Workers Hammer No. 201
Respect divorces SWP
Reformists in crisis in post-Soviet world
For a multiethnic revolutionary workers party!
Respect, “the Unity Coalition”, was founded with great fanfare in January 2004. Hoping to cash in on the widespread hatred for Blair’s New Labour government which was up to its armpits in the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis while turning the screw on the working class, poor and minorities at home, the pages of Socialist Worker promoted Respect as “a beacon of hope” and a “viable alternative to New Labour” (31 January 2004). For the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which rejoiced in the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union — a devastating defeat for the world’s working class — Respect was their latest desperate scheme to cash in on the collapse of Stalinism. For the SWP’s coalition partner, maverick ex-Labour MP George Galloway, Respect was a vehicle for hustling votes, particularly in Muslim communities which justly burned with hatred against the Blair government over Iraq and its racist “war on terror” witch hunt against those of Muslim origin in Britain.
In setting up Respect the SWP abandoned the Socialist Alliance, their previous attempt to create an “alternative” to New Labour by reviving a version of the old Labour politics that had historically served to tie the working class to God, Queen and country. Respect however made no pretence to be even nominally a working-class formation. On the contrary, from its inception Respect was a cross-class, popular-frontist coalition. As we wrote in our article “SWP wanted the post-Soviet world, now they’ve got it”:
“Respect purports to represent Britain’s Muslims, who are among the poorest sections of the population and are foremost targets of the government’s racist ‘war on terror’ at home. Far from representing the interests of any oppressed minority, Respect is based on a bald-faced acceptance by the SWP of racist British capitalist rule, based on the monarchy, the House of Lords, the established Protestant churches and parliament. Respect certainly does not represent the interests of the working class, minorities or women. It ought to repel young activists who want to fight to overthrow the racist system of capitalist exploitation and to liberate women from the yoke of oppression and religious reaction — whether it comes from church, temple or mosque.”
—Workers Hammer no 194, Spring 2006
We also noted at the time that, “for all the SWP’s opportunist adaptations, Respect does not appear to be the get-rich-quick scheme they imagined”. And this autumn it all went up in smoke, with Galloway and the SWP at each other’s throats.
In a letter to the Respect National Council titled “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” in August 2007 Galloway launched a broadside against the SWP, blaming it for the “steep decline” in Respect membership and for the fact that Respect is not “punching its weight in British politics”. By late October, the Galloway wing, which consists of virtually all of the Respect coalition outside of the SWP, had changed the locks on the doors to Respect headquarters. The SWP responded with a 3 November statement from its Central Committee denouncing Galloway for launching a witch hunt against the “left-wing” in Respect. This was followed by a 5 November letter from Alex Callinicos to other sections of the SWP’s putative international claiming that “the division in Respect is a political one between left and right”.
The SWP’s posture as “principled socialists” being witch-hunted by the right is downright laughable. Since the founding conference of Respect, it was SWP cadre who ensured that motions calling for the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic, for secularism and even for a “workers MP on a workers wage” were voted down! Now among the only criticisms they can summon up about Galloway is that he earns a whopping £300,000 a year and that he appeared on the Celebrity Big Brother show. These rank opportunists do not even offer a hint of self-criticism on the concessions they made which were controversial among the SWP’s membership, such as abandoning any meaningful fight for gay rights or women’s liberation in order to appease the mosques as well as Galloway. Even now, the SWP can’t choke out a word of criticism of Galloway’s reactionary opposition to abortion.
The split has produced two warring organisations — “Respect” consisting mainly of the SWP and “Respect Renewal” led by Galloway and made up of pretty much everyone except the SWP. Among Galloway’s supporters are a handful of former SWP cadre who were expelled for siding with Galloway; the leading Muslim figures as well as Alan Thornett’s Socialist Resistance group which has terminated its own newspaper and is publishing a paper for Respect Renewal. Despite intense heat on both sides, there are no differences of political programme, as was seen when the rival Respect organisations held conferences in London on 17 November 2007. Both claim to be the true inheritors of the programme on which Respect was originally founded.
The SWP’s bitter complaints about Respect having been taken over by Muslim “community leaders” and “businessmen” are amusing given the extent to which these consummate opportunists bent over backwards to conciliate the mosques. In an effort to capitalise on the mammoth anti-war protests in 2003, which were led by the SWP-brokered Stop the War Coalition and heavily supported by Muslim organisations, the SWP bragged about having organised an anti-war meeting in Birmingham with a segregated seating area for women! But today Muslim leaders like Salma Yaqoob accuse the SWP of using Muslims as “vote fodder” for elections in answer to the SWP’s claim that the Muslim wing of Respect operates on the basis of “communalism”. This refers to the fact that candidates are selected along ethnic and religious lines — people of Bangladeshi origin mainly support Bangladeshis and people of Pakistani origin support their “own” candidates, while neither supports SWP-backed candidates. The SWP would likely have been happy within Respect if only they had been allowed their “fair share” of candidates in elections.
SWP’s contribution to “death of communism”
The politics of Respect shows the extent to which the SWP is mired in the ideological climate conditioned by the prevailing bourgeois ideology that “communism is dead”. The SWP as a tendency originated out of a capitulation to the anti-communist Cold War hysteria that accompanied the Korean War of 1950-53. Its founder, the late Tony Cliff, reneged on the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union as well as the Chinese and North Korean deformed workers states against imperialist attack. This was a cowardly capitulation to the British bourgeoisie and to the Labour government that sent troops to Korea. See “The Bankruptcy of ‘New Class’ Theories” (Spartacist no 55 [English-language edition], Autumn 1999).
The SWP actually helped create today’s political climate of post-Soviet reaction. In August 1991 when Boris Yeltsin’s imperialist-backed forces of counterrevolution staged a countercoup in Moscow, every capitalist ruling class was triumphant and proclaimed this as the “death of communism”. The SWP joined in the jubilation, proclaiming on their front page: “Communism has collapsed”, a fact that “should have every socialist rejoicing” and urging “now fight for real socialism” (Socialist Worker, 31 August 1991).
The SWP’s “socialism” only ever amounted to pressuring the pro-imperialist Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy who are wedded to British imperialism and parliament. But in the programme of Respect they willingly ditched even that and relegated the mention of “socialism” to speechifying at SWP branch meetings and to the occasional historical article in Socialist Worker. This is a capitulation to the predominant consciousness among today’s political activists which — whether they be in “left” organisations or the “anti-globalisation” milieu — is bourgeois liberal ideology. A document appended to the programmatic statement of our comrades in the Spartacist League/US written in 2000 succinctly characterised the role of our competitors on the left, whom we today describe as “opponents of the revolutionary internationalist workers movement”, noting:
“All of our party’s activity is directed to organizing, training and steeling the proletarian vanguard party necessary for the seizure of state power. In contrast, the politics of the reformists and centrists consist of oppositional activity completely defined by the framework of bourgeois society. The latter was sharply characterized by Trotsky as ‘the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state.’ Such accommodation to capitalist class rule by organizations nominally claiming adherence to Marxism is, if anything, more decisively pronounced today in a world defined by the final undoing of the Russian Revolution and the triumphal assertion by the imperialist rulers that ‘communism is dead’.”
—Spartacist pamphlet, For Socialist Revolution in the Bastion of World Imperialism! (November 2000)
The bust-up in Respect is only the latest in a wave of crises that have beset the reformist left in Britain and internationally in the post-Soviet world. In each case, support to counterrevolution in the Soviet Union was followed by lurching even further to the right to obtain the supposed dividends, but to no avail. In the 2006 split in Workers Power, one wing argued to continue their frenzied capitulation to the “anti-globalisation” milieu and the imperialist-funded social forums which they portrayed as the main arena out of which to build a “revolutionary international”. The minority, now known as “Permanent Revolution”, saw this as a losing proposition and instead argued to continue with their time-honoured tailing of Labour. Similarly, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) — once upheld by reformists in England as the best model for an alternative to Blair’s New Labour — imploded in 2006 following moralistic allegations about its leader Tommy Sheridan’s sex life. Beneath this rift was a disagreement over just how far the SSP should go in its blatant capitulation to the Scottish National Party, a bourgeois party, in the hope of becoming more of a player in the Scottish parliament.
The SWP’s international tendency underwent a profound crisis in 2000 and broke with its US section for having failed the “test of Seattle”, that is, for failing to match the British SWP’s level of adulation of the “anti-globalisation” movement. The very notion that this movement is “anti-capitalist” is a myth. Indeed as SWP leader John Rees wrote in a 2003 fanfare for it, this movement would not have been possible without capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. Rees wrote:
“The broad anti-capitalist movement encompassing the whole left save for the social democratic defenders of neo-liberalism would have been inconceivable in the Cold War. In that era the first question asked of any ‘anti-capitalist’ would have been, ‘So does that mean you are pro-Russian?’ The movement would have divided in response to that challenge. Now it no longer does.”
—International Socialism, Autumn 2003
Having worked for and then hailed counterrevolution, the Cliffites have been constantly cheated of the benefits of the “radicalisation” they projected in its wake. The party failed to grow even out of the mammoth anti-war demonstrations in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Referring to this at the January 2006 party conference, long-time SWP hack John Molyneux pointed out that “somewhere during this period of radicalisation and outward success the party appears to have lost up to 5,000 (50%) of its membership (without ever acknowledging that this was happening)”. Molyneux stood on the SWP’s support to counterrevolution, saying: “A key problem, in my opinion, was our estimation of the effects of the collapse of Stalinism. We were right to identify this as fundamentally historically progressive and to argue that internationally it created a space for genuine socialist ideas to get a hearing.” He added: “However, we seriously underestimated the extent to which it was perceived by millions, indeed hundreds of millions, as the defeat of socialism” (“Why I Intend to Stand”, published in Weekly Worker, 5 January 2006).
Only those blinded by anti-communist loyalty to “democratic” imperialism, as Molyneux and the SWP leadership are, could describe counterrevolution in the former USSR and Eastern Europe as “fundamentally historically progressive”. This was a defeat of historic proportions for the working masses of the whole world. It followed the tide of counterrevolution that had swept the former deformed workers states in Eastern Europe and led to the capitalist reunification of Germany in 1990, with devastating consequences for the working masses of those countries. Moreover, in the “one superpower” world, US imperialism feels it has free rein to plunder neocolonial countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, while all the imperialist powers have been emboldened to grind the working class at home, as seen in the Labour government’s attacks on wages, pensions and welfare provision. And as we have noted, counterrevolution in the Soviet Union has led to a profound retrogression in proletarian consciousness. Although this is uneven throughout the world, today even the most politically conscious workers in the capitalist countries by and large do not identify their struggles with the goal of socialism.
We of the ICL fought with all our resources against capitalist restoration. During the unfolding political revolution in East Germany in 1989-90, we unconditionally opposed capitalist reunification with imperialist West Germany. We fought for political revolution in the East and socialist revolution in the West. We initiated a 250,000-strong demonstration on 3 January 1990 in East Berlin’s Treptow Park against the fascist desecration of the war memorial to Soviet soldiers who died liberating Germany from the Nazi scourge in 1945. We alone mounted a challenge to the sell-out of the East German deformed workers state by the Moscow and East Berlin Stalinists. Although we were defeated, our programme was proven correct.
In 1991 our comrades in Moscow distributed by the thousands a leaflet dated 27 August titled: “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!” which said:
“The working people of the Soviet Union, and indeed the workers of the world, have suffered an unparalleled disaster whose devastating consequences are now being played out. The ascendancy of Boris Yeltsin, who offers himself as Bush’s man, coming off a botched coup by Mikhail Gorbachev’s former aides, has unleashed a counterrevolutionary tide across the land of the October Revolution.”
—Reprinted in Spartacist pamphlet, How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled (1993)
We fought to the end for unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union and the East European deformed workers states against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution, while fighting for workers political revolution to oust the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracies and replace them with regimes based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism. This is the programme we apply today to the remaining deformed workers states — China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam.
We hailed Red Army in Afghanistan!
The SWP’s capitulation to Islam did not begin with Respect. In 1994 the Cliffites published a major article by Chris Harman titled “The Prophet and the Proletariat” in their International Socialism journal. Their previous record includes capitulating to the reactionary mullahs who came to power in Iran led by Ayatollah Khomeini in the late 1970s, running laudatory headlines like “The Form — Religious, The Spirit — Revolution!” and howling along with their own “democratic” bourgeoisie over the Soviet army presence in Afghanistan.
When the Soviet army entered Afghanistan in December 1979 we said “Hail the Red Army!” and “Extend the social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples!” The Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy — for its own reasons — had sent in the army at the request of the nationalist government in Kabul which was attempting a series of reforms including lowering the bride price and land reform. This provoked the reactionary Islamic fundamentalists into a “holy war”. At stake was the defence of the Soviet Union, the workers state that emerged from the victorious October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Despite the Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration in the Soviet Union that began in 1923-24, it remained a workers state until it was destroyed by counterrevolution in 1991-92.
When the social gains of the Russian Revolution were extended to Central Asia it became a literate, relatively modern society where women were no longer degraded slaves. The Soviet army presence could have resulted in Afghanistan’s incorporation into Soviet Central Asia, opening up the possibility of a social transformation. But even though they were winning militarily against the brutal mujahedin, the Kremlin Stalinists under Mikhail Gorbachev criminally withdrew the troops in 1989. This betrayal paved the way for handing over East Germany and the USSR itself to counterrevolution. The Cliffites in the US hailed this treacherous withdrawal of Soviet troops, undertaken by the Kremlin Stalinists in an effort to appease the imperialists, proclaiming:
“Just as socialists welcomed the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam, we welcome the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan. It will give heart to all those inside the USSR and in Eastern Europe who want to break the rule of Stalin’s heirs.”
—Socialist Worker [US], May 1988
Socialist Party’s old Labour chauvinism
Like the SWP, Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party supported counterrevolution in the USSR and today adds its own contribution to the “death of communism” climate. The “socialism” of Taaffe’s organisation — previously known as Militant Labour — never amounted to anything more than the Labour Party’s Clause IV, which translated into “nationalising the commanding heights of the economy”. These days the Taaffeites consider New Labour to be an outright bourgeois party and campaign for a “new mass workers party”. Yet they regard even a nominally “socialist programme” as dispensable in building such a “workers” party, as their article on the Respect split says:
“Nonetheless the Socialist Party would welcome a new mass workers’ party, or [a] significant step towards one, even if its membership didn’t initially adopt a fully-rounded out socialist programme. Provided a new mass party was rooted in struggle, had a democratic and federal approach, and stood clearly against cuts, privatisation and war, it would represent a step forward.”
—Socialist, 1 November 2007
The Socialist Party criticises Respect because it “has concentrated in the main on one section of society, the Muslim community, which it is important to win, but Respect has largely failed to reach out to other sections of the working class”. The article contrasts the Socialist Party’s own approach as “doing everything possible to encourage the unity of the working class”. This concern for “class unity” has to be taken with a grain of salt coming from the Socialist Party which gave backhanded support to the government’s racist “war on terror” by adopting the slogan “no to terrorism” (coupled with “no to war”) at the height of the anti-Muslim frenzy that followed the criminal July 2005 London bombing. The Taaffeites apply the same “working-class unity” rhetoric to Northern Ireland to disguise the fact that they view defence of the oppressed Catholic minority as an affront to unity with the Protestant working class. They refuse to call for British troops out and have hosted Loyalist killer Billy Hutchinson at meetings as a representative of the Protestant working class! Such catering to the most backward level of consciousness among the working class is integral to their programme of chauvinist Labourite parliamentary reformism. Labour governments have presided over the bloody partition of India, imposed racist “virginity tests” for Asian women immigrating to Britain and sent British troops to Northern Ireland.
For a Leninist “tribune of the people”
When Labour’s Jack Straw launched an attack on Muslim women for wearing the veil in October 2006, vastly intensifying the level of anti-Muslim racism, we wrote: “As Marxists — and therefore atheists and fighters for women’s liberation — we oppose the veil as both a symbol and an instrument of women’s oppression. Nonetheless we unambiguously oppose any state or government bans and restrictions on the veil, which are racist and discriminatory against Muslims” (“Racism and the Islamic veil”, Workers Hammer no 197, Winter 2006-2007). Labour in government has funded a huge growth in religious — mainly Christian — schools and the British capitalist state has its own established Christian churches that are tied to the monarchy and the House of Lords. Islam, which in Britain is the religion of an oppressed minority, is not uniquely reactionary or anti-woman; such bigotry is just as much an integral part of Christianity and Judaism as of Islam.
With Respect on the rocks and the SWP again in crisis, these opportunists may well return their attention to reconstructing an old Labour-type party based on the trade union bureaucracy. The SWP press is cock-a-hoop that Mark Serwotka, leader of the civil servants union PCS, spoke at their Respect conference while refusing to address Galloway’s. Not by accident Serwotka also attended the conference of the Labour Representation Committee — the supposed “left” of New Labour. Serwotka’s record as a union leader leaves no doubt about what a rotten sell-out party he would build. His leadership of the PCS has thus far involved a crass betrayal of its members, agreeing to a deal requiring new entrants to the civil service to work five more years to qualify for a pension. In this he was assisted by Socialist Party members who dominate the union executive.
The multiethnic working class needs a genuinely revolutionary party, which would link the existing struggles of the working class in defence of their conditions, against war, racism, the oppression of women and of gays to the fight for socialist revolution to end capitalism. Our task is to swim against the stream of today’s reactionary climate and to forge the nucleus of a revolutionary vanguard party. As Trotsky noted in his article “Stalinism and Bolshevism” (1936):
“Great political defeats inevitably provoke a reconsideration of values, generally occurring in two directions. On the one hand the true vanguard, enriched by the experience of defeat, defends with tooth and nail the heritage of revolutionary thought and on this basis attempts to educate new cadres for the mass struggle to come. On the other hand the routinists, centrists, and dilettantes, frightened by defeat, do their best to destroy the authority of revolutionary tradition and go backward in their search of a ‘New Word’.”
A revolutionary workers party would infuse the multiethnic working class with the consciousness of its social power and its historic task which means destroying all illusions in the “democracy” of this decaying system, educating it in the historic lessons of the class struggle, steeling its revolutionary will and self-confidence for the overthrow of capitalist exploitation. Such a party would be what Lenin described as a “tribune of the people”, fighting every manifestation of injustice, racist oppression and state tyranny. Our task remains the reforging of an authentically Trotskyist Fourth International to lead the proletariat in sweeping away the capitalist order through new October Revolutions around the world.