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Collapse of Stalinism and the 1990s
Collapse of Stalinism
If they were to answer that North Vietnam was more 'progressive', then how to explain their position at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when the liquidation of the planned economy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was, for them, not a great negative historical turning point but a 'sideways move', the replacement of 'state capitalism' by capitalism? According to the theoreticians of the SWP/IST - particularly Cliff before he died in 2000 - the liquidation of the planned economies in the Stalinist states as well as the sweeping away of the autocratic regimes was of no fundamental importance and had no effect on the consciousness of the working class in Britain or internationally. Indeed, their analysis was, according to their main theoretician today, Alex Callinicos, a positive advantage:
"The theoretical understanding of Stalinism provided by Cliff's analysis, allowed the IST to resist the wave of despondency that swept over the left after 1989 and to grow very substantially in the 1990s". [Alex Callinicos, 'Notes on Regroupment', 2 April 2001.]
This was summed up theoretically by Cliff's characterisation of the 1990s as "the 1930s in slow motion". There is no more fundamental error for a Marxist than to mistake counter-revolution for revolution. Yet this was the 'mistake' made by the Socialist Workers Party at a decisive turning point in history.
It is true that others such as the late Ted Grant and Alan Woods, formerly with us in Militant until 1992 and who had a different analysis of Stalinism to the Cliffites, were also initially unable to face up to reality and denied that a social counter-revolution and a bourgeois state had been re-established in Russia in the early 1990s. (They were forced to correct this analysis and recognise the establishment of a capitalist state in 1997!) The Morenoite Trotskyist organisation in Latin America similarly greeted the overthrow of Stalinism as ushering in a new revolutionary period, forgetting a small detail: it was accompanied by the liquidation of the state-owned planned economy. The USFI was compelled to recognise what took place, even if a little belatedly, but without a coherent analysis of what this meant for the workers' movement internationally. Alone of all these trends, the CWI recognised early on what was taking place in Russia. It was a decisive turning point in history; a bourgeois regime had come to power and had begun, through the most brutal methods of 'shock therapy', a rapid transition to capitalism. Similar developments at a greater or lesser speed took place in all the states of Eastern Europe.
1990s - A favourable period?
What were the consequences of this historic negative turning point for the SWP and the IST? It was 'favourable' for socialists and Marxists! But for practically every other serious trend within the workers' movement internationally, apart from the Morenoites, it represented a colossal retrogressive development for socialists. The capitalists, through one of its mouthpieces, the Wall Street Journal, summed it up when it simply declared that in the struggle between capitalism and 'socialism', "We won". The careful analysis of the CWI showed that this was a big victory with important economic and political gains for the ruling class - coinciding as it did with the neo-liberal economic process under way. Nevertheless, it did not represent the same kind of historic setback like the victory of the Nazis in Germany, of Mussolini or Franco in the interwar period. The organisations of the working class remained intact but were now subjected to a huge ideological offensive in favour of the free market and against 'socialism'.
Together with the boom that was under way in the 1990s, this had a big effect on the consciousness of the working class, shaking to its foundations what support existed for 'socialism' and the idea of 'planning'. The most decisive effect of the bourgeois ideological barrage was on the tops of the organised labour movement, the workers' parties and the trade unions. We saw, as we first explained, a process of 'bourgeoisification' of the workers' parties, with the abandonment of even the historic aim of socialism; for instance, the scrapping of Clause 4 - standing for the nationalisation of the 'commanding heights' of the economy - in the Labour Party in Britain. This was an international phenomenon. The process was marked, seemed to sweep all before it, including the overwhelming majority of formerly radicalised intellectuals. They went over en masse to the idea of capitalism, to what later became known as the 'Washington consensus'. Capitalism, albeit purified of its most obnoxious features, was now the only historic choice, concluded the tops of the labour movement and the overwhelming majority of former left intellectuals.
If the regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were just 'state capitalist', without an atom of support in the consciousness of the working class and its organisations internationally, how then to explain the success of the bourgeois? Their campaign undoubtedly affected not just the leaders but perhaps the majority of the population, including the working class? The workers, particularly its most developed layers, while instinctively opposing the one-party regimes of Stalinism - which were used as scarecrows to frighten the populations of the West against socialism in the past - nevertheless instinctively recognised that in the planning of basic industries, resources, facilities, social services and education was the economic germ of a new society.
After all, Engels, in the nineteenth century, saw in the tendency towards monopoly and the economic intervention of the state that the bourgeois were forced to undertake the signs of "the invading socialist revolution". Engels was well aware that these did not constitute the socialist revolution but an element of 'state capitalism' - where the state could take over a minority of industries. Nevertheless, he recognised that this represented a substantial step forward for the working class because it underlined the incapacity of the capitalists to run these industries (as it did in the 2008 crisis) and posed the question of this example spreading to other industries and ultimately to the economy as a whole.
For the same reasons, Blair opposed re-nationalisation of the railways in Britain, despite overwhelming public support for this idea. Brown also fought ferociously to prevent the nationalisation of Northern Rock for the same reasons, but was compelled to do so because there was no alternative. He has been compelled to go even further with the partial nationalisation of the banks in Britain, as has the US - through the gritted teeth of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Bush - and also Europe.
Extended on a national plane with the takeover of most industries, this would have constituted for Marx and Engels a fundamental breech with capitalism. This was made clear in the criticisms they made of the lack of such measures - the failure to nationalise the Bank of France - by the Paris Commune of 1871. In Cuba today, moreover, where the basic elements of the planned economy, albeit weakened, are still preserved, many workers and young people, not all of them socialists by any means, recognise its progressive aspects. This is especially visible in social services, education and health, even in a backward country and particularly compared to the US. At the same time they oppose, or at least have reservations, about the absence of democracy, particularly workers' democracy, on the island.
Downturn - false characterisation
Trotsky was fond of mocking the Stalinists for consistently misunderstanding the objective situation by invoking the parable of the Russian fool who sang a wedding song at a funeral and a funeral song at a wedding. The SWP today is guilty of adopting the same stance. According to the SWP's theoreticians, the late 1970s and 1980s was a period of 'downswing' and the 1990s represented a revival of radicalisation and increased possibilities for them and the revolutionary left. In an overview of the period which included the miners' strike, John Rees wrote in 2001:
"For 20 years socialists and working class activists have seen trade unionism, welfare provision and left wing consciousness in retreat. We have fought, sometimes in battles on the epic scale of the 1984-1985 miners' strike, but mostly we have lost. In the 1990s the tide began to turn, at first slowly, almost imperceptibly. Attitudes began to shift. The mania for the market subsided. The poll tax was defeated. Thatcher and Reagan passed into unbalanced retirement. The transformation in popular attitudes eventually registered in a massive electoral defeat for the Tories, part of a European-wide pattern."
He compared this to the 1990s and since:
"There has been no year since the 1970s when we could look back over a 12-month period and see an unbroken chain of international demonstrations like those which began in Seattle, and carried on through Washington and Los Angeles in the United States, Windsor in Canada, Melbourne in Australia, Millau and Nice in France, Prague in the Czech Republic, and Davos in Switzerland.
"In Seattle, in Millau and in Nice the labour movement participated on a massive scale. Many tens of thousands of organised workers marched in the most politicised environment of the last 20 years. This is a large claim, but it can be justified by comparing the current struggles to earlier movements. The miners' demonstrations in Britain, especially in 1992, were bigger. But they were defeated and, however angry, were concerned with the single issue. The poll tax demonstration in 1990 was large, militant and victorious but contained no sizeable contingent of organised workers and was concerned with a single issue. The demonstrations and public sector general strikes in France in 1995 are the most obvious precursor. They were part of a rising tide of industrial struggle and highly politicised. But even they did not openly direct their anger against the capitalist system, and they were not part of an international movement in the way that the demonstrations of 2000 have been... The revolutionary left has a vital role to play in this discussion, so long as it does not ignore the movement or hector activists in a know-it-all tone."
The utter confusion of the SWP's (former) leader is summed up in his further comments:
"The collapse of the Stalinist states, because they were widely associated with socialism, confirmed the prejudices of ruling class and social democratic commentators. It also demoralised the Stalinist-oriented left, which included many on the Labour left... The 1990s marked a general move to the left in popular consciousness, and therefore exposed the gap between the New Labour type of social democratic leader and the mass of their traditional supporters. This chasm exists over a number of central issues." [John Rees, 'Anti-capitalism, reformism and socialism', Issue 90, International Socialism Journal, Spring 2001.]
The 'left' - "Stalinist-oriented" - was demoralised by the collapse of Stalinist states but despite this, there was a "move to the left in popular consciousness", reasons John Rees. Cocooned in a false theoretical straitjacket, the SWP could not see that the whole movement - the "popular masses" as well as the leaders - were thrown back by this development. The exceptions to this were some middle class layers who could be energised temporarily by the rosy, romantic perspectives of the SWP.
However, their attempt to fit an artificial and arbitrary construction into the real situation in Britain from the 1970s onwards comes unstuck when we examine the real situation. In the late 1970s we saw the beginning of a new, important industrial movement, a working-class revival, which did not stop at the end of the decade but carried on into the 1980s. For instance, in 1978 at the Labour Party conference, a successful resolution moved by Militant supporters gave encouragement to the trade union struggle which helped to smash the government's wages policy. This was a big factor in encouraging the massive industrial wave which followed, particularly from lower-paid workers, reflected in the so-called 'winter of discontent'.
Moreover, in the 1980s, the Labour Party underwent colossal change, with the most serious challenge to the right in generations - Tony Benn's quest for the deputy leadership of the party - with Militant playing a crucial role. So endangered were the right by this that, together with the capitalists, they unleashed a witch-hunt against the Militant Editorial Board. Five of us were expelled in 1983, but at the cost for them of storing up even greater support for our ideas and the left as a whole. In this tumultuous period, which saw big movements of young people and workers, the SWP was largely a bystander. In the miners' strike, their position was that the NUM could not win, because the "character of the period" was "defensive". But this was a 'civil war without guns' - the most important industrial movement since the Chartists and the 1926 General Strike - with Militant playing a key role, recruiting in the process 500 miners to our ranks. Moreover, it was not at all preordained, as the fatalistic theoreticians of the SWP imagined, that the miners were doomed automatically to go down to defeat. History would have turned out differently if the right-wing trade union leaders had come to the support of the miners. There were crucial turning points in the struggle when it was not at all guaranteed that Thatcher and the government would win.
At a time of alleged 'downswing', we witnessed the mighty Liverpool struggle of 1983 to 1987, within which the government was forced to initially retreat. Liverpool, it is true, could not fight alone but even with the setbacks of 1986-87, the movement did not die down; witness the printers' battle, the victorious poll tax struggle, etc. It is true that, in the late 1970s and the 1980s, the methods of neo-liberalism were already taking shape with the development of new technology, one expression of this being the pressure for part-time jobs at the expense of full-time ones. But in order for this to come to fruition, it was necessary for the political preconditions to be established in the form of a serious defeat for the working class and its organisations. Murdoch achieved this against the printers at Wapping. But this would not have been possible in the first instance without the defeat of the miners and the Liverpool and Lambeth councillors.
Only political eunuchs could describe this period as one of 'downswing', particularly as the 1980s bowed out to the roar of the poll tax battle, in which again the SWP played no significant role. In fact, through its leading theoretician and founder Tony Cliff, it adopted a disdainful and totally wrong attitude:
"The non-payment campaign in Scotland does not exist. Not paying your poll tax is like getting on a bus and not paying your fare; all that will happen is that you'll get thrown off."! [Tony Cliff, speaking at Newcastle Polytechnic SWSS meeting, May 1989.]
The huge blunder that the SWP made in the anti-poll tax struggle - in effect abstention from this battle - they have since admitted:
"Their [the Scottish Socialist Party's] prominence is in part a consequence of our past mistakes, in particular the opening we gave to Militant through our failure properly to intervene in the anti-Poll Tax movement in Scotland." [Alex Callinicos, IST Circular on Regroupment, 17 May 2001.]
Poll tax battle
Callinicos ex post facto presents this as a mere 'oversight' by the SWP. On the contrary, as Cliff admitted, they had no feel or perception of the threat the poll tax represented for the working class. In fact, they made the same mistake as Thatcher herself - from the opposite pole - in underestimating the effects the poll tax would have. Following the defeats of Liverpool and the miners - in a period of 'downswing', remember, for the SWP - both the SWP and Thatcher concluded that the working class would not be able to withstand the Thatcher juggernaut. Compare this to our attitude outlined in Militant immediately after the 1987 general election:
"We don't just want concessions or amendments, we want this [poll tax] legislation chucked out. The labour movement throughout Britain must campaign around this issue... The movement must mobilise and fight back, drawing up plans for non-co-operation and non-implementation of this legislation." [Militant, Issue 857, 17 July 1987.]
The SWP's loss was the anti-poll tax campaign's gain. Their intervention in this movement would have played the same divisive sectarian role as in other campaigns - then and now. When, belatedly, they sought to intervene, they totally misread the situation. After the so-called anti-poll tax 'Trafalgar Square riot' - in which they played a less than glorious role - they boasted that it was this that defeated the poll tax. In fact, it was the mass anti-poll tax campaign - which organised 18 million people in a campaign of non-payment - that smashed the tax and relegated Thatcher to the dustbin of history. Militant - through the anti-poll tax unions - not the SWP achieved this great historic victory!
At the beginning of the 1990s, the SWP, with their wrong perspectives, appeared to be successful. Using the methods of massive flyposting, recruiting from universities - accompanied by rapid turnover - for a period they managed to defy the laws of political gravity and seemed, unlike most left groups, to have grown. However, we predicted that they would inevitably stub their toes, and a lot more besides, against reality, which was in contradiction to their theory and analysis of the situation. Some of their longstanding members, comparing theory then to reality today, could not but help questioning the analysis which underpinned their work for more than 15 years. In their bulletin following the Respect collapse, Mark Steel (who was then still a member of the SWP) wrote:
"The triumphalist tone of the SWP throughout recent times may have been misjudged. It's also possible the collapse of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago has had a greater global impact on socialist ideas than we anticipated. It may be that we over-estimated the revival of the organised labour movement, and the left in general has shrivelled. The difficulties in maintaining our organisation may be down to these reasons, or maybe something else, but our response has been to deny the problems altogether."
Steel gives a catalogue of instances showing the decline of the SWP, giving examples of how far the party has shrunk:
"These examples aren't one-off failures of planning, they're typical and not exceptions. There may be areas that have resisted the trend, but the overall decline is inescapable. But the most disturbing side to the SWP's decline has been the refusal to acknowledge this trend is taking place at all. For some time we were told there were ten thousand members, although this was a patently absurd figure. This number seems to have been revised downwards, which leaves two possibilities, either that the original figure was wrong or we've suddenly lost thousands of members, either one of which should merit a thorough discussion. But far from having one, anyone who has raised the issue has been derided." [Mark Steel, 'Ah, the British left, what we do to ourselves', SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin 2007.]
Given the objective situation that followed the collapse of Stalinism, reinforced by the move to the right of the broad 'subjective factor' - the labour movement and particularly its leadership - those on the 'revolutionary left' were certain to have faced a decline. There are periods in history when a dozen Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotskys would not have been able to advance Marxism substantially or the labour movement greatly. Marx and Engels were 'isolated' following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and were compelled for a considerable period of time to 'swim against the stream'. This involved maintaining, in the case of Marx and Engels developing, the body of ideas that in the right hands could serve the labour movement well later. But their forces were small, even puny. Marx and Engels, in the creation of the First International, were therefore forced to collaborate with non-socialist English trade unionists, anarchists, and others.
This enterprise demonstrated in action - particularly in the 1871 Paris Commune - the ideas of Marx and Engels and the international solidarity and organisation of the working class. It served to be a great example that was taken up later in the formation of the Second International and mass socialist parties. Similarly, Lenin, the Bolsheviks and Trotsky were isolated to a couple of dozen leading comrades in Russia following the defeat of the 1905-07 revolution. Moreover, Lenin was compelled to fight against ultra-leftism - the boycott of the Duma (Russian parliament) was one instance - and the opportunist 'liquidators'. The latter wanted to dissolve the illegal party organisations and concentrate solely on the limited opportunities for 'legal' work under the tsarist autocracy.
Militant, now the Socialist Party, and the Committee for a Workers' International, also faced problems following the fall of the Berlin Wall, including a decline in membership, which was inevitable given the colossal pressure of what appeared to be a revived capitalism on the small numbers in the ranks of the Marxists. This was reflected in opportunist impatience by some. The liquidation of a clearly defined Marxist organization within the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) resulted from this. Others bent to the pressures of the economic revival evident in the early 1990s and sustained until now. Invoking the development of new technology as a principled argument, but also because of the turn towards the right in the ANC, leading South African CWI members capitulated to this and sought to collapse our organisation as they left our ranks. A similar development took place in Liverpool where people who had played a big role in assisting the building of a powerful position for Marxism in the city also crumbled under the pressure.
Some of our political opponents - particularly the theoreticians of the SWP - at this time wrote obituaries for the CWI and Militant, later the Socialist Party, in particular. But, because our analysis was based on firm foundations, with a sober worked-out perspective, despite the contraction of our organisation we were able to withstand the pressures of the 1990s - notwithstanding some splits and the weaknesses that flowed from this - in a much better state than revolutionary organisations in similar periods in the past.
Tony Cliff's role
The SWP, on the other hand, seemed at first to defy the pressure of the situation but as Mark Steel indicated, they ultimately crashed against the reality, thereby forcing them to change their previous ultra-left, sectarian approach, dissected by Peter Hadden in his book. They therefore performed a volte-face - without in any way seeking to explain and openly correct their earlier mistaken analyses - and began to seek alliances with others on the left. This represented a switch in policies but not of method. Steel presents Tony Cliff, in contradistinction to the present leadership of the SWP, as an open and honest leader of the SWP who was prepared to welcome coalitions of a principled character in the building of their organisation.
However, those who worked more closely with Cliff over a long period within his organisation tell a different story. Their accounts show that while Cliff and thereby his organisation - educated in his method - were at one stage prepared to work in coalitions, they were also, if things did not go their way, prepared to smash them up, sometimes in the most brutal fashion. The late Jim Higgins, who worked as National Secretary of the International Socialists as they were then in the early 1970s, recounted what happened when the SWP worked successfully with and recruited groups of workers. He gives a picture of the internal regime of the organisation - which to say the least is not flattering:
"I remained for a while as National Secretary, until I became tired of meetings starting half an hour late so that Cliff and his young leaders could caucus and make all the decisions that were then presented to me at the formal session. Such childishly destructive behaviour was absurd and I resigned, taking up a job on Socialist Worker.
"Together with Duncan Hallas, Roger Protz (editor of Socialist Worker), Granville Williams, John Palmer and others we formed an IS Opposition. From the point of view of continuing employment this was an error, but not one I regret. Not too much time passed before Cliff and Harman had sufficiently wound up... journalists on Socialist Worker... to press for the sacking of myself and Roger Protz. As the EC had initiated the move, they did not waste too much time in debate before acceding to this request.
"The opposition debated the questions with Cliff at a number of regional aggregates and were hopeful of getting a substantial number of delegacies to the conference. These hopes came to nothing when the constitution was illegally changed making it impossible for us to achieve any more than a handful of delegacies.
"As part of the same ultra-leftism, a group of some 20 AUEW members were expelled in Birmingham. Their crime was twofold: support for the IS Opposition platform and disagreement with the running of an IS candidate in an AUEW election (I think for President). As experienced trade unionists of some service and standing they had worked in the broad left and the question of the candidate to support had been agreed long before IS thought to run its own man. Finding themselves unable to renege on commitments freely made, they were all expelled. The whole episode provides an object lesson that Cliff's famously intuitive nose and some energetic young organisers are really no substitute for knowledge of the working-class movement... I do not think he understands the workers anywhere, he has met hardly any. His oft repeated dedication to the working class is in practice making much of those who happened to agree with him at any given time and then dropping them with a sickening thud as soon as they disagree.
"The IS Opposition was expelled and all in all some 250 people left with them. The years since then do not seem to have changed the nature of the group except that it is now allegedly a party and it is somewhat further from success than it was 20 years ago. Do I blame Cliff for most of this? Well actually I do." [Jim Higgins, Speak One More Time - Selected Writings, Socialist Platform, 2005.]
Higgins himself, in his writings, displays a heavy dose of cynicism towards the SWP and others but still claimed to be a Trotskyist. This is not unusual in those who leave Marxist organisations - the "league of abandoned hopes". Most times, it is best to ignore subsequent contributions from these quarters. However, if serious public criticisms are made - as they have been, for instance, against the Socialist Party or personally against the leaders of our organisation - particularly in a written form, then however reluctantly, we are compelled to answer, if only to prevent legends becoming 'established facts'. We have also used any political or organisational disagreements as a means to clarify ideas, seeking always to raise the level of understanding of those who can be reached in such a discussion. Marx was compelled to reply to serious slanders, made by Vogt, for instance, in the nineteenth century, which distracted him from more important work on the development of his theory at that stage. The problem with the defenders of Cliff against Higgins is that the charges levelled here against him chime with the very same experiences, sometimes at the hands of the heirs of Cliff today.
Liverpool victory - 'Sold down the Mersey'?
The history of this organisation is a zigzag from one incorrect policy to another, from opportunism to ultra-leftism and back in a dizzying fashion. When Militant pursued a very successful broad left approach that resulted in the most spectacular victories for Marxism, namely in Liverpool, the SWP were found on the other side of the barricades. Socialist Worker, notoriously, after the victory of June 1984 had a banner headline 'Sold down the Mersey'. This was after the defeat and humiliation of Thatcher, in a victory for the Liverpool working class that was hailed in the city and nationally by all serious forces on the left, They were totally isolated and were chased out of Liverpool town hall because the workers of the city - and particularly the council workers - were ecstatic at the gains that had been made through the stance on the 'illegal budget' and were contemptuous of the claims of the SWP.
At the time and since, they alleged - usually out of earshot of Militant supporters - that Liverpool council should have refused the concessions from the government, in order to maintain a 'second front' against the Tories with the miners. Liverpool's 'failure to do so', it seems, contributed to the defeat of the strike, because the miners were left to fight alone. The reality, as we pointed out in our material both then and especially in the book by Ken Smith on the miners' strike, was that the strike was defeated, in the main, because the right-wing leaders of the trade unions and the TUC failed to come to the assistance of the miners. The implication of the SWP's criticisms of us is that the miners were betrayed in order that we would be able to hold on to our councillors' positions in Liverpool. Let us recall that Liverpool city council compelled Thatcher to provide an extra £60 million to the city through mass struggle. If we had wished to preserve our positions, both councillors and MPs in Liverpool and Coventry, we would have capitulated in the Liverpool struggle as well as in the poll tax battle. Indeed, the recently deceased and much-loved Terry Fields, Broadgreen MP and Militant stalwart, would have undoubtedly preserved his position and his seat if he had capitulated and paid his poll tax, as many, even in the ranks of Militant (who subsequently left us) urged at the time.
Moreover, this feeling - that Liverpool let down the miners - is the opinion of the SWP and nobody else. No members of the NUM, either at the time or since, have reproached the Liverpool councillors for their actions. They invited Liverpool councillors to their galas in Kent in 1986 and Derek Hatton to the Durham miners' gala the same year. Terry Fields invited Arthur Scargill to speak for him in Liverpool in 1983 and in 1987, as well as the late Pat Wall, Militant supporter and MP, in Bradford the same year. He spoke also for 'old left' Labour candidates in Liverpool after the alleged 'betrayal' of the miners had taken place. There was not a whiff of the SWP's attitude in any other part of the labour movement. Indeed, their approach was more motivated by pique, combined with sheer spite, at the tremendous position which Militant had conquered in Liverpool through correct strategy and tactics. This approach underpins their attitude to all movements they do not manage to tightly control.
The essence of the tactics deployed by Militant in Liverpool was to forge a working-class coalition of considerable size, clearly defined as socialist in character but with a Marxist spine. Militant was the biggest organised group in the city - we had 1,200 involved supporters at its height in Merseyside alone and, for a time, a weekly regional paper, 'Mersey Militant'. We had considerable influence in the unions but we were nevertheless a minority in the council. Yet the tactics of the Marxists were widely embraced at all stages of the struggle including in the big confrontations with the government. Why? Because with great care and skill, Militant managed to take the widest possible spectrum of left opinion with us on a principled basis - and for a while, even those who had previously stood on the right. The tactics employed in the District Labour Party, the individual Labour parties, in the unions and in the council group itself were backed up by mass struggle. A similar approach was adopted in the anti-poll tax movement - which we will comment on later - which resulted not only in another defeat for Thatcher but her ignominious departure from the political scene.
The SWP have never occupied such a powerful position - able to determine the course of an important, specifically working-class mass struggle - as did Militant in the epic Liverpool battles 1983-87, as well as in the battle against the poll tax. It is true that they have occupied a leading position in the broad Stop the War Coalition (StWC) in Britain. This body played an important role in calling the demonstration in 2003 when two million people came out onto the streets. The Socialist Party also participated in this organisation as a minority, invariably clashing with the SWP, who once in a position like this, veered towards the right, accommodating to, in particular, middle-class Muslims and the liberal democrats at the height of the antiwar mood.
On Stop the War platforms, they did not usually speak as members of the SWP. But they denied others, like the Socialist Party, a chance to speak, partly because they wished to maintain a 'broad, consensual' approach, but also because they believed a political and class analysis of the war would alienate the non-socialist anti-war 'luminaries'. Accordingly, a great opportunity to raise the level of understanding was lost. On the day of the great march against the war, 15 February 2003, the meeting in Hyde Park saw Charles Kennedy, then Liberal Democrat leader, speak whereas representatives of 'Youth Against the War' were denied even a short contribution. Kennedy was allowed to adopt the pose of an anti-war 'fighter', although once the war began, the Lib Dems adopted a quiescent, parliamentary, fake 'opposition', supporting 'our troops'. Youth Against the War, initiated by the Socialist Party, on the other hand, organised in Britain perhaps the most important anti-war action in the school students' strike on 'Day X', the day of the invasion of Iraq.
The SWP's opportunist adaptation to the non-socialist wing of the anti-war movement was invariably combined with an incorrect, ultra-left approach to the so-called 'Iraqi resistance'. The Socialist Party fully supported the right of the Iraqi people, with arms if they so chose, to resist the Bush-Blair invasion of their country. But this did not extend to giving general support to all parts of the so-called Iraqi 'resistance'. Unfortunately, this was the position adopted by the SWP, which in the beginning featured in some of the proposed public statements of the Coalition. On one occasion, they committed the blunder of composing a press statement in which they gave 'unconditional support to the Iraqi resistance'. In this 'resistance' were openly sectarian forces, including al-Qa'ida, with which the StWC would have been associated if this press statement was seen as its position. This would have been a gift to the opponents of the anti-war movement, above all for the right wing of the trade union movement. Therefore, Ken Smith, then the representative of the Socialist Party on its committee, urgently contacted StWC's officers urging that the press statement be withdrawn and amended. The officers agreed with the arguments of Ken and changed the statement. But unfortunately, in the meantime, it had got into the hands of those opponents of the StWC within the trade unions, who sought to use it against the anti-war movement as a whole.
This was just one instance of the one-sided view of the SWP in their approach to the Iraq war. The tasks for the anti-war movement are to oppose imperialism, give full support for the rights of the Iraqi people to resist the invasion, but without giving political support to the sectarian forces - Shia, Sunni or others - which could only compound the problems of the Iraqi people. One of the purposes of socialists and Marxists, therefore, in this situation is to support progressive forces - particularly in the much weakened trade unions, which are important for the future. Out of the ashes of the catastrophe of Iraq, only a united working-class movement and organisations offer hope for the future.
How could the war have been stopped?
Mark Steel made a telling criticism, which the Socialist Party had previously made, over the methods which the SWP took into the Stop the War Coalition. He wrote:
"As the massive anti-war march receded into the past, relating to those people who went on it became more complex. The most typical attitude seemed to be that while no one regretted going on the march, they couldn't see that it had made any difference. But instead of analysing how to address this sentiment, the SWP seemed to repeat the tone that suited the frenetic weeks before the war. Every march and protest was depicted as a triumph. And there was no acknowledgement of the process in which Stop the War meetings and rallies became smaller, and almost devoid of anyone under forty." [Mark Steel, ibid.]
We participated fully in the work and activity of the coalition's executive committee. We criticised the bald 'pro-Muslim' position and emphasized the need for a clearly rounded out class position. We also tried to inject a sense of proportion into the prospects for the antiwar movement, particularly in the period after the invasion. The rhythm is bound to vary in a protracted struggle, as the anti-war movement is. Moreover, this movement - as colossal as it was in bringing millions onto the streets - had not 'stopped the war'.
The weight of numbers on the streets alone was not capable of forcing Bush and Blair to step back from the precipice before the war began. True, Blair, as was subsequently admitted in Alastair Campbell's diaries, came very close to the edge of resigning because of the massive two million strong demonstration of February 2003. But even then, this was no guarantee that the war would be stopped. The fundamental interests of the most powerful capitalist state on the planet, and particularly its 'executive committee', the US government of Bush, was determined to crush the Saddam regime and grab Iraq's huge oil deposits. Only a massive working-class revolt, possibly including industrial action worldwide had the chance of achieving these aims - and even that would not be guaranteed to stop the war. Over a period of time, however, US imperialism would be defeated. The task was to utilise the political opportunities of the anti-war movement to drive home the character of war and imperialism, and link this to a change in society.
But this was not enough for the SWP, who lack any sense of proportion and have little understanding of the different stages of the struggle, as well as the changing psychology of young people and workers towards the war. In vain did Socialist Party members on the committee argue that one demonstration after another would not achieve the objectives of the movement. Mark Steel now agrees, unfortunately a little late, with the Socialist Party's approach.
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