and Glasgow, Detroit and Billaincourt, Gdansk and Sao Paulo. But we live today amid the ruins of this working class collectivity, which was systematically dismantled…in the great neo-liberal offensive and capitalist restructuring of the past generation.

There remains, nevertheless, good reasons for holding on to the idea of the proletariat as the universal class…But what cannot be disputed is that this working class is an aggregate if different categories of wage-labourer scattered across a globally integrated economic system, and not any kind of collectivity, let alone a revolutionary political subject. On the one hand, the old forms of proletarian collectivity – above all, the trade union movement and social democratic parties in the North – are in crisis, and, on the other, new forms have yet to take place.’

[3] Tariq Ali, ‘Imperialism and democracy don’t mix’ International Socialist Review, November–December 2007,

‘…the decline of the large working-class parties and the trade unions in the Western world has made it very difficult to sustain a permanent opposition to the war. Against the Vietnam War, by comparison, a mobilization was kept going. In the European countries, just to remind you, the main trade unions in every single Western European country were opposed to the war in Vietnam. It doesn’t mean they mobilized permanently, but they were opposed to it and they encouraged their members to come out. Most of the social democratic parties and communist parties in Europe were opposed to the war in Vietnam. In Sweden you had an ultra example: the Swedish social democratic prime minister, Olaf Palm, led a torch-lit procession against the war in Vietnam outside the U.S. embassy in Stockholm. All this has disappeared and you cannot recreate that just like this….

People can then say that if the resistance had been better organized, if it had more national flavor, they would get more international support, but I don’t think that’s it. They say there are too many suicide bombings, too much violence. But in the Vietnam War the NLF [National Liberation Front] was not a religious organization, but they used to blow up cafes in the middle of Saigon, they used to carry out acts that would be described today as terrorist —and were described by the U.S. then as terrorist. They used to blow up collaborators, they used to blow up places where soldiers gathered. No one blinked at that. Those who were opposed to the war backed them. Suicide bombing? What was the attack on the U.S. embassy in 1968? It was a suicide act. They knew they’d all die, but they felt that the symbolic value of capturing the American embassy in the heart of Saigon and putting up the NLF flag even for ten minutes was worth the suicide rate. So I don’t buy the argument that it’s just the tactics of the Iraqi resistance. I don’t think it’s helped, and I’ve criticized them myself, but I don’t think that is the central feature. After all, you had a resistance against the Italians in Libya, which was a totally religious resistance, and all progressive forces backed it. Prior to that, the Mahdi, a big religious leader fought the British occupation of the Sudan. When he defeated General Gordon in Khartoum, the great English socialist William Morris called it a victory for the English working class! I just do not buy this argument that the reason there isn’t more support for the resistance is that they aren’t more like us. I mean they weren’t like you in the Sudan; they weren’t like you in Libya; they weren’t like you in Algeria, a resistance that is romanticized a lot; they weren’t like you in Vietnam. There, Vietnam was a one-party state, the Communist Party was in total control, there were no freedoms and the NLF was very violent, yet the American antiwar movement supported all that quite happily. So what’s the problem? I think one of the problems is what I said earlier—the big, big decline of the massive working-class organizations all over Europe which supplied people for all these mobilizations.’

[4] Quoted in

[5] The ‘witch-hunt’ claim was cynical in the extreme. Respect does not have the capacity in its constitution or standing orders to expel anybody. The only ‘expulsions’ to take place were by the SWP of their own members critical of their leadership’s stance.

[6] See where Martin Smith favourably quotes a hostile commentator as saying “the split will strengthen the weight of Islamists in Respect Renewal…”

[7] ‘The SWP takes a step backwards’: and ‘Challenges for Respect’:

[8] ‘Cult comes a cropper’, Socialist Review, December 1985:

[9] ISG, ‘Statement to Birmingham Meeting’, Feb 23rd 2008.