Tuesday 28 October 2014

The SWP and Uniting the Left

I was looking at my watch the other day and I remember thinking "it's been a while since the Socialist Workers Party issued a 'unite the left' call." And whaddya know, they'd already done it. My lefty trainspotting isn't what it used to be.*

From time to time the SWP like to go on unity binges. In 2009 when the RMT/Socialist Party/Communist Party electoral vehicle No2EU contested the European elections after the SWP had been specifically excluded from participating, they duly produced an open letter to the left in which they proclaimed "Unity is not a luxury. It is a necessity." The problem for the SWP, of course, is this not long followed their stupid wrecking of Respect and the embarrassing adventurism of the Left List. And their turn to founding Respect came off the back of dumping the Socialist Alliance - a vehicle that, at least for a time, united the principal organisations of Trotskyism for the first time since the 1940s. Far be it for me to suggest that if you're going to do the talk, you should also be doing the walk.

And here we are again. Five years on from the last one the new call for unity is, well, a bit thin. As always, workers are straining at the leash - if only more strikes were called, austerity would be stopped in its tracks. All possible on paper, a little harder to pull off in practice. A concerted effort against racism and scapegoating is needed too. Who can disagree? Then comes the thumping conclusion: the non-Labour left "has to get its act together", it's "too fragmented and inward-looking" when what is needed is "a stronger left" to focus anger and provide political direction. Fair enough.

The problem is, who'd want anything to do with the SWP? Remember, this is an organisation that covered up rape allegations, then performed a ham-fisted and cack-handed investigation-by-committee stuffed full of the accused's mates before letting him off. Meanwhile, the survivors who bravely made the complaints were harassed Scientology-style, and reports of a very unhealthy regime provided the necessary cultish background. Surely any leftist allying themselves with such a disgusting shower would find themselves very quickly sharing the unity of the political graveyard.

But the new unity move fits in with the SWP's record of bandwagon chasing. As reported in the latest Party Notes, their Unite the Resistance front group holds its November conference on the 15th. "The conference could play a serious role in helping to pull together a national network involving some of the best fighters" it concludes. And the interesting but by no means unproblematic politicisation of many hundreds of thousands in Scotland is a movement just begging the benefit of the SWP's leadership. But, as ever, rather than trying to win new people over politically - an especially tough task now everyone can Google the organisation serenading them - the SWP will go for their tried and tested formula: of being the "best builders", the most hyper of active advocates. The naive and the gullible might get swooped up and scooped up by the SWP's unity rhetoric, but it will pass. Sooner or later another bandwagon will roll into town, another opportunity for the remaining members to collectively forget the awful stuff their organisation has done.

Left unity amongst self-described revolutionaries, whether around a political project looking to challenge Labour in elections or knitting together left-dominated campaigns against austerity and closure has proved at times fleeting, at times partial. Partly because the political economy and collective identity formers of the organisations involved necessarily set them at loggerheads. Yet there is already a left unity project that exists. It's called the labour movement. Building that, recruiting to that is the most fruitful thing any of us could be doing.

*Yes, I know about the earth-shattering decision of Socialist Appeal to abandon Scottish Labour for the bright lights and big city of a rejuvenated Scottish Socialist Party - more on that soon, maybe.


Vinyl Miner said...

Remember in Scotland the SWP and the Socialist Party still work hand in hand with Comrade Tommy and his Solidarity movement and they are all trying to con the SNP into a YES all party slate for Westminster.

Ken said...

Not the biggest issue here, I know (and I very much appreciate your efforts to bring some serious theory to bear on a complex and volatile situation) but of course I'm instantly intrigued by the Socialist Appeal group's decision to go with the Yes flow after resisting it all through the campaign.

I can see why they did it, but now seems an odd time to leave the Scottish Labour Party, convulsed as it seldom is with political argument.

Curiously, the announcement of the new 'Scottish turn' appears just above the latest chapter of Ted Grant's biography, which covers the first.

Perhaps someone is trying to tell us something.

Anonymous said...

Dreadful, how someone who is a member of a party that wages war across the world, kills and tortures thousands and represents the interests of business can moralise about others on the left.

Phil said...

I think someone needs to look up the difference between a mass organisation and a mono-ideological cult.

Anonymous said...

So being a 'mass organisation' gives you a licence to terrorise the world does it, and then moralise to the rest of us? As well as giving you a distorted sense of your own worth.

Phil said...

Don't be a stupid fool. You know as well as I that the backbone of every anti-war movement this country has seen has been Labour Party members. Are they then responsible, every single one of them, for the policies the PLP pursue in Westminster? Was Tony Benn and George Galloway culpable for mass slaughter in Iraq. Were Militant to blame for Foot's war-mongery over the Falklands? Are the forces of British Trotskyism entitled to their share of the blame for Attlee's resistance to decolonisation and releasing funds for nuclear weapons research?

Get a grip. For you politics might be a question of purer than pure narcissism, but others take politics far more seriously. We have a labour movement that is weak, and a Labour Party that reflects that politically. What I'm interested in is how to deal with that problem. It's not sexy, but it beats the smuggery of revolutionary identity politics every time.

Pinkie said...

Phil, I'll take your word for it that the backbone of every anti-war movement has been Labour Party members. That is my experience of (most) active Labour members.

The problem is that the Labour Party as an electoral machine does not regard everyday members as anything other than leaflet deliverers etc. Policy is imposed from high, there is no means for active members to influence, let alone democratically determine party politics.

I left the Labour Party because I did not believe that its 'grass roots' member had any chance of influencing party policy. Tell me it ain't so, and tell me how I can influence party policy.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that the labour movement is dominated by a political wing (specifically the PLP and associated apparatus) which has no interest whatsoever in rebuilding the movement as an effective agent of social change and resistance.

Politics is for MPs, pollsters and focus groups. Strikes alienate floating voters in the marginal seats etc etc.

So Labour's electoralism and associated political spinelessness is not simply an expression of the broader movement's weakness - it is a cause of that weakness, one that the PLP will fight to the death to preserve in the name of short-term electoral realism and policy credibility.

The taut electoralism of contemporary social democracy has become a key barrier to the revival of social democracy as a movement.

Because building social movements and associated radical ideologies are not compatible with short-term electoral imperatives it is extremely unlikely that the Labour Party will become part of a movement that can mobilise the kind of social forces necessary to initiate radical progressive change.

The sources of such change can only come from outside the Party. We can only hope that if/when they do - they are not demobilised in the name of helping a bunch of centre-left technocrats regain their comfy Cabinet positions.

The SWP is a cancerous presence on the left. But the primary barrier to the revival of a vibrant radical left in the UK is not them - it is the belief that labourist electoralism, and the associated imperatives, is the only basis for left advance.