Thursday 20 December 2007

The Respect crisis seen from a narrow-party perspective

The following statement from Socialist Alternative (Australia) clearly identifies the real issues around the Respect crisis as a question of broad party vs. narrow party strategies. As strong supporters of the broad-party strategy, UNITYblog rejects the conclusions of this article - but we republish it as it raises vital questions that all revolutionary supporters of broad parties should be able to answer. The Respect fiasco in Britain Respect (The Unity Coalition), which the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP)[1] was centrally involved in establishing, has suffered a disastrous split. On one side of the split are George Galloway (Respect's sole MP), various Muslim activists, a few prominent personalities such as film director Ken Loach plus one or two small socialist groups and a few ex-SWP members. On the other side is the SWP, which probably accounts for nearly half the Respect membership and its close supporters. The SWP argues that this was a clear left/right fight - that Galloway and co wanted to drive out the SWP or severely undermine its influence in order to push Respect further in an electoralist direction centred on appealing to Muslim voters on a communalist basis and away from an orientation to the working class. Their opponents argue that the SWP needlessly provoked the split by wildly overreacting to proposals to open up Respect which threatened the SWP's stifling bureaucratic control. It is impossible from this far away for Socialist Alternative to evaluate all the ins and outs of the split. Instead we want to draw out some general lessons from the orientation of the SWP/IST over the last 15 years and to begin to outline our standpoint on the "broad party" debate which has become a key question on the left internationally. In the early 1990s the SWP and consequently the IST adopted "the 1930s in slow motion" perspective. At the core of this perspective was the idea that the 1990s were similar to the 1930s - a period of profound economic crisis and massive social destabilisation in which capitalism was rocked to its foundations by sharp political polarisations to the left and to the right - except this time round the crisis would be more drawn out. On the basis of this analysis it was argued that the small IST groups could make rapid gains if they turned outwards to relate to the developing working class radicalisation. This wildly overstated analysis severely disoriented the IST and led to numerous splits. It also led IST groups to embrace a series of get rich quick schemes to try to break out and seize the supposedly massive opportunities for growth. These get rich quick schemes came to nothing or ended in disaster. Respect is but the latest debacle. The IST's false perspective had an extremely deleterious impact on the Australian ISO. At the S11 protest at Melbourne's Crown casino in 2000 the ISO argued that revolutionary socialists had "90 per cent agreement and only 10 per cent disagreement" with the politics of the mass of people attending this and other demonstrations. One consequence of this greatly exaggerated assessment of the degree to which those involved in anti-capitalist protests agreed with Marxist politics was that the ISO did not seriously attempt to win politically people they signed up as members. Indeed the ISO condemned as "sectarian" any serious attempt to argue for Marxist politics. Hundreds of people signed ISO membership cards at the height of the anti-capitalist movement but hardly any were held as members; even worse, because the ISO accommodated to the prevailing autonomist/anarchist politics of the movement they lost a layer of their existing members to autonomism. In other words the ISO's vastly exaggerated perspective resulted in them reinforcing the ranks of some of the bitterest opponents of Marxism. But it was not just in Australia that the IST's overblown assessment of the anti-capitalist movement proved a debacle. The German IST group also lost a layer of members to autonomism and the ISO (US) was expelled from the IST because in the eyes of the SWP it did not take the anti-capitalist movement seriously enough. Hot on the heels of this disastrous intervention in the anti-capitalist movement the Australian ISO linked up with the Castroite Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in 2001 to initiate Socialist Alliance. The ISO argued that a mass radicalisation around the anti-capitalist movement, combined with the growing disillusionment of traditional Labor voters, was opening up a sizeable space for a socialist electoral alternative. But Socialist Alliance proved abortive. It did not attract a significant layer of activists outside the existing socialist groups and its votes in elections were miniscule. The ISO's analysis was faulty on a series of counts. Firstly, they massively overstated the number of activists thrown up by the anti-capitalist movement. Secondly, they falsely assumed that a socialist electoral project would appeal to the small layer of activists (usually influenced by autonomism) that had emerged. Thirdly, they overstated the extent to which disillusioned working class Labor voters would be attracted to a socialist electoral alternative that had no base in the unions or working class communities. Fourthly, the rise of the Greens soaked up the protest vote against Labor, not Socialist Alliance. Having failed to pull in significant new forces Socialist Alliance degenerated into a sectarian battle ground between the DSP, the ISO and other tiny socialist groups. The ISO lost out badly. By the time they officially withdrew from Socialist Alliance in early 2007 they had suffered another split and been reduced to a tiny rump. In joining Socialist Alliance the ISO was simply following the lead of the SWP which had joined the English Socialist Alliance in 1999.[2] But as in Australia Socialist Alliance in England had little political traction. It neither pulled in sizeable new forces nor mobilised significant voter support. But the SWP, holding fast to its "1930s in slow motion" analysis, continued to believe that a significant space had opened up to the left of Labour that they could tap. So they ditched Socialist Alliance and moved on to their next get rich quick scheme - Respect. The SWP argued that Respect would appeal to broader forces galvanised by the anti-war movement; in particular they hoped to draw in significant numbers of Muslims shaken up by Blair's strident support for Bush's war drive. Respect - founded in January 2004 - did have a higher profile than Socialist Alliance, partly because of the role of anti-war MP George Galloway who had been expelled from the Labour Party. However, although they never acknowledged it, the fact that the SWP had to drop the openly socialist name Socialist Alliance for the fuzzier Respect (the initials stand for Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community and Trade Unionism) to try to win broader support indicates that the radicalisation in British society was nowhere near as sharp as the SWP had long trumpeted. They were effectively dragged to the right in pursuit of the mass audience they claimed was breaking with Labour. Respect achieved more electoral success than Socialist Alliance, most notably the election of Galloway in the 2005 general elections plus some good votes in council elections. However it did not attract a layer of new activists, let alone any substantial number of workers breaking from Labour. Though in a few areas where it had electoral success, it did attract a few opportunist local community leaders (ie Bengali small business owners), seeking council positions. The SWP provided the core of Respect's activists. Given that the SWP only claims 5,938 registered members (the active membership is considerably lower, probably no more than 1500), the fact that after more than three and a half years it continued to provide a substantial proportion of Respect's activists indicated that Respect had never taken off membership wise.[3] Indeed Respect's 2007 membership only seems to have been a couple of thousand and even many SWP members failed to take out Respect membership. The supposedly broad Respect had fewer members than the "narrow" Marxist SWP. This created a contradictory and untenable situation. A Marxist group was the dominant force attempting to hold together an electoral front with a reformist program. Even worse Respect's best known figure was the maverick Galloway who had a following amongst a layer of Bengali business owners. Respect was bound to end in a debacle. It would have been one thing if Respect had attracted thousands of leftward moving workers. In that situation the SWP could have positioned itself as the left wing arguing for a class struggle program against the moderate section of Respect. But without a substantial radicalised working class base the SWP was left trying to patch up compromises with those on its right and playing bureaucratic games to hold together an unstable and unviable organisation. Respect has ended badly for the SWP. Leaving aside who was wrong and right on every specific issue, the end result is that a project in which the SWP has invested considerable time, resources and credibility has blown apart. The SWP has fallen out bitterly with one-time allies and even lost some long standing members to the Galloway forces. The SWP leadership effectively created its own right wing amongst a layer of members who took Respect seriously. Some of those comrades have gone over to Galloway others have walked away. It is too early to tell what will be the ultimate fall out for the SWP. For the moment, though there is evidence of concern, unfortunately, the only criticism openly raised within the SWP of the leadership's approach to Respect has been from the right. Theoretical contortions: a united front of a special kind In order to justify the Respect project the SWP had to engage in theoretical contortions, describing it as a "united front of a special kind". This is playing with words. The method of the united front developed by Lenin and Trotsky in the early 1920s and further elaborated by Trotsky faced with the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s was aimed at uniting revolutionaries and reformists in a joint struggle against a common enemy. Revolutionaries and reformists could unite in action for specific agreed demands but would maintain their own independent organisations and the right to put forward their own propaganda and to politically criticise their allies in the united front. In the course of the united struggle around the specific agreed demands revolutionaries would have the opportunity to demonstrate to rank and file supporters of reformist parties and reformist trade union leaders that revolutionaries were the most consistent defenders of workers' interests and would thus be able to win them to socialism. An electoral formation such as Respect is not a united front in this sense. The united front as Trotsky and the Comintern put it forward was not an ongoing alliance but a short lived agreement to unite in joint struggle around specific demands. It was neither a common propaganda bloc nor a broad program for contesting elections. Moreover in the united front revolutionaries and reformists maintained their separate organisations, their separate publications, their separate propaganda, whereas in an electoral formation all the forces involved run on the same program and put out joint propaganda. And finally for Trotsky, Lenin and the Comintern the united front was aimed at exposing the reformist leaders and winning rank and file supporters of the reformists to the revolutionary organisation. The SWP offer no substantial theoretical justification for their claim that Respect is a "united front of a special kind" except to argue that in his writings on fascism Trotsky outlined "an altogether broader approach" to the conception of the united front: The trade unions are, for instance described as ‘the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle' because they unite revolutionaries and reformists in the common struggle over wages and conditions. Trade unions are of course neither single issue nor temporary organisations. Moreover, Trotsky describes the soviets themselves as united fronts: ‘The soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the epoch of fighting for power'. The soviets were of course permanent bodies with their own executives, subcommittees, military apparatus, newspapers...[4] What this has to do with defining Respect as a "united front of a special kind" is obscure to say the least. Both unions and soviets are organisations of working class struggle in which different political parties and currents contest for leadership and maintain their own separate and distinct organisations. They are not the same as - or even similar to - a political party or electoral front. So the analogy drawn by the SWP leadership is false and does not substantiate their claim that Respect is a united front of any kind. This is not to say that revolutionaries should not in specific circumstances attempt to build new mass workers parties that draw in reformist, centrist and syndicalist forces. In a country like the USA where there is no workers party, only the openly capitalist Republicans and Democrats, a mass Labor Party would be a step forward. Similarly in Australia, Britain, France etc where the traditional social democratic parties are thoroughly wedded to a neo-liberal agenda a mass break to the left to form new workers parties would be a real advance. But only if they mobilised at least a significant minority of the working class. Within these mass parties revolutionaries would organise to fight for a genuine class struggle program and attempt, if they had the forces, to win the leadership away from reformist and centrist elements.[5] This orientation was advocated by Lenin in 1920 when he argued for the few thousand strong British Communist Party to affiliate to the Labour Party "insofar as the Labour Party permits sufficient freedom of criticism". Labour at that time operated as a federation to which unions and socialist parties affiliated. This meant that the Communists could apply to join without having to tone down their revolutionary program of soviet power and would be able to openly "expose and criticise" the reformist Labour leaders as "betrayers of the working class". [6] Previously in his pamphlet Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin had argued for Communists to support a Labour electoral victory "as the rope supports a hanged man". That is, vote Labour into office so they could be put to the test. When they inevitably betrayed working class interests the real nature of the Labour leaders would be exposed and the Communists would be better placed to win mass working class support. But like all manoeuvres, even justifiable ones, the Labour Party orientation of the early British (and Australian) CP carried the danger of adaption to the reformists. These dangers are much more acute for socialists trying to operate, not in a party with a mass worker membership like Labour in the 1920s, but in a tiny, unstable party like Respect with a couple of thousand members. This was particularly so when the organised socialists were the main force trying to hold Respect together and felt impelled to make all sorts of compromises with reformist elements to keep them involved. This made it next to impossible for the SWP to openly criticise electoralist trends in Respect without blowing up the organisation. A similar problem confronted the British CP in the mid-1920s when after being refused affiliation they established the National Left-Wing Movement within the Labour Party. As Duncan Hallas, a former SWP Central Committee member, wrote in 1982, Now, of course, if such an organisation had been formed by genuine leftward moving reformists or centrists, a revolutionary party would have sought to relate to it through involvement in joint work together with fraternal but firm criticism. But this was not the case at all. The National Left-Wing Movement was a CP operation from start to finish, in spite of the participation of many genuine Labour lefts. The CP leadership decided to set it up, controlled it throughout and finally terminated it. What was its purpose? The theory was that it was a bridge to the CP for leftward moving Labour people. But why should they join the CP if the object was to ‘remould' the Labour Party, especially as the CP itself said that this was both possible and necessary? Moreover, since the CP ran the thing it could not criticise its fundamentally reformist aspirations. It was no bridge but a barrier: a thoroughly opportunist scheme which served the interests of reformism, not revolution. The CP was positively promoting reformism.[7] A broad road to nowhere Most left wing commentary on the Respect debacle has criticised the SWP for being insufficiently committed to Respect. These soft left critics of the SWP's approach argue that the SWP should have bent over backwards to accommodate the motley forces that made up Respect. It is argued that the way forward for the left is building "broad" parties that unite all socialists - revolutionaries, reformists and all shades in between. Indeed a consensus has emerged on much of the international left over the last few years that the whole project of socialist groups attempting to build explicitly revolutionary parties is sectarian. Consequently the SWP are criticised for not dissolving their organisation entirely into Respect - that revolutionaries operating as an organised and decisive force undermines the possibility of achieving the broad consensus needed to maintain soft left parties. This criticism is in a sense true but not in the way intended by the advocates of the "broad" party model. Reformist and revolutionary politics are entirely incompatible. Parties that try to combine revolutionaries and reformists are bound to blow apart in the long run. The only circumstance in which this would not happen is if the revolutionaries consistently refused to fight for their politics. Alternatively it is argued that the SWP should have become a tendency within Respect and not maintained a separate revolutionary organisation outside Respect. This is the approach of the supporters of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and of the Australian DSP which renamed itself the Democratic Socialist Perspective within Socialist Alliance. But this approach hardly proved a winner in the SSP which has been reduced to a mere rump. The harsh reality is that no amount of diplomatic manoeuvring and no organisational formula can successfully combine over a prolonged period two incompatibles - revolutionary Marxism on the one hand and reformism on the other. The argument goes that the way to advance the left is to build broad parties to the left of the traditional social democratic parties that can have a significant electoral appeal. There are a series of problems with this approach. To start with in a series of countries, such as Australia, Britain, the US, there is little evidence that mass support exists for establishing such parties. It would take an upsurge in class struggle and a radicalisation of a significant layer of workers to open up any possibility of such parties having a resonance. For socialists to be putting their efforts into building "broad" parties when there is no objective basis for them is wishful thinking. It is chasing rainbows. It will result in socialists wasting their time in sectarian infighting in rump organisations. It will mean more debacles like Respect or Socialist Alliance. But even that is not the fundamental problem. Most advocates of the broad party model argue that it is possible as a long term project to build parties that blur revolutionary and reformist politics. Indeed many of them argue that the distinction between revolutionary and reformist politics is meaningless in today's world or will only become an issue at some point in the distant future. This is nothing but political amnesia. It ignores the whole history of the socialist movement over the last 120 years. We have been through this movie before. The mass socialist parties like the German and Austrian Social Democratic Parties and the French Socialist Party that did not build on a clear revolutionary basis ended up spectacularly betraying working class interests by supporting World War I. It could not have been otherwise. It is the whole logic of reformism. Having rejected the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and having set out to reform the system via parliament you inevitably end up seeking to run capitalism on behalf of the bosses.[8] Why on earth would socialists want to go through that experience again? Here in Australia we have the graphic example of the ALP, many of whose founders were militant workers who genuinely wanted to challenge the rule of capital. But because they did not have clear Marxist politics, they were unable to prevent the party they had created being turned into an instrument for suppressing the working class. Why do socialists after over 110 years of experience of the ALP want to put their energies into building a party that is politically little different to the ALP of the early 1890s? We don't have to rely on ancient history to see the disastrous impact of not building parties on a clear revolutionary basis. In Italy, Communist Refoundation - which with its tens of thousands of members was upheld by the supporters of the broad party model as an inspiring example to emulate - joined the centre-left neo-liberal coalition and voted to support sending Italian troops to Lebanon and Afghanistan. The tragedy is that the British SWP - which still publicly argues for building a genuine revolutionary party and rejects the broad left party model - has in practice fudged the issue with its orientation to Respect. Flowing from its "1930s in slow motion" perspective - a totally unrealistic assessment of the level of radicalism in society - it has plunged from one get rich quick scheme to the next and in the case of Respect committed serious opportunistic errors. The harsh reality is that the pace of political development can't be forced by a few thousand socialists. We have to build on sound Marxist foundations. That does not rule out working constructively with reformist forces in all sorts of campaigns. Far from it. That is the ABC of Leninism. But there must be no blurring of banners. The revolutionary forces should not be in the business of artificially propping up essentially reformist electoral formations. Socialist Alternative, Australia December 2007 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [1] The leading organisation of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) from which the founders of Socialist Alternative were expelled in 1995. [2] In Scotland the SWP joined the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) which also proved a fiasco suffering a debilitating split in 2006. [3] The figure for registered members is from the SWP's Pre-conference Bulletin 1, October 2007. The bulletin gives a figure of 8,700 for the average sale of Socialist Worker. This is well down on 10-15 years ago and is a sign of the SWP's significant decline. It also highlights the low level of activity of SWP members who on these figures sell on average only 0.5 Socialist Workers per member a week to non-members. [4] SWP Pre-conference Bulletin 1, October 2007, p8. [5] There is also the question of entrism when socialist groups join leftward moving centrist or reformist parties to try to win the initial forces to establish a revolutionary party. See Duncan Hallas, "Revolutionaries and the Labour Party", International Socialism, 16, London, Spring 1982. [6] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 31, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966, p260-262. [7] Hallas, p10. [8] For more on the broad party debate see Mick Armstrong, From Little Things Big Things Grow. Strategies for building revolutionary socialist organisations, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2007, chapter 10.

1 comment:

Dave Riley said...

SAlt offers us the 'narrow party' argument by trying to tick all the boxes better than other's have done. It's more consistent than other attempts because in my experience of these perspectives proponents of "narrow party" thinking try to hedge their bets. ( I think the SWP does this -- as SAlt suggests).
SAlt isn't constrained by such real world considerations as they have stood outside the Alliance experience in Australia --choosing to ignore it and have preferred in the past to pretend it doesn't exist.(Now they "know" all about it of course!)

I guess us "reformists" -- you, me, and the great bulk of the working class ( as well as such reformist institutions as the trade unions) will have to make do without SAlt's counselling and input as we are, in the main, according to SAlt, on a path to nowhere....

However I think this is the divide in the Marxist left at the present time and there is still a lot of motion in play as groups and even sections of groups line up on one side of this political chasm.

It's a bit of a watershed moment where "narrow" and "broad" tactics diverge...and a segment returns, more consciously, to a purely propaganda existence.

As for those "Marxists" who are bent on the broad party perspective; it seems that we are sentenced (according to SAlt) to liquidate our politics in ready time.

But among SAlt's potted history I see no mention of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which comprised, I thought, a ready coalition of "reformists" and "revolutionaries" for the great bulk of its political existence...I guess we can't learn anything from that, right?

We are supposed, I gather, to want our Leninism fully formed as a template and should prefer to take our party making samples from a few months during 1917 alone.