Class Collaboration at the Ballot Box and on the Streets
Respect and the Stop the War Coalition
Launched with fanfare and great expectations, Respect was supposed to be the future of the left. Yet by November 2007 it was split in two, holding two conferences at two venues on the same day, both laying claim to the original politics of Respect.
The simmering war between George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) came out into the open in August last year when Galloway produced a document entitled It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, addressing Respects failure to grow, and placing most of the blame on the SWP. Acrimony grew, and the effective end of the project was the result. In February, adding insult to injury, Respect councillor and nominal SWP member Ahmed Hussain broke ranks and joined the Tories.
As the conflict developed, the SWP declared that around Galloway there had evolved a coalition of interests more resembling a popular front including those far from the roots of class politics, while Galloway looked for shortcuts to electoral success such as his appearance on Big Brother (Socialist Review, December 2007).
Naturally they claimed they had opposed it all along, but a retrospective on Respect by leading SWP theoretician Chris Harman shows that their perspectives were essentially the same from the beginning:
The left focus would not be a revolutionary one, but would attempt to draw in the diverse forces of the anti-war movement... It was a project that only made sense if we could involve large numbers of people who did not agree with us on the question of revolution
They went on to claim that Galloway somehow misinterpreted this intention as he promoted individuals and forces very distant from the left, including Muslim elders and millionaires.
Harman proudly claims: Socialists did their best to deal with these unhealthy developments. They struggled against the non-left interlopers.... In fact, close observers saw no sign of the SWP struggling against these developments. On the contrary, they helped to bring them about in the vain hope that George Galloway would be an attractive figure head, Muslim businessmen would be willing financial donors for the electoral campaigns and SWP members would be naïve enough to be used as foot soldiers in the big game of real politics.
Even after all this, they had no desire to break with Galloway and his electoral appeal: The split in Respect was not something of the SWPs choosing, and certainly not something we wanted to see (Socialist Review, December 2007). After all, it was not a question of intrinsically rotten politics, only a matter of not enough democracy:
The conclusion of our discussions was that it was necessary to try to continue to build Respect according to the original conception as a left focus reflecting the diversity of the forces involved in the anti-war movement. This could only be done by opposing the attempts by Galloway and his allies to stifle accountability of elected representatives, to prevent Respect members from challenging moves towards opportunism and to drive the biggest group of organised socialists from positions of influence in Respect.
The truth is of course that Respect was a popular frontist project from the very start and the SWP leadership knew exactly what they were involved in. Respects Founding Declaration (co-written by the SWP) made this abundantly clear:
As we wrote at the height of Respects popularity:
Respect is quite explicitly a cross-class alliance of all those who want to redress the democratic deficit in the bourgeois parliamentary system.
The politics of Respect have nothing in common with genuine Marxism, but they do represent a significant trend in the British workers movement and a particular form of misleadership that needs to be politically marginalised if the revolutionary project is to be successful. It is important to examine what was wrong with Respect and what lessons can be drawn for revolutionaries.
The main question of proletarian class strategy
Respect failed because it specifically sought to keep working-class discontent and class struggle within the boundaries of parliamentary politics. While its leadership bent over backwards to include as many social layers as possible to address the democratic deficit in Britain, no significant section of the bourgeoisie was interested in building the project and it proved impossible for Respect to make any major electoral breakthroughs. While the SWP leaderships conflict with Galloway exacerbated the failure, it was not in itself the cause.
In times of heightened social struggle, the capitalists are more inclined to ally with reformist misleaders in what are known as popular fronts cross-class alliances between working-class and nonworking-class organisations. Well-known examples include the popular fronts in France and Spain in the 1930s, Allendes Unidad Popular in Chile in the early 1970s, the Lib-Lab coalition in Britain in the late 1970s and the Olive Tree government in 1990s Italy. The endresult is to contain social struggle, as the reformist leaders tell the workers not to be too militant or they will offend our bourgeois allies, break up the coalition and let the right wing into power. In fact a working class which is politically and militarily dependent on progressive elements of the bourgeoisie is easy prey for the right, as dramatically demonstrated in Chile by Pinochets bloodbath against the workers whom Allende had refused to arm.
While the low level of class struggle today means that the danger of a bloodbath is clearly not imminent, it is still vital to recognise, and unequivocally oppose, class collaborationism whenever it is posed as a way forward for the workers movement. It is only through such political training that we will avoid future setbacks and be able to stand resolutely against the suicidal politics of the popular front when it is popular and draws the masses behind it. Even on a smaller scale, class collaboration leads working class discontent away from fighting for our immediate interests as a class.
Trotskys analysis from the 1930s remains as relevant today as then:
The question of questions at present is the Popular Front. The left centrists seek to present this question as a tactical or even as a technical maneuver, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the Popular Front. In reality, the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism.
The SWPs revolutionary critics
In the inevitable dissection of the debacle in the left press, most groups pay lip service to the class collaboration at the heart of Respect, but focus their attention on the SWP leaderships bureaucratic control freakery.
The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) criticise the SWPfrom within Respect:
While the CPGB scapegoats the SWP, they conveniently forget that at the last general election they claimed that those leaders now responsible for ditching of working class principle were working class politicians worthy of political support! Like the SWP, the CPGB is not opposed in principle to popular frontism. Again, the problem is simply a lack of democracy:
If a princiled left is going to emerge in the SWP it needs the space to fully think things through. It needs open, democratic debate.
If the CPGB were to fully think things through themselves perhaps they could explain why their organisation endorsed and thus took responsibility for the Respect project in the first place.
The SWPs main competitor on the British left is the Socialist Party, flagship of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), who were a little less enthusiastic about the rise of Respect.
While Respect could 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.... 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.
Like the CPGB, the Socialist Partys concern regarding Respect was not enough to stop them from giving it electoral support. Of course, the CWI are no strangers to politically supporting alien class forces, as we outline in our pamphlet Marxism vs. Militant Reformism.
The two halves of the split in the League for the Fifth International, Permanent Revolution (PR) and Workers Power (WP), did not join Respect or give it critical support in elections. PR explains:
However, PRs conclusion is remarkably similar to that of the CPGB, calling for rank and file rebellion in the SWP:
For anything really positive to come out of this debacle the SWP need a fundamental reassessment of their entire method, from the point at which they abandoned the Cominterns understanding of the united front to found Respect. The rank and file members of the SWP, must fight to hold their leadership to account.
PRs former comrades in Workers Power make almost identical criticisms and propose a similar solution of serious re-assessment:
Some believe that the collapse of Respect is a setback for the workers movement in Britain, but the working class has lost nothing of value. In fact, this could be a positive development if it helps a layer of working class militants reject class collaborationist politics, in all its variants, and understand the importance of the political independence of the working class. It is not enough to merely talk about building a left faction in the SWP that is for open and democratic debate. Such a development must be linked to a root and branch reassessment not just of the SWPs pop-frontist method, but of its entire political programme.
Why do these ostensibly revolutionary organisations fail to concentrate on, and generalise from, the class collaborationism at the heart of Respect? Because to do so would only expose their own ongoing support to the SWPs more popular example of class collaboration, the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), the forerunner of Respect.
StWCs Fairweather Friends
The SWP were quite clear that Respect was intended to be a replication on the electoral field of the broadness of the StWC that is, its lowest-common-denominator politics and class collaboration but these features were ignored by the so-called revolutionary left in their enthusiasm at the large number of people mobilised in the massive anti-war demonstrations of 15 February 2003. Workers Power were particularly excited:
While these demonstrations were certainly significant in terms of size, they could only have become part of a global challenge to the system that causes war to the extent that an anti-imperialist movement was built in direct opposition to the class collaborationist politics of the SWP and their allies. WP (whose comrades were at the time members of the StWC leadership committee) refused to do so, along with all other left groups. Instead they thought it wise to encourage illusions, particularly their own, that a global revolution was within reach.
With large numbers mobilised on the streets it was much harder for these fairweather revolutionaries to criticise the very same class collaboration at the heart of the StWC that they now take the SWP to task for over Respect avoiding isolation being more important than having consistent principled politics. They ignore the pacifist politics and overtures to bourgeois forces and instead see only the SWPs bureaucratic control when analysing the failure of the StWC to maintain, let alone build on, these mass demonstrations.
Revolutionaries start with a sober assessment of the objective situation and advocate an open political struggle against class collaboration, and its proponents in the workers movement, no matter how popular it may appear at any particular conjuncture. In Britain today this means intransigent opposition to the popular-frontist nature of the StWC.
The united front of a special type
The SWP have attempted to justify their Stop the War Coalition and Respect projects by inventing the category of the united front of a special type. The idea arose in the wake of the anti-globalisation demonstrations around the world:
Labelling the explicitly cross-class Respect, the left-reformist electoral bloc of the Socialist Alliance and SWP front groups such as Globalise Resistance as united fronts is novel indeed. This innovation has rightly been attacked by their leftist critics as incompatible with the genuine communist understanding of the united front at least when writing about Respect. Workers Power explain why they didnt join:
It seems to escape the attention of WP that exactly the same could be said of the StWC, whose leadership also focused on getting celebrities onto their platforms, and critical voices off.
At a formal level WP do recognise the popular frontism of the StWC:
In Stop the War it was something nearly identical to the Popular Front of Stalinism, with the Liberals leadership and so-called progressive Tories (Michael Ancrim) invited along to demonstrations and Peoples Assemblies.
Despite their own experience of the SWP and their allies limiting the activities of the anti-war movement to what is acceptable to bourgeois rule, WP persist in supporting the StWC. If their actions were in any way consistent with their formal political line they would surely reject continued participation in something nearly identical to the Popular Front of Stalinism. They are only consistent in their willingness to tailor their politics in accordance with pursuit of short-term gain.
Permanent Revolution do make some attempt to explain the contradiction of supporting the StWC but not Respect:
Unlike the Stop the War movement, Respect was not founded to struggle for a specific goal by the mass of the working class, rather it was a propaganda bloc designed to win votes at elections.
The distinction between single issue campaigns and propaganda blocs is a very real one, but not every single issue campaign is a united front or worthy of support by communists. In this case, it is simply not true to assert that the StWC was based on the mass of the working class. In assessing whether any particular campaign should be supported, Marxists use similar criteria as when determining whether to give critical support in parliamentary elections. Does the working class have an independent voice in the campaign? Is the campaign focused on the interests of the working class? Or does it limit and betray those interests in favour of courting bourgeois allies?
Our publication Building the Revolutionary Party and United Front Tactics explains the dangers of broad, ongoing, class collaborationist alliances (i.e., popular fronts) and how revolutionaries should intervene in them:
For an anti-imperialist anti-war movement!
The problem for those groups who supported and built the StWC is that they are unable to explain how an openly cross-class and pacifist anti-war coalition that excludes militant anti-imperialism from its platforms in favour of bourgeois politicians and liberal celebrities has anything in common with the communist understanding of the united front and the nature of imperialist war.
Lenin explained the purpose of a genuine united front:
From all this follows the necessity, the absolute necessity, for the Communist Party, the vanguard of the proletariat, its classconscious section, to resort to changes of tack, to conciliation and compromises with the various groups of proletarians, with the various parties of the workers and small masters. It is entirely a matter of knowing how to apply these tactics in order to raise not lower the general level of proletarian classconsciousness, revolutionary spirit, and ability to fight and win.
To raise class-consciousness, to fight and to win, what is needed is an explicitly anti-imperialist united front, which would openly call for the defeat of British imperialism and intervene inside the wider antiwar movement as a distinct and alternative pole of attraction to the dead-end politics of the StWC. With British and American troops still stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan and ongoing threats against Iran, this is now more necessary than ever.
The idea of an anti-imperialist anti-war united front has been previously rejected by the ostensibly revolutionary left. Now the Respect project lies in ruins and the StWC is a pale shadow of its 2003 highpoint, perhaps they will be able to grasp the importance of it but only if they can see the common thread of popular frontism that stands at the core of both the StWC and Respect.
We call on all working-class militants to reject cross-class projects like Respect and the Stop the War Coalition. As we argued in our June 2004 leaflet For an openly anti-imperialist anti-war movement!:
First published - 15 March 2008
Posted: 17 March 2008