Tag Archives: SWP

Bureaucratic centralism and ineffectiveness

The split of the John Rees-Lindsey German Left Platform from the Socialist Workers Party has generated a small round of discussion on the party question in the left blogosphere, writes Mike Macnair. But what is missing is a recognition of the need for Marxist unity

The Left Platform split, amidst complaints of a new restrictiveness in the Socialist Workers Party’s regime and a sectarian turn, is not that important in itself: a small number of comrades have taken a step away from partyism towards ‘movementism’. Rees and German can hardly be regarded as principled actors in this affair, and their claim that the SWP’s bureaucratic centralist regime has dramatically and qualitatively changed for the worse is obvious rubbish.

But even if the Left Platform split is unimportant, the question it poses is this. The SWP way of doing things is mirrored in rather less grotesque forms in the Socialist Party in England and Wales and in more grotesque forms in many smaller left groups. The recent substantial split in the International Marxist Tendency[1] and in recent years and on a smaller scale splits in Workers Power (Permanent Revolution) and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (the Commune) provide examples from a very long and lamentable history. Is there an alternative to this way of doing things?

SWP and split

The basic bureaucratic centralist institutional forms of the SWP regime – ie, the central appointment of district organisers, the secret character of internal discussion and the ban on ‘permanent factions’ and ‘factionalising’ outside the pre-conference period – were adopted by the International Socialists-SWP under Tony Cliff in the 1970s. They were copied from the US Socialist Workers Party and the ideas of James P Cannon, and justified on the basis of ‘Bolshevisation’.

Their adoption marked the end of a period of splits in the SWP which had given birth to Workers Fight (now AWL), Workers Power, the Revolutionary Communist Group (aka Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism), the short-lived Workers League (later International Socialist Alliance) and others. The new regime prevented big splits by pre-emptive expulsion of dissenters as soon as they attempted to contact other people or spread their ideas. In effect, the latest split is a merely the latest operation by the SWP Kremlin (central committee) to cut off debate before it really gets going, through provocations, to which the Left Platform have responded by walking out.

The culture which naturally goes along with these institutional forms is one of hiding differences in the central leadership from the membership, secrecy more generally, degradation of the education and political culture of the ranks (since education means developing the ability to make your own informed decisions), a top-down organisational approach, arrogance of the full-timers and permanent leaders and bullying of other members, a tendency to marginalise dissent by ad hominem smears on the dissentients, and, as a result, a growing dominance of a group-think which diverges further and further from engagement with reality.

In the external world the result of the political degradation of internal life and education is that the organisation’s existence and ‘leading role’ becomes its only real purpose: to be attained by bureaucratic top-down control of fronts and by bureaucratic alliances in which ‘the party’ can pose as ‘the left’ for internal consumption without actually fighting for any concrete political positions. The resulting control-freakery inevitably produces a gradual growth of cynicism, demoralisation and demobilisation among everyone involved who is not either an SWP member or employed as a trade union or party full-timer.

Rees and German were slightly junior to the original creators of the SWP’s institutional forms and political culture, but they were full participants in its operation, and the Respect debacle – which centred on the personal role of John Rees – was in a sense the moment at which the unreal group-think came up against reality and its unreality was exposed.

A minority went over to George Galloway. The majority of the SWP, including the Left Platform, preferred to cling to the group-think idealisation of the role of their own organisation and its history. They could not deny that the outcome of Respect was a defeat for their project, but the only explanation they offered was Alex Callinicos’s obviously false group-think idea that it represented a shift to the right by George Galloway – allegedly part of the same process as Bertinotti dragging Rifondazione Comunista into the Unione government coalition in Italy. Not even SWP members could wholly self-deceive to the extent of buying this as an explanation, and John Rees was the obvious scapegoat for the defeat. Since then, as Peter Manson explained in last week’s paper, Rees and his supporters have been looking for a more or less dignified way out of the SWP.[2]

Blogosphere

SWPers who have intervened in the blogosphere discussion argue that the negative aspects of the internal regime of the SWP have been overstated, Rees and German got what they deserved and so on. This is trivial. More importantly, they are driven to some extent to recognise the negatives. And they certainly recognise them in other groups. But they argue that we just have to put up with them – either as unfortunate consequences of objective dynamics, or as negative side-effects of the necessities of effective organisation.

At its most brutal this idea is expressed in Mark P’s comment on Louis Proyect’s blog: “… A problem with your line of argument, Louis, is that there has been no shortage of attempts to build socialist groups with less ‘centralist’ structures, including those that reject democratic centralism and those that keep the language but do regularly publish their internal debates. I am unaware of any of these groups being notably more successful in growing than, say, the British SWP. It’s the ISO rather than Solidarity which has grown over the last decade.”[3] Or, put another way (as I have heard it said by SWPers), ‘You can criticise our organisational methods when you’re as big as we are.’

On the other hand, the SWP’s critics have in common the belief that the character of the SWP regime and the endless splits flow from sectarianism. (We in CPGB share this view, but our interpretation of what sectarianism means is so different from the modern, standard leftwing interpretation of the word that the point needs to be flagged here before substantive discussion.)

The SWP’s critics also commonly reject the idea of the ‘Leninist vanguard party’ in favour of something both politically broader and organisationally looser: an attempt to organise the whole of the left, not merely the whole of the Marxist left, or the whole of the workers’ movement (but without the pro-capitalist right wing of that movement, which is assumed to be somehow outside it). And an attempt to do so on the basis of ‘network’ and less centralist forms of organisation.

The problem of this view is that what it leads to – under the conditions which have prevailed since the fall of the Soviet Union – is the abandonment of anything but unorganised commentary from the standpoint of Marxism. Because it insists on broad unity as a panacea for Marxist disunity and the bureaucratic rule in the groups, it refuses to confront the actual strategic political differences in the broad, mass workers’ movement about the state, nationalism and political democracy. The result is the drag to the right – like Rifondazione.

If comrades were to look their line squarely in the face, it implies the policy of the Communist Party of the USA of promoting the ‘left’ in the US Democratic Party and promoting the Democrats against the Republicans; and in Britain, it implies an unorganised ‘soft left’ in the Labour Party (and ultimately the course of the British Eurocommunists, who liquidated their party to become hangers-on of … Blairism).

Bureaucratic centralism

There are, of course, arguments from Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders in favour of the institutional forms of the ‘Leninist combat party’ – basically, arguments constructed in the early 1920s. At this time the Bolsheviks were engaged in building a state out of a peasant war against landlordism, and had to construct a collective Bonaparte or ‘man on horseback’ to represent the peasants against the landlords by mastering the peasants’ resistance to giving up their surplus.

Meanwhile, the ‘centrist’ leaders – Kautsky, Martov, the Austro-Marxists and so on – were using arguments for broad class unity and the defence of democracy, meaning the liberties of the pro-capitalist leaders of the broad workers’ movement, against Bolshevik ‘terrorism’ and ‘adventurism’. At the end of the day, these arguments boiled down to a policy of lending political support to the global war against Bolshevism and for the ‘restoration of order’, which the capitalist states were conducting and which capitalist politicians and media internationally, including the pro-capitalist leaders of the broad workers’ movement, certainly understood as a ‘hot war’.[4]

In this context, it is hardly surprising that the Bolshevik leaders produced arguments in favour of a violent military centralism, mitigated only by the congress, as the basis of party organisation. As the revolutionary movements in the west were defeated, the Bolsheviks also emphasised their own unique strengths as against the defeated western left. And in the process – beginning with Lenin’s Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder – they constructed an almost completely fictional origin-myth, in which the military centralism created in 1919-21 was represented falsely as the direct continuity of Lenin’s 1902 What is to be done? and the decisions taken in the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.[5] After Lenin’s death, the historical myth was only emphasised and re-emphasised in the leadership’s struggle against Trotsky and ‘Trotskyism’.[6]

However, apart from ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ and ‘Marxist-Leninists’, defenders of bureaucratic-centralism do not use these arguments. Some of the better educated SWPers are no doubt aware that the origin-myth has been disproved and that the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) down to 1919 functioned in ways totally unlike Tony Cliff’s image of it and equally unlike the institutions and culture of the SWP and similar organisations, and therefore do not want to venture into these waters. Others simply have no real knowledge of the history of their own movement. Either way, the arguments they advance are practical ones about the present situation, rather than theoretical ones about the history of the movement or the inevitability of a future revolutionary crisis.

Effective campaigning

The first positive argument is that a centralised ‘Leninist’ party (or parties) is necessary to mobilising forces in broad mass campaigns. ‘Christian h’ comments on Louis Proyect’s blog that “there’s a reason why so many movements appear as fronts of democratic centralist groups: it’s because those groups do have the organising power to get things done.” ‘Noel’ on Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity blog remarks, in relation to the London Social Forum, that “History might also tell you that to put on an event for 25,000 activists across Europe meant working with the GLA and Socialist Action, something none of us were expecting to be so, ah, fraught … it was a choice between trying to deal with that as best we could or not doing it at all … there was no way the ‘opposition’ could have done anything …”; and ‘Salman Mirza’ says that “… the majority of calls, emails around things like UAF, volunteers needed for leafleting picket lines, stop the closures campaigns, etc are from the SWP”.[7]

This line is a half-truth. The half that is true is important. Without means of collective decision-making for common action and an agreement that decisions for common action are binding, the multifarious efforts of individuals run into the ground. If there are 57 varieties of left groups in Britain, there are 570 varieties of single-issue campaigns, most of them creating absolutely negligible impact on national or local politics, and 5,700 varieties of leftwing ‘independents’ with even less collective impact.

The half that is untrue is equally important. Collective decision-making mechanisms for collective action long antedate the ‘Leninist combat party’ form. Single-issue campaigns go back at least as far as the campaign against the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th century, trade unions emerged from the differentiation of the craft guild tradition between masters and employees over the same period, and so on.[8] It would be ridiculous to suggest that because these organisations and movements had no ‘Leninist combat party’ they were ineffective.

Also before the ‘Leninist combat party’ form emerged, pre-1914 France and Germany had broad-unity socialist parties. Britain had Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, the De Leonist Socialist Labour Party, the impossiblist Socialist Party of Great Britain, and so on. In terms of the ‘level of agreement on fundamentals required for practical common action’ according to SWP supporters (and SPEW supporters) the pre-war British organisations look more like the British far left today. Guess which form was more effective for practical political campaigning: the British or the continental?

The reality is that the bureaucratic-centralist groups dominate decision-making in broader organisations not because the groups are indispensable to decision-making for campaigning, but because the groups form coherent minorities, while the ‘independents’ are scattered – the same mechanism which allows a single shareholder with, say, a 30% minority to dominate a corporation. The issue has been studied at a more general theoretical level by Moshé Machover.[9]

It follows that the strength of the bureaucratic-centralist left groups in broader organisations is not because bureaucratic centralism is actually essential to effective campaigning. It is merely an effect of the fact that the bureaucratic-centralist groups are (currently) larger than any alternative form. The issue therefore has no independence of the argument I cited earlier – the simple point supporters of the SWP (and SPEW, and so on) argue, that their relatively large size proves the success of their organisational forms.

Don’t meddle with the big guys

At a certain level, if we take this argument seriously, it reduces to absurdity. None of the groups are anything like the size of the Labour Party or has achieved anything comparable to the gains it achieved for (sections of) the British working class. So it should follow that none of us (SWP included) has any right to criticise the organisational forms of the Labour Party. We can go further than that. The Tory Party is and always has been larger than the Labour Party. So … The biggest organised international political organisation in the world is the Catholic church.[10] So perhaps the far left should adopt papal infallibility …

Oops. It has. That was where we started, with the organisational forms of the SWP. In Cliff’s lifetime these worked from the infallibility of Tony Cliff, backed up by the Vatican (the central apparatus) and the centrally appointed bishops (the district full-timers). Since his death it has worked from the infallibility of the central committee, which has to remain monolithic (hence the need to drive out Rees and German).

Louis Proyect in his post on the topic suggests that bureaucratic-centralist groups can get up to a few thousand members but then get stuck, unable to progress further to real mass influence. One of the commentators remarked that, if so, the advice to the far left should be to build groups like the SWP, but then break with their organisational forms when you get to a few thousand members …

Comrade Proyect’s argument is another half-truth. A few thousand is certainly the usual maximum size of such groups both globally at present and on average across the history of the workers’ movement. But the Italian far-left groups in the 1970s got considerably bigger, and of these only Lotta Continua had a ‘loose’ structure. The Iranian Fedayeen at its height got up to tens of thousands – while retaining the structural and political forms of a far-left sect. And, of course, the fully-Stalinised ‘official’ communist parties were thoroughly bureaucratic-centralist, if – outside of the USSR itself  – they were less inclined to pre-emptive suppression of dissent, leadership bullying, etc, than the SWP. But they were mostly (including the old CPGB) a lot bigger than any of the far-left groups. Hence (in part) Andy Newman’s conversion to ‘official communism’.

Moreover, what happens to far-left groups that get up into the mid-thousands is not usually to get stuck and stay there at that size for a prolonged period of time. Rather what happens is that they explode. Once you are up into the mid-thousands – let alone above – you repeatedly confront political questions for which the distinctive theoretical positions of Cliff-think, or Grant-think, or Moreno-think, or whatever, do not prepare you. What you need is a summary political programme identifying the organisation’s strategic, long-term goals. This can both orient members facing new tactical choices and identify the common political ground that members share, even when they disagree about major political questions like bussing in Boston (which blew up the large US Maoist groups).[11]

The other aspect of the half-truth is that far-left groups commonly start out with the intention to do better on the ‘democracy front’ than the ‘official communist’ parties. The International Socialists, the predecessor of the SWP, grew from around 200 in 1966-67 to around 1,500-2,000 (real members, not paper members) in the mid-1970s. It did so on the basis of a highly open organisational regime. I can personally remember ISers in 1974-75 criticising the excessive centralism of the International Marxist Group. More recently, the IMG has been their usual ‘object lesson’ of how allowing ‘permanent factions’ destroys an organisation. Bureaucratic centralism develops with the growth of the full-time apparatus.

This history – not the history of tactical nous or of ‘real work in the class struggle’ – is the real reason why the SWP is big. In the late 1940s there was a Trotskyist organisation in Britain called the Revolutionary Communist Party. It split into several fragments of varying sizes. By the mid-1960s the largest was Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League (later Workers Revolutionary Party). Second largest was Cliff’s Socialist Review group. Third was Ted Grant’s Revolutionary Socialist Group (Militant, the predecessor of today’s Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal). The IMG was a micro-group of adherents of the European Fourth International. In the 1970s all the groups grew very dramatically, albeit unevenly; but the relation of forces between them did not change.

Since then the number of small groups has multiplied, and the relation of forces has changed. It has changed because the WRP imploded, the IMG broke into fragments (Socialist Action, Communist League, International Socialist Group) and Militant split and the Taaffe wing split again. It has not changed because of the relative success of the organisational forms of the SWP and similar organisations. Their size is no more than their inheritance of their long history, their organisational forms are no more than the (indirect) inheritance of Stalinism.

We’re splintered because we’re small

A very widespread view both among supporters and critics of the SWP’s regime is that these phenomena are regrettable, but result inevitably from the small size of the far-left groups and their isolation from the ‘real mass movement’. Perhaps if the right means were adopted of integrating yourself in the broader mass movement the phenomena would be overcome. Perhaps (SWPers are apt to argue) we just have to wait out the current downturn in the class struggle and put up with it.

Both arguments are nonsense. In the first place, very few of the organised left groups are ‘classic sectarians’ who reject participation in trade unions and mass campaigns in favour of street-stall propaganda. Organise a broad campaign, demonstration or electoral coalition, organise a strike support group or network: most of us will be there (to the extent, of course, that we have the forces). Secondly, integration in the mass movement has in no way been an obstacle to sect-building: look at the multiple, competing left groups within the Labour Party (fewer now that there were, of course); look at the collisions between the projects of different groups in the trade unions.

Secondly, big upturns in the class struggle do not drive the left towards any more effective unity than it achieves already through campaigns, strike support activities, etc. The rising tide lifts all boats, as happened across Europe and in North and Latin America in the 1970s. If anything, the rise in the mass struggle tends to drive towards splits and the multiplication of groups, as all political choices become sharper and more urgent.

Thirdly, at a time when the bourgeois press is dominated by allegations of Gordon Brown bullying Downing Street staff, it is ridiculous to suppose that bureaucratic centralism is a prerogative of small, marginal political groups. To repeat my characterisation of the SWP’s culture above: hiding differences in the central leadership from the membership, secrecy more generally, degradation of the education and political culture of the ranks (since education means developing the ability to make your own informed decisions), a top-down organisational approach, arrogance of the full-timers and permanent leaders and bullying of other members, a tendency to marginalise dissent by ad hominem smears on the dissentients, and, as a result, a growing dominance of a group-think which diverges further and further from engagement with reality. Isn’t this also a characterisation of New Labour (and, for that matter, of the Tories in Thatcher’s later years)?

We are not splintered because we’re small; we’re small because we’re splintered. The ability to construct unity in the parties of the Second International and – for Britain, the US and a few other places – in those of the Comintern – was not a result of a favourable objective situation:[12] the favourable objective situation can exist without producing unity. It was the result of a will to unity, of concrete decisions to fight for unity on the basis of definite political projects.

What alternative?

The questions of the objective and subjective causes of bureaucratic centralism and unprincipled splits, and the argument that isolation from the mass movement is the real cause, leads naturally to the question of the alternatives offered by critics. Louis Proyect offers merely a negative critique of ‘Zinovievism’. Other critics of the SWP’s party regime offer a more or less common response, though the tactical details vary. What is needed is a broad mass party.

The theoretical basis of this proposal I have just criticised. It is ‘We’re splintered because we’re small’: the idea that the only way the Marxist left can unite is to unite with the broader left – whoever this broader left is be – trade union officials, Labour MPs, ‘anti-imperialist’ nationalists of one sort or another, greens, liberation theologists – take your pick.

Within this party ‘revolutionaries’ may form unorganised trends or even semi-organised platforms, but should not form ‘democratic-centralist’ groups, which tend to ‘place the interests of their group above the interests of the movement as a whole’.

Sectarianism

‘Placing the interests of your group above the interests of the movement as a whole’, according to these comrades, is the essence of sectarianism. Surprising as it may at first sight seem, supporters of the SWP agree with them … and so would supporters of a great many … sects.

The ‘formal source’ of this concept of ‘sectarianism’ is in the English version of the Communist manifesto. The passage is famous:

“In what relation do the communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties.

“They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

“They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

“The communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only:

1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

In point 2, the reference to “the movement as a whole”, the German Marx and Engels wrote was: “dass sie in den verschiedenen Entwicklungsstufen, welche der Kampf zwischen Proletariat und Bourgeoisie durchläuft, stets das Interesse der Gesamtbewegung vertreten”. Here “the movement as a whole”, the Gesamtbewegung, is the ‘movement’ in the sense of historical process as a whole, the dictatorship of the proletariat as the road to communism. It is not the ‘movement’ in the sense in which we speak of ‘the workers’ movement’ or ‘the trade union movement’ in modern English.

Sectarianism and bureaucratic centralism are quite genuinely two sides of the same face. That face is not, however, separation from the mass movement or ‘placing the interests of your group above the interests of the movement as a whole’. It is the refusal to unite for common action at the maximum possible level at which unity is possible. The essence is an unwillingness to be in a minority: either from majorities which drive out minorities by bureaucratic means for fear that they might just win if the discussion was allowed to go on, or from minorities which walk out in order to pursue their own projects free from the ‘fetters’ of working with the majority round common ground. Both factors seem to have been at work in the Left Platform split from the SWP.

That was then

If the Communist manifesto supplies – falsely – the ‘proof-text’ for comrades’ definition of ‘sectarianism’, the First International and a highly artificial interpretation of the Second supply the practice which is supposed to go along with this orientation: uniting with reformists (especially with trade union leaders) on a minimal political platform, in the hope that this will produce a mass party within which the ‘revolutionaries’ can fight for their ideas. The First International was just such a ‘broad movement’. (The Second was not: the German Social Democratic Party began as a unification of left groups on the basis of a formal programme,[13] and only afterward acquired a trade union base; the French and Italian parties began as unifications, but the trade unions in those countries remained separate syndicalist organisations; and so on.)

But something has changed since 1870. It is a change analogous to that which took place during the rise of the capitalist class in the late medieval to early modern period. Then, the city communes – originally the bourgeoisie’s instruments of class struggle against the feudal lords and kings – were captured through concessions and turned into instruments of the late-feudal absolutist state. From around 1870 the capitalist class and its state began to pursue the same policy in relation to the trade unions and – more gradually, with stops and starts – in relation to the broad workers’ parties. Extensions of the franchise, in Germany partial inclusion of the workers’ organisations in social security arrangements, and so on …

It is for this reason that the ‘broad workers’ party’ idea fails. The capitalist class has integrated an element of the workers’ organisations into its state arrangements. This fact finds political expression among the dominant section of the workers’ leaders in nationalism, class-collaborationism, constitutional loyalism – and forms of top-down, bureaucratic control to force through pro-capitalist policies.

The result is that the ‘broad workers’ party’ is doomed either to fail – because there is already a ‘broad workers’ party’, like the Labour Party – or, if it succeeds, to recapitulate the path of the Labour Party to serving capital, as has happened to the Brazilian Workers Party. In neither case does it provide a road out of bureaucratic centralism and sectarianism.

The workers’ movement is really faced with a fundamental political choice: between nationalism, class-collaborationism, constitutional loyalism and bureaucratic control on the one hand – represented by the actual mass workers’ parties; and class-political independence, the international solidarity of the working class as a class, and radical democracy in the state and in the movement on the other – represented, most imperfectly, by the far left. The path of ‘broad’ unity with class-collaborationist and nationalist bureaucrats as a precondition for unity of the Marxists is therefore a path which unavoidably leads to the abandonment of Marxist politics (class independence, internationalism, democracy) to create or preserve a unity which is in reality under the dictation of the capitalist state.

Breaking with bureaucratic centralism and endless splits is not a problem of changing the objective situation of the left. It is a problem of changing its subjective ideas about organisation and its political culture. If we achieve unity of the Marxist left our ideas will begin to impact on the broader left. If we do not achieve the unity of the Marxist left and an end to bureaucratic centralism, the result will be endless further splintering and even more pronounced ineffectiveness.

Notes

  1. See ‘Oil slick divisions’, February 11.
  2. ‘Left Platform throws in the towel’, February 18.
  3. http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/lindsey-german-resigns-from-the-swp
  4. A Read The world on fire: 1919 and the battle with Bolshevism (London 2008) tells the story from an anti-communist, journalistic perspective, but effectively brings out this point.
  5. Lars T Lih Lenin rediscovered (Leiden 2006) is the most recent and most systematic discussion.
  6. Trotsky’s The Third International after Lenin and The Stalin school of falsification narrate this part of the process. The result is a tendency among some Trotskyist critics of SWP-style bureaucratic centralism to blame this set of practices simply on Grigory Zinoviev – when any study of Lenin’s Collected works for the period or of Trotsky’s own How the revolution armed shows that both men played a central role in the development of the new party order.
  7. www.socialistunity.com/?p=5289;comments201,208
  8. Slave trade: A Hochschild Bury the chains (New York 2005) and M Macnair, ‘Abolition and working class solidarity’ Weekly Worker March 15 2007; trade unions: RA Leeson Travelling brothers (London 1979).
  9. DS Felsenthal, M Machover The measurement of voting power (Cheltenham 1998); and on decision-making in communist society see www.zcommunications.org/collective-decision-making-and-supervision-in-a-communist-society-by-moshe-machover (2009).
  10. A point made in one of his posts by ‘Splintered Sunrise’: splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com
  11. M Elbaum Revolution in the air (London 2002).
  12. Except in the limited sense that the 1875 Gotha unification of the German socialists came at the right time to catch the massive expansion of the German working class at the same period.
  13. For all the faults of the Gotha programme, criticised by Marx and Engels, it was well to the left of the programmes on offer by the British left as the basis of unity today.
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SWP: Bring Loftus to account

CWU president addresses union rally

Dave Isaacson condemns leading SWP members who continually undermine and sabotage attempts to forge rank and file organisation

There was one significant omission in Jim Moody’s article on the sell-out of the postal strike by the Communication Workers Union leadership, which allowed CWU president Jane Loftus to come out of it looking rather good, when actually she has been an utter disgrace (‘Militants condemn sell-out’, November 12).

Loftus, a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and therefore supposedly a revolutionary, is also a member of the CWU’s postal executive committee (PEC), which voted unanimously on November 5 to accept the interim agreement and call off the strikes, just as the strength of the postal workers was starting to be realised. This goes completely against the position of Loftus’s organisation. Socialist Worker has rightly stated that “Leaders of the postal workers’ union were wrong to suspend strikes at Royal Mail last week … There was no reason for the union to sign up to the agreement. The proposed escalation of strike action – that would have seen two 24-hour strikes in close succession last week – had widespread support within the union” (November 14).

Another Socialist Worker article by Cambridge CWU rep Paul Turnbull calls on postal workers to “restart the strikes immediately”. Yet neither questions why Jane Loftus did not vote against this sell-out – indeed her name is not mentioned at all. Activists in the SWP and militants in the CWU need to ask what is going on here. The SWP’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, is arguing one thing, while their highest placed member in the CWU is doing the exact opposite. Like other socialists all over the country, SWP activists put massive amounts of time and energy into supporting the postal workers and their strike. No wonder Socialist Worker might not want them to know that their own comrade on the CWU leadership colluded in undermining that hard work.

Many would expect better from a member of the SWP, but this kind of behaviour is not an aberration. Back in 2007 Loftus failed to speak out against the rotten deal which ended that dispute. The only PEC members who openly campaigned against the 2007 sell-out were Dave Warren and Phil Brown. Loftus also colluded with the bureaucracy by keeping their secrets and withholding vital information from the membership during closed-door negotiations with management. The SWP failed to use this information to warn strikers of the impending sell-out and call on workers to organise independently of the bureaucracy. Again, back in 2003-04 Loftus voted for the Major Change agreement, a management package that involved job cuts.

Loftus is certainly not alone, however. Her actions are reminiscent of those of Martin John and Sue Bond in the Public and Commercial Services union. Similarly, these were the SWP’s leading comrades in a union with a left general secretary (Mark Serwotka) and leadership (dominated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales). The SWP has consistently downplayed (or kept silent about) any criticisms it may have of left union leaders such as these in order to try and draw them into supporting various SWP ‘united fronts’. In the process the SWPers closest to them in the trade unions clearly bought into the ‘awkward squad’ hype and are in thrall to these bureaucrats.

There are plenty of perks to the job and other social pressures which weigh upon those who enter the upper echelons of the union structures. A revolutionary party should be constantly on guard and fighting against the effects of these pressures on its militants, yet the actions of the SWP leadership often do just the opposite of that. Their desire to get close to and win the approval of ‘left’ union leaders creates a culture of diplomatic silence and conciliationism, while what is necessary for accountability within the unions is open debate and rank and file independence from the bureaucracy.

As members of the PCS national executive committee Martin John and Sue Bond had failed to support SWP policy within the union on a number of occasions, and then in 2005 they knowingly went against SWP directions and policy to vote with Serwotka and SPEW for a scandalous pension deal which sold away the rights of new entrants. Only after regular exposures of their actions (not least in the reports of CPGB member Lee Rock in the Weekly Worker), and growing complaints from other SWP members, was the leadership forced to take action against these renegades.

Initially Socialist Worker ignored the actions of its members on the PCS NEC, while condemning the deal as a betrayal of future generations of workers – sound familiar? Even after disciplinary action was begun Sue Bond got off very lightly with a letter of apology in which she stated: “I do regret the position our vote left comrades in, and the significant implications for the left in other public sector unions. I can certainly assure comrades that I have no intention of breaking party discipline in the future” (Weekly Worker November 17 2005). Martin John flounced out of the SWP the day before he was due to face a meeting of the SWP fraction within PCS. It was not until four weeks after the pensions deal was voted on that news of all this made it into Socialist Worker.

However, it is not just a few individual SWP members succumbing to the pressures of the bureaucracy. The SWP itself has consistently failed to use its positions of influence within unions to build genuine rank and file movements which are independent of the union bureaucracy. The SWP-sponsored occasional publication, Post Worker, does not openly take on the likes of general secretary Billy Hayes and his deputy Dave Ward when they act against the interests of their members. Rather, it regularly gives over significant space for them to promote themselves. It might as well be an official union publication.

SWP members may well wonder about the priorities of their leadership, when Alex Snowden – a Reesite Left Platform supporter – has been expelled for “factionalism” (during the pre-conference period when temporary factions are allowed), yet Jane Loftus seems to have got off scot-free for a blatant act of treachery. Comrades in the SWP need to ensure that Jane Loftus is held to account and faces disciplinary action. She must be called before a fraction meeting of SWP comrades in the CWU and made to explain her actions. She must either recant and campaign openly against the acceptance of the interim agreement in line with SWP policy, or it is she who should face expulsion. Beyond this, major questions have to be asked about whether she can continue to be the SWP’s leading representative within the CWU, given her track record. And all of this must be done openly with full reports in Socialist Worker.

I have been told that CWU executive members can only subsequently campaign against majority decisions if they immediately registered their dissent. If this is the case, then Loftus must be made to step down from the PEC in order to campaign within the CWU accordingly.

Prior to this latest sell-out, Socialist Worker quite correctly asked the question, “How do we fight when union leaders waver?” Matthew Cookson wrote: “The best way to take the struggle forward is to organise workers on a rank-and-file level. A strong organisation of this nature could support the officials as long as they were representing the union members, but could act independently the moment their leaders began to look for some way to settle their dispute unfavourably” (October 31).

Yes, but the actions of leading SWP members continually undermine and sabotage attempts at forging such rank and file organisation. Comrades in the SWP need to think much more deeply about the role their organisation plays within the unions. They must be free to use Socialist Worker as a tool to explore why it is their leading representatives in the unions end up acting against the interests of the working class.

Timely questioning of no-platform fetish

James Turley sees SWP politics reduced to ultra-shrill self-parody

griffin on qtIt has been a busy week for the Socialist Workers Party – the largest and most visible far-left group in Britain today. Its members and periphery formed the biggest part of Saturday’s demo against the Afghanistan war, as well as the bulk of Thursday’s shrill protest at the appearance of the bumbling British National Party leader Nick Griffin before a hostile Question time audience.

All this against the background of the ‘pre-conference discussion period’ – that is, the three months every year when the SWP membership is allowed to discuss things other than how many leaflets are needed for Saturday’s Stop the War stall. This is the second year running that the usually dull autumn exchanges have halfway merited the name ‘discussion’ – and both times the name at the core of the disputes is that of John Rees, the erstwhile prima inter pares on the SWP central committee who was ousted last year.

On the ‘anti-fascism’ front, there have been no perceptible public changes in the stance of the SWP – no news, in this case, being bad news. The big ‘event’ this week is, obviously, the Question time episode, to which Griffin had been controversially invited following his election as an MEP. The show itself was a high point in terms of audience figures; the same cannot be said for the turnout for the hysterical protest outside BBC television centre, staged by Unite Against Fascism, which is staffed by the SWP.

It falls to the never-knowingly-perceptive party organ, Socialist Worker, to solve the contradiction posed by almost every concrete activity the SWP today undertakes – that is, directing endless opprobrium at the sheer awfulness of the current state of affairs, while simultaneously talking up its own influence on events.

True to form, Esme Choonara writes a report this week entitled ‘Nick Griffin’s BBC appearance sparks angry protest’ (Socialist Worker October 31). That contradiction is visible from the off: “Thousands of anti-fascists laid siege to the BBC’s studios in London on Thursday of last week as fascist British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin was handed an unprecedented publicity coup on Question time.” Apart from the fact that there were probably only a thousand or so anti-fascists, they failed in their objective of stopping the broadcast. Later on we are told that “anti-fascists came very close to breaking through and were only held back by security gates and lines of police”. To which one can only respond: what other obstacles are there to breaking into a building that were successfully overcome by these intrepid demonstrators to justify it even being mentioned? The gruelling walk to the police lines from White City tube station?

Unfortunately, the heroic failure of UAF to stop the QT circus bodes ill for the British and indeed European masses. Griffin has cultivated links with various organisations in Europe, with a view to forming a “new Europe-wide Nazi group”. “Outrageously, the BBC hid behind claims of ‘impartiality’ to hand a Nazi organisation a platform to peddle racist and homophobic lies” – which seems rather compatible with the dictionary definition of ‘impartial’ – unlike, say, the absence of any far-left forces on the platform. Whether or not the BNP is fascist, meanwhile, it is certainly ‘peddling lies’ to call it ‘Nazi’ (even in the 1980s, it was the rump National Front which identified more closely with Nazism). But the BBC would not have to face this particular moral dilemma, even if a left electoral success forced it to invite, say, Weyman Bennett onto Question time, as SWP members take the trouble to no-platform themselves by refusing to debate the likes of Griffin face to face.

All this is much of a muchness with the SWP-style ‘anti-fascism’ we have gotten rather used to – an insistence on labelling anyone to the right of the Tory Party (barring, for some reason, the UK Independence Party) Nazi and nothing less; an implicit contempt for the masses who will apparently be won instantly to Griffin’s programme if he appears on TV; a pseudo-politics based entirely on moral distance from ideological degenerates who simply cannot be touched; and a millenarian view of the consequences of budging on this (gas chambers all the way down).

SWPbulletinYet, to believe a motion put before the October 10 SWP party council (the delegate body which meets a couple of times between annual conferences), the central committee is on the verge of abandoning all this. This critical motion is reproduced in the first SWP Pre-conference Bulletin (known as the Internal Bulletin or IB) over an extensive list of names, including those of Rees, his partner and close collaborator Lindsey German, and long-time ally Chris Nineham. It is obviously enough the work of Rees’s newly formed Left Platform faction, which has been officially recognised for the duration of the pre-conference discussion period. The motion frets: “At the last two national committee meetings of the SWP a majority of the CC who spoke argued that the SWP should be prepared in the future to debate with members of the BNP in the media after Nick Griffin appears on Question time on October 22, thus abandoning the ‘no platform’ position.” Not only that, but a majority of the NC had spoken in favour of this heresy.

On the contrary, “the election of two BNP MEPs and the change in policy by the BBC does not mark a significant enough shift in the balance of forces between the left and the BNP to justify abandoning ‘no platform’.” Here is a curious logic indeed – it is fine for the SWP to abandon ‘no platform’ once the establishment does.

“The principle at stake here,” the comrades argue, “is that the BNP should not be regarded as a legitimate bourgeois party.” But why should this be treated as a “principle”? In times of severe social crisis the bourgeoisie can turn to fascism to retrench its rule – thus instantly rendering the fascists ‘legitimate bourgeois politicians’. In fact leading establishment figures could switch to the fascists or attempt to transform what the SWP currently regards as ‘legitimate bourgeois parties’ into fascist organisations. To insist on a hard and fast distinction here is to introduce one where none really exists – social democracy differs vastly from fascism, but both are expressions of rule considered “legitimate” by the bourgeoisie at different times.

This motion was overwhelmingly defeated at party council, which approved a rival motion from the CC. However, the latter motion did not contradict Rees’s at all in terms of substance, reiterating that SWP members in UAF “will refuse to appear on a panel with Nick Griffin”. The SWP “will redouble our efforts to win the case for no platform for the BNP in the media and build the UAF campaign of protests and pickets to challenge the BBC’s decision”. Nonetheless, we cannot but note that there is wriggle-room in the approved motion, which concentrates on the narrow issue of the BBC, and leaves open the question of whether the SWP may later embark upon a wrenching turn.

John Molyneux

John Molyneux

The ‘smoking gun’ for Rees and co was a rather innocuous letter from ‘loyal oppositionist’ John Molyneux published in Socialist Worker – very sensibly headlined ‘“No platform” must not be a fetish’ (June 13). “Yes,” argues comrade Molyneux, “we should campaign against the BBC and other broadcasters giving the Nazi British National Party (BNP) airtime. But when it is clear they are going to appear anyway it is to our advantage that they are confronted by anti-fascists.” An impermissible sell-out for the Reesites – and for the successful party council motion.

IB No1 – alongside such riveting items as ‘Nurturing the roots in Kings Lynn’ – contains a number of items related directly or peripherally to the anti-BNP crusade. One proposes a “change of strategy”, which turns out to be reviving the SWP’s old Anti-Nazi League as a hard faction within UAF – Occam’s razor is never knowingly applied by SWP cadre when it comes to front organisations.

‘Holding the line on “no platform”’ (authored by four London comrades identified as Dean, Paul, Julie and Jim) parallels the Rees party council motion. It is highly confused. For example, it states that “BNP support contains a strong irrational element”, and so “argument is a less effective weapon against fascism than force”. The “Nazis” cannot be defeated in rational debate because they are “deceptive liars, distorting and exploiting the real issues …” As everyone knows, the poor, ignorant masses are always taken in by irrational lies and are never persuaded by lucid argument exposing those lies for what they are.

The comrades warn that agreeing to debate with Griffin on national TV or radio would “undermine” ‘no platform’ locally: “Why shouldn’t our student union host a debate with the BNP? Martin Smith/Weyman Bennett appears on TV with them.” But then, just a few paragraphs later, they write: “Locally, though, we do have significant positions that may involve tactical decisions about whether to appear on platforms with the BNP, when they also have prominent roles as councillors, in tenants associations, etc. To refuse in such circumstances might amount to sacrificing a key role in a campaign for the sake of holding a line on the BNP that could be detrimental to the wider campaign.” Exactly.

This contradiction demonstrates that there are those in the ranks of the SWP who are not completely stupid. Some are actually showing signs of trying to think. There may be a time when the principle of ‘no platform’ might have to be reconsidered, they say: if, for example, “the BNP has achieved a level of legitimacy comparable to the French or Italian fascists. We would then have to re-evaluate our stance in the light of a different balance of forces.”

But not quite yet … at least nationally. The comrades attempt to rebuff a point made by comrade Molyneux in his Socialist Worker letter. He pointed out that Antonio Gramsci had been prepared to debate with Benito Mussolini in the Italian parliament. The comrades respond: “There is no comparison with the position Gramsci found himself in under Mussolini in the 1920s and the political landscape of Britain in 2009. The working class is not defeated and our comrades are not being assassinated by fascist hit squads.”

So now that the BNP is not a serious threat to the workers’ movement, being in the same room as a member is a mortal sin; but when it becomes one, it’s time to start debating? Such, apparently, is the logical consequence of defending an idiotic policy.

The wooden spoon for the whole bulletin, however, undoubtedly goes to one Ben from south London, who relates at length his experience building yet another SWP front – Defend Council Housing – from scratch in his area. It is for the most part a tale of patient, low-level activism come good, although one wishes always for a little more political ambition from such cadres to marry to their masochistic desire for grunt-work.

One anecdote stands out, however – one of the first people interested in his campaign turned out to be “on the leaked membership list of the BNP”. When he discovered this (“it pays to Google everyone who approaches you in these campaigns,” writes Ben in a footnote – “If I hadn’t found out about his membership until later, it could’ve become a damaging issue for the DCH group”), he pinned him down and “popped the question”: “… he was candid with me. He said he had been a member previously, and agreed with them on everything except the racism.” Naturally, of course, he was immediately excommunicated from the campaign. A final footnote reveals that he was later elected chair of the local tenants’ association.

In the 1930s and 40s, the ‘official’ Communist Party had to confront the far more threatening presence of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. They often did fight the fascists in the streets, most famously at Cable Street; yet where the CPGB was strong, it was able to perform exactly the kind of community activism to which Defend Council Housing aspires (and the BNP has been so adept at using in recent years). Party activists would make an effort to draw BUF supporters into communist-led rent strikes – not a few tore up their BUF cards on the spot.

Conversely, Ben in south London effectively cut himself off from a seemingly talented and well rooted community activist on the basis that he had once been a member of a nowadays very diffuse-at-the-edges far-right organisation. The SWP’s pathological aversion to engaging with the BNP’s supporters – never mind for a moment properly hardened fascists – not only reduces its politics to ultra-shrill self-parody, not only entirely disarms it before the bourgeoisie, but even serves to sabotage the low-level activism among ‘real people’ it so venerates.

Comrades should learn the lessons – denying the far right a platform is a tactic, which may be appropriate under certain circumstances. In other circumstances, as the comrades are starting to realise, debating with the BNP might be more effective. The SWP should drop this “fetish” once and for all.

Report of SWSS meeting at Wadham College with Alex Callinicos

Alex Callinicos (Photo: Farfahinne)

Alex Callinicos (Photo: Farfahinne)

In the squash court beneath Wadham College bar about 40 students gathered on October 15 for an Oxford Socialist Worker Student Society meeting with Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party central committee and noted academic, who was billed under the title, ‘Is capitalism still in crisis?’

Before comrade Callinicos spoke, we heard a few words from the Communication Workers Union local branch secretary, Paul Garraway, on the upcoming strike action. He described the militancy of his members and bitterly complained of persistent management bullying.

On to comrade Callinicos. Within a few syllables he, somewhat predictably, made clear that capitalism was still in crisis. He then outlined some of the factors underlying the current recession, and twinned this with some telling criticisms of mainstream economics.

His discussion of Marx’s concept of the state was relatively good too. And his most interesting points were made here, as he explored the contradiction between, on the one hand, the idea of the state as, in the words of the Communist manifesto, a “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” and, on the other, competition between capitalists.

Comrade Callinicos described the United States as international capitalism’s “key organiser”, and went on to explore the possibility of another state assuming this position. In line with the thoughts of those such as Hillel Ticktin, he argued that at present it was hard to see China becoming a new hegemonic state. It is just too tied up with American capital. The great threat, Callinicos argued, was due to climate change.

The comrade moved on to the nature of the workers’ fightback. No mention of democracy, perhaps unsurprisingly. But also no mention of other key necessities, like an organised party of the Marxists. The nearest thing to a programme or strategy that Callinicos came up with was the call for “more and more workers to do what Lindsey and Vestas have done”. Let us leave aside for now the tincture of hypocrisy here – the SWP, after all, opposed the first Lindsey strike.

Most of the initial contributions from the floor consisted of fairly simple questions – some interesting and pertinent, some less so. There was a bit of ‘But my brother is a banker, and I don’t think he is a nasty person’.

Then my turn came. I emphasised that we need independent working class politics. I therefore criticised the SWP’s conduct in the Stop the War Coalition and its role in the preventing the affiliation of Hands Off the People of Iran and the “We are all Hezbollah now” slogans repeatedly chanted by SWPers on demos.

I also picked up on comments made by the SWSS chair of the meeting that the BNP “didn’t deserve a platform” and the no-platform dogma. Does Ukip “deserve a platform”? Do the Tories? And then there is the question of Unite Against Fascism’s popular frontist strategy. I reminded comrades of some history, of how the left’s calls for a ban on the British Union of Fascists backfired with the 1936 Public Order Act, which lost its legislative virginity by being wielded not against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, but against the left. It has likewise been heavily employed by the state against Irish republicans and striking miners.

Finally I argued that it was a fatal mistake to rely on the state and call for the BNP to banned. Once again it was a question of working class political independence.

My remarks on the far right dominated the remaining discussion. Chosen SWSS comrades were quick to wheel out the usual arguments for tactical inflexibility. Apparently, the BNP are just really nasty – Nazis in fact (and, as posters on the wall informed any in doubt, this was a “Nazi-free zone”).

A few seemingly new people quite rightly suggested that the blanket no-platforming policy – aside from not having worked, considering the growth in influence of the BNP – might not always be the best approach. We end up no-platforming ourselves. Quite reasonably they, perhaps representing the majority of those at the meeting, thought that there must be occasions when we could use the power of our ideas to defeat the simplistic and in many cases easily disprovable arguments of the BNP. There were plenty of nods.

The chair announced there was time for one more speaker. No hands were raised, so I stuck mine up. Callinicos gave some of the most emphatic head-shaking I have ever seen, and hissed something to the chair. “Um, we would prefer someone who hasn’t spoken yet,” the poor comrade then announced. So someone else, who had also spoken already, was chosen instead! Don’t you just love the SWP? Things did not go fully according to plan, however. The ‘anyone except him’ substitute likewise argued against auto-no-platformism.

In his summing up comrade Callinicos ignored the unfortunate fact that I exist and had dared to open my mouth. He managed to make the bad arguments of the young SWSSers even worse. “The BBC is publicly funded,” he informed us, descending into liberalistic mode. As if this somehow made this cog of the capitalist ideological apparatus a friend of the working class.

Any talk of debating with fascists rendered one a fool, he then emphatically declared. Presumably this must include his own comrade, John Molyneux. A loyal oppositionist in the SWP who has recently had the good sense to question the no platform mantra as being self-defeating. Interestingly, this viewpoint has gained some considerable support within the SWP, including on its national committee.

Obviously Callinicos is rattled and feels under attack even within. That is how I explain his response anyway. For him the only correct strategy when Nick Griffin appears on Question time is to get into the BBC and “punch Griffin on the nose or a more sensitive part of his anatomy”. But what then to do about the million who voted for the BNP in June’s Euro election and those who elected their dozens of councillors? Should they be forcibly silenced too? Should their vote be discounted?

As the meeting was about to close, a comrade (I am not sure if he belongs to any organisation) indignantly criticised the way the chair had refused to allow me to speak again. Surely a basic norm in a debate where one side has taken a lot of flak? Callinicos launched into a tirade. Apparently I had simply said nothing important – “something about the Stop the War Coalition that I didn’t understand,” he blustered. So I shouted: “I want to discuss Iran and the role of the SWP in the Stop the War Coalition.” Callinicos defensively retorted: “I am here from the SWP, not the STWC” and tried to change the topic. “Yes, the role of the SWP in the STWC,” I repeated. The chair quickly closed the meeting, and Callinicos scurried off into the night.

As SWP-provided bottles of cider were opened following the meeting most of the comrades were in fact friendly and more than willing to discuss. Myself and other Communist Student comrades were able to have some good exchanges. Clearly many in SWSS are genuine revolutionaries and have no liking for the way the SWP leadership refuses to debate with others on the left.

Huw Sheridan

Open letter to the Socialist Workers Party

Mark Fischer, the CPGB’s national organiser, questions the worth of SWP calls for unity

fist-clean-redComrades, serious working class partisans felt obliged to respond to your open letter to the left calling for a united “socialist alternative” in the 2010 general election (Socialist Worker June 13) – despite the unfortunate history of the various left unity initiatives over the last decade and the Socialist Workers Party’s chequered role in them. Our own organisation responded critically but positively to your proposals and indicated a willingness to “participate in the conference you suggest” to discuss unity.

Not surprisingly, this latest unity call has been greeted by a degree of cynicism. Nevertheless, we certainly welcomed your belated recognition of the need for debate. The only way towards meaningful unity is by “publicly” accounting for the “disastrous mistakes of the past” (Weekly Worker June 11).

This was our public response. We also wrote to you privately proposing direct organisation-to-organisation talks. We followed this up with a series of phone calls to your national office and Martin Smith – your national secretary – to arrange such discussions. Unfortunately, however, we have met with a blank wall. Not SWP bungling. Our approaches have been deliberately ignored.

The CPGB has participated in all the serious unity projects of the left from the mid-90s. In particular, we were the most committed of the six principal organisations involved in the Socialist Alliance – including your own – and devoted significant financial and logistical resources to the initiative.

Our proposals for the Socialist Alliance were the most ambitious and we constantly urged the other groups to recognise its huge potential. For example, the CPGB championed a serious intervention in the 2001 general election, against the initial timidity of others (98 SA candidates eventually stood). We proposed a weekly newspaper for the alliance, even offering to cease publication of the Weekly Worker and the pooling of resources into a common project, providing, of course, that there was space for debate and controversy in its pages. We supported all moves to centralise the SA and overcome amateurism, petty-mindedness and parochialism, not least among the confessional sects.

The CPGB fought for and smoothed the entry of the SWP into the Socialist Alliance – many expressed strong reservations, such was the level of mistrust of the SWP amongst wider sections of the left. We also did our best to encourage and ensure SWP membership of the Scottish Socialist Party. During the initial phase of SWP participation of the SA it has to be said comrades from both organisations cooperated well and despite important political differences managed to establish good relations.

Your irresponsible refusal to even acknowledge our approaches sadly exposes the real worth of your unity call. This has everything to do with the narrow interests of the SWP, nothing to do with genuine unity.

We understand that you have invited two representatives each from the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Socialist Party, Respect and the Barrow People’s Party to a meeting on October 31 to discuss the general election. Realistically, you must be aware that this represents the abject failure of your “open letter to the left”.

On Sunday September 28 the CPB’s executive committee voted to have no part in any successor to the ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ electoral flop – at least partially because of the discomfort felt by sections of its Stalinoid membership over collaboration with the SP. The chances that the CPB will cement any kind of alliance with the SWP – which was explicitly excluded from the No2EU initiative in the first place – are nil.

The SP is left high and dry by the CPB’s withdrawal. The central involvement of Bob Crow and his railworkers’ union, the RMT, provided the essential trade union credibility that allowed the SP’s leadership to sell the campaign to a wary membership as an important political development despite the undisguised British nationalism of No2EU’s platform. But the exit of the CPB will inevitably cool Crow’s enthusiasm for the whole project given his political closeness to this soft Stalinoid group.

The SP will now retreat to limited electoral work under its own banner and to touting its services – in the guise of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party – as uncritical foot soldiers for the next electoral foray from dissident sections of the trade union bureaucracy, when and if it should come.

Which leaves you with Respect (perhaps) and the Barrow People’s Party.

This latest debacle is not surprising. Without a fundamental change in the culture of the left, no progress will be made towards worthwhile, principled and lasting left unity.

The SWP’s latest call was widely perceived as just an expression of rivalry with the SP and CPB and the result of severe internal tensions caused by the miserable failure of Respect and the short-lived Left Alternative. Squalid jockeying for position and overcoming internal divisions, in other words, not a genuine attempt to address the urgent need in our workers’ movement for unity around Marxism.

We remain open to discussions about joint candidates in the 2010 general election. Meanwhile we urge our SWP comrades to break from the short-termist, dishonest and manipulative political practices that have spread so much confusion, disorganisation and despair on the left.

In comradeship
Mark Fischer
CPGB national organiser