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SWP: A turn to the right?

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The Socialist Alliance and the anti-capitalist movement have prompted a new “turn” by the SWP, Britain’s biggest left wing group. Colin Lloyd and Mark Hoskisson survey the issues at stake.

The Socialist Workers Party is undergoing one of its periodic “turns”. Its reorientation towards the anti-capitalist movement in the wake of Seattle has already led to a split with its co-thinkers in the USA and Greece. And the scale of the turn is signalled in articles by John Rees and Alex Callinicos.*

At the heart of both articles is a new insistence on the need for revolutionaries to deploy the united front tactic.

We can agree with that. But the SWP’s latest turn is not just about united action with reformist-minded workers and anti-globalisation activists: it involves the deliberate refusal to criticise the ideas and methods of reformist leaders.

In the name of the “united front” the SWP leaders are constructing a political bloc with the reformist wing both of the Socialist Alliance and the anti-globalisation movement – against those fighting for revolutionary politics.

Instead of helping build a larger revolutionary party – the ultimate aim of the united front tactic – the SWP’s determination to “build to the right” is getting in the way of it.

The new turn poses three basic questions:
• Does unity in action with reformist activists mean gagging our criticisms of their leaders, their ideas and their methods of struggle?
• Can the Socialist Alliance become a revolutionary party – and if not, what is the limit to political concessions the SWP will make in order to maintain it as an electoral alliance?
• How should we engage with the tens of thousands of activists in the anti-capitalist movement who want to smash the system but mistrust Marxist forms of organisation.

Rees argues “It is through joint struggle that the differences between revolutionaries and reformists become apparent to reformist workers. It is not in the first instance because revolutionaries differentiate themselves or counterpose themselves to the reformists inside the united front.” Revolutionaries have to show in practice that their methods can win the desired aim of the movement, he says.

Callinicos drags up various quotes from Marx to the effect that a sect is always trying to distinguish itself from the movement by emphasising “the particular shibboleth which distinguishes itself from the movement”.

But all this is only half the story. The insistence on the united front and avoiding “shibboleths” has become an excuse for obscuring the differences with reformist, liberal and even chauvinist leaders within protest movements.

In the Socialist Alliance: At the Socialist Alliance conference on 10 March, called to finalise the election manifesto, the SWP consistently blocked with the minority of reformists in the SA to ensure that key revolutionary positions were defeated: calls to disarm and disband the police; the call for a revolutionary workers’ government that will take on and break up the capitalist state machine; the call for workers’ self-defence organisations. In fact the SWP itself advanced no programme at all for the SA: it originally wanted the programme conference to be turned into a training day.

At Coventry it was happy to rely on people it used to sneer at as “orthodox Trotskyists” to provide the rational for chopping the revolutionary head off the manifesto in the name of “unity” with the reformists.

In the Kosovo War: The biggest sectarians, according to Alex Callinicos, are his own former comrades of the American ISO, who insisted on emphasising the “shibboleth” of Kosovan national rights while opposing Nato’s intervention. Since both Workers Power and Socialist Outlook advocated the same point in the UK movement it is a swipe at us as well.

Callinicos claims the US movement against the Balkan war was smaller than in Britain because the ISO insisted on raising Kosovan self-determination. That is false. The fact is – as was recognised by many SWP members in Britain – the SWP’s refusal to differentiate itself from Serb chauvinism severely limited the impact of the movement in Britain, because it could never answer openly the objection of reformist workers and youth: what about the Kosovans, who will protect them? For Callinicos, revelling in his united front with Serb nationalists, this was just a “shibboleth” to be avoided – or, even better, theorised into a non-question.

In the Seattle movement: When the SWP got stuck in to the anti-capitalist movement it had to face two ways: towards the liberal intellectual leadership of the movement – Susan George, Walden Bello, Naomi Klein etc – and towards the anarchists and eco-warriors who form the backbone of the movmement.

On countless platforms the SWP has refused to criticise the reformist poltics of the liberal leaders: for example at Marxism 2000 it reserved its biggest applause for Klein’s attack on Workers Power for wanting to turn the movement towards socialist revolution. Sure, it publishes learned critiques of their ideas in its theoretical journal, but its main emphasis is to accentuate the common ground and attack those who criticise the liberals from the left.

This is not the method of the united front. And it will not help show in practice why revolutionary methods are better than reformist and liberal methods.

Revolutionaries strive to be the best and most consistent fighters in the united front for every limited and partial goal. But they do not restrict themselves to this. Joint struggle is vital to win revolutionaries a hearing, but this begs the question – a hearing for what?

For us, it is a hearing for relevant, practical revolutionary politics: demands, forms of organisation and goals of struggle that go beyond the initial united front aims.

If we are to convince people that we are right we need to argue for and explain such demands and goals – not keep them hidden from view.

This does not mean we counterpose revolutionary goals to limited agreements of struggle. It does mean that we seek openly to push the limited agreements further forward. If we fail, but we can all agree on a minimum basis for action, so be it. But if we do not try then we are saying in advance that it is impossible to win reformist workers, or liberal-influenced, anti-globalisation protesters to bolder and more revolutionary goals in the here and now. But it’s far from impossible.

There is a common theme in the SWP’s newfound enthusiasm for the united front: ally with the reformists against the revolutionary left; tone down your criticisms of them in the name of unity.

Take Callinicos’ analysis of Susan George’s politics. Callinicos says it would be a “big mistake” to say Susan George’s speeches are “the expression of a settled reformist position”.

Now Susan George has been prominent on the left wing of liberalism and third worldism for decades. She may well be moving further left under the impact of the Seattle movement. But unless we criticise her ideas, and the methods of struggle that flow from them, George – and more importantly the masses of people influenced by her – will not complete the transition to revolutionary socialism.

And getting reformists to make that transition is supposed to be the aim of the united front tactic.

The SWP sees the Socialist Alliance as a permanent bloc between revolutionaries and reformists – within which we can only go as far as reformists are willing to go.

“The Socialist Alliance is thus best seen as a united front of a particular kind applied to the electoral field. It seeks to unite left reformist activists and revolutionaries in a campaign around a minimum programme,” says Rees.

But the Socialist Alliance, whether the SWP realises it or not, is increasingly posing the question of a new party point blank.

Likewise, the SWP would be happy for the anti-capitalist movement to remain a permanent bloc of street activists and liberal intellectuals – and has basically set up Globalise Resistance (GR) to provide the organisational form for that alliance.

But events conspire against it here too. Outside GR are thousands of anti-capitalists who have been doing the business for much longer than most SWP members. The SWP at present is in denial about their importance – and underestimates the challenge involved in winning them to revolutionary socialism.

All ideas have an impact in the physical world. Up to now the SWP has not had to choose in action between the demands of class struggle and the words of the SA’s reformist figureheads; nor has it had to choose point blank between the street activists of the Seattle movement and the liberal thinkers who have claimed to be its spokespeople.

But one day the contradiction will open up. That is inevitable in any united front.

When that happens it is essential that the masses of activists – in the SAs, in future anti-war movements or in the anti-capitalist movement – see that revolutionary politics are a better guide to action; that revolutionary forms of organisation are more effective than reformist liberal ones.

The SWP’s understanding of the united front is beginning, even now, to put an obstacle in the way of developing the movement.

In the Socialist Alliance it insists on a united front, not a party. But the question of a party is objectively posed.

In the anti-capitalist movement, the main task is to deepen the anti-capitalism of the direct action-ists, not to build the literary reputations of the liberal intelligentsia. But the SWP fawns over the intellectuals and denies the importance of debating with a much broader mass of youth who are pro-revolution but, at present, anti-Leninist.

The two problems are linked: the SWP stands as an obstacle to the Socialist Alliance becoming a revolutionary party, and without revolutionary politics the SA will find it harder to attract the anti-capitalist youth.

We think there is a real possibility to taking the Alliances forward now towards a revolutionary party that could number tens of thousands. It could act as a pole of attraction for the outraged anti-capitalist youth who want to tear down the whole system – and for rank and file workers fighting to defend their jobs and conditions.

The condition for realising this possibility is simple: that revolutionaries openly fight for it.

Revolutionaries have to place this fight above all deals that are inspired by purely electoral calculations. We have to take the fight for the programme into the working class and not relegate it to theoretical journals.

* John Rees, “Anti-capitalism, reformism and socialism” International Socialism No.90; Alex Callinicos, “The anticapitalist movement and the revolutionary left”, published on the Internet.