Cliffites, Clerics & Class Collaboration

SWP’s Respect Gambit

In October 2003, a middle-of-the-road social democrat, George Galloway, was kicked out of the Labour Party for his forthright opposition to Tony Blair’s participation in the criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq. A year and a half later, in the May 2005 British general election, Galloway had his revenge when he defeated Oona King, a prominent Blairite, in the traditionally Labour Bethnal Green and Bow constituency. Fresh from this triumph, Galloway made another splash a few weeks later when he easily bested a gaggle of Republican bullies in a U.S. Senate hearing where he was defending himself against charges of profiteering from Iraqi oil dealings.

Galloway won his seat as the candidate of “Respect,” a lash-up between Britain’s largest ostensibly Marxist organization, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and important elements of Britain’s Muslim minority, supported to some degree by most of the “far left.” While Respect candidates polled well in several other constituencies in London and Birmingham with large Muslim minorities, the coalition (and by default its animators in the SWP) is little more than a vehicle for Galloway’s political views and relentless self-promotion.

Respect was designed from the outset as a cross-class political formation, something the British comrades of the IBT noted in a January 2004 statement entitled “RESPECT-able Reformism and Cross-class ‘Unity’.” Aside from Galloway’s surprise win, Respect remains on the margins of mainstream British politics. Yet the prospect of trading its overtly socialist identification for future electoral success is exerting a significant, and malign, influence on the SWP—and through it, much of Britain’s ostensibly revolutionary left.

Respect’s Election Campaign

Respect’s manifesto for the 2005 general election contained a list of standard left-Labourite proposals for the reform of British capitalism. Notably absent however was any mention of a woman’s right to free abortion on demand. This omission presumably stems from George Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain’s flat opposition to abortion, and from the SWP’s anxiety not to offend its bloc partners. Unlike the SWP, Galloway has made no attempt to duck the issue, and, a few weeks before the election, he made his position clear:

“‘I’m strongly against abortion. I believe life begins at conception, and therefore unborn babies have rights. I think abortion is immoral.’ You can’t be pro-choice? ‘Who is choosing for the child?’

“…I can’t accept that, because I believe in God. I have to believe that the collection of cells has a soul.”
Independent on Sunday, 5 April 2004

Similarly, while Respect’s manifesto champions the rights of asylum seekers, it fails to categorically oppose Britain’s racist immigration controls. Galloway has argued: “we should publish an economic-social-demographic plan for population growth based on a points system and our own needs.” He reassured voters that among his Respect supporters, “no-one serious is advocating the scrapping of immigration controls” (Morning Star, 12 February 2005).

In the June 2005 issue of the SWP’s Socialist Review, the editor, Lindsay German, contrasted Respect’s electoral success to that of its leftist competitors:

“The left vote outside Respect was almost universally small, showing a lack of engagement with the movement which characterises some of the old left. Even long established groups like the Socialist Party failed to benefit from the anti-war mood, and the results for the Scottish Socialist Party were poor for a party with six MSPs and with a much longer history than Respect.”

German offered the following explanation for Respect’s results:

“Respect scored the successes where it did because it was able to tap into a new thirst for politics and a new commitment to work together from groups who had not done so previously. During the election campaign in Newham we saw the beginning of a new politics which holds out exciting challenges for the left if only we can generalise it. Respect was able to group together many activists and supporters from across the board. Our candidate Abdul Khaliq Mian who stood in East Ham was from the Muslim Alliance, which organised among the Muslim community and was very important in helping to deliver this vote.”

Respect candidates certainly ranged “across the board.” Abdul Khaliq Mian, one of four candidates highlighted on the front of Respect’s election manifesto, acts as a spokesperson for the £300 million London Markaz super-Mosque project. While undoubtedly helping to deliver the Muslim vote, Mian rejected the suggestion that Respect was any sort of radical leftist formation:

“‘I don’t think of it as a radical party’…‘We’re a democratic party, so we attract all kinds of people from any party.’”
Red Pepper, April 2005

This is more or less how George Galloway envisioned it a few months prior to Respect’s official launch:

“The first level requires steps towards a mass unifying movement of grassroots radicals to hobble the State, bring it under popular control and complete an unfinished radical democratic revolution. This level will unite Muslims, Christians and Jews, socialists, liberal and conservatives, men, women and the disadvantaged of all types in one movement of democratic liberation.”
—quoted on Aljazeera website, 30 October 2003

Respect’s Founding Declaration put it like this:

“But the yearning for a political alternative is even wider than the anti-war movement. Pensioners, students, trade unionists, Muslims and other faith groups, socialists, ethnic minorities and many others have been deeply disappointed by the authoritarian social policies and profit-centred, neo-liberal economic strategy of the government.

“There is a crisis of representation, a democratic deficit, at the heart of politics in Britain. We aim to offer a solution to this crisis.”

Respect is quite explicitly a cross-class alliance of all those who want to redress the “democratic deficit” in the bourgeois parliamentary system.

There is nothing particularly new about supposed socialists proposing to tie the workers and oppressed to the “progressive” or “democratic” section of the capitalists. In the 1930s, the Communist International under Stalin adopted just such a strategy under the formula of the “Popular Front.” In that case it was argued that, for an indeterminate period of time, it would be necessary for socialists to defend “democracy” from fascism by supporting the “progressive” wing of the exploiters against the ultra-right. At some point in the hazy future, once democracy was secure, it would again be appropriate to pursue the class struggle. But for the interim, class collaboration was on the agenda, according to the theorists of popular frontism.

The concrete implications of the strategy of class collaboration became clear in Spain in 1936, when virtually the entire capitalist class supported a rightist coup against the elected popular-front government. The Stalinist Communist Party, with the reformist Socialists, worked overtime to persuade the workers that any attempt to carry out a socialist revolution would alienate their hypothetical “anti-fascist” bourgeois bloc partners. The result of this treachery was the triumph of reaction and the crushing of the left and workers’ movement. Class divisions lie at the core of capitalist society and anyone who is serious about struggling for a more egalitarian world must begin by recognizing this fundamental fact.

The SWP leadership insists that Respect represents something “new” in politics. In fact Respect is just a new label for a class-collaborationist strategy that is as old as the socialist movement itself. The nature of the whole project was highlighted by Respect’s 6 August 2005 comment on the passing of Robin Cook, Blair’s former Foreign Secretary, who it hailed as one of the “powerful and principled advocates of peace” who committed “himself to an ‘ethical foreign policy’.” While it is true that Cook dissented, for tactical reasons, on the 2003 U.S.-led crusade against Iraq, he took the lead in British imperialism’s participation in the equally criminal assault on Yugoslavia in 1999. Some “ethics”!

Respect & the British Left

Most of the British left has raised criticisms of one sort or another of the Respect gambit. Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party (leading section of the Committee for a Workers’ International) refused to join Respect, choosing instead to run its own candidates. And yet the Socialist Party leaders have no principled differences with the SWP’s class-collaborationist project and were clearly impressed by Galloway’s electoral victory:

“The Socialist Party welcomes this victory and called for a vote for Respect—a party that stands to the left of the big three—and that demands bringing the privatised utilities back into public ownership, an £8 an hour minimum wage, and the ending of occupation of Iraq.

“However, we would have preferred Respect to have been launched as a more inclusive and democratic party that aimed to build a base amongst all sections of the working class.”
The Socialist, 6-11 May 2005

In other words, they are not currently inclined to participate actively in an electoral vehicle controlled by a larger rival, but if Respect becomes popular enough they will swallow their pride and try to find a seat on the bandwagon.

The Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) position on Respect has undergone a limited evolution. Initially pledging that “the CPGB will work to ensure the biggest possible vote for Respect” (Weekly Worker [WW] No. 521, 25 March 2004), a year later, with the election campaign underway, this was changed to a call for votes to “working class anti-war candidates” (WW No. 569, 24 March 2005)—by which they meant SWP members or other leftists running on the Respect ticket.

The International Bolshevik Tendency took a very different approach, arguing that revolutionaries can only give electoral support to workers’ candidates who run independently of all sections of the capitalist class—not in alliance with its more “progressive” elements. A prerequisite for Marxists when considering critical support to any self-proclaimed socialist candidates would be that they break decisively from Respect’s class collaborationism.

The CPGB debated this issue with us in their paper. In the course of the debate, the CPGB took its position to its logical conclusion by asserting that voting for openly bourgeois parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, could sometimes be a valid “tactic” for Marxists. (See our pamphlet “Marxism vs. Popular Frontism: Why not voting Liberal Democrat is a principle not a tactic,” which reprints the relevant documents from both sides.)

Workers Power (leading section of the League for the Fifth International) joined us in opposing votes to Respect on the basis of its cross-class character:

“The problem with Respect is its class character. It is not a working class party, despite the fact that George Galloway was a long-time Labour MP and the organizational core of Respect is the membership of Socialist Workers Party. Its whole political programme and campaign was trimmed to win cross-class support, particularly to build a coalition of working class and petit-bourgeois people primarily within the Muslim community mobilized by the more socially radical mosques and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB).”
—Workers Power statement 10 May 2005

At bottom, however, Workers Power’s position is, like the CPGB’s, not based on Leninist principle, but opportunist tactical calculations. Workers Power has long taken the position that they will vote for class-collaborationist formations that are sufficiently popular. This was spelled out in a 1987 letter to us:

“Both Trotsky and Lenin made clear that the sole purpose of revolutionaries calling for a vote for reformists was that if they have the support of the masses then they have to be put to the test of office. This tactic can be applied whether or not the reformist party is in an open (popular front) or concealed (social democratic government) bloc with the bourgeoisie. The decisive criteria is that party’s relationship to the masses.”

We replied:

If the reformists break with the popular front, and thereby destroy it as a ‘joint party,’ then, and only then, can revolutionists consider a tactic of critical support. This is the whole significance of Lenin’s insistence that the Mensheviks and SRs break with the capitalist ministers in Kerensky’s Provisional Government in 1917 as a precondition for any critical support from the Bolsheviks.”
—reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 3, “In Defense of the Trotskyist Program

While tut-tutting about the SWP’s role in setting out to build Respect as a cross-class political bloc, Workers Power eagerly participated in the SWP’s “Stop the War Coalition,” (StWC) which was organized on the same basis—i.e., as a popular-frontist formation with a program limited to bourgeois pacifism that offered its partners an implicit guarantee that no advocates of class-war politics would be permitted on the platform at StWC events. Workers Power was allowed a seat on the StWC steering committee where it provided a left cover for the SWP’s class-collaborationist anti-war project (see “Fifth Wheel Internationalists,” 1917 No. 26). Respect is, in essence, an attempt by the SWP to turn the StWC into an electoral combination.

For revisionists like the CPGB and Workers Power, class collaborationism is not a question of quality (i.e., principle) but of quantity (i.e., how popular a given “popular front” actually is). While quite prepared to lecture on the evils of cross-class formations in the abstract, they treat the question of the political independence of the working class as a tactical matter. If enough people are voting for a multi-class bloc, then they will too (while making a few face-saving criticisms).

For Bolsheviks the popular front poses an issue that is fundamental to Marxism—the necessity for working people to organize themselves independently of the bosses. Those leftists who support Respect, however “critically,” endorse the principle of cross-class political formations. The task of revolutionaries is to seek to split such lash-ups into their fundamental (i.e., class) components, not to provide a left cover for a policy of subordinating the interests of the exploited to those of their exploiters.