Monday, 15 October 2007

Sectarians With Placards?

As anyone who follows the blogland niche the revolutionary left has carved out for itself knows by now, the Socialist Workers' Party has expelled three leading and well known cadre from their organisation. According to the chatter over at Socialist Unity and Liam MacUaid, their "crime" was to take the SWP's Respect turn a little too seriously. It seems when the SWP makes a strategic decision its members shouldn't really throw themselves wholeheartedly into that particular struggle, despite being exhorted to do so by Socialist Worker and Party Notes.

The SU comments box on the expulsions have been overflowing with analysis and speculation, and of course you can expect the Weekly Worker to add much grist to the mill this Thursday. But you needn't be Mystic Meg to have seen this coming. Any attempt at building a broad left alternative that can reach beyond the confines of the sect ghetto must have democracy, accountability and openness at its heart, nor should any of its component parts hide or water down their politics. Unfortunately for the SWP, this is how it's not gone about building Respect, and now their inept leadership are reaping the whirlwind of their folly.

'Lacan's' contribution at SU blog (msg#74) notes "in order to be able to move the SWP membership out, en bloc, the CC needs to act now to delegitimise those people who might act as figureheads for a ’stay-and-fight’ tendency within the SWP". Unfortunately for the SWP their beheading of this opposition is far from neat. Not only have the three expelled comrades in question, Nick Wrack, Kevin Ovenden, and Rob Hoveman 'gone native', but whole swathes of the SWP's activist base has as well. In Birmingham for example, despite the controversy over local candidate selection, Respect has built very real roots among some of the most oppressed sections of our class - and those who put in a good deal of the work are, (often experienced and long-standing) members of the SWP. It would be difficult to believe the SWP could disengage with Respect without tearing apart its organisation in the second city. Similar observations could be made concerning Michael Lavalette in Preston, and would also no doubt apply to the couple of Respect councillors that have since been recruited directly to the SWP.

Whether the SWP stays or goes remains to be seen. But what of the non-SWP component of Respect? Again, the SWP faces a bind. Long gone are the days when irksome critics could be expelled from the organisation and fade into obscurity. Now it is faced with the situation whereby every disciplinary measure, every expulsion, strengthens the hand of Galloway and anyone else who wants Respect to evolve away from the stunted on-off united front "of a special type". But herein lies the problem. It was Galloway who tore down the wallpaper and exposed the cracks, but his critique of the SWP's stewardship - though in many ways correct - are fundamentally about centralising Respect under his and his allies control. All that really unites the group around Galloway and Yaqoob with the pro-democracy independents, and the loose network around Socialist Unity is opposition to the SWP's control-freakery. If you subtract it from the equation, what have you left? Two groups with competing and opposed visions for Respect. Nevertheless, comrades are quite rightly taking the opportunity afforded by the schism to put forward an attractive, democratic alternative.

What does this mean for those of us outside? It reconfirms for all of us who are wary of the SWP that once again its leadership cannot be trusted to work with other socialists in a comradely and cooperative way. Again, it shows its main preoccupation is preserving its organisational, as opposed to political, integrity. This is hardly news for anyone who's been around the left for a while, but it might be a bit much for those SWP comrades left high and dry by the turn away from Respect. That good socialist activists are likely to drop out because of this debacle is something no one on the left should be celebrating.

But what of comrades with no relationship to Respect? What of those of us on the Labour left, the Socialist Party, the 57 varieties, and of no fixed abode? If the SWP turns inwards and goes down a petty, ultra-left 'ourselves alone' road, in the struggles ahead it could play a more counter-productive role than it does at the moment, as more and more of its interventions are subordinated to the need to build 'The Party'. This is a recipe for an annoying headache all round. It is also possible the Stop the War Coalition could come unstuck - don't be too surprised if the October 27 conference sees some SWP/Galloway shadow boxing.

Then there's the question of a new party. If over the next few years more unions start breaking organisationally from Labour and joining those already outside its formal structures, the need for a political voice is ever more starkly posed. Chances are Respect will feed into this process in some way, as will the far left and some of the Labour left, but a question mark hangs over the SWP. They could hinder the process, or stand aloof from it, but judging by Respect's balance sheet, the least likely outcome would be for it to engage constructively.


Madam Miaow said...

Yes, they haven't exactly built trust. Interesting to see the reverse Midas touch in action.

Is this classic bureaucratic centralism?

Anonymous said...

What I noticed in the advert for the Socialist Party's event is the absence of the CNWP. This is odd when the creation of a new party is both possible and necessary. I think it would also benefit from the active participation of the SP. As well as the CPB, Labour lefts etc.

It is a completely open game inside Respect at the minute though it does look like the SWP leadership wants to smash up the project.
Two years ago the SWP and GG ganged up to smash up the very proposals that both of them have supported in recent weeks. The one big conclusion from all this is that when a revolutionary current decides to participate in even a small mass formation it must resist the temptation to dominate it and must show a committment to a pluralist socialist democracy

Jon said...

In retrospect, this is the best analysis of the split I've read. What's an independent socialist to do? I've not been impressed by the behaviour of the SWP CC, but also I'm well aware that Socialist Unity et al have simply shelved their criticisms of Galloway and his supporters in order to attack the SWP.

Ultimately, a broad left party will not be viable until the majority of the membership are independent of any pre-existing revolutionary party. Then rows will be resolved with out destroying the party. During the eighties the Labour party suffered splits to the right (Social Democrats) and left (the Militants) but nevertheless it survived, because such factions only ever made up a small minority of the membership.

There is a huge potential in the amount of people who have left the Labour party in disgust during the last few years. The challenge is getting an electoral party from the state of being the baby of one or more revolutionary parties to the state of being a mass membership democratic organisation before it implodes in a faction fight.

Respect-SWP clearly will not become a mass membership party. Respect Renewal has more potential, but it's all far from satisfactory. Ho hum.