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

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The Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are the two largest organisations on the 'Marxist left' in Britain. Therefore, in a period when the left in general has been weakened - as a consequence of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the ideological offensive that flowed from this, combined with the neo-liberal fuelled boom - there are many who argue 'why can't you forget your differences and combine to unite yourselves and the left in a real alternative?'

This urge for unity of the left is keenly felt, particularly by the new generation, unburdened as it is with the baggage of the past and eager to see a more powerful left pole of attraction. We entirely share these sentiments and, in fact, the need to maximise the greatest potential for the left, both on the industrial and political planes, has been central to the approach of the Socialist Party. The collapse of the Labour Party, for instance, from a 'bourgeois workers' party' - a pro-capitalist leadership but with a working-class base, particularly through the trade unions - into an open agency of big business, led us to draw the conclusion that it was necessary to pose the question of a working-class political alternative.

For the first time in over 100 years there is no mass political force of the British working class, a situation that is now common to most countries across the world following the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 and, with it, the state-owned planned economy. We also recognised that the political understanding of the working class - in a broad sense - had been thrown back. This arose mainly because of the demise of the planned economies of Eastern Europe, which acted in an economic sense, at least, as an alternative to capitalism, despite the monstrous Stalinist totalitarian regime. This allowed the possessing classes to launch a colossal ideological barrage against 'socialism'. This meant that it was not possible to immediately create a mass party but steps had to be taken to lay the foundations for such a project at a later stage. This is why as soon as the early 1990s it was 'Militant Labour' (which subsequently became the Socialist Party) which first launched the idea of the 'Socialist Alliance', which was founded in Scotland, England and Wales. In Scotland, this was the forerunner of what became the Scottish Socialist Party. In England and Wales, it took the form of loose forums of different left groups, many of them with serious ideological differences with the Socialist Party, but who were prepared to discuss and collaborate where possible on united action.

At this stage, the SWP was still wedded to their 'ourselves alone' sectarian tactics, claiming they were the only viable Marxist organisation in Britain, with absurd political perspectives, as we will see later. However, the political cul-de-sac they were in, reinforced by the death of Tony Cliff, their main political ideologue and the author of their tactics in the 1990s, forced a change in their approach. At this stage, the Socialist Party engaged in discussions with the SWP, as the CWI did with a number of other Marxist and Trotskyist forces internationally - notably the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), and the Morenoite groups the Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (LIT - International Workers League) and the Unidad Internacional de los Trabajadores (Workers' International Unity - UIT), both largely based in Latin America. This was in order to see if it was possible to arrive at agreement on common tasks for the workers' movement. However, the discussions with the SWP came to nothing since they believed they did not need to seek common points of agreement with others on the Marxist left. They nevertheless later turned towards the Socialist Alliance, which generated illusions in the ranks of other left organisations, but not with us, that the SWP had undergone a serious and genuine 'change of heart' and were now prepared to work in an open and collaborative fashion with others.

However, those hopes were soon dashed as the SWP, in effect, sought to establish a narrow organisational dominance within the Socialist Alliance. They rejected the Socialist Party's proposals to develop the existing federal form of organisation for the Alliance. This was dismissed out of hand - as we will see later -by the SWP and their allies, most of whom wished to move towards a 'party-type structure' as rapidly as possible. We warned that this was premature, a formula for conflict, for mutual lack of confidence between the participants in the Alliance. It was necessary, we argued, for the different genuine left organisations to engage in a fairly lengthy period of discussion and clarification on the programme for the Alliance and on working together. This would best be served by a 'federal'-type organisation, an idea which had strong historical roots in Britain. Unfortunately, our proposals were rejected. We predicted that after we were compelled to leave the Alliance, the allies of the SWP would come into collision with them, which was subsequently borne out.

This is not an accidental phenomenon where this organisation is concerned. In every collaboration they have been involved in, it is a question of 'rule or ruin' - they must exercise a dominating influence, not through political argument but organisationally, or they would seek to undermine or bypass those organisations if they do not get their way. Nor is it a recent trend of the SWP as a brief excursion into the history of the SWP, as we will do here, will demonstrate. After our departure, using their numerical majority, the SWP then 'liquidated' the Socialist Alliance, when the launch of 'Respect', with George Galloway and his allies, became a seemingly more attractive proposition. When the idea of Respect was floated by George Galloway, we were again prepared to engage in a dialogue with him, the SWP and others involved in its preparation and launch to see if we could find a way of gathering together a new pole of attraction for the disparate forces of the left. The discussions came to nothing because both Galloway and the SWP - each for their own reasons - once more rejected an inclusive federal approach.

The SWP failed badly in the 2008 elections in London, following the split with George Galloway in Respect. The SWP was not allowed to stand as 'Respect' so they stood as the 'Left List'. But their previous association with 'Respect' and its policies was clear. The results of these elections, together with the split in Respect, have thrown the SWP into crisis. This arose from an attempt to secure easy popularity on an opportunist programme - with unprincipled and unnecessary concessions to ethnicity and communalism - combined with an intolerant approach towards others. They also had a grossly exaggerated expectation of election victories. Following their split with George Galloway, he was suddenly transformed from a hero into someone who had allegedly moved towards the right. He was demonised now because he either supported or based himself upon 'communalist' ideas. Yet previously, he had enjoyed big support in the eyes of the SWP and its members, both in Tower Hamlets, where George is an MP, and nationally. The pathetic attempt to present the split in Respect as between 'left and right' did not cut any ice, particularly with experienced socialists who have been looking at the developments on the left and particularly Respect over the past period.

The SWP has emerged from the debacle of Respect with its reputation even further tarnished, particularly on its inability to work in a loyal fashion with others to create a stronger, combined force on the left able to have a broader impact on the British working class. They are attempting now to cover up the real reasons as to why they have arrived at this impasse. There may be some who may still believe that these are merely episodic mistakes of the SWP. However, the political deficiencies of this party go much deeper into its history, when the issue is posed before them of trying to form broader organisations, encompassing wider layers other than themselves on a principled basis. An examination of their record will reveal the deeply flawed method of the SWP on one of the key tasks confronting the Marxist movement today - how to apply the tactic of the united front to today's world.

The SWP leaders, in speeches and articles, endlessly intone that they support and apply Lenin and Trotsky's idea of the 'united front'. This was an undoubtedly vital weapon, for instance, in the success of the Bolshevik party, the political instrument for carrying through the greatest revolution in history in October 1917. It was also key in the formation of mass communist parties in the post-First World War period. On the other hand, the failure to apply the united front by the Stalinists was a major contributory factor in the derailing of the German revolution, which allowed Hitler to come to power in 1933.

However, the classical period of the political united front involves mass working-class formations. These do not exist today, and this will only change in the main on the basis of big events. Nevertheless, in the present situation, an element, at least, of the united front is posed both in the political and trade union fields. Is the SWP capable of participating in an honest, principled fashion in this process? Their history does not hold out much hope of this.

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