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Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
The issues of racism and fascism, and how to combat them and the far-right British National Party (BNP) - which has, in its leadership, fascist elements - has recently assumed greater importance in Britain. The changed economic and social situation - with a deepening of the economic crisis - has meant that immigration has come back onto the political agenda. There are inevitably attempts to scapegoat immigrants by the far right. Moreover, 'respectable' figures in the media and even Labour MPs like Frank Field argue that Britain is 'full up' and that further immigration should be curtailed or even stopped completely. This has, in turn, given opportunities to the BNP to make gains both at council level; the election of the first BNP Greater London Assembly member, Richard Barnbrook, on the coat-tails of Boris Johnson's victory is a warning.
But at the same time, engraved on the consciousness of the most aware workers is the necessity to combat fascism and the far right, even in its incipient phase, through the policy of the united front. The refusal of the Communist Party in Germany in the early 1930s to organise united front activity with the social democrats - dubbed 'social fascists' by the Communist Party leaders at the time - allowed Hitler to come to power. He did this without 'a pane of glass being broken'. This terrible negative example from history has since motivated socialists and anti-fascists to adopt one cardinal rule: never to allow the forces of the working class to be divided in action - despite any political differences - in combating fascism, neo-fascism and the far right today.
The danger of a new Hitler or Mussolini, of a mass fascist force, is not posed today. But the present situation in Britain, Western Europe and elsewhere is fertile territory for the growth in support of far-right organisations unless they are effectively opposed. Today, however, the Socialist Workers Party - while agreeing in words with united front activity - have demonstrated again and again their incapacity to bloc with others in order to attain the maximum unity against the fascists. They have invariably sought to 'capture' the leadership of ad hoc anti-fascist organisations, without having earned a position through patient, consistent work and by winning the respect and support of activists involved in the struggle.
This was on full display at the mass demonstrations against the siting of the BNP headquarters in Welling in 1993. Three demonstrations took place in May and October of that year. In May, the SWP-led Anti-Nazi League organised a demo of 1,000, starting from a different mobilising point, a week after the successful 8,000-strong Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) demo past the BNP's headquarters.
An even bigger march, jointly organised by the ANL, YRE and Indian Workers' Association, took place on 16 October - the same day as another anti-racist march in central London organised by the Anti-Racist Alliance (an anti-racist campaign set up and backed by a combination of trade union leaders and Labour Party lefts). This unfortunate split was engineered by the SWP-led ANL, who initially backed the Anti-Racist Alliance demonstration through central London only to turn up at one of the coordinating meetings with leaflets already printed for a demonstration on the same day marching through Welling.
In contrast Militant Labour, predecessor of the Socialist Party, had consistently argued for a demonstration through Welling at a later date; once the two demonstrations had split we were forced to choose Welling. However having forced a split in the anti-racist movement and called a demonstration in Welling, the leaders of the ANL consistently attempted to block proposals at the coordinating committee for adequate stewarding to protect demonstrators from attack by BNP supporters or the police.
On the day of the demonstration the SWP and ANL leadership were putting all their energy into placing their contingent at the head of the march and getting publicity for the ANL, leaving demonstrators potentially in danger from attacks by the police. It was the stewarding team led by Militant Labour and the YRE (with the help of numerous other trade unionists and anti-racists including rank and file members of the SWP) that was crucial when the police blocked the march from passing the BNP's offices. There was no way through so the stewards kept the march together along the agreed route and protected its rear from a vicious charge by the police.
The SWP was in their 'triumphalist' phase at this stage, prepared to elbow everyone else aside eager to get publicity and to build their organisation. This was done irrespective of what effect it would have on the struggle against the far right. They succeeded in alienating all those who were prepared to be involved in preparing for the demo from the outset.
There is again a stark contrast between this and the approach of Militant and others in the epic battles against the predecessors of the BNP, the National Front (NF), in the 1970s. The first national demonstration against racism and fascism organised by the British labour movement was in Bradford in May 1974, organised through the Labour Party Young Socialists - then under the influence of Militant - and sanctioned by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. As with all campaigns we participated in, our aim was to forge in action the maximum support, both from the labour movement and broad layers of the working class, irrespective of what political differences may exist on other issues. There was freedom for all to argue their point of view and to dispute, if necessary, the demands of the organisers and the action best suited to combat the fascists.
To give them their due, there was an element of this also in the SWP's initiative in launching the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in the 1970s to combat the NF. However, even then the ANL - under the influence of the SWP - was restricted to the bare slogan "Don't vote Nazi". As we point out below in relation to Unite Against Fascism, this suggested that it was legitimate to vote for the Tories or the Liberal Democrats. Moreover, any attempt to argue counter to this approach met with vehement opposition from the SWP. But they did draw in at that stage figures on the left. The now discredited former 'left' Neil Kinnock, as well as Peter Hain - then a radical who had been leader of the Young Liberals - and many others, were involved with the ANL. The national mobilisation and Rock Against Racism festivals organised in Victoria Park in 1978, with bands like the Clash performing were highly successful. The NF leaders subsequently admitted that this was a severe blow to their organisation at that stage. The NF subsequently went into decline, partly because of this, but also because of the election of Thatcher in 1979, who was seen as 'doing the job' of the far right in any case.
The ANL banner was maintained by the SWP until the recent period. But it never became a real membership-based campaign with democratic structures and the participation of others - apart from the SWP - in its workings. It was, in effect, a convenient 'signboard' for them that could be resurrected whenever the far right raised its head. The SWP would then claim that it was the ANL which must automatically be designated as the 'leadership'.
An indication that it did not have roots or democratic structures was shown by the replacement of the ANL - which has been ditched without discussion amongst ANL or SWP supporters - by the organisation 'Unite Against Fascism' (UAF). In this regard, the SWP is at least consistent. As the Socialist Alliance and now Respect show, they just dump organisations when they have served their purpose if they think it will enhance the SWP. UAF represents, however, a new point of departure for the SWP in the anti-fascist arena, both programmatically, in its main slogans, and also in its cosy relationship with the conservative trade union officialdom that currently dominates the labour movement in Britain. Previously, viable rank-and-file ad hoc anti-fascist organisations were either viewed with suspicion or outright hostility by the trade union bureaucracy. Action to combat fascists on a clear programme was anathema to them. But UAF has now become an almost semi-official organisation of the trade union bureaucracy, enjoying support and tolerance from sections of the TUC and a number of individual trade union 'sponsors'.
'He who pays the piper calls the tune'. This has led the SWP to adopt a false political position on how to combat the BNP politically. Its main demand, in consonance with its trade union allies, particularly in elections, has been the slogan 'vote against the BNP'. This has been interpreted as advocating a vote for the 'anti-BNP' parties; this means not just discredited New Labour and the openly pro-capitalist Liberal Democrats but even the Tories. These professed 'anti-BNP' parties are nothing of the kind. In words, New Labour opposes the BNP but in practice its shift towards the right, its embrace of unrestrained, neo-liberal capitalism - means that it has effectively deserted workers. Some of the very poorest workers, therefore, who previously supported them, have swung over in despair, seduced by the demagogic appeal of the BNP. The Tories also encourage the BNP by seeking to outdo them in adopting right-wing policies on immigration and other issues.
It is therefore necessary to offer a clear anti-capitalist, socialist alternative in elections combined with action on demos, etc, if the BNP are to be fought effectively. Also, it is not sufficient today with the BNP moving to more skilful tactics - appealing to workers on a 'radical', sometimes anti-establishment or anti-capitalist, basis - to merely repeat the denunciations of 'fascists' more relevant to a previous era. The 'no platform for fascists' demand needs to be maintained in universities and elsewhere where there is a natural hostility of youth to the airing of fascist or neo-fascist views. But this is not suitable on all occasions. For instance, where the BNP has captured important council positions - as in Stoke - it would be ludicrous to argue for 'no platform'. This would be seen as unviable, not only by those who elected them but from a wider spectrum of people as well. In a situation like this, it is necessary to combat the BNP and their arguments, which sometimes means not just arguing in council chambers against them but also, for instance, in the media.
But this kind of skilful approach towards combating the BNP is foreign to the SWP, both from ideological and 'practical' points of view. They pursue the same unbending, sectarian tactics despite their recent adaptation to the trade union bureaucracy. In fact, their methods on the ground have not changed since the early 1990s. For instance, in August 2008, in the preparations in Nottingham for and on the demonstration in Codnor against the BNP's 'Red, White and Blue Festival' (RWB) in nearby Denby, the SWP's crass sectarianism was evident to all non-SWP anti-fascists who participated in this highly successful protest.
The protest had been organised by the "Notts Stop the BNP" (NSBNP), a genuine coalition which worked with local residents in the Amber Valley area which covered Denby and Codnor. NSBNP had widespread support from trade unions locally and nationally. Socialist Party members have played a leading role in NSBNP from the beginning.
After ignoring repeated invitations from NSBNP to participate in the existing protest, the SWP-UAF unilaterally announced another protest in the same area but at a later time. UAF refused all proposals from NSBNP to unite the two rallies and protests despite the danger of splitting the turnout and confusion in an area where there were likely to be hundreds of BNP supporters.
Instead of working towards maximising the turnout at a united protest and building a campaign with local roots the SWP-UAF concentrated on attracting trade union support for their protest at the expense of the existing one, including claiming that their protest was the only one which had police permission. In fact, UAF agreed the time and, apparently, the location of their protest with the police only three days before the NSBNP protest did - just eight days before the actual protest
SWP members in the trade unions manoeuvred against the NSBNP protest, organising the times of trade union coaches so that they only arrived once the NSBNP protest was underway. This even applied to coaches from around the East Midlands which could have arrived early enough.
On the day UAF played an incredibly sectarian role, initially refusing to join the NSBNP rally which was going on when they arrived. They insisted on having the UAF banner at the front of the march on all occasions, pushing local residents and their banner aside. Having sidelined the local opponents of the BNP UAF marchers and SWP members proceeded to shout "Nazi scum off our streets" at local residents who had come out to watch the march - a tactic which only helped the BNP.
At Derby Trades Council in September 2008, a leading SWP member opposed support for a local conference called by the NSBNP to review events. Clearly, the SWP-UAF have once again not covered themselves in glory with this ill-judged intervention. This event, more than words about the 'united front' shows that the SWP maintains an unreconstructed sectarian approach which is incapable of halting the rise of the far-right. In contrast, following the demo, two new local campaigns were developed by the work of the NSBNP, 'Amber Valley Stop the BNP' and the 'Derby Campaign against Racism and Fascism'.
A similar attitude by the SWP - combined with opportunist combinationism - is also evident in the field of student politics. The student milieu is largely middle class, despite the increased opportunities for working-class students to attend universities and colleges in the 1960s, 1970s and, to some extent, in the 1980s. The attacks on university education in the 1990s and since have borne down most heavily on working-class and lower middle-class young people going on to further and higher education.
Marxists have always considered that it is vital to seek to win the best students to our ideas. As Trotsky pointed out, even for students from a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois background, university represented freedom for a time from their normal milieu. This is the time of their lives - freed from parental control and a bourgeois conformist environment - perhaps the only time that they are able to examine and 'experiment' with ideas. Therefore, many could be won on an ideological basis to the ideas of Marxism and Trotskyism in the modern era. The experience and success of Militant, and now the Socialist Party, in winning and retaining valuable members from the student field bears this out.
However, this approach has always been quite distinct from other socialist and Marxist organisations. A properly educated and trained Marxist won from the student field can play a very important role as 'yeast' to the workers' movement itself. But the precondition for this is the abandonment of a haughty, academic attitude - all too often the hallmark of student 'Marxists'. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all came from either a bourgeois or petty bourgeois background. However, they placed themselves on the standpoint of the working class politically, but also in their outlook and even their lifestyle, particularly the lack of any privileges. Students, aspiring to be Marxists, we argued, must first go to 'school' in the workers' movement, learn from the working class, both its history and its contemporary features, before they themselves become 'teachers'.
Unfortunately, this is not the approach of even many left students, won to 'Marxism' from the universities and colleges. The SWP itself has a chequered history in this regard. In the radical wave that swept the universities in the 1960s, with its 'libertarian' overtones, they also adopted many of these features, with an uncritical attitude towards 'feminism', 'black power', etc. Militant, now the Socialist Party, pursued, at first, an ideological battle to win the best students to a rounded-out Marxist position. Only in this way could they last, unlike others who, catching a bout of 'socialist measles' while at university, were promptly 'cured' when they left and returned to 'normal' capitalist society.
At the same time, while combating the false ideas prevalent in the university milieu, from the bourgeois professors and their ilk, we also seek to relate - particularly in this period when education is under attack - our programme to the real day-to-day problems which students and academic staff experience. The imposition of fees has had a deleterious effect on students, particularly those from a poorer background. This issue is also linked to the attack on the National Union of Students' democracy from the right-wing students and the government. The aim is to nullify opposition to present and future attacks by limiting and de-politicising the NUS. Imitating their recent trade union orientation, the SWP has directed a lot of their efforts not on mobilising from below but to the tops of the student movement and its structures.
Socialist Students is an independent organisation with Socialist Party participation. It concentrates on convincing ordinary students, while not completely ignoring the structures of the NUS. The SWP/Student Respect, with which they were closely allied until recently, have argued that the main task should be the convincing of 'sabbatical' officers within the student unions who are wavering over whether to support the NUS's review, which attacked union democracy. From November 2007, the SWP's student organisation, Socialist Worker Student Societies (SWSS), and Student Respect, tried to dominate the 'Save the NUS Democracy Campaign'. They wished to determine how the campaign was run, who would speak at meetings, when they are called in to speak and who was elected onto the steering committees. The SWP's students have, in effect, undemocratically used their weight of numbers at these meetings to run the campaign on their own terms and have specifically excluded others, particularly Socialist Students from even raising ideas for debate.
Contrast this to the attitude adopted by the Socialist Party's representatives in other fields, where the SWP is in a minority. For instance, they are a small force in the left of PCS. Nevertheless, Socialist Party members include them on the 'Left Unity' slate and they are accordingly elected onto the National Executive Committee of that union. Also, they did not initially participate in the setting up of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), favouring the alternative of their own organisation, the Organisation for Fighting Unions. Only when that organisation collapsed did they turn towards the NSSN. But Socialist Party members did not object to their members sitting on the NSSN's steering committee as it was important that all working-class and left organisations represented.
A similar fear of Socialist Party members' ideas is also evident in their attitude towards the initiative, the Campaign to Defeat Fees (CDF). This campaign involves Socialist Party members, Socialist Students, young Greens, Education Not for Sale (ENS), People and Planet, trade unionists, NUS officials and many others in its activities. It has also been supported by a number of Student unions including Portsmouth, Huddersfield, Lambeth College and others.
Yet the SWSS/Student Respect, through SWSS at Northumbria University, tried to block a motion to the Student Council from Socialist Student members advocating support for the CDF. When Manchester Socialist Students organised a protest or stunt as part of the 21 February 2008 day of action to defeat fees around the issue of student debt, outside Manchester University Students' Union, the SWP did not participate. Despite repeated appeals to members of the SWP/Student Respect, including full-time sabbaticals in the student union, for their support, the student union did not participate or support the students' protest. Even worse, they stayed in their offices while the BBC was filming the protest outside. Moreover, SWSS/Student Respect have also attacked the CDF publicly at events like the Portsmouth Student Union activity.
With the onset of the economic crisis in Britain and worldwide, and following in its wake the more difficult economic environment for students when they leave university, means that the best students will be looking for arguments, answers and action to the problems they face. This requires a more serious approach than that offered by the SWP and its student organisation SWSS.