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Is the Socialist Alliance a step forward?

‘The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a programme; the programme cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party.’

Leon Trotsky, ‘What Next? Vital questions for the German proletariat’, 27 January 1932

The Socialist Labour Party held its third annual congress on 14 November last year, revealing itself once again as a pitiful organisation – even more so than most critical observers expected. Delegates discussed no substantive politics, they travelled to the Manchester conference merely to elect a new leadership and go on their way – leaving that leadership to carry on making each and every decision on behalf of a dwindling membership who have no rights, no say and, seemingly, hardly care. The fact that the vice-presidential position was won by Royston Bull, publisher of the Economic & Philosophic Science Review, a shrill homophobic cut-and-paste journal, only deepened that impression. Ever more members are taking this as a signal to get out of the organisation before they are held responsible for its mockery of the task of building a real working class party. It’s high time they did – this trajectory was more than clear at the second congress a year previously.

It is no wonder that the increasing numbers of former Labour supporters coming to realise that Tony Blair’s party is no friend of the working class are looking elsewhere for an alternative. Unfortunately for them, there are few organisations on offer with an explicit pro-working class stance and a clear repudiation of the Blairite Labour Party.

Aside from Arthur Scargill’s move from Labour to form the SLP in early 1996, the most high profile split has been that of the two European MEPs Hugh Kerr and Ken Coates, in the face of a proposed electoral system which would see left-wingers such as themselves cut out of a Blairite controlled ‘closed list’ of candidates. Rather than joining the SLP or setting up an alternative party formation, they have established the Independent Labour Network which seeks to ‘network’ with those both inside and outside the Labour Party and does not call for others to leave the Labour Party. Meanwhile they have had some dealing with the Network of Socialist Alliances, discussing various forms of electoral co-operation.

The melting pot

The Socialist Alliance is an amorphous creature which takes different forms (deliberately so) wherever it appears. The character of each local group is generally determined by the dominant components.

In Scotland it has been closest to a party formation and has now dissolved itself into the Scottish Socialist Party (formerly Scottish Militant Labour) which has a high profile public figure in poll-tax rebel Tommy Sheridan and increasing support in the run-up to the elections for the Scottish parliament. In England and Wales there is a looser federation of local organisations which themselves are coalitions among a few left groups and individuals, including a smattering of former SLP members. In Wales, as in Scotland, there has been a nationalist element. The Socialist Party, although it initiated the formations, plays a minor role in many locations, while having a base of support in Coventry around former Labour MP Dave Nellist. In London, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) plays a central organising role though there is tension with other London members. Ironically, other main players in London are two organisations still supporting and working within the Labour Party, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) and supporters of the journal Socialist Outlook.

It was therefore with some curiosity as to the real nature of this hodge-podge that supporters of the Marxist Bulletin attended, as observers, a national meeting of the English and Welsh Socialist Alliances held in Rugby last September. While we consider that many of those comrades breaking from Labour to join the Socialist Alliance are taking a positive step towards re-evaluation of Labourite politics, and we recognise it is important for the left to work together in united fronts on issues where principled agreement exists, our assessment of the Socialist Alliance is highly critical. It is absolutely necessary for the British working class to have our own party, one that is really capable of fighting for our interests, but the comrades are deeply mistaken in the organisational form and political methods they have adopted to try to achieve this.

The Rugby conference was characterised by an almost complete focus on the organisational structure and internal rules as compared to the perspectives and political basis of the Socialist Alliance. The question of programme is a crucial one in any organisational project. History has shown that even a party based on the working class can only betray unless it is armed with a programme to fight for the real needs of the class, counterposed to any form of collaboration with capitalism. But the Socialist Alliance has been deliberately set up to avoid elaboration of programme, fudging the degree of political agreement among its members in an attempt to be all things to all ‘socialists’.

Eight out of ten ain’t bad

This is most clearly expressed in ‘An opening statement from the Liaison Group for the Network of Socialist Alliances in England’, titled ‘Our future aims, methods, perspectives and structure – A Fair Society – Social justice and ecological sustainability’, published in the first issue of the Socialist Alliance journal, All Red and Green. After a long preamble, it declares a set of lowest-common-denominator aims apparently designed to appeal to social-democratic reformists:

‘Our aim is actively to help create a socially just and ecologically sustainable society. This is one in which social justice is defined as incorporating:
a. the political organisation of society in the most open, democratic, participative and accountable manner practicable;
b. the maximum freedom of the individual commensurate with the freedom of others;
c. the ultimate abolition of all forms of economic exploitation and social oppression, in such ways as to secure for the people the full return of all wealth generated by industries and services of society, by means of common ownership and democratic control;
d. the promotion of peace, nationally and internationally, and of a system of justice which gives defence from tyranny, prejudice and the abuse of power; and in which ecological sustainability is defined incorporating:
e. the promotion of only those social, economic and cultural structures which may be sustained indefinitely without causing any form of irreversible damage to the global ecosystem;
f. the guaranteeing and, where necessary, restoration of such biological diversity as is essential to the viability of both global and local ecosystems.’

This may be long on utopian vision, but it is short on the details of how to get there – precisely the points on which most of the left disagree and on which at least partial agreement is necessary for any kind of joint work. The document claims that the Socialist Alliance can ‘unite and campaign around the 80% of policies we can all accept’, but the only real programmatic discussion at the Rugby meeting – on Europe – indicated that the range of differences is rather higher than 20%. Certainly the left should work together on issues of agreement, but agreement is meaningless if differences are not also made clear – and some differences are more important than others. The so-called 20% which the draft programme does not mention includes the central political questions of the state and reform or revolution.

Despite formal recognition of the existence of differences, this document presents itself as containing the significant elements of a more or less rounded programme for social change. But this is not so. On the basis of the Rugby meeting it is clear that the Socialist Alliance includes comrades who are openly reformist and those who are subjectively revolutionary, and indeed it prides itself on this diversity. A combined programmatic statement cannot but be a dishonest representation of some, if not all, of these views.

How red is green?

This muddle between reform or revolution is expressed in the dominant tendency of the Socialist Alliance seeking some kind of a coalition with the Greens, as shown in the title of All Red and Green. Although there was talk in Rugby of only involving the ‘socialist greens’ this was by a minority and is effectively left cover for the leadership’s desire for a cross-class coalition with the petty-bourgeois formation of the Greens.

Certainly any socialist organisation should concern itself with environmental issues, and should make the point that only a society based on a planned economy catering for need rather than profit can adequately safeguard the environment for future generations. The current environmental movement, however, when it turns to questions of class, is deeply divided along a spectrum from positions close to the above to forthright defence of capitalism. It is necessary to win those environmentalists who see the importance of class away from this cross-class coalition towards clear opposition to capitalism. Socialists work to safeguard the environment as part of a broader programme, but to imagine that environmentalism is automatically progressive ignores the fundamental class basis of capitalist society and all the oppression that goes with it.

There was much use of the terms ‘progressive’ and ‘radical’ to describe the political basis of the Socialist Alliance and indeed one comrade went so far as to explicitly counterpose these to ‘socialism’. This does not seem to be a dominant tendency but certainly lays the basis for all kinds of dubious political arrangements. Many members of the Socialist Alliance profess that their organisation is somehow a new phenomenon, a new way of doing politics. This is nothing but delusion. Fudging of the fundamental difference between reform and revolution and the cobbling together of an organisation containing all ‘socialists’ is certainly not new. We would particularly refer to Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ intransigent struggle against this conception, a fight without which the 1917 Russian Revolution would not have occurred.

Labour and labourism

The reformism of the dominant right wing is also expressed over the question of the Labour Party and labourism in general. As well as the AWL and Socialist Outlook, others involved in the Socialist Alliance called for a vote to Blair’s New Labour at the last general election and even now there are still those who argue for some level of political support to this overtly anti-working-class Labour government. The fact that these views are common within the Socialist Alliance makes its claim to stand as an alternative to Labour ring rather hollow.

Even among those members who now oppose the Labour Party there are deep illusions in labourism in general. For instance Dave Nellist (one of the central leaders of the Socialist Alliance) strongly implied in Rugby that the Labour Party used to be an organ of class struggle acting in the interests of the working class. He thus can only contemplate not supporting it by arguing that the Labour Party is now a completely bourgeois formation – and our task to build a new social-democratic party to replace it.

Nellist’s approach misses the essence of the Labour Party and other social-democratic organisations like it. The Labour Party has always acted to defend the capitalist system, indeed heading off the growing attraction of Bolshevism after the Russian Revolution was a central reason for the implementation of the famous (and now defunct) Clause 4. Social-democratic parties are contradictory formations in that they have a working-class social base combined with a bourgeois programme. Revolutionaries can at times give critical support to these organisations because we seek to expose the reformist leadership’s words of support for the working class as being no more than words. We want to split social democratic organisations along political lines, winning their militant working class base to revolutionary politics. At no time should we pedal the illusion that in-of-themselves they will be of any fundamental use to the working class.

Agreement is meaningless if differences are not also made clear – and some differences are more important than others. The so-called 20% which the draft programme does not mention includes the central political questions of the state and reform or revolution.

Currently, Labour has not even words of support for the working class – even the most critical form of electoral support is not appropriate.

Dave Nellist and his comrades in the Socialist Party have advocated standing working class candidates against the Labour Party for some years now. Admittedly, this was perhaps more a case of necessity than intent. Then known as the Militant tendency, they were expelled from the Labour Party in witchhunts during the 1980s. In various elections since then, including the 1992 and 1997 general elections, they have stood candidates on a general left-social-democratic programme, with well-known individuals such as Nellist and Sheridan gaining respectable results.

In contrast with the candidates of Blair’s overtly pro-capitalist Labour Party, a vote for these candidates was a way of expressing support for the idea of independent working class politics, but their programme was left social-democratic, not revolutionary. The Socialist Alliances were initiated by the Socialist Party on the basis of a similar programme, but after this set off a process in Scotland which culminated in the effective loss of their entire Scottish membership, they are understandably a little wary of developments in England and Wales and have less involvement.

Abstract ‘partyism’ or programmatic struggle for a revolutionary party?

It is unfortunately common practice for those claiming to be revolutionary to hold their own private programme, but advocate the building of larger organisations around a reformist programme or at best one which glosses over the differences between reform and revolution. This can only perpetuate the already widespread illusion that these are both equally valid tendencies in the workers’ movement.

There are those in the Socialist Alliance who see themselves as well to the left of the reformist right wing and advocate the building of a revolutionary party (as they understand it). On the evidence of the discussions in Rugby this reduces, however, to abstract propaganda. The actual concrete motions put forward by these tendencies were about making the Socialist Alliance a more comfortable home for the subjectively revolutionary minority while not challenging its fundamental nature in any way.

The CPGB, the dominant organisation among those claiming to form the ‘revolutionary wing’ of the Socialist Alliance, put forward some draft rules for the organisation, which included the following:

Clause 2 Objectives
1. To bring together through affiliation, national, regional and local political organisations and individuals for the purpose of establishing a socialist society. The Network considers:
a. Socialism and democracy are inseparable.
b. Socialism is conquered by the working class. It cannot be delivered from on high.
c. Socialism is international or it is nothing.
2. The Network will fight for the maximum democracy under existing social conditions, ie capitalism. In particular:
a. Abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords and all constitutional hereditary privileges.
b. For a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales. For the unity of Ireland. For the right of Scotland, Wales and Ireland to self-determination.
c. For the closest political and organisational unity of the working class.
3. To work with other national or international organisations in pursuit of these objectives.

This is centred on the CPGB’s current obsession with ‘democracy’ under capitalism. Again there is no mention of the missing questions of state and revolution. Clearly their call for ‘the closest political and organisational unity of the working class’ involves unity between reformists and revolutionaries around a non-revolutionary programme, whatever they advocate elsewhere.

Revolutionaries fight for a democratic society under the rule of the proletariat. In the service of this objective we advocate democratic demands under capitalism, while opposing all illusions in the possibility of establishing genuine democracy under the dictatorship of capital. Leninists view the struggle to defend and extend democratic freedoms under capitalism as an aspect of the ongoing class war – they never treat such struggles (as the above document implies) as a comfortable resting place.

The CPGB, who aspire to put a left spin on the Socialist Alliance right-wing’s reformism, are fortunate enough to have comrade Ian Donovan (formerly associated with the Marxist Bulletinsee page 7) busy putting a left spin on the CPGB. He found their organisational proposals ‘excellent’, but amended the objectives to add points which he felt were ‘more clearly socialist’.

These include statements of opposition to imperialism, racism and sexism and even a daring reference to ‘the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a socialist society, based on the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and their democratic administration by the freely associated working people of all nationalities’. But how is all this to be achieved with a multi-tentacled Socialist Alliance? Donovan suggests that the path lies through ‘collaboration with all other organisations that share our objectives, for the achievement of the above goals’.

Marvelous – except for the small difficulty that the majority of the ‘socialists’ in the Alliance cannot quite untie the apron strings from Tony Blair, who has made it abundantly clear that he does not ‘share the objectives’ that comrade Donovan proposes for the Socialist Alliance. The concept of a broad alliance of minor labourite careerists, social-democratic reformers, small centrist groups, ecological advocates and sundry others is not a very likely agency for the replacement of capitalism by a socialist society. This cannot be achieved by dissolving the organisational barriers between revolutionaries and reformists, as if Lenin and Leninism had never happened. We are quite happy, where we share a common objective, to work together in united fronts with a wide variety of other leftist with whom we may have other political disagreements – but this does not change the necessity for seeking to create an organization of revolutionaries on the basis of the historic programme of Marxism.

A step to the left, a step to the right

Some comrades involved in the Socialist Alliance are taking a positive step leftwards in breaking from the bourgeois programme of the Labour Party. It is a basic truth that the working class needs its own independent organisations – unfortunately a truth that many of our class are yet to be convinced of. We called for a vote to the Socialist Alliance in local elections last year because it posed, on some elemental level, a pro-working class alternative to Blair’s Labour – but we remained highly critical.

Despite some similarities, the Socialist Alliance does not compare with the early Socialist Labour Party. When it was developing around a tentative and confused left-social democratic programme, our comrades joined the SLP in order to fight for the adoption of a revolutionary programme and an organisational structure that would allow that struggle to take place.

Joining a party made up of reformists, centrists and revolutionaries in order to fight to change it is an entirely different matter from advocating such a political amalgamation.

The declared original aim of the SLP was to form a programmatically based party of and for the working class. We left two years later when the programme had been consolidated around reformism and opportunities to struggle for a revolutionary alternative had been cut-off. The Socialist Alliance has no intention of being programmatically based, let along elaborating a serious revolutionary programme. It is quite happy with superficial agreement around a general platform. Those comrades who have been through the experience of the SLP should know better. Although the restrictions on programmatic struggle are posed differently, they nonetheless exist.

In seeking to win the hearts and minds of the working class we must recognise the ideologies currently dominant within our class. Revolutionaries must intersect and challenge reformism, but without making the mistake of following those we seek to lead. We must clearly state that a working-class organisation with a reformist programme is one which class-conscious workers could consider voting for, unlike those that are organisationally tied to the bourgeoisie, and we should if necessary work within such organisations.

However, joining a party made up of reformists, centrists and revolutionaries in order to fight to change it is an entirely different matter from advocating such a political amalgamation. Revolutionaries call for forms of organisation which can be of some use to the working class.

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.

Joint work on clear principles

On the other side of the coin are organisations whose eagerness to critique reformist politics (and remain personally untainted) is so strong that they abstain from the real political struggle against reformism. A near classic example of such sectarianism is provided by the Spartacist League. They expressed much surprise at our decision not to participate in the Socialist Alliance, while nevertheless denouncing us for wanting to ‘get into bed with the Socialist Party’, who they essentially equate with the Socialist Alliance – thus demonstrating their usual ignorance of what is happening on the left in Britain.

They claim to find a great deal of significance in the fact we have not to date written an article criticising the Socialist Party’s refusal to call for the immediate withdrawal of British troops from the north of Ireland. This is indeed a scandalous position for a British left-wing organisation and is indicative of the fundamental problems in their left-reformist programme. But we do not regard this as a sufficient reason to avoid any common work with them on issues where there is agreement nor to consider giving them critical support in elections when appropriate.

The Spartacist League, who do very little joint work with anyone, are not much concerned with the niceties of what does and does not constitute principled united-front work. They don’t let the facts get in the way of their mud-slinging. But we care about such questions. Our decision not to join with the Socialist Party and the other components of the Socialist Alliance is based on our assessment of it as an organisational shell which fails to admit to its own reformist politics and which flirts with forces outside the working class movement.

We advocate united-front actions involving all elements of the left, including members of the Socialist Alliance, on issues where there is clear agreement, as long as differences on other issues can be clearly put forward, debated and tested in action. Such collaboration can achieve concrete results, both in pursuing the class struggle and in raising political consciousness. Collaboration in propaganda between groups with profound political differences can only sow confusion.

Our comrades intervened in the meeting at Rugby to build support for the current struggle by the RMT against privatisation and for defence of living standards threatened by that privatisation. This struggle, dismissed as ‘economistic’ by the CPGB, is the most significant resistance thus far in the life of Blair’s Labour Government. Our comrades are also involved in the defence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black American journalist and former Black Panther on death row in Pennsylvania and in imminent danger of execution – ostensibly for shooting a policeman but in reality for a lifetime of advocating political views opposed to the racist capitalist state. This case goes to the heart of the issue of ‘democracy’ under capitalism (see back page for more details). In the past we have undertaken joint work with other organisations over a variety of issues – from abortion rights to opposition to imperialist aggression.

Collaboration in action can achieve concrete results, both in pursuing the class struggle and in raising political consciousness. Collaboration in propaganda between groups with profound political differences can only sow confusion.

In contrast, the joint work proposed by the Socialist Alliance is mainly of an electoral nature. The lowest-common-denominator propaganda that results will fall far short of providing a genuinely socialist, i.e. revolutionary, programme for the working class. Going even further, CPGB proposes a united slate of all the ‘left’. They denounce as criminally sectarian the very idea that an organisation may want to use the electoral arena to propagandise unambiguously for its own programmatic ideas – ideas its members presumably believe are necessary for the long-term interests of the working class.

This seems to be coming to fruition with a recent pact between various organisations around a very basic platform under the name of the United Socialists, including the Alliance for Workers Liberty, CPGB, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party, Independent Labour Network and Socialist Outlook – almost all organisations who currently advocate giving at least some electoral support to the Labour Party!

Not one thing or the other

The only useful functions we can imagine for a ‘socialist alliance’ would be to act either simply as a co-ordinating body for united front actions involving different groups and individuals, or as a venue for the necessary process of political debate and discussion leading towards a programmatically-based political realignment of the left. The current Socialist Alliance seem unable to decide which role it wants to play and therefore creates only confusion.

It is not possible, or desirable, to try to build a halfway house between those who are avowed reformists and those who claim to stand in the tradition of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky with a platform that dodges the central questions of the state and revolution. Such a political lash-up is inherently unstable and can only add to the political confusion and fudging of principles which is far too common already in the British and international left.

In the absence of any wing of the Socialist Alliance willing to seriously challenge this contradiction, we see no point in joining. To do so would be to give support to the existence of a barrier to programmatic clarity and the development of revolutionary consciousness in the working class. Unlike many other groups on the left, we believe we must take some political responsibility for organisations we belong to.

The working class needs a revolutionary party with a programme for smashing the capitalist state – broadly speaking, the sort of programme advanced by the Bolsheviks, the first four congresses of the Communist International and the Trotskyist Fourth International. Building an organisation committed to applying the revolutionary programme to the current social reality and implanting that programme in the most advanced layers of the proletariat are central strategic tasks of communists.

Revolutionaries are prepared to work in united fronts with centrist and reformist tendencies on issues where there is practical agreement despite the existence of more fundamental differences on broader questions. This is essential both for the defence of the class in the short term and for building the revolutionary party.

It is not enough for a political tendency to lay claim to the mantle of communism, it is necessary to demonstrate the legitimacy of such a claim through political activity – both in terms of programmatic capacity to correctly apply the lessons of the past and understand the new challenges we confront and in terms of the character of its actual political interventions in the class struggle. Discussions over long-term perspectives that take place naturally in the framework of principled joint activity can play a key role in laying the basis for the regroupments of revolutionaries which are central to the task of forging a mass, genuinely Leninist party deeply rooted in the proletariat.