An electoral coalition with "sections of the middle class, or the petty bourgeoisie, to use the Marxist jargon" would be alright for socialists, writes John Rees in Socialist Worker, 2 August 2003. In his view, only alliances with full-strength capitalist forces are impermissible on principle.
He then proves to his own satisfaction that electoral coalitions by socialists with any "Muslim community" group is alright. There is "a minority inside the Muslim community that is middle class", but apparently no capitalist section worth mentioning; and the middle-class section is in good part "radicalised by the war" and "open to working with the left".
Martin Thomas argues that John Rees, in trying to justify the new turn for the Socialist Alliance, has got his political ideas and principles very mixed up indeed.
Having written himself such a large blank cheque, Rees is in no hurry to run to the bank with it. He wants "to create from among the forces opposed to the [Iraq] war the largest possible [political-electoral] alternative to New Labour". The "largest possible" alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), Greens, Communist Party of Britain, etc., would certainly be "cross-class". That's fine by Rees. But then he tells us, as if rebutting a slander rather than ruefully reporting a failure, that "there is no cross-class alliance being proposed for the future of the Socialist Alliance".
This odd polemic reflects the SWP leaders at an impasse. They are fed up with working with other socialist groups in the Socialist Alliance. Seeing the Stop the War Coalition as a spectacular get-rich-quick success for them, they want to find a way to apply the same recipe on the political-electoral front. In particular, to leapfrog forward by corralling the "Muslim vote".
They want to have their hands free to attempt that. But the actual leapfrog is elusive.
The SWP is planning a "Peace and Justice" electoral bloc for the 2004 euro-election in the West Midlands with the leadership of Birmingham central mosque and other local Muslim activists. This bloc, and the way it has been put together in narrow cabals without consultation with the Birmingham Socialist Alliance, has stirred wide opposition.
In his article, Rees decries "critics... who claim that all Muslims are anti-gay or anti-women". No-one has claimed that. What has happened is that people have asked SWP leaders what this bloc will say about issues like lesbian and gay rights, and have been told by such as Lindsey German that the SWP favours lesbian and gay rights but will not make a "shibboleth" of them.
In order to pursue its bloc, the SWP has felt it necessary to pack a Birmingham Socialist Alliance AGM and vote out all the previous officers, replacing them by SWP members or allies.
Back in May most of the Socialist Alliance voted for the SWP's general proposition at the Alliance conference to go for a "new coalition". Even if dissatisfied with the SWP, most thought that what Workers' Liberty said about this "new coalition" being a turn to cross-class alliances and popular frontism was exaggerated. Now almost everyone in the Alliance outside the SWP and a few hapless satellites sees, and opposes, that turn. And, since the SWP so rarely debates issues openly, the appearance of Rees's article must indicate that many decent activists inside the SWP have doubts.
Rees does not trumpet the "Peace and Justice" bloc as an example of the fine things that can be done to build cross-class alliances. The SWP has said very little in public about the "Peace and Justice" bloc, and nothing at all about what its political platform will be. It looks as if the bloc is not as solid as the SWP would wish.
Outside Birmingham the SWP's coalition-building looks unsuccessful so far. The Communist Party of Britain, a feeble force itself but probably important to the SWP as a bridge to some other groups, has publicly announced that it will not ally with the SWP. It is hard to imagine the Green Party seeing any benefit for itself in joining with the SWP: it gathered far more of the "anti-war vote" in May's local government elections than the Socialist Alliance did. The Muslim Association of Britain campaigned in May for an "anti-war vote" in the Scottish Parliament elections which meant chiefly a tactical vote for the Scottish National Party. They fry a different species of political fish to the SWP. Moreover, for the next big elections, the euro-elections, there is the problem that the MAB is pro-euro while the SWP is vehemently anti.
This sort of difficulty is a common one with attempts by socialists to create cross-class coalitions. The socialists might be willing to sell their principles-but their desired middle-class allies do not want to buy. The old Communist Parties spent decades advocating a "broad anti-monopoly alliance", but rarely got takers.
The main thing the SWP has done so far, nationally, is organise a round of public meetings to denounce the Blair government and the US-UK occupation of Iraq, with a standard platform of George Galloway, a MAB speaker, and a SWP speaker.
Is George Galloway "middle-class"? On his own account, he regards £150,000 a year as the minimum for him "to function properly as a leading figure in a part of the British political system" (Scotsman, 19 May 2003).
On his own account, again, he has got this sort of money from the governments of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, from an Iraqi businessman with close links to the former Saddam Hussein regime, and from extensive business ventures. (In the mid-1990s, for example, he published a paper for British Asians which the Pakistani government financed in order to promote its line on Kashmir.) On his own account, he visited Iraq for meetings with the top people in the dictatorship about once a month from 1993 through to 2002, and was on Christmas-dinner-at-home terms with Saddam's no.2, Tariq Aziz.
If that is merely "middle-class", then who is capitalist? Saying that Galloway must be regarded as working-class because he is a Labour MP and has a background in the labour movement makes no more sense than saying that the late Robert Maxwell should be defined as a proletarian because he, too, was a Labour MP.
The Muslim Association of Britain? On its own account of itself (in its freesheet Inspire, distributed on the 28 September anti-war demonstration), it is the British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest, largest, richest and most sophisticated Islamic fundamentalist party in the Arab world.
The Brotherhood connection and the Galloway connection came together for the SWP in an international anti-war conference organised in Cairo, Egypt, on 18-19 December 2002. It was engineered by Galloway and the Egyptian Bar Association (a body long controlled by the Brotherhood), and financed by Egyptian businesses which traded with Iraq. It had the Iraqi ambassador to the Arab League as a keynote speaker. The SWP keenly pushed the "Cairo Declaration" which came out of that conference, and is now promoting a second Cairo conference, to be held on 25-26 October 2003. Even by Rees's standards, this venture must qualify as a popular front.
What is Rees's argument for saying cross-class coalitions are OK? The Bolsheviks did them. They allied with "the representatives of the peasantry" in Russia in 1917.
But alliances for particular actions are different from blocs for wide-ranging, ongoing campaigns, and those in turn are different from merging for the purpose of elections, which is when different parties put up their whole programme and identity for judgment. We would ally even with the MAB in a practical action to defend mosques against racists out to firebomb or pillage them.
The Bolsheviks made many "united fronts" for particular actions. In the first Soviet government they made a coalition with the "Left Social Revolutionaries". They never merged on a party-electoral level with any group they considered "middle-class".
In the second place, the Bolsheviks allied with the most revolutionary and socialistic elements of a poor peasantry in mass revolt against the landlords. All their alliances were a function of their fight for independent working-class politics, not an alternative to it.
The "Social Revolutionaries" had always considered themselves socialist and been generally recognised by the international labour movement as such. The Marxists in Russia, the Marxists who led a revolution at the end of World War One instead of failing as those in other countries did, had long been distinguished by the fact that their party was explicitly not an umbrella party of all "socialists", vaguely defined. They insisted on building an independent working-class party, and separated themselves from the SR socialists, who "considered themselves a party which realised the union of the intelligentsia, the workers, and the peasants" (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution volume 1 chapter 12).
Arguing against the Stalinists in the 1920s, Trotsky would write: "The idea of a workers' and peasants' party sweeps from the history of Bolshevism the entire struggle against the Populists" [SRs]. "The alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry is by no means given ready-made by history, and it cannot be created by means of oily manoeuvres, contemptible attempts at wheedling, and pathetic declamations. The alliance between the proletariat and peasantry is a question of the political relation of forces and consequently of the complete independence of the proletariat in relation to all other classes" (The Third International After Lenin).
The Bolsheviks' militantly independent working-class stand put such pressure on the SRs that a left wing split off and backed the Soviet government.
The Muslim Brotherhood is richer, more astute, and, decisively, more confident and committed about what it stands for, positively, than the SWP is. And the SWP is trying to make its alliance on the MAB's ground-courting the "Muslim vote"-rather than staking out its own direction and splitting off left-wing Muslims towards that.
The SWP's attempted operation is the opposite of what the Bolsheviks did. And the MAB are more likely to come out gainers than the SWP is.
The SWP's Birmingham allies are, as far as we know, not affiliated to the Muslim Association. But for the big anti-war demonstrations the SWP-led Stop the War Coalition gave MAB top billing as sponsors, effectively advertising MAB as the "Muslim wing" of the anti-war movement.
MAB are are polished, flexible, astute operators, but fundamentalists. In Inspire they explain that in their ideal state those brought up Muslim who renounce religion should be put to death, or at least punished as for treason. In Israel-Palestine they want an Islamic state "from the river to the sea".
To court the "Muslim vote" by alliance with such people, or accredit them as the "Muslim wing" of the anti-war movement, is an act of hostility not only to Jews, but also to workers in Britain from non-Muslim Asian backgrounds, Hindu or Sikh for example, and to young people from Muslim backgrounds who are breaking from religion.
In Preston the SWP managed to get significant support from Muslim workers in the May local government elections, winning one council seat under the Socialist Alliance banner. Saeed Ahmed, a radical-minded local imam, spoke to the Socialist Alliance conference saying that none of his associates in Preston, and only a small minority of Muslims anywhere, supported MAB, and that Muslims should be appealed to electorally not as Muslims but as people fighting war and racism. The SWP evidently was not listening.
Instead Rees claims that those who criticised the SWP for its alliance with MAB and kindred issues "opposed the foundation of the Stop the War Coalition or, though nominally supporting it, actually opposed it at every turn or took no active part in building it. Some of these organistions and individuals objected to working with the Muslim community. Their views are seized on by the pro-imperialist left in order to discredit the Stop the War Coalition..."
As if rebutting his critics, Rees continues: "It [is not] true that most Muslims are supporters of 'Islamic fundamentalism'. Only a tiny minority of Muslims in Britain are followers of 'Islamic fundamentalism' or so-called 'political Islam'."
We have been saying so for months! And drawing the conclusion that it was foolish and shameful for the SWP to boost that "tiny minority" of Islamic fundamentalists in MAB as the recognised representatives of all anti-war Muslims.
Rees names his adversaries in polemic only as "a small number of left sects and individuals", but in fact he is writing about Solidarity and Workers' Liberty. Although most of the rest of the left has now recoiled from the SWP's trajectory, during the war the Socialist Party, and the other organised groups in the Socialist Alliance, had only the most microscopic and delicate criticisms of the SWP. All those groups rejected the "Third Camp" line, "No to war, no to Saddam"; approved the alliance with the MAB; and approved the SWP's "People's Assembly" project.
Rees's description of our ideas is a smear. We did not oppose the founding of the Stop the War Coalition. At the first conference (at the time of the Afghan war) we voted against the political platform for the campaign presented by the SWP, because we thought alternative platforms, presented by us and others, were better. We were active in the anti-war movement. We objected to boosting and accrediting MAB, not to "working with the Muslim community". Rees's style of polemic here draws on Stalinist stock as much as his substantive argument for cross-class coalitions does.
In another passage of his article, attempting to smear his critics as people irrationally hostile to working with Muslims, Rees exclaims: "It would be as stupid [for] the left to turn its back on the radicalised sections of the Muslim community as it would have been in the first half of the 20th century to ignore the Jewish community in the East End of London."
Let us, then, remember people like Rudolf Rocker. Rocker, an anarcho-syndicalist, was maybe the most prominent radical in Jewish East London between 1895 and 1914. On the Jewish Sabbath Rocker and his friends would march to the synagogues waving ham sandwiches! What would they have thought of socialists who wanted to grab the "Jewish vote" by working with the rabbis, the better-off "community leaders", and ultra-orthodox zealots?
Whatever our differences with Rocker's detailed politics (he would, later, unlike many anarcho-syndicalists, oppose the Russian Revolution), his spirit here is what the left needs to recapture.
Rocker and his comrades knew they were for something much larger and more definite than the mere vote-catching amalgamation of different pools of feeling, working-class and middle-class, against the status quo. They measured their activities, and their alliances, by what they were for, not just by negative calculation from what they were against. They had confidence in what they stood for.
The SWP's current impasse epitomises a left forgetting what it stands for positively, and, demoralised, grasping at anything that moves against the status quo.
We need a Socialist Alliance-an open, democratic, honest alliance of socialists-which will stand openly and proudly for independent working-class political representation, and for working-class socialism. If the "Socialist Alliance" which the SWP dominates is being turned into an obstacle to that working-class socialist stance, then we will have to find ways to build a real Socialist Alliance, organising both within the existing Alliance structure and with socialists outside it. We hope SWP members who reject Rees's apologetics will join us in that work.