Around 3.2 million people crammed into the upper hall of ULU on Sunday morning to hear SWP national secretary, Martin Smith (pictured) debate Socialist Party deputy general secretary, Hannah Sell, on building a revolutionary party in the 21st century. That the SWP agreed to send a representative along to Socialism was certainly a welcome development, having been some years since the comrades had sent someone along. It's just a pity Martin came alone - without any of his comrades acting as a counter weight there was always the danger it could have been a one-sided bitchfest. But that didn't happen thanks to skillful chairing and taking speakers from outside the SP's ranks.
In the real world the neoliberal consensus has collapsed, a mass political mobilisation has just defeated the Republicans in the US, and global capital is undergoing its worse crisis in 80 years, so why bother with this debate? Can't the SP and SWP as the largest currents on the far left in Britain just unite? This was the starting point of Hannah's contribution. Her argument was that should a new workers' party emerge over the next few years and many thousands of activists are attracted to socialist politics, the differences between the two will assume greater significance. It is therefore not sectarian to discuss differences, but rather allows for greater clarity about our trajectories and mistakes so we can operate and cooperate more smoothly in the future.
As far as Hannah was concerned, the criticisms the SP has of the SWP boils down to a question of method and perspectives. The SWP has a 'year zero' approach to politics. Whereas the SP constantly discusses its own practice in an attempt to learn from it, the SWP has a tendency to abruptly abandon its previous practice and move on to something new - so it is theoretically possible to meet a new SWP every week.
This is tied in with the SWP's mistaken assessment of the period we've just come out of. The collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the USSR gave capital a tremendous ideological victory. Grotesque bureaucratic caricatures of socialism they may have been, nevertheless they showed the ruling class that an alternative to capitalism was possible, that their system was not immortal and could be overturned when it is weak. Their passing was marked by an orgy of bourgeois triumphalism and neoliberalism - already the ideological hegemon in most English-speaking countries - rapidly spread beyond the borders of its Anglo-American heartland. Privatisation, outsourcing, increased global capital flows, and intensified exploitation became the order of the day. Labour and social democratic parties the world over elected to swim with the free market stream, and trade unions adapted to the new realities by emphasising boss/worker "partnerships". This was not a precipitous time for socialist ideas, never mind any kind of independent working class politics.
The SWP however felt it was a favourable period. The collapse of Stalinism was a step sideways from state capitalism to market-based capitalism, therefore nothing had fundamentally changed. Tony Cliff had characterised the 1990s as the '1930s in slow motion', implying it was to be a decade of titanic and strategic class battles. It also claimed the 90s was marked by a popular attitudinal adjustment to the left (though Hannah didn't mention this, the SWP's argument that New Labour's election victory in 1997 was a 'class vote', and the fact its membership mushroomed (particularly in the early 90s) could be taken as "support" for this claim). By the end of the decade, the SWP's optimistic perspective saw it hail the emergence of an anti-capitalist/global justice movement as 'the greatest opportunity for the left since the 1960s'. While it was certainly a welcome development from the SP's point of view, its significance should not be overstated. For instance, compared with the mobilisations of the 1980s it was on a much lower level. Nevertheless the SP took part in this movement, as did the SWP, but because of the different methods of building a party, the SWP ended up tailing the movement. Via Globalise Resistance, the SWP uncritically adopted the slogan 'another world is possible' and adopted the strategy of being the movement's most militant and dynamic builders - an approach that would attract the best activists. The SP however sought to implant socialist ideas as deeply as possible, which doesn't at all preclude working to be the most visible and authoritative current.
Hannah went on to note the SWP took a similar line at the founding conference of Solidarity. The organisation, which split with the SSP in the wake of the Tommy Sheridan affair, is currently sub-titled 'Scotland's Socialist Movement'. The SWP voted against the inclusion of socialism and the setting up of Solidarity as a socialist organisation. She also criticised the top-down culture of the SWP, its behaviour over the Socialist Alliance and Respect, and what she thought was its heavy-handed attitude to the RMT when it tentatively explored the possibility of standing in this year's London Assembly elections. Despite this, Hannah concluded that should a new workers' party emerge, the SP and SWP will both be involved. The question remains if the SWP could act as a positive force or as a block on the process.
Martin Smith then began his reply. He thanked the SP for the invite and prefaced his contribution by saying he doesn't normally attend events like this because he knows the SWP would come under attack. That said, he was here to see what we were saying and hoped to sketch out where our organisations are going, not trade blows.
Martin's starting point were the US elections. He and the SWP have no illusions in Barack Obama, but the outcome cannot be dismissed as another round of Tweedle Dum Tweedle Dee politics. What Obama's victory shows is a (positive) reaction against the reckless policies responsible for the economic crisis, a desire to see withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a projection by millions of their hopes for a better world onto Obama's incoming presidency. But despite this there is no reason why the left will automatically benefit from the crisis - hope can very quickly tip over into despair. For example, there are projections that unemployment could hit two million by Christmas. By this time next year it could have grown to as much as 3.5 million. Over the same period, thanks to falling stocks and the financial crisis the value of pensions could fall by as much as 30 per cent.
Highlighting the difference between the SWP and SP on the Labour party (as a bourgeois workers' party vs an outright party of business), the economic crisis is likely to compound the problem of Labour as a strategic obstacle facing socialists. We have seen the 'Brown bounce' in the polls off the back of his conference performance and apparent competence in handling the crisis, so Martin was not surprised Labour held on in the Glenrothes by-election. Labour does continue to haemorrhage members (which could now be as low as 120,000 members) but people will still be prepared to support it at the polls, particularly large numbers of older workers. Building a left alternative means coming to terms with this.
He then turned to a common criticism made of the SWP - that it is overoptimistic. He admitted this was true, but so were the Bolsheviks. He argued optimism was necessary because it allows socialists to seize the initiative once the weight of history and potential on/in any given situation is understood. It is this kind of optimism that has allowed the SWP and SP to hold our organisations together in, what he conceded, were difficult times. But we do need to learn from each other - we all make mistakes. Those that don't do anything (nodding toward the ultra-left) have the luxury of being correct about everything. For instance, the SWP knew it got the poll tax struggle wrong (initially calling for non-collection by council workers rather than mass non-payment), but it soon realised its errors and got involved in the campaign, with some of its comrades getting imprisoned for not paying.
Returning to the present political period, Martin suggested there were two things going on. A currently low but nevertheless rising curve of working class militancy (which he timed from the election of the so-called awkward squad is about to collide with a section of trade union leaders who are utterly craven vis the government. The task of socialists is to help this process along, which is why the SWP disagree with the decision of the PCS executive to postpone strike action, which would have taken place this Monday. SP members on the executive voted for this decision as well. In fact, Martin was glad his comrades voted against postponement as he believed that when workers vote yes on a strike ballot you are duty bound to go for it. However, he accepted this was a tactical question and not something the SP and SWP should fall out over.
Responding to the earlier points about the anti-capitalist/global justice movement, Martin said 'another world is possible' was not the SWP's slogan, but belonged to Globalise Resistance(!) The SWP were planning to continue in 'united front work' and argued for more unity in action, not less. Singling out the SWP's involvement in Defend Council Housing, Stop the War, and UAF (among others), it is unfair to say the SWP don't "stick the course".
He also rebutted Hannah's comments on the RMT/Respect talks regards the London Assembly elections. Respect did not "demand" the RMT climb on board its electoral ship. Instead it said it was ludicrous for both to stand against each other and instead possibilities for a united slate should be explored. He then touched on Respect and said it wasn't the case George Galloway was blameless and the SWP were the font of all evil. Its biggest problem was only one MP and one trade union leader broke toward it. If more had come on board, including the SP, we wouldn't have had the acrimonious split. But to keep the coalition together until the split, the SWP had to vote down positions it would otherwise have agreed with, such as a mandatory workers' wage for MPs. And it might be prepared to do so again because the party is still committed to a broad left alternative and it will happen at some stage. The struggles ahead will help realign and remake the left, and we will have to work together more often.
And now it came to contributions from the floor. One comrade got up and defended the actions of the SP on the PCS exec. She was at pains to emphasise that action had only been suspended. The government had agreed to talk about pay with the union for the first time in 20 years, and it would be a mistake to at least not listen to what it had to say - especially as the union had conceded nothing to get these talks. In Lois Austen's contribution, she argued the SWP had no method for looking at events. Citing an email put out by SWP staffers working for Stop the War, it read the coalition was "delighted" that Obama had won the presidency. This she felt was typical SWP fare, which is basically an emotional response. Andrew Price argued the SWP does not systematically learn from its mistakes and is always in danger of replicating them. Judy Beishon argued that any unity between the SP and SWP needs to be genuine and open, but this has not been the track record of the comrades in numerous campaigns over the years - and cited the SWP's actions in the Socialist Alliance as the example par excellence.
An independent comrade who sits on the steering committee of the CNWP congratulated the SP for its behaviour in the campaign and suggested if we contrast it and the SWP's relationship with external groupings, the SP's record is more favourable. Another indie asked if the SP and SWP could keep the dialogue going after this meeting, and Toby Abse singled out the NSSN as a possible way forward while warning that any left formation without either organisation on board was bound to fail.
James Palmer of the Spartacist League was left to supply the comedic element. The comrade said programme came before unity and tactics, before boldly stating there were two trends in the workers' movement: Marxism and social democracy. In his opinion, the SP and SWP belong to the latter (presumably, and given its hostility toward other left groups, the nine or ten Sparts in Britain is what's left of the Marxist trend). Amid much guffawing, he explained the Sparts were the best Trotskyists because they defended the USSR to the end. He also criticised the SP for daring to support the POA, and condemned our attitude to the police. Did we not know that a worker who dons a policeman's uniform becomes a bourgeois cop? It seems tactical nuance is beyond the simplistic black and white world of our Spart friends.
Time was now short, so it was left to Martin and Hannah to briefly reply to contributions. Martin returned once again to the anti-capitalist movement and said it was a wake up call for the entire left, which may have been caught up in the inertia of the period. Seattle, for example, was basically an alliance between trade unionists and a new generation of young people new to activism. It was pregnant with possibilities, albeit one that miscarried under the impact of September 11th. But the movement did not go away, instead it involved itself in other activities. Some were key sectors mobilised by the anti-war movement, others fed into the movement around Social Forums. The correctness of intervening here, Martin argued, is best shown in the US where the movement was, for the main part, ignored by the Trotskyists but embraced by the Maoists, and it is they who are reaping the long term benefits of recruits and influence today. He also returned to the PCS and the postponed strike. It was not a disgrace that the strike had been delayed, but it was disappointing. He thought that having up to 500,000 workers coming out could have had an electrifying political effect. He also said of the SP that his comrades in the PCS caucus do moan and criticise it for this and that, but he tells them not to get caught up on what the SP does but just get down to business. He ended by saying the SWP and SP need to find ways of talking because regroupment, when it happens, will be on a wider scale this time round, and the more cohesive socialists are, the better.
In her reply to the debate, Hannah hoped that reps from the SP would get a look-in at the SWP's Marxism next year, because conversations between Marxists do matter because we can draw lessons from them. She also said revolutionaries need to be optimistic and scientific. There are no benefits in chasing after something simply because it looks good. And finally she agreed with Martin that a mass party will happen and she looked forward to seeing masses of working class people fresh to politics move into activity.
I thought this was a useful discussion, even if Martin did not answer all the points put to him. It showed the SP is keen to have dialogue with the SWP, and hopefully Martin's acceptance of the speaking invite means they are too. It also served to put on show many of the main criticisms the left outside of the SWP has of its practice. It may well be the case SWP comrades disagree and might, in some cases, find them unfair. But even if that is true, the point is the SWP is perceived in this way. The best way of refuting these criticisms is by examining its practice systematically and learn from it, and hopefully it will do so. One final point, the SP and SWP are probably the most dynamic organisations in British politics. They have the activists and energy to make a real difference to any new left/new workers' formation that comes along. Neither current will ever fully see eye to eye on strategy and tactics, but if more joint work is undertaken, if basic trust and dialogue can be built up, the less chance there is of disputes getting out of hand and alienating workers fresh to revolutionary politics.