Some comments on Neil Davidson’s document
Neil Davidson’s document for IB3 has provoked considerable discussion in the party, circulating among a considerable number of members in digital form even before appearing in print. Such discussion is good thing. There has been a sense of malaise among wide sections of party activists over the outcome of the Respect crisis of a year ago—the malaise that was summed up in the Sheffield document in IB2. It is not that people think we took a wrong decision in resisting Galloway. Even most of the minority who disagreed at the time now feel we had no choice. But there are worries about tactical moves that led to us losing most of the centre ground to Galloway and over what has happened since. And this had led to questions about how we came to make such mistakes.
NeIl rightly notes the positive moves the party has been able to make. “Most recently, we have shown our ability to respond directly to a dramatic change in economic conditions. When the financial collapse occurred in September the SWP was certainly not the only organisation on the left to explain what had happened in other than Keynesian terms, but it was the only one able to raise slogans which went beyond abstract denunciations of capitalism and propose concrete demands around which to mobilise, and it was alone in fielding a body of activists large and capable enough to carry both our explanations and demands into the streets, workplaces and universities.” He could have added by noting our work in the run up the joint PCS-NUT strike in April, around the Scottish local government workers action, the bus strikes in London and the best successes among students for many years. But again, rightly, patting ourselves on the back is never good enough, particularly now. If we do not deal with the causes of the feeling of malaise in the party, we will be unable to rise to the challenge of the new phase of capitalist crisis that opened up since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid September. And we cannot come to terms with the problems without widespread discussion.
Underlying the discontent is a clear sense that the CC failed to prevent some of its members making mistakes in the building of Respect, in dealing with Galloway’s decisions to smash it if it did not suit his own purposes, and then in coping with the aftermath of the split. But that raises the additional question as to why the wider party membership were not able to call the CC to account for its omissions through the party conferences, the National Committee and the Party Councils
It is clear that we need to find ways of modifying our structures so that accountability applies to the CC as much as to anyone else in the party. Neil is quite right to say we need to find a way to open up discussions over strategic turns to wider sections of the party. Only in this way can we do our utmost to avoid mistakes (although it would be short-sighted to imagine there will not be further mistakes); and only in this way can we give the wider membership of the party the experience in making strategic and tactical decisions which they need if indeed every member is to be a leader. In my view it would have been much better had there, for instance, been a wider discussion in the party at the time of the launch of Respect, wider discussions about how to react as Galloway began to orient to Muslim notables and right wing Islamists at the time of the General Election in 2005, and wider discussion on our running in the London mayoral election (even though on this I think we had no choice.)
That is why the CC is proposing that that the conference elects a commission to make recommendations on strengthening party democracy and accountability.
Neil is right to say this is not the first time we have made mistakes. He reaches back to the mistaken position we took over the Poll Tax struggle in Scotland to generalise the argument about the inadequacy of the way the party leadership works. Others see the inadequacy expressed in the way we moved from talking about a “revolution in the branches” in the 1990s to the abortive attempt to replace them by cells in 2000, leaving us with very weak local organisation. The feeling is that on such occasions our structures –or as it is sometime put, “the atmosphere in the party”–allowed mistakes by the CC to go unrectified.
The picture as regards the Poll Tax in Scotland is not quite as simple as Neil presents its. The abstract approach we took to the Poll Tax struggle in Scotland was not just a question of mistakes by the CC in London but also of comrades on the ground in Scotland (on the paper on more than one occasion we had to tone down material we got from Scotland as putting too crude a line). And we did, as Neil recognises, learn the lessons when it came to the introduction of the Poll Tax in England and Wales. Most members of the current CC would probably recognise that the CC of eight years ago made mistakes over the branches at the time—mistakes we are still suffering from in some areas. But the mistakes were in response to the real problem that many party branches were becoming stultified and routinist (with members beginning not to attend out of boredom). It is easy to forget that a good many members felt a sense of relief at the decision taken by the CC. We chose the wrong solution, but there was a problem. The real point is that simply announcing a change without a thorough discussion at National Committees or Party Councils—with people presenting alternative views—was not the way to arrive at an answer to the problem.
So in principle I agree with Neil on the need to re-examine or decision making and accountability structures. I think the CC’s suggestion that conference elects a commission to report on the working of the party’s democratic structures provides a way to do this which can lead to a structured debate in the party about the matter.
However, I cannot follow Neil in many of the particular points he makes to justify his case.
First, it is simply not true that party members have fewer rights than members of unions. We do not have the mass purges and intimidation of dissidents that characterises UNISON at the moment. Any comrade or group of comrades can raise matters directly at party councils.—a far more direct route than in any union. We actually have a disputes committee whose reports most years are characterised by the fact that they involve no expulsions—and the committee is chaired by a comrade who was outspoken in defending certain positions opposed to the CC just three years ago. There has never been any restriction on what people write for the preconference bulletins. There has often been vigorous discussion at union fraction meetings—for instance over the discussions on how to relate to the rest of lefts in the PCS, NUT and UNISON, or in the arguments of how to campaign over Palestine in the UCU—and in districts. Some important national decisions have involved intense debate at the National Committee level—for instance, the decisions to join the SSP in Scotland and to break with the ISO in the US. There were very vigorous arguments when John Molyneux and a good number of other members (including at least one former member of the CC) challenged the leadership at a Party Council and then the conference three years ago, but there was no suppression of their right to do so. And there were three months of intense discussion right through the organisation when the split in Respect occurred in the last three months of 2007, with the small minority who opposed the CC decision to resist what Galloway was doing, putting their positions forcefully and without hindrance. You certainly did not need to access the blogosphere to hear the arguments (although you could read title tattle, such as a claim that I must have opposed the CC line because I had not signed a petition the party put out– I was in Barcelona on party business that weekend!!)
Nevertheless, there has been and remains a real problem. It is not that comrades lack democratic rights in the abstract. As Neil recognises, conference is free to replace or change the composition of the CC every year, it chooses a new National Committee each year, and the National Committee can censure the CC if it the majority of its members want to. On top of this there are national delegate meetings at least twice a year. I don’t know of any union with such formally democratic structures, while the LCR only has a congress every two or three years without ceasing to be democratic. The problem is that our structures have not in practice encouraged people to participate actively in decision making. There has been a tendency for comrades to rely on the CC to make decisions, even if this is in part because on very important decisions, such as the attitude to the anti-capitalist movement and the initiative to launch Stop the War, they could see that the CC was correct. The result is precisely the vicious circle of people leaving decisions to the CC and CC members falling into the easy trap of assuming that only they have the capacity to make the decisions. This is what we have to deal with. We need a national leadership which is wider than just the full time members of the CC.
There will be no easy magic remedy. In periods when the working class is on the defensive, it is difficult for people who work fulltime (particularly if they also have children) to commit themselves to serious involvement in the national decision making structures of the party. One long standing problem with the National Committee has been that people who stand for it at conference then often find it difficult to attend its meetings, let alone prepare themselves in advance for arguments. The very responsibilities in the wider working class movement that make their presence important often make it difficult to for them attend. A greater culture of debate at the national level in the party would hopefully make them see the importance of trying to deal with the problems they face when it comes to this. But it would be a mistake to assume they will always find it easy. Much the same applies to people who have to travel long distances to attend national leadership meetings. There can be great willingness to do so when the issue are contentious (as at the time of the Respect split a year ago), but there is a danger of people ordering their priorities differently when things seem to be going well for the party. Our experience of having a nationally based rather than a London based central leadership in the early 1970s was that people felt very frustrated coming all the way to London to discuss the humdrum issues that are often the stuff of politics for weeks or even months at a time.
We have to try to work out some structures better than the present ones. But that means confronting the practical difficulties as well as any attitudinal approaches that have developed in recent years. That is why it seems to me that a conference-elected commission to make recommendations is a better way forward than three months of discussion in internal bulletins. Hopefully such a commission could look at other experiences from the history of the movement and internationally, talk through the issues with long established lay members of the party, and suggest clear proposals (or alternative proposals) to be voted on.
I should add that I think it would be disastrous not to choose a new CC at conference. We need a elected by the conference if we are to respond a situation that is changing so rapidly as the global economic crisis unfolds so quickly that much of what was written in the first conference document (not just by the CC, but also in critical pieces like that of Unujm etc) already needs updating and will need further updating at the conference itself in six weeks time.
I suspect that whatever new structures we adopt may well need to be further reshaped in the light of practical experience. Neil points to the structures of the German Communist Party in 1922. He will be aware that it is a far from perfect example for us. The party had only the year before lost up to half its members and expelled one of its leading figures, Paul Levi. And it was plagued by a fight between two factions, one led by Heinrich Brandler, with years of exemplary practical experience, rooted in a strong working class district; the other led by the young intellectuals with ultra left tendencies, Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow. When Germany entered a new phase of very intense economic, social and political crisis in 1923, neither grouping was able to provide the leadership needed. The ultra lefts saw a revolutionary situation where none existed in the first months of the year, while Brandler did not have the confidence to follow his own instincts and fight for a decisive shift to the left required when the situation changed in June. The result was a party which certainly was not “considerably more flexible and open” than us, as Neil seems to believe.
The problem is not formal democracy (which exists as much in the SWP today as in the German CP in 1922-3), but the creation of structures that permit the party to have a leadership that can make sharp strategic and tactical turns and fight to get the party as a whole to undertake them without at the same time cutting itself off from the experience, advice and, ultimately, control of the party at large. Neil objects to the phrase “organised distrust by the leadership of the rank and file”, and I do not see it as one of the finest quotations from Cliff. But what it tries to express is the idea that when the leadership decides on a certain course of action it has to struggle vigorously for it in the party, rather than just waiting on the membership to take action – even at the same time as being responsible to the membership when it becomes clear the course of action does not fit. That is the essence of Leninism, in whichever organisational form it takes, which distinguishes it as fighting party from a merely propagandist organisation or from parties of the Second International sort. My fear is that some of Neil’s formulations involve throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There may be occasions in which a party leadership jumps too quickly, not taking advantage of the time which exists to consult with the party at large; but equally there are many occasions in which the leadership has no choice but to make an immediate response. We could not, for instance, wait in the party as whole to carry through the discussion before making our decisions on how to react to the outbreak of the Falkland War in 1982 or the events of 9/11. I was editing the paper on those occasions, and we had to decide headlines that committed the party at short notice and with no possibility of organising any sort of national meeting first. What matters in such instances is that the structures and political understanding exists in the party to bring us to account if we get things wrong (and, as Neil must recognise they did exist on both occasions, but were not used because comrades recognised we got things right).
Neil harks back to the argument put forward by Peter Sedgwick about calling ourselves a party in 1977, and suggests that it was a mistake to do so once the class struggle has entered into the downturn and that led us to develop inappropriate structures. But it was not simply a change of name that led us to ensure we had structures that could provide some degree of leadership in struggles. It was that by the late 1970s, precisely because of the downturn in struggle, we were faced with responsibilities we had not faced in the past. The exemplary case was our role in organising the mass action against the National Front demonstrations at Wood Green and Lewisham, and then initiating the Anti-Nazi League. We could not have done such things without behaving like a miniparty, whatever we called ourselves. The same applied to building the Right to Work campaign (the only organised national movement against unemployment so long as the Labour government was in office), the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the first Iraq war, the poll tax riot in London, the pit closures crisis, the revival of the ANL after Beackon got elected in the Isle of Dogs, the Liverpool dockworkers strike, the outbreak of the “war on terror”, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon two years ago,
Unfortunately, Neil’s account of our past abstracts from all these things. Looking at this record, it is facile in the extreme for Neil to claim that “Sedgwick was right to highlight the dangers of establishing an unchanging leadership incapable of recognising, or at least admitting to its own errors.” I am sorry, but most of what the leadership did through the two and a half decades after Peter made this comments was correct, as Neil himself would admit. At least part of the reason why the experienced members who have served on the score or more of national committees since have not been as critical of the CC in the past as many of them have been over recent months is that they thought the decisions the CC took were generally correct. And if Neil looked more closely at the various documents he consulted in writing his document, he would see that it is a mistake to refer to an “unchanging leadership”. Me and Alex are the only members of the CC from 1977, and Chris Bambery and Lindsey German the only ones who were on it alongside us at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Iraq war and the Poll tax riot. Those who have joined the CC in recent years include a former nationally known militant in the Civil Service, a long time activist in South Africa under apartheid, someone who was thrown out of the TUC programme for union recruiters for encouraging strikes, a comrade who led our student work in its most successful year for more than a decade, and a former teacher union activist with a record of successfully defusing an attempt by the Nazis to win over white working class youth. Hardly a bunch of tame apparatchiks!!
More seriously, in my view, Neil abstracts from the wider situation of the left nationally and internationally when it comes to the problems we have faced with growth. He implies these have been caused by Tony Cliff’s version of Leninism. He recognises there were problem beyond our control in the early period of downturn, but downgrades their importance in the years after that. The period after the mid 1970s itself was not just one of industrial downturn in Britain. It was one that was dire for the left as a whole nationally and internationally. In countries like the US, Germany, Italy and Spain organisations with tens of thousands of activists simply disappeared; in Latin America outside Brazil they disintegrated into small, quarrelling sects cut off from wider struggles for most of the 1980s and 1990s. It was not only the far left that disappeared; figures who had once been part of the reformist or Eurocommunist left ended up backing the third way, and embracing neoliberal ideas. The exciting left wing cultural fruits of the 1960s withered. The wave of academic Marxism of the early 1970s gave way to post structuralism and postmodernism.
If things were not so bad in Britain it was to an important extent due to the role of the SWP (just as the LCR and Lutte Ouvriere were, for all their faults, were able to play a somewhat similar role in France). Nevertheless, this country witnessed the collapse of the old International Marxist Group, the disintegration of a Communist Party that still had about 30,000 members at the time we adopted the name SWP and the complete disappearance of the Bennite left in the Labour Party; the social movements of the 1970s gave way to one issue campaigns centred on identity politics in the 1990s, a once flourishing quasi Marxist intellectual milieu to the dominance of post modernism in one form or another. These were the years in which half the jobs in manufacturing industries disappeared (a higher proportion than anywhere else in the advanced industrial world), and the most militant sections of workers in the 1970s, the dockers, the printers and the miners suffered devastating defeats (much greater than in France or Germany, for instance). A whole swathe of militants from the early 1970s lost their jobs through victimisation and redundancy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We had militant electricians who had to go to Saudi Arabia to find work, car worker militants who ended up in teaching jobs, working in local government or driving taxis. Neil must know a few in Scotland who ended up as university lecturers. In such a situation people could be won to the idea of workers power as the alternative to capitalism in their “ones and twos”, as Cliff insisted in the early 1980s, but it could come to seem a very distant goal, not worth putting in the effort week after week year after year. Our work within and around the miners strike of 1984-5 enabled us to win a whole new layer of comrades to the organisation—and it was these who held it together, selling the paper, building the branches, maintaining a base for us in some unions in two decades after. But they had to do so in an environment which was in some ways more difficult than that previously. The defeat of the miners spelt the final end of the swing to the left which the Labour Party had experienced at the beginning of 1980s—and down with the Labour Left also went the Militant (now the Socialist Party), with its former base in Liverpool turning into a wasteland for the left. Union leaderships were still using the miners’ defeat 15 years afterward to argue than strikes could not win, and allowed themselves to be constrained by the anti-unions laws in a way still unimaginable in the early 1980s. To this must be added the impact on the wider left internationally of the collapse of the USSR. It did not affect our membership, and we were left as the only substantial left force intact as the rest of the left declined in one way or another. But it did affect the wider milieu in which we operated, adding to the common sense argument that “socialism cannot work”. The result was that revolutionary socialists found ourselves swimming against the tide, even when our role in things like the First Iraq war, the poll tax riot, the pit closure revolt, the ANL, the Timex strike and the CJB provided us with a visibility.
For about four or five months at the time of the pit closure revolt there was a real feel of revival of the workers movement and we picked up enormously. But we did not have the weight in the working class to counter the do-nothing approach of the union leaderships (with Scargill opposing our efforts to get pit occupations) and the feeling soon dissipated. We were honestly able to claim a membership of up to 10,000 (a careful audit of our membership in the late 1990s showed it as 8,500). But in retrospect it is clear that many who signed membership forms to join the party did so not because they wanted to be active but because they liked what we were doing without intending to do it themselves. The sort of mass class struggle needed to provide concrete reality to the struggle for workers’ power still seemed very distant. And then the visceral anger within the working class against Thatcherism transmuted into a belief that New Labour was the answer (the Labour Party put on about 200,000 new members in the run up to the 1997 election).
All of us older members know people who dropped out in that period. They felt that transitory successes for the party could not overcome a more general feeling that we were banging our heads against a brick wall and would never break through. Most still valued the SWP but did not have the energy to remain active members. We lost by attrition what we gained by recruitment. Some remained nominal members (an important chunk of the “unregistered member” category Neil picks up on); others simply drifted away. I cannot honestly think the “regime” in the party had much, if anything, to do with that—except that the structures of the party, for all their possible faults, did keep pressure on comrades to be active.
What about the nine years since Seattle? We were quite rightly excited by the rise of the anticapitalist movement and then the anti war movement. We were no longer isolated as we had been in the 1990s and were quite right to make a turn to the new movements. But we recognised (in for instance the article I wrote in ISJ in 2000, “The Theory and Practice of Anticapitalism,”) that the ideas that predominated within the new movement were pre-Marxist rather than Marxist, and that it would take time and fraternal discussion for us to shift this. We had to go backward, in a certain sense, in order to go forward.
The leadership we played in the anti-war movement gained the party great credit. But in the course of the movement it also became clear that opposition to war was not automatically the same as anti-imperialism, and that anti-imperialism was not automatically the same as anticapitalism (I remember student meetings where young people opposed to the war would defend the market, “enterprise” etc). As I put it in my article “Anticapitalism five years after Seattle” in IS 104 (Autumn 2004) autonomists and reformist ideas were still very dominant in the movement: “The revolutionary left was small at the time of Seattle and it is not surprising that the many thousands who took part in the great mobilisations rarely identified with its arguments”. Or as Sheila MacGregor summed it up at a party council about four years ago. “We had a bigger mass movement than in Britain in 1968, but we did not have anything like the French May events.”
I felt at the time, and I still do, that were a bit slow in putting more effort in building the party. I made the point in the Journal that a measure of the party’s success in broader party fronts was winning people to its full set of ideas. Of the experience internationally I wrote, “The omission of the far left has been its failure to build links with at least a proportion of those who have voted for it, finding ways to involve them in non-electoral struggles and winning them to readership of its press.” It was such feelings that led me to I turn a series of articles I had written into Socialist Worker into the little book, Revolution in the 21st Century (although at least one other member of the CC indicated to me that they thought this was not what the party needed at the time, and it took two years to appear in print). It was only when Martin Smith moved from the industrial department to become national organiser that real effort was put into party building effort, although even then there were people in the party (including in the CC) who in practice behaved as if it was a diversion from what we were doing in the united fronts.
Be that as it may, the objective situation has changed in our favour since then, even if not as quickly as I had hoped. The last two or three years have seen a revival of interest in Marxism internationally in a way in which was not the case in the early 2000s (if nothing else, the attendance at the Historical Materialism annual events, which have quadrupled in size in four years shows that), and it the interest is increasing by the day as a result of the ideological crisis since the bank collapses and nationalisations We have to seize the opportunities before us. We cannot do so without coming to terms at the conference with past mistakes. But we also have to ensure this does not absorb our time and energy when we have chance of moving forward.
Neil refers, quite correctly, to the hopeful sight of the LCR building the New Anticapitalist Party in France, But until five years ago the LCR’s record of growth was even more dismal than ours. It had shrunk from perhaps 6000 “militants” in 1982 when Mitterrand was elected for the first time to about 2000. Its growth since and the prospects for the new party are very much a product of the successive waves of workers and students struggles in France since 1995. We have maintained ourselves and gained a certain, if limited, influence on British politics in the absence of struggles on anything like that scale. It is no mean achievement. But now we have to seize the opportunities to build on it—even if they are not as great as in countries like France and Greece where we have already seen mass struggles.
In this respect, there are, however, two things on which Neal’s document that confuse rather than enlighten.
The first concerns electoral interventions and the united front. Its strikes me that there is danger of an almost metaphysical discussion in the party at the moment as to what is a united front and what is not. The concept was developed by Lenin and Trotsky in 1920 and 1921 to deal with situations where revolutionaries had not won the majority of workers to their revolutionary views, but were able to work with them for limited objectives. Because such workers were still under the influence of reformist politicians and trade union bureaucrats, it was often necessary to formally call upon these to engage in united struggle with the revolutionary organisation around specific demands which they claimed to accept. If they are agreed, it would make it easier for revolutionaries to engage in united action with reformist workers and win them to revolutionary ideas—and win victories for the class which would strengthen its confidence. If the leaders refused it would expose them in the eyes of their supporters. This became known as “the united front from above.” There were also situations in which it was possible to win reformist workers to united action even without their leaders. This became known as the “united front from below”—not in itself necessarily a bad thing, but unlikely to have the impact of the united front from above and in important instances (like Germany in 1930-33) an ultraleft substitute for it. In either sort of united front there were opportunities as well as dangers. The revolutionaries could pull the reformists towards them, but the reformists could also exercise pressure on the revolutionaries. Which way things went depended on the tempo of struggle, but also the clarity and tactical skill of the revolutionaries.
The particular demands which would make a united front possible depended on the concrete situation. It could be about one demand, it could be about ten. The United Front could start from above, as a result of a formal agreement with union or reformist leaders; it could start from below –for instance by drawing rank and file reformist workers with us into common action (some of the most effective rank and file movements of the early 1970s, like that around the Dockworker paper, started on a basis similar to this). So there is no reason in principle why a petition should not form the basis for a united front. Any argument must be over what is the best basis at a particular point in time. What does matter is that the demands are concrete and specific enough to put the reformist leaders to the test of practice in front of their supporters. General propaganda calls would not do this. Reformists have often been willing to make apparently far reaching calls for change at some point in the future while ducking struggle in the here and now. A united front around such calls, far from drawing their followers into action, only serves to provide a left cover for the leaders’ inaction.
It also has to be remembered, at every moment, that the leaders will seize every opportunity to back off from their commitment even to the minimal points of agreement with us. For this reason no united front will last forever. Neil is therefore overstating the case when he writes that the “cases where revolutionaries simply have to stand alone on a point of principle…should be the exceptions, at least in the current period.” We have to assume in any united front that a breaking point will come. Our responsibility is to build links with those influenced by reformism so that when the break comes, we do not break alone.
By these criteria Respect was an attempt at a united front –and so, for that matter, is the New Anticapitalist Party in France, since it unites people around the quite correct demand of “no coalition with the Socialist Party”, but does not raise the question of the overthrow of the state and workers power. Neil thinks we were right to launch Respect and agrees it necessarily involved us working with people who were not revolutionaries. But he then writes that it could not have been a united front because “Respect was a political party which, by definition, must seek to intervene across the entire range of political, social and economic issues facing the workers and oppressed groups it wants to influence, from abortion to zero-tolerance policing.” I feel like echoing Engels and writing, “dialectics, gentlemen, dialectics.” The left across Europe today is faced with a contradictory situation. People who have not broken with reformism are breaking with existing reformist parties and want to vote against them from the left. We can work alongside them in political formations around demands of a limited nature that do not have the total programme one would normally expect from a political party. That is a united front with them. Where Neil is right is that such a united front presents particular problems, in the case of Respect “because the agreement did not exist over many of the fundamental issues with which Respect was faced”. He is also right to say that the result would predictably be “unstable and divisive” and that therefore we should have done more to win Respect supporters to revolutionary politics.
It is a pity that in is eagerness to score a point at Alex’s expense in his piece that Neil did not take up more seriously the question of Trotsky and the Labor Party in the US. There was a real problem, similar in some ways to that which revolutionary socialists face in Europe today, and one we could learn from. The socialist movement was weak in the US in the 1920s and the Communist Party even weaker, with much of its influence restricted to the “foreign language” federations of recent immigrants. A move began to establish a Labor Party in the Chicago region, which has seen two great, but defeated, strikes in 1919-20 (in the stockyards and in steel). Centrally involved was one of the key leaders of those strike, John Fitzpatrick (portrayed in the film The killing floor). Another of the key strike leaders, William Z Foster, had joined the Communist Party, and it seemed that the party could gain in influence by taking part in the Labor Party initiative. At first things went well, but then the hierarchy of the US trade union movement put pressure on Fitzpatrick and he turned against the Communists, destroying the movement for a Labor Party and damaging the Communists. Up to this point, the incident shows incredible similarities with our experience with Galloway in Respect. When I read Theodor Draper’s account of the events earlier this year, I felt as if I was reading a script acted out by us and Galloway). The fact that the American CP, under the influence of the Zinovievite Comintern delegate Pepper, then went off into cloud cuckoo land is beside the point. The issue raised by the incident had been a real issue. It re-emerged in the 1930s, among Trotsky’s supporters in the US. Trotsky’s advice to them at first was that they should oppose agitation for a Labor Party as a diversion from winning workers to revolutionary socialism. But after the great strike wave of the mid 1930s he gave new thought to the question in long discussions with revolutionaries from the US. His conclusion was that revolutionaries should support such agitation insofar as it struck a response among the militant workers, but at the same time be aware that there would be struggle with reformist influences, which would grow if the workers’ movement suffered set backs.
As Daniel Bensaid summarised his arguments a few years ago:
“To the revolutionary militants who asked him why they were going to take part in the founding of a reformist party, he replied that what was necessary was not the founding of a reformist party, but a party of the class independent of the bourgeoisie. What happens after that is an open question. What becomes of the party depends on the class struggle, the balance of forces, the experiences, and the intervention of revolutionaries within it. To those who said it was necessary to create a workers’ party with revolutionary references, he replied that was abstract and formal. In the context of the time, of 500 workers at a public meeting who were ready to understand the need for an independent workers party, perhaps only five, not more, would be ready to understand that it was necessary to destroy the state and fight Stalinism. The five could be recruited to the section of the Fourth International and the 500 to the workers’ party. Each would respond according to their level of consciousness.”
The mistake the young American Communist Party made in the early 1920s was not to be prepared for its reformist allies to turn against it, and then to avoid drawing an honest balance sheet when they did. We made the first mistake in Respect, and we have avoid making the second one if we are going to be able to respond correctly if, as is possible, forces bigger than us try to build a formation to the left of Labour in future. Denying that what is involved is some form of united front– one which creates special difficulties– is not helpful. Nor is it helpful now for us to try to delineate in detail in advance, long before the conditions for a new formation exists, how we would respond. On this point I think Neil’s call for us now “to start thinking now about the nature of such a party, in terms of its composition, possible process of formation, and our relationship to it as a revolutionary component” is pie in the sky, since we have no ideas of under what circumstances and with what forces we would be working. He says the alternative is “yet more improvisations, dignified with the spurious theoretical rationale of the united front.” It is not. The alternative is one aspect of Leninism which I am sure Neil wants to keep, “the concrete analysis of concrete situations.” What is true is that we can get lessons on how to do that from the experiences taking place at present in France, Greece, Germany and elsewhere, and from the record of Respect,the SSP and Rifondazione. In my view, I think we would have been better prepared for what happened in Respect if instead of seeing it as something new we had looked at how people like Trotsky related to previous similar attempts, with the balance sheet of their outcome. This is not, as Neil implies, treating the classic writings of Marxism as scriptural texts—or as Alasdair Macintyre and Brian Behan put it before abandoning revolutionary Marxism, “waving the dead bones of Trotsky”. It is not snide comments about past revolutionary experiences we need, but learning from them in an effort to change the future.
It is also worth adding that one problem we faced—and might well face again—is that so far the willingness of a minority of people to vote to the left of the social democratic parties has not in general been matched by a corresponding level of activism. This has been true in France, and is so even now. Ten thousand members of the New Anticapitalist Party is magnificent. But it is less than one percent of the people prepared to vote for Besancenot. In Britain the proportions were probably worse with both with the SSP and Respect. In Hackney, where I live we got between 5 and 10 per cent of the vote (a very good vote by European standards–except in Europe proportional representation means the far left win seats with such figures). Yet there were only a handful of activists in Respect who were not SWP members, and despite all our efforts Respect public meetings were no bigger than those of the SWP (a very different state of affairs to that with Stop the War). The number of activists we could potentially have won from Respect to our wider politics was not very great. My impression is that the low level of non party participation in Respect was fairly general, except in a handful of predominantly Muslim localities, a few other places and among students. One problem with our Respect work was that we never discussed the implications of this at a national level.
The other point on which I think Neil is very confusing is in his references to the state of the working class organisation. He objects to the formula of “bureaucracy on the one hand, lack of confidence on the other.” I don’t agree. In my view that is precisely the lesson that flows from the union leaderships’ ignoring the votes for action in the PCS and NUT, and the union membership then accepting the leaderships decisions. Trade unionists in the public sector and important parts of the private sector are quite prepared to vote in their majority for strike action when they are given some sort of lead; but they do not have the confidence to take action without an official lead. This does not seem to me to imply some radical transformation in the consciousness of the class as a result of neoliberalism—and I feel that in holding this position Neil is too influenced by an orthodoxy that unites third way social democrats like Anthony Giddens and Manuel Castells with autonomists. In my view it is a complete exaggeration to write about “normalisation of market relations in areas where they were unknown even a hundred years ago”. Does Neil really mean that things are now worse in this respect that before the Lloyd George budget of 1909 and the National Insurance Act of 1911?
Our publications have contained analyses and reanalyses of the restructuring of the working class over the last three decades – the articles by me and Alex in the mid-1980s that were turned into a little book, the debate between Martin Smith and Gregor Gall in ISJ two years ago, my article “Theorising neoliberalism”, Paul Blackledge’s review of Bill Dunn’s book Global Restructuring and the Power of Labour, and so on. It is not good enough to say we have not provided “explanation.” Neil may not agree with the explanation, and I would certainly welcome it if he was write a serious article for the Journal outlining a different approach. But it is really silly in a serious and important contribution to the problems facing the party to typify working class consciousness with a typical Observer quotation from a steward justifying not fighting back against the attacks on his members conditions. Our activists in the unions face that stuff everyday (it was, after all the excuse for the lay officials in the NUT and PCS ignoring a majority vote of their members to take action). Let us have serious discussions on these issues in publications, not second hand anecdotes in internal documents.
This leads me to my last couple of points. First, there is clearly going to be more internal discussion. But many of the points Neil and other comrades want to take up can and should appear in the open publications, and not be confined to Internal Bulletins. SW and SR both print in virtually every issue letters questioning what they have argued. The journal has carried important debates over the last four years—over the character of imperialism today, over the character of the present crisis, over the state of the class struggle. Let’s have more from comrades who think the positions we express on particular issues are wrong or simplistic. I personally was bit disappointed when I wrote what I thought was a provocative article on neoliberalism and no one responded to it.
Finally, in my view there is a there is a right and a wrong way to deal with the important issues that Neil’s document raises. We need to open up discussion over the real questions as to how we respond to a rapidly changing global economic and political situation. We need the conference to take these issues seriously. And we need it to elect a commission (including experienced non-full time members) to make suggestions how we change our structures. So I agree with the sentiments in Neil’s document about opening up and leadership accountability. I cannot, however, accept the present CC remains intact, without conference choosing a leadership for next year. It is clear from articles in the bulletin and from the preconference aggregates that there enormous feeling in the party that the important issues have been fudged over the last year because of divisions within the CC. It would be a serious mistake for conference to agree to this state of affairs continuing. We need a unified CC, capable of acting decisively. That is the only way the party can respond to sudden changes in the objective circumstances as the crisis develops—and it is the only way the party as a whole can judge whether the leadership is responding correctly.