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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 Socialist Workers Party's increasingly opportunist turn in this century has been accompanied by an exaggeration of the importance and the scale of practically every social movement that has taken place in the last decade. For instance, the first stirrings of revolt in the anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation movement was hailed as a "decisive breakthrough". Alex Callinicos, in a major article in 2001, gave a theoretical underpinning to the new developments that had taken place. Like Ralph Nader, the anti-globalisation movement in Seattle in 1999 was hailed by Callinicos as a "fork in the road". To some extent, this was true but this movement - engaging as it did new layers particularly of young people - while significant did not, except in Italy, perhaps, touch broad, decisive sections of the working class, either in America or Europe.
He also wrote favourably and uncritically about other radical anti-capitalist figures, ascribing to them qualities they did not possess. He wrote in 2001:
"Reporting on the protests in Prague, Boris Kagarlitsky wrote: 'Walden Bello is like Lenin in October. Since the demonstrations in Seattle, he has been transformed from an academic into a real leader." In truth, Bello has a little way to go before he becomes another Lenin. But undoubtedly the role he now plays is that of an activist making a directed political intervention, not an academic reading a seminar paper. This is true also of Bourdieu... What this amounts to is the birth of a new left on an international scale. The fact remains that this is the greatest opening for the left since the 1960s.' [Alex Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left, 2001]
It was correct to greet this movement and to participate in it, which the CWI and its national sections did. However, unlike the SWP, we did not dignify the main spokespersons of this movement in such organisations as ATTAC ('Association pour la Taxation des Transactions pour l'Aide aux Citoyens' - Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens), for instance - with a more politically advanced position than they actually had. In fact, most were not so much 'anti-capitalist' as 'anti-corporate' - in the case of Ralph Nader, or anti-neoliberal capitalism. Most were searching for a more 'democratic' alternative within the framework of capitalism.
Typical were those such as Susan George, who stated at the time: "I regret that I must confess that I no longer know what 'overthrowing capitalism' means at the beginning of the 21st century." She then goes on to express the overwhelming mood of the 'intellectuals' - some of whom were moving against neo-liberal capitalism - when she expresses the fear of mass upheaval, revolution, as a result of capitalism's crisis. She says:
"Perhaps we are going to witness what the philosopher Paul Virilio has called 'the global accident'. If it happens, it will certainly be accompanied by immense human suffering. If all the financial markets and all the stock exchanges collapsed at the same time, millions of people would find themselves back on the dole, bank failures would massively exceed the capacity of governments to prevent catastrophes, insecurity and crime would become the norm and we would be plunged into the Hobbesian hell of the war of all against all. Call me a 'reformist' if you like, but I don't want such a future any more than the neo-liberal future." [Susan George, Que faire à présent?, text for the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre, 15 January 2001.]
Susan George anticipated, without fully understanding why, what is actually unfolding in the world economy at the present time. These developments are inevitable given the inherent contradictions of capitalism and particularly the features of 'financialisation' we have witnessed in the last 20 years. The 'Hobbesian hell' she mentions is integral to modern capitalism, and can no more be wished away by Susan George and her ilk than the economic witch-doctors of capitalism. In the light of her statements, detailed by Callinicos in his article, one would expect a Marxist critique. However he meekly declares: "It would be a big mistake, however, to see remarks such as these as the expression of a settled reformist position." He then simply declares in relation to her and others: "Nevertheless, what we are seeing is the emergence of an increasingly influential group of intellectuals who see themselves as engaging in a political struggle against global capitalism." That is it! No arguments, criticism, preparation of his own members by subjecting Susan George's clearly reformist ideas to the political microscope and criticism.
A similar approach is revealed by Callinicos in his polemic against their former IST affiliate, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in the US. He criticised them for ultra-leftism towards Ralph Nader by quoting a pro-SWP member in the ISO:
"The only people criticising Nader were hopeless sectarians or apologists for Gore!" [Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left.]
In the 2000 presidential election campaign, our US comrades were the first to recognise the significance of Nader's campaign and the importance of intervening in this. But while calling for a Nader vote, we never advocated dropping our independent positions and we did subject him to friendly but firm criticism, particularly on the need for a new mass party separate from the Democrats. Callinicos links this to the adoption of
"new methods of working [which] are now required. In particular, systematic use of the united front approach developed by the Bolsheviks and the Communist International during its early years (1918-23) is of crucial importance in relating to the new political milieux." [Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left.]
This is an exaggeration, as we have shown earlier because a united front-type work in this period comprises an 'element' and not the full-blown tactics which, of right, apply to mass parties. Moreover, in the hands of the SWP it is applied in a one-sided fashion. Lenin and Trotsky never conceived the 'united front' as a kind of non-aggression pact between Marxists, reformist or centrist leaders and organisations that were compelled by the pressure of the masses to engage in such formations. The united front has a twofold purpose: to mobilise the maximum strength and organisation of the working class, while at the same time giving the opportunity for the ideas and programme of Marxism to be tested out before audiences, which to begin with are not necessarily favourable to socialist or Marxist ideas.
The SWP's interpretation of this tactic in was expressed most starkly in their late intervention in Italy, particularly in relation to the phenomenon of Rifondazione Comunista (PRC). They welcomed spokespersons of the PRC to their annual event 'Marxism', such as the leader of the party Fausto Bertinotti, who received a big reception there. But Bertinotti and others who spoke for the PRC were never criticised, even by implication, when it was quite clear that he was already shifting towards the right. They also organised within the PRC in Italy a small organisation 'Communism of the Base', composed mostly of young people, which lasted for a short period and then disappeared.
In Italy, when the IST intervened in the huge Genoa anti-capitalist demonstration of 2001, their main slogan was "Another world is possible". They did not even attempt to spell out to those who were present what type of 'another world' was needed and whether it could be achieved. We argued that this 'another world' was for us a socialist one and outlined programmatically and organisationally how to build such a movement which could achieve that goal. Bob Labi, who participated in the demonstration, made the following comment about some of the participating IST contingents. He writes:
"In Genoa, some of the IST slogans were actually liberal. Their Irish contingent had a placard calling for 'Fair trade not free trade', a utopian demand under capitalism that, in reality, implies asking for a 'nicer' capitalism. When challenged on this slogan one of their Irish leaders replied, 'Why can't you enjoy this wonderful event? Look how many people are here, don't spoil it.'"
Bob went on to write about the German contingent:
"The German IST grouping Linksruck ('Left Shift') [the Left party did not yet exist] produced a special nine-page briefing... 'A different world is possible! Info briefing for the G8 summit protests in Genoa' for their members. This document, while stressing building an anti-capitalist movement with strong local roots, did not raise the question of how to develop this movement into a socialist one. In fact the word 'socialist' is not used anywhere in the briefing." ['SWP opportunism in the anti-capitalist movement', Socialist Party Members Bulletin 42, September 2001.]
The programme for this movement, as well as the slogans and the agitation derived from it, while reflecting the objective needs of the working class, for Marxists should always relate to the existing level of consciousness of those we are trying to reach. This is absent, however, from all their interventions. This arises, in turn, from their lack of a theoretical grasp of a Marxist/Trotskyist approach on the need and use of transitional demands. This flows from the approach of their founder Cliff himself. He had maintained, in relation to Trotsky's 'The Death Agony of Capitalism - the Transitional Programme', that after Trotsky was assassinated by the Stalinists, it was no longer relevant. He stated:
"The basic assumption behind Trotsky's transitional demands was that the economic crisis was so deep that the struggle for even the smallest improvement in workers' conditions would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved the assumption, the ground fell from beneath the programme." [Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star, p. 300.]
A collaborator of Cliff, the late Duncan Hallas, also argued that the perspective reflected in the transitional programme
"made sober and realistic assessment of actual shifts in working-class consciousness, alterations in the balance of class forces, and tactical changes to gain the maximum advantage from them. [The Essence of Lenin's Critical Practice] was extremely difficult for Trotsky's followers."
Both Cliff and Hallas's charges would be correct if - particularly during the boom of 1950 to 1973 - Trotsky's programme was interpreted in a lifeless, mechanical fashion. The objective situation facing capitalism in the 1930s did pose the question of struggles for reforms challenging the very foundations of the system. A serious struggle for reform inevitably came up against the resistance of the system as a whole and its representatives. However, in the post-1945 period, with the political sell-out of social democracy and Stalinism laying the basis for the economic revival of capitalism, some of the demands in the transitional programme were pushed into the background, some of them not being immediately applicable. For instance, ultra-left sectarians still repeated mechanically (like the now-defunct Workers' Revolutionary Party) Trotsky's demand for 'shop committees'. In reality, however, these 'shop committees' already existed in the main branches of British industry in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s in the form of powerful shop stewards' organisations. Trade union membership rose to an unprecedented 55% of the workforce and was much higher in some other countries of Europe.
This was something Lenin had never envisaged; he argued in his pamphlet 'Left-wing Communism' that trade union membership would not reach on average more than a quarter, at most one third, of the labour force because of the colossal pressure of capitalism, the persecution of trade union militants and divisive anti-union measures of the bosses. But Lenin could not have envisaged the kind of explosive boom which developed in the post-Second World War period, which massively strengthened the confidence and, therefore, the organisations of the working class.
But that period of 1950-73, although pictured as 'eternal' at the time, was a unique and, moreover, exceptional period (although of fairly long duration) in the development of capitalism. Under the whip of neo-liberalism in the last 30 years, capitalism has returned to its 'normal' features. The transitional programme - if still not all the demands in this programme - therefore has big relevance today. Even Cliff, it seems, when reality struck him on the nose, was compelled to recognise this when he declared:
"Capitalism in the advanced countries is no longer expanding... So the words of Trotsky's 1938 Transitional Programme that 'there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses' living standards' fits reality again." [Tony Cliff, Trotskyism after Trotsky.]
Yet the same Cliff, as we have seen, declared earlier that "when life disproves the assumption the ground fell from beneath the programme".
You pays your money and you takes your choice! This is symptomatic of the methods upon which this organisation has been built. What is vital in Trotsky's pamphlet is not just the demands but the method of analysis, which takes into account the stages through which capitalism and thereby the working class is passing, and seeks to fit the programme into this. To merely mechanically repeat programmes and demands apposite for one period in another changed situation is ludicrous. Nevertheless, the method by which Trotsky elaborated this programme, taking all the factors into account is crucial for preparing the new generation to wrestle with and solve the problems posed by the new situations that are opening up.
Cliff's light-minded dismissal of the transitional programme and method at one stage only to then belatedly embrace it is responsible for the miseducation of his present heirs. Historically, the SWP/IST has, in effect, used the method of the 'maximum and minimum' programme - the hallmark of the pre-First World War social democracy in its approach to political work. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, recognised that the new period ushered in by the First World War, where the productive forces had outgrown the narrow limits of the nation state and private ownership, meant that the struggle for each and every reform came up against the limits of the system. This was the method of the Bolsheviks - enunciated in such priceless little works as Lenin's 'The Impending Catastrophe and How to avoid it'. The same approach informed Trotsky and the International Left Opposition in the development of the transitional programme.
The SWP, even in its recent opportunist phase, will often shout for 'revolution' but in their day-to-day activity, they limit their slogans to demands like 'tax the rich'. Even when they call for the 'maximum' of 'revolution', it has an empty, abstract character and is not accompanied in the main by any programme as a bridge to the idea of 'revolution'. An absolute necessity today following the last 30 years of neo-liberal, capitalist triumphalism is to begin to rehabilitate socialism by linking the day-to-day demands and experiences of the working class with the idea of a new social system. We should seek to do this in the most attractive language possible for the new generation. An illustration of the method of the SWP in this regard is provided by the SWP pamphlet 'The IMF, globalisation and resistance' published in September 2000. Bob Labi made the point that the pamphlet gives
"a mass of good anti-capitalist facts and figures, but not a single hint of what is the alternative to capitalism. In this pamphlet there is absolutely no mention whatsoever of any kind of socialist alternative. Anyone looking for a programme that goes beyond simply calls for 'protests' or appeals to 'take on the IMF' would find nothing at all. In reality this type of approach is an attempt to curry favour with the newest activists by downplaying political differences. The SWP may hope that by this tactic they can easily win initial support." ['SWP opportunism in the anti-capitalist movement'.]
This method also illustrates an inability to conduct a real dialogue, as opposed to sloganising, with others in the workers' movement. Of course, great care has to be exercised - even now, when we are just emerging from the neo-liberalism of the last 20 years - in explaining what we mean by socialism. But the tasks of Marxists are essentially the same as sketched out by Marx and Engels in the 'Communist Manifesto': "In the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement." We start from the existing consciousness but attempt through demands and the experience of the working class to pose the socialist alternative. The SWP/IST actually resists this approach. In fact, of late they have characterised such demands as the equation of "ultra-leftism".
Following the collapse of Bear Stearns, the SWP-Left List candidate for London mayor, Lindsey German, put out the following statement:
"The collapse of one of the world's largest banks shows just how shaky the financial system really is. Yet New Labour and Ken Livingstone have cheered on the speculators who've put the whole economy at risk. Livingstone calls the City gamblers the 'cutting edge of world business'. He wants non-dom tax exiles in London to continue paying no tax. The Left List is the only party in these elections that will stand up to the financial speculators and big business. We're calling for a tough new regulator for the City's gamblers, replacing the toothless Financial Services Authority. And we want a clampdown on tax avoidance by the fat cats - now costing the UK at least £97 billion a year. London's wealth should be used to benefit all of London, not just the super-rich." [Lindsey German, Left Alternative Website, 18 March 2008.]
This programme is no different to what practically every capitalist commentator clamoured for during the 2008 financial meltdown. In fact, Brown and Darling went further than the SWP! No call for nationalisation of the banks and finance houses, as the Socialist Party has done consistently, never mind a call for socialist, democratic planning.