SWP: time for political accounting

Submitted by martin on 21 February, 2009 - 3:30 Author: Charlie Salmon

When is a resignation not a resignation? Well, in politics of course. We know from bourgeois politics that disgraced politicians — even those exposed, bruised and publicly humiliated to the extent of Peter Mandelson — can make dramatic comebacks.


Click here for part 1 of this article.
A return to the limelight is made all the easier when the political differences between warring factions are paper thin. Easier still when those who’ve been sidelined are seasoned political operatives. Such is the case with the former leadership of Socialist Workers Party.

The resignations of John Rees and Lindsey German from the official leadership of the SWP may have dampened the debate burning inside of Britain’s largest self-proclaimed revolutionary organisation but for Martin Smith’s Central Committee majority, the current situation is a mere lull in a gathering storm.

The SWP can make things happen, or to borrow some commonplace party lingo ‘’create facts’’. The full-time party machine is sufficiently large and has sufficient active support from the membership to generate, in fairly short order, organisations and campaign groups that extend beyond the immediate party membership. The SWP calls these organisations and groups “united fronts”. We’ve already seen how the political composition of these “united fronts” demands a dramatic redefinition of the term as traditionally understood. What the SWP has built — groups such as ‘Stop the War’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Unite Against Fascism’ — are not ‘’united fronts’’ but popular fronts: cross-class alliances where socialists voluntarily suppress their politics and suspend criticism of our class enemies. They built these alliances, or so they have claimed, to fulfil two essential tasks: (1) to create mass movements of opposition to war, racism and the attacks from New Labour and (2) to build a revolutionary organisation. They have done neither of these things.

The SWP’s theory of party-building over the past decade has revolved around creating a series of steps through which those on the correct political trajectory travel before finally joining the party.

Take ‘Stop the War’ as an example: the SWP branch calls a ‘Stop the War’ meeting, they sell the paper to someone and ask them to an organising meeting. At the organising meeting they sell them another paper and invite them to an SWP public meeting. At the public meeting they sell them another paper and perhaps a copy of the party magazine, Socialist Review, and ask them to come to ‘Marxism’ — the SWP’s annual summer event. At ‘Marxism’ they buy a few books and a subscription to the International Socialism journal. By this time they’re probably ready to answer in the affirmative to a question already levelled at them a considerable number of times: “will you join the party?”

As a model for building a revolutionary party, there is nothing here that stands out as either wrong-headed or reactionary. The problem comes when you assume everyone’s political compass is pointing in the same direction.

The SWP told itself and its critics that the “Muslim community” — traditional Labour voters, highly agitated about the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, now politically homeless, under attack from racists who viewed all Muslims as one homogenous political bloc determined to perpetrate terrorist acts — was, in the aftermath of 9/11, moving to the left. In making this claim they made the error of mirroring the assumptions of the racists who viewed “Muslims” as politically unified and borrowed from Tony Blair — or perhaps it was the other way around — the idea that those who claimed to ‘’speak for Muslims’’ did just that.

These errors of assumption were compounded by several errors of cognition, namely the idea that it was possible to persuade Muslims, via the conduit of self-anointed ‘Muslim leaders’ — some like the Muslim Association of Britain clerical-fascist at their core, others run-of-the-mill communal reactionaries — to adopt a socialist agenda. The SWP forged the Stop the War Coalition not on class-lines but by appealing to communalism.

For some critics of the SWP’s ‘’united front’’ strategy, there is another problem, not necessarily connected to the political character of one particular group. A direct transposition of the classic examples of united front work — from the Comintern’s Theses On Tactics or from Trotsky’s writings on anti-fascism — would suggest that a united front that is anything other than a tactical proposition for unity from revolutionaries to a mass, reformist organisation is out of the question. Of course, such a reading would isolate revolutionaries from genuine joint work and from taking the initiative to build mass mobilisations on countless issues. It would reduce the organised left to paranoiac posturing of Gerry Healey’s Workers Revolutionary Party who refused to involve itself with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the late 60s because, amongst other equally silly reasons, the VSC was not a ‘’proper’’ united front.

The issue with the SWP’s ‘’united fronts’’ — however big or small — is squarely a matter of politics but the debate inside of the party has hardly touched on these fundamental issues. The breakdown of the relationship between the SWP, George Galloway, the Islamists and small businessmen in ‘Respect’ cannot be explained in its entirety by John Rees’ lack of accountability or his willingness to accept money from dodgy sources.

Lindsey German comes closest — in a shamefully clumsy way it must be said — to pinpointing the problem when she describes how socialists, particularly women, were barred from selection as electoral candidates by a communal block inside of “Respect”. She claims that if more ‘’white socialists’’ — why socialists have to be ‘’white’’ is a mystery — had been selected as candidates, then the party would have had more influence inside of “Respect” and the crisis would have never developed. German’s analysis suffers to a large degree from the empiricism inherent in the SWP’s theoretical method, “apparatus Marxism”.

German’s post facto analysis remains locked into ideas common to both sides in the SWP’s dispute, that is: ‘’we were fundamentally correct’’. Correct to ditch class politics, correct in our patronising and reactionary assumptions about the ‘Muslim Community’, correct to lash ourselves to George Galloway — that self-serving champion of reactionary regimes the world over — correct to assume that the SWP would grow in these circumstances. Where German comes close to the truth, the new leadership has reduced the crisis to a matter of personal accounting.

The crisis to come

Only the most slavishly loyal or ignorant SWP member (there are substantial numbers of both, it must be said) could convince themselves that the most significant dispute to hit the organisation for thirty years is over or that the political problems exposed in the recent months have been accounted for. A quick survey of the response to Israel’s brutal attack on Gaza must confirm as much.

Who called a succession of rallies, pickets and national demonstrations in response to Israel’s attacks? Which three former members of the SWP central committee were the only leading party figures — along with only a handful of SWP members — to attend the first of these demonstrations? Who, in fact, runs the Stop the War national office and who maintains ultimate control of this valuable political asset? John, Lindsey and their friend Chris (Nineham) of course.

What was the overwhelming character of these demonstrations? With whom did the slogans and placards originate? What was the political flavour of the rally speeches? What organisations co-sponsored the demonstrations and where did SWP members run to book and fill coaches the length and breadth of the country? Working class organisations, trade unions, socialist and campaign groups … no. At least one of the demonstrations was overwhelmingly clerical-fascist in content and very few trade union banners were to be seen on the streets of London or anywhere else. These demonstrations were an almost identical re-run of those in the wake of 9/11.

Neither side in the crisis can tolerate the organisational situation for long. Rees and company will use Stop the War as a platform for political rehabilitation, as a means to pressurise the new leadership or to build a new base for themselves. Martin Smith and the Central Committee cannot allow them use StW in this way and, by its very nature, cannot allow such a large party front to go unchecked, beyond immediate day-to-day control. This situation must come to the crunch some time soon.

The repetition of the slide into communalism and accommodation to communalism demonstrates that no real political changes have been made. That — whatever the hedging and moderately phrased self-criticism from leading party figure — the SWP’s preferred method of party building will remain not involvement in united front work but the creation of popular fronts.

The SWP cannot have it both ways. Party leaders cannot perform — however much they might try — the same trick as the light particle. On paper they have hedged their bets, finessed their arguments and attempted to cloud the politics. In the real world — the day-to-day of political work — they cannot pass through two slits at the same time. SWP members should demand real political accounting at the recall conference later this year and fight for class politics against the popular frontism of the past decade.

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