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Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party

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The United Front today & the Left in Germany

United Front today

Despite the constant intoning of support for the 'united front' tactic, the Socialist Workers Party has misapplied this idea and burnt its fingers. The consequences of this are that they are now in full-scale retreat even from its idea of 'unity of the left' and 'regroupment'. Out of the ashes of Respect, a theoretical fatalism has now gripped the SWP leadership. In the debate on the issue of the crisis of working-class political representation at the National Shop Stewards' Network conference in 2008, the then SWP spokesperson Unjum Mirza spoke at length on the general world economic situation and the crisis of world capitalism. He mentioned the state of working-class trade union organisation but absolutely nothing on the way forward in the next period on the key question of working-class political representation. John Rees repeated the same in a debate at Thanet with Hannah Sell from the Socialist Party in July 2008: "None of us have the answer on this platform; we will have to wait for events."

What would Marx and Engels have said about such a politically quiescent attitude given the absence of independent political representation of the working class? For more than 50 years in the nineteenth century, they strove to create the conditions for the formation of a mass party of the working class, even if in the first instance it was not to be formed with a clear, revolutionary policy. Now, having burnt their fingers because of their false methods, the SWP, in effect, 'parks' this task, unloading it fatalistically onto the 'shoulders of history' rather than adopting an active, interventionist policy assisting history. In truth, they do not have any real Marxist perception of the way forward for the left. It signifies an accommodation with official 'left forces' which involves sublimating their own policy to that of 'left leaders', particularly if they have some prominence.

The IST and Die Linke

This attitude of the SWP - adapting to, almost merging with, new left leaders - has been particularly striking in the case of the evolution of the 'Die Wahlalternative - Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkei' (WASG: 'The Electoral Alternative - Work and Social Justice') in Germany and the subsequent development of Die Linke (the Left party). In opposition to the majority of the members of the WASG in Berlin, the sister organisation of the SWP fully supported the merger of the WASG with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the ruling party in the former Stalinist East Germany, even though there was initially big opposition in Berlin. This opposition arose from the cuts carried out by the coalition there involving the PDS. At the last WASG conference in early 2007, the comrades from Socialist Alternative (SAV), the German section of the CWI, were the main opponents of fusion because of its politically unprincipled character as it included the pro-coalitionist leadership of the PDS. A key condition for the SAV's support of the merger was that the new party should not participate in any government which was responsible for social cuts and privatisation. Lucy Redler was the main spokesperson for the trend of members in the WASG which was opposed to government participation as in Berlin and who were not prepared to accept this in order not to threaten the merger. The leader of the IST within Die Linke, Christine Bucholz, and Linksruck did not oppose the refusal to give Lucy and the Berlin WASG extra time to explain their position. This is despite the fact that, in private, Oskar Lafontaine agreed with some of the SAV's criticisms of the then SPD-PDS coalition in Berlin city council.

Lafontaine was very radical at this conference, raising the issue of a general strike, saying that without the right to hold political strikes, "this republic [Germany] can no more be changed". He also stressed, as he has done on many occasions, the importance of socialism, particularly mentioning Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The tasks of Marxists towards such leaders are not to attack them for 'empty rhetoric', as did the ultra-left sectarians, including the SWP in the past. They should be commended for taking a stand, as Lafontaine has done. But then Marxists should seek to push them further to the left through constructive criticism and positive demands for taking the movement forward. This approach is not that of the SWP's cousins in Germany. Their policy towards Lafontaine is generally one of a 'closed mouth' and a conscious policy of ingratiating themselves organisationally as well as politically with the leadership of Die Linke.

Link with bureaucracy and coalition

Now, in Die Linke, they have gone further in linking up with the bureaucracy of the new party, with paid jobs as assistants to MPs, etc. There is nothing wrong in principle in Marxists taking positions like this so long as it does not politically tie one's hands. But this is precisely what has happened with the SWP as they tone down or just do not mention criticism of Die Linke leaders and, in the process, effectively dissolving themselves as an organised force.

The same tendencies are evident on the SWP's approach to the key question of coalitions - both on a national and a Länder (state) level - particularly a far as Die Linke is concerned. This issue has occupied an important position historically in the workers' movement, not least in Germany itself. In those countries, where the electoral system is based on proportional representation and therefore can be multi-party in character, the question of coalitions assumes great importance. Marxists are opposed in principle to the leaders of workers' parties serving with capitalist parties in what are essentially bourgeois coalitions. These are presented as 'partnerships' but if they are, then it is between a rider and the horse! It is a device to ensnare workers' leaders into undertaking responsibility for attacks on the rights and conditions of the working class. Trotsky characterised Popular Front governments - bourgeois coalitions sometimes involving the leaders of workers' parties - as "strike-breaking conspiracies". In opposition to these coalitions, Marxists emphasise the political independence of the working class at all times.

In Brazil, we are opposed to those Marxists - former Trotskyists - currently occupying ministerial positions in the Lula government in Brazil. These individuals - former members of the USFI - no doubt entered the Lula government believing that they could fulfil a progressive mission in introducing land reform that would benefit the landless. But they have been trapped within a government that has bent the knee to Brazilian and international capital. This in turn has stultified and minimalised whatever land 'reforms' were promised, bitterly disappointing the landless masses. This, in turn, has provoked splits and convulsions within the USFI, both in Brazil and internationally.

This does not mean that Marxists are opposed on all and every occasion to entering a 'workers' coalition'. In Russia following the October revolution, the Bolsheviks did collaborate in a coalition with the Left Social Revolutionaries. This was a governmental expression of the unity of the workers, represented by the Bolsheviks, and the peasants represented by Left Social Revolutionaries - a 'workers and peasants' government'. But this was only possible on the basis of a revolution, the greatest ever in history.

In Germany, coalitions, particularly between social democrats and others have been resorted to by the capitalists when their system faces an impasse. Such was the role of the traitorous social democrats - Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske - in the revolutionary aftermath of the First World War. On the other hand, there is also the example of the very short-term coalition between the Communist Party, led at the time by Brandler, and the left Social Democrats in Saxony, in the revolutionary situation in Germany 1923. That was controversial at the time and remains so today but the circumstances at that stage were unique, a clear revolutionary situation, with the expectation that the working class was about to take power. This is not the general situation that confronts the workers' movement today. But the throwing back of consciousness following the collapse of Stalinism and the planned economies means that illusions have been generated on the issue of participation of the workers' parties in such formations.

To counter this, a skilful approach is required by Marxists; for instance, in countries like Italy, with Rifondazione Comunista (RC), and with Die Linke in Germany today. The starting point for Marxists is clear: opposition to participation in bourgeois coalitions and of governments in which the workers' parties are 'represented'. We are opposed to blanket 'support from the outside', what are described in Germany as 'toleration agreements'. The German section of the CWI, SAV, has demanded:

"No to participation in government with parties carrying out social cuts - whether via coalitions or tolerations. Instead each case should be decided on separately. Parliamentary votes to be carried out according to the interests of the working population."

Where the working class supports such governments, illusions will exist, for a time at least. In Italy, for instance, it would have been wrong to have brought down the first 'Olive Tree' government led by Prodi - as some Marxists and Trotskyists argued at the time - as soon as it was elected. Only after it was seen clearly to stand on the right in 1998 did the RC withdraw its support. On the other hand, the RC entered Prodi's government of 2006 with catastrophic results. This resulted in the recent virtual meltdown of the RC. Its fate hangs in the balance. It is not yet clear whether it will completely disintegrate as a workers' party or be rescued by a revolt of what is left of the rank and file.

The lessons of the RC are pertinent to Germany today. The rise of Die Linke also witnessed the weakening of the SPD. This, in turn, has put the issue of coalitions back on the agenda, particularly at Land level in the state of Hesse. The position of the SWP is for support and toleration of a 'red-green' governmental coalition in this state.

A left Labour government in Britain

The present parliamentary cretinism of the IST in Germany may come as a surprise to those who observed their 'non-parliamentary' ultra-left position of the past. Indeed, they accuse Militant itself of entertaining parliamentary illusions because of the election of three Labour MPs who were supporters of Militant in the 1980s. In a pamphlet published in 1983, the SWP wrote:

"Is a left Labour government a total impossibility? Not quite... a left Labour government in office, perhaps with Ken Livingstone in the cabinet and supporters of Militant as junior ministers, a government which, unlike any of its predecessors, really might worry the ruling class." [Pete Goodwin, 'Is there a future for the Labour left?' SWP, 1983.]

Merely to make this suggestion shows how far they were from what was actually taking place within the Labour Party at that stage and also the position of Militant. There was no possibility of Militant, or the Socialist Party today, participating in a "left Labour government", led by somebody like Livingstone or even Tony Benn. We would, as we explained on many occasions, give support to specific actions of the government in so far as they attacked capitalism and benefited the working class. But sharing in a governmental coalition with others, before a decisive change in the situation with the working class coming to power, was entirely ruled out.

It is ironic but nevertheless has a certain logic that yesterday's 'anti-parliamentarians' can today advocate the 'parliamentary road' in Germany for example. It is another manifestation that ultra-leftism and opportunism are head and tail of the same coin. In all new mass formations of the working class, there will be a struggle between those who wish to concentrate on the parliamentary plane at the expense of involvement in the industrial and general social struggles of the working class. This is a dividing line between the leadership of Die Linke, which now includes the IST, and the left that will coalesce amongst the active, fighting layers within the party. A similar polarisation has developed in P-SoL in Brazil, for instance, and will be a trend, almost from the outset, in all new formations both in Europe and internationally.

The IST and German reunification

Because they saw no fundamental difference between capitalism and Stalinism, the IST actually supported the reunification of Germany on a capitalist basis, which concretely meant supporting the liquidation of the remnants of the planned economy that existed in the German Democratic Republic (GDR - East Germany). They summed up their position later in the following manner:

“Instead of pounding on about the self-sufficiency of the GDR at any price, socialistswould have had the task of advancing actual workers’ struggles. At thebeginning of December [1989] a general strike against the Stasi [GDR state securityservice] and for a plebiscite on reunification would have been possible.”[Bürokraten, Intelligenz und Arbeiter - Klassenkämpfe in der Revolution 1989(Bureaucrats, Intelligentsia and Workers Class Struggles in the 1989 revolution) byVolkhard Mosler - Originally published in: Sozialismus von unten, Nr.2,November/Dezember 1994, Pages.12-18. See note one at end of this chapter for original German text.]

Compare this approach to that of Trotsky at the time of the Saarland referendum in 1935. Clearly, the majority of the population was ethnically German but had been occupied by France following the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. Therefore, on 'national' grounds there was a case for reunification. But, said Trotsky, the social interests of the working class and their organisations always take priority for Marxists over the general 'national' factors in any given situation. Moreover, truth is concrete. To support a vote then for reunification of Saarland with Germany would have meant putting the workers of this area under the jackboot of the Nazis, which would mean in turn the elimination of all democratic rights and the independent organisations of the working class, enjoyed at that stage under the French bourgeois regime.

SAV did not argue in 1989 about the 'self-sufficiency' of the GDR 'at any price'. They argued for defence of the planned economy but also for the dismantling of the Stalinist regime - a political revolution - and its replacement with workers' democracy, the election of all officials, the right of recall, etc. Then, on the basis of workers' democracy in the GDR, an appeal could be made for the reunification of Germany on socialist and democratic lines. In the wave that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a mixture of euphoria at the overthrow of Stalinism and illusions in the capitalist west, these ideas did not get mass support. Nevertheless, it is important, as on all issues and all occasions, for Marxism to be consistent, to have an eye to the future, when conditions will change.

On the basis of the restoration of capitalism, there would, as we predicted, be inevitable disillusionment in the results of capitalist restoration in East Germany. Opinion polls, even recently, have shown that a majority in East Germany believe that socialism was a 'good idea badly put into practice'. 'Socialism' is clearly a reference to the planned economy. Yet, the SWP's sister organisation in Germany, fully supported by their International organisation, was swept along and actually supported capitalist reunification. They were on the other side of the barricades from a historical point of view. They wrote:

"A revolutionary transitional (interim) government coming out of a general strike would have had the tasks to completely dissolve the Stasi and the old power apparatus, and negotiate with the Kohl government the conditions for a reunification."

So, by implication, the SWP in Britain and the IST internationally were in favour of the reunification of Germany in 1989 through "negotiations" with the Kohl (bourgeois) government. But as explained above, Marxists are entirely opposed to bourgeois coalitions or ideas like negotiating with Kohl for capitalist re-unification. [Bürokraten, Intelligenz und Arbeiter - Klassenkämpfe in der Revolution 1989, ibid. See note two at end of this chapter for original German text. ]

On this issue, the SWP has shifted towards the right, opportunistically adapting themselves to Lafontaine and Die Linke officialdom. Is this the likely evolution of the SWP, not just in Germany but elsewhere? They are presently at sea because of their false perspectives and policies in the past. In these circumstances, they could become the not-so-left cover for the trade union bureaucracy. Occasional incantations of 'revolution' mask, as German working-class history has shown, the role of former 'left' leaders who, in practice, evolved towards the right. Their position on the character of the Labour Party - just the same old party, only further towards the right - shows they are bereft of any idea as to how to mobilise politically the colossal class anger that now exists within the British working class outside the structures of the Labour Party.

But it was not just in 1989 that Linksruck or its predecessor failed to oppose bourgeois coalitions. With the launch of Die Linke in Germany the SWP's then sister organisation officially dissolved itself to form a new 'Marxist network' called 'Marx21' which they present as broader and looser.

In the federal state of Hessen, one of the two party chairpersons, Ulrike Eifler, and one state MP, Janine Wissler, are Marx21 supporters and former Linksruck members. In this state, there is the possibility of the formation of a social democratic-green minority government to bring down the hated and reactionary conservative prime minister Roland Koch who has stood for years for sharp attacks on social services and workers' rights. What position should Die Linke adopt regarding the formation of such a government? In the beginning of the discussion within Die Linke, Ulrike Eifler argued for the election of a 'red-green' (SPD-Greens) minority government to bring down Koch but also against any form of long-term toleration of such a government based on a written contract.

Eifler argued for decisions to be taken case by case: are they are in the interests of working class people or not? This was basically the position also adopted by the German Marxists in SAV (CWI section). But under pressure from the SPD and the right wing in Die Linke, Eifler later agreed to support a decision of the Hessen Die Linke congress to accept support of the red-green government for the whole governmental period. Such 'toleration' would be the first step for the Left Party in Hessen to follow the dangerous line of the 'policy of the lesser evil' which ends up in coalitions with pro-capitalist parties.

What is striking in the policy of the Marx21 leaders in Hessen is how quickly they developed a form of 'socialist Realpolitik', not to say parliamentary cretinism. Janine Wissler was quoted in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung where she called herself "a socialist but not a Trotskyist". In another interview with HR online (website of Hessen regional radio) she said: "Just as red-green cannot get anything through without us, we cannot get anything through without red-green." The SPD and Greens have proven many times that they have no problems in implementing cuts together with the conservatives or liberals. This statement reveals the mainly opportunist parliamentarian outlook Wissler has adopted so quickly! Wissler's preparedness for "pragmatic cooperation" has so impressed one Green MP that he stated in Der Spiegel: "I can imagine somebody like her also at a management consultancy"!

For socialists, particularly Marxists, the way to get "things through", even in the parliamentary sphere, is not by unprincipled support for parliamentary combinations of capitalist parties but through mobilising the mass pressure of workers and young people.

1 In the original German: Anstatt auf die Eigenständigkeit der DDR um jeden Preis zu pochen, hätten Sozialisten die Aufgabe gehabt, die tatsächlichen Arbeiterkämpfe voranzutreiben. Ein Generalstreik gegen die Stasi und für eine Volksabstimmung zur Wiedervereinigung wäre Anfang Dezember m-glich gewesen.

2 In the original German: Eine aus einem Generalstreik hervorgegangene revolutionäre Übergangsregierung hätte den Auftrag gehabt, die Stasi und den alten Machtapparat vollständige aufzul-sen und mit der Kohl-Regierung die Bedingungen für eine Wiedervereinigung auszuhandeln.

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