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SWP: what kind of programme?

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Jeremy Dewar on the dilemma facing the Socialist Workers Party

The massive vote for Labour was a vote for real change. Revolutionaries know that Blair’s government is committed to less radical change than any Labour government this century. His programme is to provide the best possible conditions for capitalism to continue making profits at our expense. But millions are not convinced of this. They are prepared to give Labour a chance.

Faced with this revolutionary socialists have to outline an action programme that does three things:

• addresses the immediate concerns of workers today
• points the struggle in the direction of real working class power and socialist transformation
• focuses the anger and hopes of workers into an active fight to force Labour to begin to meet our demands.

For years the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) stood out on the left in its insistence that revolutionaries do not need a political programme. “If I want to make a revolution I want a gun, not a blueprint for a gun” was the usual refrain from the SWP’s leader Tony Cliff, when asked about a political programme.

Indeed the SWP specifically rejects the type of revolutionary programme that Trotsky developed in the 1930s, a transitional programme which maps out the key demands in the immediate struggles of the workers and links these to the fight for socialism by pushing forward the elements of workers’ control and workers’ power that arise from the struggle under capitalism

Now, however, the SWP has come up with a programme. And it is a thoroughly reformist one.

Every party has to have a programme, especially during elections when the key questions are: “What will you do in government? How will you run the economy? How will you tackle unemployment? How will you pay for these measures?”.

The SWP’s answer during the election was to put forward two different types of programme. One was its “revolutionary” programme summarised in Socialist Worker’s, “Where we stand” column: socialism cannot come through parliament, workers need their own organisations - workers’ councils - and real power lies with the unelected capitalists and generals who have to be swept aside for the workers to take power.

It was another programme, however, that dominated the pages of Socialist Worker. This one addressed the immediate questions facing the working class, to which Labour was putting forward its own pro-capitalist solutions. This programme was summed up during the election in Socialist Worker’s “Manifesto for real change”, a centre page designed as a poster to be displayed in every workplace. Since the election it has been developed as a series of demands on Labour in office, most recently in an “Alternative Queen’s Speech”.

What is striking about this programme is its reformism. It signals a turn to the right by the SWP as it seeks to adapt to the Labour landslide and the illusions that the victory has reinforced.

In its immediate programme the SWP has concentrated on answering the question, “Where is the money going to come from to carry out measures in the interests of the working class?” This is a crucial argument for socialists because Blair and new Labour have made it a point of honour that they will not raise taxes, despite the fact that the rich have gained massively under the Tories.

One of Socialist Worker’s targets has been defence. The “Manifesto for real change” called on Labour to scrap Trident, the Eurofighter and the Apache helicopters. In the “Alternative Queen’s Speech” the SWP calls for defence spending to be “reduced to the average level of European Union countries” and for the savings to be spent on public services.

Whatever funds this might release for schools and hospitals, the British army would remain one of the most heavily armed repressive military machines on the planet. Its occupation of Northern Ireland would be unaffected. Its equally reactionary interventions into the Gulf War and Bosnia would have been quite possible.

The demand for “average” defence spending is a quite simply a reformist demand.

Revolutionaries are not in favour of just reducing defence expenditure to spend the savings “more wisely” on other things. We leave these arguments to the left reformists, to the Benns and Skinners of yesteryear, and the likes of the old Communist Parties who peddled the idea that socialist governments could reform and democratise the armed forces.

The armed forces under capitalism exist to defend the bosses’ rule and its property, abroad and at home. The struggle for socialism means smashing this instrument of the bourgeoisie. Of course we argue against the squandering of billions of pounds on defence projects and point out what such sums could provide in terms of hospitals and schools.

But revolutionaries never lose sight of the fact that we fight and vote against all military expenditure on the basis of the old Marxist slogan, “Not a penny, not a person for the defence of the capitalist system”. Socialist Worker “forgets” this revolutionary demand and peddles a reformist one in its place.

Socialist Worker turns out to be no more radical when it comes to taxation. Despite radical headlines like “Tax the rich” or “Squeeze them dry”, the SWP’s actual demands turn out to be moderate. The “Manifesto for real change” merely called on Labour to “restore the top rates of tax to what they were in the first nine years of Margaret Thatcher’s government”. This was 60p in the pound of all income over £40,000.

The “Alternative Queen’s Speech” repeated this demand, and extended its programme of tax increases by calling for increases to corporate and inheritance taxes, VAT on private health and school fees etc.

Even as reformist demands go, this programme of taxing the rich is feeble, especially if you remember that Harold Wilson at one point had a top tax rate of 98p in the pound!

Revolutionaries, in contrast, demand “the conscription of wealth”. We don’t want to increase inheritance tax; we want to prevent the bourgeoisie from passing on their billions to their offspring by taking the lot. We don’t just want to steeply tax their massive incomes, we want to tax their accumulated property, their country houses, their stocks and bonds, their yachts, wine collections and jewellery, through a wealth tax. We want to conscript their massive wealth for the benefit of the vast majority, so that we can build homes, schools and hospitals.

By aping the reformists, the SWP have proposed a set of tax policies which fail on two counts. They fail to hit the rich. A 60% tax rate for the top managers and directors will still allow people like Cedric Brown of British Gas and Tim Holley of Camelot to rake in hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.

And the working class would still bear the brunt of the tax burden under a government that implemented it. That’s why Workers Power fights for a steeply progressive tax system which hits income and unearned wealth. Those on low incomes should pay no tax while the super rich should be taken to the cleaners.

But the SWP’s retreat to the right does not stop here. Millions of workers are disgusted by the Tories’ privatisations in which state assets were virtually given away. But the SWP proposes only a 70% tax on these utilities’ “excessive” profits. Why not re-nationalise them under workers’ control and with no compensation?

Socialist Worker is backing an open letter demanding the re-instatement of the sacked dockers, an excellent demand. But Socialist Worker says Blair should “use the governments 40% shareholding in the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Board” to demand the reinstatement of the sacked dockers. Surely the dockers have experienced what private ownership means? Don’t revolutionaries fight for the renationalisation of the docks, without compensation and this time under the control of the workers themselves?

This fight for workers’ control and the nationalisation of the big companies was the essence of the revolutionary programme fought for by Lenin and Trotsky. We defend it not as some sort of historic fetish but as a vital weapon in the revolutionary armoury. In the struggle against a right wing Labour government we are able to raise alternative solutions for workers in struggle, alternatives to Labour’s reformist and pro-capitalist solutions.

We can use Gordon Brown’s refusal to tax the rich to explain how money can be raised from the employing class to fund the welfare state, pensions, schools etc. We can use the massive expenditure on arms to explain what the army is there for, and make arguments for what should replace it – the workers’ militia.

We can use the constant drive for redundancies by massively profitable companies to popularise the demand for reducing the hours and not the pay. We can demand so-called “bankrupt” companies open their books to the workers, and if they really are bankrupt we can fight for the government to take them over and place them under the control of the workers.

We can fight alongside workers who still have illusions in Labour but agree with our demands. In struggle we can win them away from illusions in Blair and to revolutionary communism.

The SWP rejects this method. Why? Because it is a party that is built around a centrist method, it is a party whose leadership vacillates between revolution and reform.

Socialist Worker’s political arguments during and after the election have given us a classic example of centrist politics. The party’s revolutionary principles appear in occasional “propaganda” articles for education – its maximum programme. Its “action programme” – what it wants workers to fight for now – is indistinguishable from left reformism.

It is a re-hashing of the old demands put forward by the Labour left and the Communist Party: cut defence spending, increase taxation on the rich, spend more on the welfare state and education.

The SWP declared after the collapse of Stalinism and the move to the right of the Labour Party that there was a “vacuum on the left”, that they were “the socialists” who would fill it.

This is what they are doing, but only at the cost of copying the politics of left reformism. They have taken up the old bankrupt programme ditched by the now silent left reformists. In this way they think they can relate to the workers who have illusions in Blair but who are critical and willing to fight. It is a classic case of what Lenin called “tailism”, adapting your politics to what you think the masses will accept.

In previous periods the SWP’s tailism has been applied predominantly to the trade union consciousness of workers, in the belief that there is something more healthy and spontaneous about the trade union consciousness of workers than their reformist political consciousness.

But with even most trade union militants focused on the question: what will Blair do next – i.e. focused on “political” instead of purely workplace struggles – the SWP has been forced to address the same questions.

Its answers - as in the trade union struggle - do not flow from what is necessary, but from a method that says: “What will the workers fight for that is just to the left of what their leaders want?”

In the 1980s, using just this logic, the Militant Tendency posed as the “organic” left wing of the Labour Party. They reduced Trotskyism to a series of left reformist demands on Labour. SWP members rightly denounced them for this. Now the SWP itself looks set to repeat the error.

Finally forced to reveal its “blueprint for a gun” it has drawn a water pistol.