RESPECT-able Reformism and Cross-class ‘Unity’

For a revolutionary workers’ party!

RESPECT – The Unity Coalition, launched at a ‘convention of the left’ on 25 January 2004, is a new electoral alliance planning to contest the European and Greater London Assembly elections in June. This working title is said to stand for ‘Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community and Trade Unionism’. A cursory look at the political basis and composition will reveal, however, that ‘socialism’ was merely included to make the word RESPECT complete, and as a cover for the self-proclaimed revolutionaries who are signing up.

The launch of Respect is the culmination of three things – the failure of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to cash in organisationally from its role in the Stop the War Coalition (StWC); the expulsion of George Galloway from the Labour Party for defending Iraq; and the de facto collapse of the Socialist Alliance (SA) as its dominant component, the SWP, seek bigger pools to play in.

Galloway needs a new political base, and the SWP hope to use him to take the ‘broadness’ of the StWC into the electoral arena. Reformist-utopian journalist George Monbiot, a prominent anti-globalisation spokesperson, and Muslim anti-war activist Salma Yaqoob, who recently teamed up to issue a joint list of the ‘principles of unity’ necessary for anti-war forces to move into electoral politics, are also involved in the provisional leadership.

Despite the wide spectrum of political views and organisational backgrounds represented here, they all agree on one thing: the more the merrier. The fashionable concept of being ‘all-inclusive’ is applied to Respect in a much more shameless way than it ever was to the Socialist Alliance.

‘Unity’ of the classes

A speech by Galloway published on the Aljazeera web site on 30 October 2003 makes it clear that Respect is not intended to be a working class formation:

‘The national politicisation of the anti-war movement is now a necessary next stage in our own bloodless war of national liberation. The reality of the movement means that what we create must operate at two levels.

‘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.

In November 2003 the executive of the Socialist Alliance passed the following motion: ‘The SA welcomes moves towards a left unity coalition to contest the EU elections. The SA will engage with this process and fight for it to adopt a working class and socialist platform in an open, democratic and transparent process’.

However, the key figures launching Respect have already produced a draft programmatic declaration and the SA/SWP’s hopes for the inclusion of a ‘working class and socialist’ figleaf to disguise the bankrupt reformism seem to have been disappointed. Although the declaration is long on the need for democracy, practice seems to be a little different. The stitch-up was admitted by Nick Wrack of the SA in a recent circular:

‘Unfortunately it is inevitable, given that the initiative for the Coalition had to come from somewhere, that there is a certain element of it simply being presented as an accomplished fact.’

In other words, ‘democracy’ looks good in an election manifesto but should not be allowed to get in the way of establishing the basis of a ‘unity coalition’ or sorting out details like political principles or programme. Of course, members who sign up can always attempt to get programmatic amendments discussed and voted on at the convention. Good luck.

SWP: Having cake and eating it too

The SWP are explicit about their attempt to take electoral advantage of the ‘broad’ anti-war movement:

‘This is why the question of forming an alternative political leadership based on the mass movement is so critical. The forces brought together by the anti-war movement have the capacity to do this.

‘To make a start on that work now, socialists need to contact RMT members and other union activists, Stop the War Coalition supporters, Muslim activists in the anti-war movement, Labour Party supporters and many others to begin discussions about how we can form a broad-based alternative to New Labour.’
(John Rees, Socialist Review, November 2003)

But they still want to have things both ways:

‘… both the name and the intentions of any new coalition need to engage as many people as possible, even if they do not regard themselves primarily as socialists. The principles should be as simple as possible – for public ownership and comprehensive education, and against privatisation, imperialism, the war in Iraq, the New Labour government and its Tory/Liberal allies. The simple aim of the new coalition should be to recapture some of the loyalty to socialist ideas and principles that used to inspire people to campaign for and vote Labour.’
(Paul Foot, Socialist Review, December 2003)

Despite the glib equation of loyalty to socialist ideas and Labourite reformism, and a large dose of wishful thinking, Foot is indeed calling for a ‘simple’ alliance, not a socialist one. And that’s what he will get.

For instance, this is their bloc partner George Monbiot writing in the Guardian:

‘we must also ask ourselves what we can do to recolonise and revitalise parliamentary politics. It is not enough, as many advocate, simply to turn our backs on the system for which our political ancestors lost so much blood….

‘… is totalitarianism the only means of eliminating capitalism? If so … can we continue to call ourselves anti-capitalists? If there is no humane and democratic answer to the question of what a world without capitalism would look like, then should we not abandon the pursuit of unicorns, and concentrate on capturing and taming the beast whose den we already inhabit?’
(Guardian, 18 November 2003)

Any ‘socialist ideas and principles’ the SWP may want to put forward will have to fit into this framework. Our money is on the SWP showing a great deal less loyalty to ‘socialism’ than Monbiot does to parliamentary gradualism.

Workers Power: For working class independence … sometimes

The step rightwards from the Socialist Alliance has drawn criticism from Workers Power, who left the SA last year over the SWP’s attempts to pursue an ill-fated electoral alliance with the Mosque. WP describe Respect as populist:

‘… populism advances policies that are quite deliberately not class specific. And the motivation of Galloway and the SWP in offering this new brand of populism is that they are desperate to translate into electoral gains what they achieved on the streets via the Stop the War Coalition. This is an attempt to transform that movement into a political formation.

‘Given the breadth and diversity of that movement, clear working class-based policies, have to be excluded….’
(Workers Power, January 2004)

Their objections ring rather hollow, however, in light of their continued participation in the Stop the War Coalition. Class collaboration is just as dangerous ‘on the streets’ as at the ballot box. The StWC purposefully adopted a bourgeois pacifist programme in order to gain respectability and attract bourgeois speakers onto its platform. This was a barrier to the development of explicitly anti-imperialist consciousness among the participants in the anti-war movement.

Workers Power have also produced a draft programme for Respect, which asserts that it is a working class formation committed to a ‘working class government based on People’s Assemblies’. They might just as well make the demand of New Labour or the Liberal Democrats!

Class-collaboration: a trap for the working class

Respect is designed, from the outset, as a cross-class political formation. Such blocs (often referred to as ‘popular fronts’), have resulted in many of the bloodiest defeats suffered by the international workers’ movement in the last hundred years (the Chinese revolution in the 1920s, the Spanish Civil War, Chile in 1973). Working class independence is not an optional extra – it is fundamental to the socialist project.

Much of Respect’s draft declaration is so inoffensive as to hardly constitute a programme at all, but it is worth noting the section on Europe:

‘We will strongly oppose the anti-European xenophobic right wing in any Euro referendum. But we oppose the “stability pact” that the European Union seeks to impose on all those who join the Euro. This pact would outlaw government deficit spending and reinforce the drive to privatise and deregulate the economy and we will therefore vote “No” in any referendum on this issue.’

Whether to join the European Monetary Union or not is a question that has long divided the British ruling class. Essentially, it is a question of how British capitalism can best compete with its ‘European partners’ and other rivals. For the working class nothing would fundamentally change if Britain decided to adopt the Euro as its currency. The task of socialists is to argue within the workers’ movement for the expropriation of the British capitalists (and their EU partners/rivals) on the road to the creation of the Socialist United States of Europe. Respect upholds the independence of British capitalism against the dangers of the Germans and French fiddling with British budgets. The presumption here is that British workers and bosses have similar interests and that government deficit spending (the implied fiscal policy of Respect) can protect nationalised services from privatisation. But it will not.

Solving the crisis of bourgeois democracy

The core of what Respect is all about is contained in the following passage:

‘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.’

What Respect really cares about is revitalising Her Majesty’s democracy (significantly there is no call for abolishing the monarchy). According to the declaration, ‘millions’ of people already agree with central programmatic elements of the projected coalition. So the main task is to give expression to these views, to get elected on them and voila, the ‘crisis of representation’ would be solved.

Nowhere does the Respect draft declaration even attempt to say how its selection of ‘pick and mix’ demands can be realised, for one simple reason – to do so would inevitably raise the question of which class shall rule. The slogan ‘a world based on need not profit’ is completely hollow if it is not linked to the necessity of expropriating the profiteers and smashing their state. Capitalism and socialism are counterposed systems which cannot exist side-by-side – except in documents dedicated to the pursuit of the ‘unicorn’ of peacefully reconciling the antagonistic interests of exploiters and their victims.

Breaking with Labour, but in which direction?

Over the past decade there have been several attempts supported by various ostensibly revolutionary organisations to create political alternatives to New Labour. As each one fails, the organisations involved have taken a step to the right, in further futile pursuit of the elusive ‘masses’.

The most promising of these formations was the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in which our comrades participated for over two years, from its launch in 1995, in an attempt to win the organisation, or a section of it, to the revolutionary Trotskyist programme. The SLP represented a real, if small, layer breaking leftwards from Labour – many attracted by the reputation of its leader Arthur Scargill as a working class fighter. The SLP had socialism as its stated objective and, initially at least, appeared to offer the possibility of open discussion as to how that could be achieved.

The next attempt, the Socialist Alliance, was very different, and revolutionaries took a different attitude towards it:

‘The Alliance has become a gathering point for various ostensibly revolutionary individuals and organisations moving rightwards in the hope of attracting the masses. This is very different from the initial trajectory of the SLP, moving left from Labour. A break from bourgeois politics that aims for reformism (whether as a temporary or final resting place) is in essence no break at all.’
(Marxist Bulletin, January 1999)

Respect represents a further shift to the right, as Britain’s ‘revolutionary’ left gets increasingly desperate. Galloway is no Scargill – he is more analogous to Ken Livingstone, who, despite the fantasies of his erstwhile supporters in the Socialist Alliance, never really wanted to leave Labour, and has now made his way back in. The decision to support Livingstone’s popular frontist mayoral campaign by the SA was a precursor to this latest manoeuvre. Respect’s draft programme is an open admission that the provisional leadership do not believe the working class can be won to a revolutionary socialist perspective. We disagree. In the long run ‘socialists’ who are willing to distort the truth in order to be ‘more appealing’ will never get anywhere.

The Socialist Alliance at least claimed to stand for the interests of working people and the oppressed against the capitalists – although its reformist programme was an obstacle to achieving this. At various times we have, while criticising their deficient platforms, advocated critical support to SA candidates in elections as a deformed expression of working class political independence.

Even this cannot be said for Respect as it currently stands. Unless there is a lurch to the left and an open rejection of class-collaborationism, which would necessarily mean a major split along class lines, there can be no justification for class-conscious workers giving any sort of support to such a formation, which is in no significant way differentiated from bourgeois or petty-bourgeois political formations like the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.

We must not shrink from the facts. The problems of humanity can only be solved by the overthrow of the international capitalist system. To achieve this it is necessary to win the working class to a revolutionary programme. Such a programme can only be developed and defended by a party of the Bolshevik type, which combines full freedom of discussion internally with the iron discipline necessary to lead the working class in smashing the forces of reaction. There are no shortcuts. The building of such a party remains the central task of our epoch.

25 January 2004