Defend socialism and democracy in Respect
Respect, the coalition which has won greater electoral success than any left alternative for decades, is facing a deep crisis. It is a political crisis about the direction of the left in Britain which requires an urgent response.
Socialist Worker has never been one of those papers obsessed with the manoeuvres of left groups. But the present division in Respect is so important it demands comment.
We also have to speak out because Socialist Worker has been approached by two major news programmes who say they are going to broadcast allegations against the SWP over this affair.
Respect began as a radical product of the anti-war movement. Its name stood for Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community and Trade unionism. It was clearly a left project and achieved success as such.
We proudly situated Socialist Worker as the paper which carried the reports about Respect, organised supporters to push it forwards and celebrated its victories.
As part of this, Socialist Worker defended George Galloway against right wing attacks, even when it was unpopular. We researched and investigated to provide evidence of how material was forged against him over allegations of receiving oil gifts from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Socialist Worker supporters campaigned tirelessly to get Galloway elected in Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005.
When the vast bulk of the media tore into Galloway during his appearance in Celebrity Big Brother, Socialist Worker did not join in, and pointed to his record as an anti-war campaigner.
Now, in a concerted push which should appal those who want to see a radical alternative to Labour, Galloway has begun to attack the core of the left in Respect. He has decided that the political vision which has sustained the project no longer fits.
He denounces members of the SWP as unthinking “Leninists” who listen to nobody but their shadowy and unaccountable leadership – a classic right wing stereotype of revolutionaries. Inside Respect a campaign has been launched against the SWP in an attempt to drive us out.
In Tower Hamlets in east London two extremely unpleasant meetings have laid bare the methods at the heart of the present disputes.
At a Respect members’ meeting there was an attempt to derail a constitutionally supplied list of delegates for the Respect annual conference.
At a subsequent Tower Hamlets Respect committee meeting – after an initially calm beginning by other speakers – Galloway launched an assault on the SWP.
Elsewhere Galloway has announced that he does not want to speak at Respect meetings where SWP members are present, even though they are active members of Respect.
Such tactics are not about honest debate inside a coalition.
The SWP is not going to be driven out of Respect. We played an important part in creating Respect and have done as much as anyone to make the project work. We are also going to continue to stand up for Respect as a coalition that defends all working class people and tries to meet the urgent need for a left alternative to Labour.
We urge everyone to support our position that we need to defend Respect as a project that has socialism as a central part, that will not make endless concessions in order to win votes, and that stands up for democracy.
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The editorial in this week’s Socialist Worker is significant not because of its content, but because it seems to be an intentional declaration of war.
The argumentation in the article is very sparse, indeed the political position being argued by George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and others is not acknowledged, and is therefore not argued against. It gives me the impression they are battening down the hatches to create a seige mentality for their members, claiming that they are under attack, and to anathematise the SWP’s critics.
A lot of the SWP’s argument is based upon procedural and organisational disputes – we have all said enough about that stuff, the debate needs to be about politics, and the political content of the SWP editorial is only this:
“Galloway has begun to attack the core of the left in Respect. He has decided that the political vision which has sustained the project no longer fits.” The SWP are “going to continue to stand up for Respect as a coalition that defends all working class people and tries to meet the urgent need for a left alternative to Labour.” “We need to defend Respect as a project that has socialism as a central part, that will not make endless concessions in order to win votes, and that stands up for democracy.”
Now an important point here is that this editorial in Socialist Worker has been the first public address by the SWP to non-SWP members in Respect, even though the debate has now been continuing for several weeks.
This creates an immediately unfavourable impression that the SWP see their role in Respect as debating the politics internally within the SWP, and then seeking to win their way in Respect by organisational means, rather than by political argument. They have actually not sought to engage in a political debate with other Respect members.
This is direct at the heart of the problem, and is symptomatic of the inept handling by the SWP’s central committee of the whole affair since George Galloway criticised them.
IS THERE A CAMPAIGN TO DRIVE THE SWP OUT OF RESPECT?
What is remarkable reading the contributions of expelled SWP members, Kevin Ovenden, Nick Wrack and Rob Hoveman in the SWP’s Internal Bulletin, is that they basically agree with the SWP’s concept of the strategic relationship with Respect. Although, Nick does point out that the concept of a “United Front of a Special Type” is under-theorised, which is true. And he also makes the point that all the SWP’s work should be linked back to Respect.
The current relationship is that the SWP operate as a separate organisation to Respect, but also work through Respect, particularly in the electoral arena. This was always going to be a difficult balancing act, as the Central Committee argues in the Pre-Conference Internal Bulletin: “Sometimes Comrades argue that not enough resources are given to Respect. The trouble is that priorities shift all the time. For example if there is a snap general election then everything possible will be diverted to campaigning for Respect. … Much more important is the necessity of organising simultaneously at all three levels – keeping local Stop the War groups going, of maintaining a minimum level of Respect organisation and activity irrespective of whether or not it is election time, and of building a local SWP and SWSS group”
One problem here then is that SWP members are only committed to maintaining a minimal Respect between elections. But non-SWP Respect members probably regard respect as the main focus of their political activity, so the SWP model does institutionalise a two tier membership within Respect.
In fact though, what is interesting in particular about Kevin and Rob’s IB contributions is that they accept the general framework, but argue that the SWP need to make less mistakes, and value long term relationships with their allies a little more.
Tony Cliff used to say that you have to have the right people in the right jobs. Cliff used to joke that Chris Harman was a brilliant editor of the paper, but if they had to make Chris the national treasurer, then the SWP might as well pack up shop.
John Rees has done a poor job as national secretary, and relations between him and the other most important national leaders of Respect, particularly Salma Yaqoob and George Galloway had broken down. What is remarkable looking back on it now, is how temperate and conciliatory George’s original letter was. Over this issue he wrote: “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. … . 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.”
Given that the way the SWP chooses to work both within and outwith Respect, this actually makes the National Secretary’s job even more complex - it was vital that the best person was in the job. John Rees is not necessarily the best person, and the SWP could have compromised by recognising that a criticism of John’s job performance was not an attack on the SWP. It would have been perfectly possible to rebuild trust and working relationships at that stage, by the SWP being a bit more humble and a little less defensive.
It is also worth dealing with another of the SWP’s arguments, again from the Internal Bulletin. They say “The crisis of Respect has amply vindicated our refusal to adopt the SSP model of a “broad party” and liquidate the SSP into this party, transforming ourselves into a platform without the right to organise and put forward our own independent propaganda”
I want to address this because it is a straw man argument. (Let us leave aside the question that both the SSP and Respect have spun into crisis, and the only common denominator between the two cases has been the central role of the SWP in the immediate events leading up to the crises).
The majority leadership platform in the SSP, known as the ISM, did in fact liquidate itself. But that was not inevitable, and probably wasn’t desirable. If we take another model, that of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in the Australian Socialist Alliance, they have taken a middle path – proving it is possible to commit to building a broad party, while simultaneously maintaining the right to organise and put forward independent propaganda.
The SWP have taken a particular feature of the SSP, the dissolving of the leadership faction into the structures of the broad party, and taken that to be a necessary feature.
The best description I have read of the way Marxists should work in broad parties is from Murray Smith:
“I am convinced that 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 ‘entrist’ perspective, but of taking forward the whole party and solving together with the whole party the problems that arise, as they arise.”
You can agree with that and still maintain your “right to organise and put forward [your] own independent propaganda”
Nick Wrack explained brilliantly what this would mean:
“The reason for our failure to approach Respect in this way is primarily that we do not see Respect as the overarching strategic objective for the party in this period. Firstly, we treat it as a united front that can be turned on for elections and then forgotten about for the rest of the time. Secondly, although we carry out many united front operations we do not link them all back to Respect. We should constantly be trying to see how we can relate our work in DCH, STWC, UAF and our various industrial interventions to the question of building and recruiting to Respect. There is insufficient strategic thinking about how the work can dovetail towards building Respect. This reinforces the weakness of Respect at local and national level. Respect is seen as just another area of united front work, on a par with the others. It is not. It has to be much more than that. It has to be the most important area of work into which all other areas of work are brought together. “This does not at all mean liquidating the party. On the contrary, it means that the party will carry out work in a broader political milieu comprising trade unionists, anti-war activists, environmentalists, radicals from Muslim communities, etc. Our political ideas will find fertile ground here. Our task then is to explain patiently the ideas of revolutionary socialism whilst building Respect as an active, campaigning organisation with real purchase in the local and national working class.”
There is no campaign to drive the SWP out of Respect. There were criticisms among comrades of the way the SWP was behaving. These could have been temporarily resolved by the SWP acknowledging the problems and working together with other leadership figures to resolve them, and perhaps John Rees could have considered his position.
In the longer term, the structural tension created within Respect could have been alleviated by carrying out more of the SWP’s activity wearing their Respect hat, in the way Nick Wrack outlines. The SWP could have worked through Respect wherever possible, while reserving their right to work independently if necessary when agreement within respect could not be reached over an issue they felt strongly about.
HAS GALLOWAY CHANGED HIS POLITICAL POSITION.
This is a key argument from the SWP, that Galloway has shifted to the right. But the only evidence they give of this alleged shift to the right is that he is criticising the SWP, and why is he attacking the SWP, because he has shifted to the right. It is a completely bogus and circular argument.
Galloway’s recent article in the Morning Star was pretty much what he has been saying for the last four years.
I’ll tell you the truth. After Big Brother I concluded that Galloway was trying to abandon politics and follow Kilroy Silk into a media career. I was obviously wrong, because only someone very committed to a political project would give up their time for a protracted faction fight with the SWP. What is more, Galloway’s more recent media appearances, such as Talk Radio are brilliant at reaching a mass audience, and have a clear political content.
ARE THE SWP “THE LEFT” IN RESPECT?
The SWP say: “We need to defend Respect as a project that has socialism as a central part, that will not make endless concessions in order to win votes, and that stands up for democracy.”
Firstly, the SWP seem to have alienated virtually every single non-SWP member in Respect during the last month or so. Very many of the socialists in Respect are opposing the SWP in this debate.
Secondly, there is an innuendo that concessions have been made on principles in order to win votes. But surely they need to give examples here? There is also an implication that other people in Respect are more right wing over policy than them. But what is the evidence of the SWP being more left wing, on actual issues that have confronted Respect?
There does need to be a socialist core within respect, because Respect stands for a break from neo-liberalism and imperialism. But the advantage of Respect is that it does not only orient on the minority of the working class who are in trade unions or who are class conscious. This is an important constituency, but it is not the only progressive constituency.
We also need to be building bridges to those campaigning against racism, against sexism, against homophobia, in defence of the environment, against ID cards, in defence of asylum seekers. Working within communities, defending their services and campaigning against cut-backs. It means building practical solidarity with socialists in other countries, and learning from their experiences, and recognising that the English left has more to learn than to teach.
Actually, a concentration on the old left ways of working is very conservative, because the big and exciting opportunity to pull the whole political context to the left involves collaborative working within this rainbow coalition. It means working with people we may find we have strong disagreements with, but if we are prepared to listen to them, then they will be prepared to listen to us.
But building a progressive rainbow coalition in the outside world also requires a democratic internal party structure for Respect because rules need to exist to empower people to participate. We cannot build a successful coalition if we privilege one political group with disproportionate influence. The criticism of the SWP’s behaviour is not from “the right” against them on “the left”. It isn’t about policy issues at all. It isn’t about “reform or revolution”. It is a criticism of them for being too protective of their own influence, and too conservative to let a thousand flowers bloom.