Britain: The crisis in Respect

Crisis will be used to argue it is impossible to build a mass force to the left of Labour.

Respect – the Unity Coalition was founded in 2004 by the anti-war MP, George Galloway, and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). Now, Respect has split acrimoniously down the middle: the SWP on the one side, George Galloway and most other forces in Respect, on the other. HANNAH SELL reports.

The crisis in Respect

Inevitable the crisis that has erupted in Respect will be used by some to argue that it is impossible to build a mass force to the left of Labour. This is particularly the case because it is the latest in a number of attempts to build new left formations that have ended in failure, including Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, and the Socialist Alliance. However, this argument is entirely false.

Respect’s current crisis was built into its foundations from the beginning. It was the Respect leadership’s mistaken approach and methods that led the Socialist Party to conclude that it was not possible for us to become part of Respect. In this period, the central criteria by which any formation must be judged is whether or not it will play a positive role in encouraging sections of radicalised workers to move towards independent political representation. We judged that Respect as it was founded would not play this role and, in fact, could become an objective obstacle towards the development of such a party. Unfortunately, events have proved this to be correct.

Despite Respect’s relatively small size, it has taken an extremely arrogant approach towards groups of workers moving towards independent political representation. For example earlier this year Respect demanded that the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union (RMT) did not contest the London Assembly elections because Respect was standing and was "the only alternative". The starting point for socialists should be to welcome the RMT, or any significant group of workers, deciding to discuss putting up a trade union-based, anti-cuts, anti-privatisation slate in the elections. The approach of the Respect leadership, by contrast, could slow down or prevent potentially important steps towards a new workers’ party.

Breakdown in relations

The SWP has proclaimed that it is being witch-hunted out of Respect by Galloway and his allies because it has opposed "a fundamental shift of sections of Respect away from the minimal agreed principles on which it had been founded – a shift towards putting electorability above every other principle, a shift which could only pull Respect to the right".

Those opposing the SWP, Respect Renewal, have an entirely different explanation of why the split has taken place: "This breakdown in relations has occurred because the SWP leadership arrogantly refuses to countenance any situation in which they are not dominant and do not exercise control. They are determined to put the interests of the SWP above that of Respect".

Many of the opponents of the SWP argue that these problems exist because the SWP is a ‘Leninist’ party. We refute the idea that the methods used by the SWP are in any sense based on the genuine methods of ‘Leninism’. We would agree, however, on the basis of long experience, about Respect Renewal’s evaluation of the SWP’s methods of work. Equally, we would agree with the SWP about the dangers of Respect putting short-term electoral gain above developing Respect on a healthy basis. However, both of these problems have been present since Respect was founded.

Respect came out of the anti-war movement. However, it was not, as we proposed at the time, launched by George Galloway MP from the platform of the two million strong 15 February 2003 demonstration at the height of the anti-war movement. A new formation initiated at this time could have very quickly drawn in tens of thousands of the most politicised of the millions who were taking to the streets against the war. However, Respect did not come into being until 2004. By this stage the numbers active in the anti-war movement had ebbed, even though opposition to the occupation was increasing. While Respect could still have had potential if launched on a correct basis, it was unfortunately seen by its leadership from the beginning primarily as a vehicle for getting anti-war votes rather than as a means to encourage workers and the new generation drawn into activity by the war to find their own independent political voice.

Opportunistic turn

The political shortcuts taken in some Respect election campaigns reflected this electoral orientation from the very beginning. In some areas with large Muslim populations Respect won significant votes. To win Muslims, who are one of the most oppressed sections of the population and are profoundly disillusioned with New Labour, to a socialist anti-war party would have been positive of course. However, any putative new mass workers’ party, even were it to be initially based primarily upon one section of the population, would have to reach out to the wider working-class in order to be successful. The concern regarding Respect has been that, in order to win Muslim votes, it has made unprincipled concessions which would make it much more difficult to reach out to the wider working class.

To give one of several examples, in the 2004 elections, for the London assembly and the European parliament, a specific leaflet aimed at Muslims was produced which described Respect as "the party for Muslims". Under the headline, George Galloway – Fighter for Muslims, it said: "Married to a Palestinian doctor, teetotal, he has strong religious principles about fighting injustice. He was expelled by Blair because he refused to apologise for his anti-war stance. Our Muslim MPs stayed silent or supported the war. Who do you want to be our voice?"

When the Socialist Party and others on the left, including Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, criticised this opportunist approach, the SWP vociferously denied that any problem existed and accused those who raised questions of attempting to deliberately undermine Respect. Even in its current document on the crisis, in which it accepts that "opportunist electoral politics began to dominate Respect", the SWP still describes those who publicly recognised this before the last two months as "opponents of Respect" who "spread the idea it was a ‘Muslim Party’."

It is only in the last few months that the SWP has begun to publicly criticise Galloway. However, it now does so in very sharp language. For example, the SWP now says on the question of a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage: "he achieved the dubious record of being the fifth highest earning MP (after Hague, Blunkett, Widdecombe and Boris Johnson) with £300,000 a year. Some tribune of the people!"

This ignores the fact that this issue has been raised repeatedly since Respect’s inception and the SWP have consistently attacked those who have done so. For example, when it was raised at the first Respect conference, Preston councillor Michael Lavallette opposed it on behalf of the SWP: "This demand would make it difficult to attract council candidates. This motion is one of three or four which are dishonest – look at the one on open borders, and abortion – which are trying to target particular people in this organisation. In this case, George Galloway is being targeted. This is what it’s really about. It’s not an appropriate demand".

Principled unity

We are not suggesting it is necessary to have agreement on every issue in order to work together with other individuals and organisations. Galloway’s opposition to a worker’s wage does not preclude taking part in building a political formation with him. However, this could and should have been done on a principled basis. If we were in a broad coalition alongside individuals who opposed standing on a worker’s wage we would not necessarily immediately turn it into a ‘make or break’ issue, particularly if the coalition had the potential to take the class struggle forward. Nonetheless, we would behave in a completely different fashion to the SWP.

We would always make it clear that all Socialist Party members elected as MPs would, as our past record demonstrates, take a worker’s wage. We would also add, particularly given the widespread cynicism in society towards the sleaze of the capitalist politicians, that this is a policy which would be very attractive to the most radicalised and combative workers and youth. They are the very people who would need to be convinced not only to vote for the formation in question but also to join it and stand in elections on its behalf! Lavallette’s aside about the issue making it difficult to attract council candidates shows very clearly that the opportunist pressures that the SWP has now belatedly recognised were in existence three years earlier, and the SWP was giving ground under them.

It has also been the SWP that has led the way in arguing that Respect should lower its socialist banner. At the founding convention of Respect Lindsey German of the SWP argued that the Socialist Alliance had failed because it was too explicitly socialist and that Respect would succeed by being ‘broader’ (ie less explicitly socialist). This argument was mistaken, as the Socialist Party has been able to show repeatedly. For example, in the 2004 European parliament elections in Ireland, Joe Higgins received 5.5% of the first preference votes across the whole of Dublin, standing on a clear socialist programme. This was a higher vote than that won by Lindsey German at the same time standing for the London Assembly, having lowered her socialist banner. However, the SWP has not learnt the lessons from this. In Scotland it argued vociferously against the full name of the new party, Solidarity, being Solidarity – Scotland’s Socialist Movement, because it argued that socialism was too ‘narrow’.

Profound misunderstanding

In any new workers’ formation it is necessary for socialists to argue the case for a socialist programme, linking it to the day to day struggles of the working class. Nonetheless we would welcome a new mass workers’ party, or a significant step towards one, even if its membership did not initially adopt a fully-rounded out socialist programme. Provided a new mass party was rooted in struggle, had a democratic and federal approach, and stood clearly against cuts, privatisation and war, it would represent a step forward. As socialists we would argue within such a party for it to stand for socialism, as the only means to permanently and completely end cuts, privatisation and war. The vast majority of Respect’s members, however, are longstanding socialists, who have argued for Respect not to be ‘too socialist’ because they wrongly imagined it would ‘broaden’ Respect’s electoral appeal.

The SWP’s approach on this issue is completely empirical. Underlying this is its profound misunderstanding of the effects of the collapse of Stalinism – which it saw as the collapse of state capitalism, described as a ‘sideways step’. We argued that, while the Stalinist dictatorships bore no resemblance to genuine socialism, they were nonetheless based on a form of planned economy. Their collapse disorientated the workers’ movement internationally and allowed the capitalist class to launch a huge wave of propaganda against socialism and planning. Inevitably, the consciousness and understanding of the working class was pushed back under the weight of this onslaught. Even now the movement has not fully recovered, although the experience of capitalism is leading a new generation to draw anti-capitalist and, increasingly, socialist conclusions.

In essence, it is for this reason that Marxists today are faced with revisiting some of the tasks that our predecessors faced over a century ago – particularly the creation of independent political organisations.

The SWP, however, has formally denied reality, comparing the current period to the "1930s in slow motion". It believes that it stands alone, having managed to "resist the wave of pessimism that swept the left internationally after 1989". However, in order to resist the wave of pessimism it was necessary to have an accurate analysis of the genuinely negative effects of the collapse of Stalinism. In reality, the SWP has bent opportunistically to the pressures of the period without recognising that it has done so. Why else is it arguing that a mass formation cannot be built if its programme is ‘too socialist’?

The contradiction between this and the parallel they draw between today and the 1930s, when mass parties existed with the support of millions and, by today’s standards, very radical socialist programmes at least on paper, is never commented upon. Equally, within the trade unions, the SWP is increasingly acting as a left cover for the right-wing bureaucracy.

Inevitably, some members of the SWP are starting to question their leadership’s approach. For example, Mark Steel writes: "In these circumstances the triumphant tone of the SWP during the last 15 years may have been misjudged. It’s also possible that the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago had a greater impact 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".

Control freakery

The SWP’s top-down bureaucratic method of organisation, which bears no resemblance to genuine Leninism, means that voices of opposition within the SWP have up to now been muffled.

The top-down methods the SWP use within its own party have also been used within Respect. On the issue of socialism, as on all others, successive Respect conferences adopted the position argued for by the SWP. The reason for this is that, despite its name, Respect has never had the structure of a genuine coalition. Instead, it has the structure of a relatively centralised party within which, given the small size of Respect, the SWP has been able to use its weight of numbers to force through whatever position it chose. George Galloway was able to accept this position while the SWP was arguing in support of him. Now there is a sharp disagreement, however, he has discovered that "the SWP leaders did not want Respect to be a genuine mass organisation because they wanted to control every aspect of it".

The ‘control freakery’ of the SWP leadership is not news. As SWP member Mark Steel has pointed out: "Whether in the Socialist Alliance, Stop the War, or Respect, we seem destined to land ourselves in acrimonious disputes. And the growing list of people who’ve selflessly committed themselves to a project alongside us, only to later lament that they feel betrayed and humiliated is one that, shall we say, needs addressing".

We do not agree with those who argue that the SWP’s endless ‘acrimonious disputes’ stem from its refusal to dissolve the party into Respect, but rather from the refusal to adopt a genuinely federal approach to building Respect. Such an approach would mean that all trends and groupings, rather than just the SWP, would have had full rights to take part in Respect, while maintaining their own identity and freedom to argue for their own programme. It would be necessary to operate using a degree of consensus, where if one or more groupings were strongly opposed to a particular policy it would not adopted. However all groupings would be free to argue for their particular policies within the broad parameters of the party being anti-cuts and anti-privatisation.

The SWP argue that this degree of federalism is ‘ineffective’. Yet, for the first 18 years of its existence the Labour Party, with tens and then hundreds of thousands supporting it, had an extremely federal approach, to the extent that it was not even possible to join as an individual member until 1918.

The Socialist Alliance experience

This was also the kind of structure we argued for within the Socialist Alliance. The Socialist Alliance was founded by the Socialist Party and others in the mid-1990s with the aim of bringing together different socialist organisations and individuals on the basis of the maximum possible principled unity, whilst preserving the rights of all those who participated. The Socialist Alliance only ever involved relatively modest forces. However, the federal approach it adopted, we believe, will also apply to the building of future steps towards a mass workers’ party, particularly in its initial stages.

It is most likely that a new party will not come from one source but from several different ones – from the struggles of groups of trade unionists, environmentalists, anti-capitalists, tenants’ activists, etc. To be effective, any new formation would have to find a way of involving such disparate groups, without demanding that they give up their own organisation. Especially given the sensitivity on democracy of the new generation entering activity, it is particularly important that any new formation has an open, inclusive approach.

The SWP joined the Socialist Alliance in 2000 only to use its weight of numbers to force through a highly-centralised constitution in December 2001, which meant all decisions were taken by the SWP. Effectively, the Socialist Alliance ceased to be an alliance. The Socialist Party felt we had no choice but to leave the Socialist Alliance at this point. Three years later, the SWP wound up the Socialist Alliance and founded Respect. Alex Callinicos, a leading SWP Central Committee member, justifies his party’s role in the Socialist Alliance: "In the absence of a substantial ex-Labour presence, the Socialist Alliance suffered from a structural imbalance, given that the SWP greatly outweighs the rest of the British far left combined. When, as we usually tried, we applied a self-denying ordinance, we were still, like the elephant in the room, a looming presence. When we asserted ourselves, however democratically, we caused resentment. The Socialist Party and a few well-known ‘independents’ cited ‘SWP dominance’ when they walked out of the Alliance. Usually they had their own reasons for leaving, but in truth the SWP did dominate the Socialist Alliance – not by intention, but by default, in the absence of sufficiently strong participation by forces from a reformist background".

His description unfortunately bears no resemblance to reality, either in terms of the SWP´s relative strength (for example we had three times as many elected representatives on trade union national executives as the SWP at this time) or to how the SWP behaved when they destroyed the Socialist Alliance.

The Socialist Party put forward a fully-federal constitution as the best means to take the Socialist Alliance forward. However, we were prepared to accept any of the three reasonable compromises on the table in order to keep the Socialist Alliance on the road. Far from operating a ‘self-denying ordinance’, however, the SWP refused to even support the very modest proposal to limit the number of national executive positions held by any one organisation to 40% because it was ‘institutionalising divisions’. The highly draconian constitution allowed the executive to "disaffiliate local Socialist Alliances and remove individual membership or refuse to ratify candidate selection". Effectively, this was designed to prevent anyone, particularly the Socialist Party, which had received three of the five highest Socialist Alliance votes in the 2001 general election, from having any autonomy in election campaigns.

In words, the SWP has taken a slightly less crude approach within Respect, describing it as a coalition. The reality of the constitution, however, has been extremely highly centralised. Such an approach, as both Arthur Scargill’s top down Socialist Labour Party and the SWP-led Socialist Alliance have shown, will never be able to attract significant numbers of new layers of workers and youth entering struggle who, particularly in this period, are rightly very sensitive on questions of democracy.

Trotsky’s united front…

The SWP has justified its approach to Respect by calling it a ‘united front of a special type’. This is inaccurate from every point of view. In the first place a united front, in its classical sense, is a bloc between mass forces. For example, Leon Trotsky argued for the German Communist Party to call for a united front with German Social Democracy against the fascists. Both were forces with the support of millions of workers. Trotsky described the tasks of the united front to be for the Communist Party to demonstrate in practise to the masses "its readiness in action to wage battle in common with them for aims, no matter how modest". In the course of doing so the Communist Party, had it taken Trotsky’s advice, would have been able to demonstrate to the Social Democratic workers that, "the common struggle is undermined not by the disruptive acts of the Communist Party but by the conscious sabotage of the leaders of the Social Democracy".

It is clear that this does not fully apply to Britain today, where there are no mass, or even sizeable, parties of the working class at the present. Although millions of workers still vote Labour, in general they do so, not out of support for New Labour, but as a bulwark against the Tories. In this period we have a dual task. Firstly, to encourage workers down the road of creating their own party. Secondly, to argue the case for such a party to adopt a Marxist programme. Of course, big sections of the working class will only draw the conclusion that a Marxist programme is necessary on the basis of their own experience, having tested out, and found wanting, other programmes. While we recognise this, our duty is to argue a case for the programme that is objectively necessary, a Marxist programme, and to win as many as possible to that programme.

While a united front in its classical sense does not apply to current conditions, it is correct to apply the method of the united front in a number of fields, including for electoral challenges. Unfortunately, the SWP does not genuinely apply this method. The SWP describes its method of work in Respect by saying: "People have known we have always been open about our politics at the same time as going out to build unity with those that do not agree with us. They have known that we do not attempt to smuggle in our own views by the back door or impose them on others".

Unfortunately, this really is a case of hoping that if you say black is white enough people will start to believe it!

Trotsky famously summed up a united front with the phrase, "march separately, strike together". By this he meant that organisations retain their own programme, organisation and independence of action whilst coming together to fight for a particular demand. In this sense, the Socialist Alliance, prior to the SWP takeover, applied an element of the united front, although on a very small scale. Different organisations retained the right to their own organisation and programme yet came together for specific campaigns, particularly to form joint lists for elections, within which parties produced their own election material.

…the SWP’s version

But in no sense could Respect, or the SWP led-Socialist Alliance, be described as a united front. The right to ‘march separately’ has been completed obliterated. The Respect National Committee (NC) was, until the split, elected by a slate system at the national conference. Given the SWP’s numerical dominance of Respect this means that it decided the entire membership of the NC. It is true that only a minority were SWP members, but the non-SWP members of the NC, as they have now found out to their cost, were there purely by the grace and favour of the SWP. The NC has a high degree of power, appropriate to a centralised party not a coalition. For example, as regards elections, it had "the final decision on where and when to stand candidates in elections at local and national level. Candidates will be selected by the local branch or constituency organisation with the agreement of the National Committee".

This method of organisation made it impossible for the Socialist Party to join Respect. More importantly, it also made it impossible for groups of trade unionists and community campaigners, such as the London RMT or the Huddersfield NHS campaigners, to take part as it would have meant them entirely giving up their own identity and organisation in order to be told what to do by a party of 2,500 members!

The SWP simultaneously misunderstand the united front from the opposite point of view. For example, within the anti-war movement it insisted that the entire anti-war coalition limited itself to the single demand, ‘stop the war’. We believed that the broad programme of the anti-war movement should include several other demands, such as ‘no to terror’. What is more, the SWP utterly failed to argue for a socialist programme within the anti-war movement. Its speakers on anti-war coalition platforms, such as John Rees and Lindsey German, usually failed to mention capitalism, never mind socialism, even when they were speaking on behalf of the SWP.

Political concessions

Similarly within Respect the SWP has frequently not put its programme forward for fear of alienating George Galloway and his allies. Instead, it has used its weight of numbers to prevent genuine discussion on a whole range of issues including socialism, representatives on a worker’s wage and, in 2004, the question of abortion rights. The SWP’s approach is not accidental.

In an article by Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left, he explains the SWP’s understanding of the united front. He criticises a former section of the SWP’s international, saying that they: "make concessions to the misconception that the way revolutionaries differentiate themselves within united fronts is by ‘putting the arguments’ which set us apart from other forces within the united front. In our experience it is more often through being the most dynamic and militant force in building the movement in question".

The SWP is correct, of course, in saying that it is important for an organisation to prove itself as being "the most dynamic and militant force" in a broader movement. However, we see no contradiction between this and campaigning for our own programme within the movement. In the 1990s, in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism, there was an enormous pressure on Marxists to abandon the need for a genuine socialist programme and organisation in favour of ‘unity’. This pressure still exists to a large degree today. Many on the left have capitulated to this. The SWP is currently holding firm to the need for its own organisation. At the same time, however, it has made considerable opportunist political concessions. As a result, the SWP has ended up with a complete inversion of a genuine united front method, in which it insists on organisational control, but does not raise its political programme!

The failure of Respect has come at a time when the objective need for a mass party of the working class is stronger than ever. New Labour is a government in crisis. The mood to break the link with Labour is growing at rank-and-file level in the trade unions, particularly in the Communication Workers’ Union after New Labour backed Crozier and co to the hilt in the recent strike. The likelihood of an RMT-initiated list in next year’s London elections represents a small but important step forward. While events in Respect may have a temporarily confusing effect for some, historically, they will not mark a substantial obstacle on the road to mass independent political representation for workers in England and Wales.

From Socialism Today (new window), magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.

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January 2008