The current edition of Socialist Worker carries an appeal for the left to start working together writes Liam Mac Uaid. As active supporters of Left Unity, this is an aim that Socialist Resistance has made our central strategic objective for almost fifteen years. We participated in the Socialist Alliance. We were the last organised left current to give up on Respect. We tried to engage with the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). On top of that practical activity we’ve published books and many articles on why we think a new large left organisation to the left of Labour is desirable and necessary. We have organised meetings and conferences on the theme in which we have showcased the negative and positive experiences of other Fourth International groups In Europe which have tried to do something similar.
It’s a subject we take seriously. The fact that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was sufficiently impressed by the real impact that the Scottish left achieved by working collaboratively to propose that the same thing happens elsewhere is welcome.
The only problem with the article which makes the appeal is that it leaves every one of the important questions unanswered. It has nothing to say on what sort of framework the SWP has in mind. It refers to the fact that a “strong voice challenging neoliberalism is absent from the electoral field.” As the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and UKIP show, if you want to have a serious electoral challenge you need a party. We argue that such a party has to be comprised of individual members, not well defined blocs as is the case of TUSC. Through its participation in TUSC the SWP has had a long time to develop its position on the question of whether it prefers a federal structure in which organisations have a veto, or would be happier with an individual membership. No one is quite sure what the SWP’s conception of a broader left formation is.
If cohesive organisations like Socialist Resistance or the SWP opt to help build a broad party other members need to be confident that their supporters will not try to hegemonise it.
We saw this happen repeatedly in Respect when SWP members could be relied on to always vote the same way as each other. It was justified as a version of Leninism in practice. All it did was to but a brake on the development of a distinctive political culture in Respect. It also gave us an insight into how the SWP deals with people with whom it disagrees politically.
A widespread reaction to the SWP proposal has been to refer to previous experiences which have led to a generalised distrust of the group. The article says we “have to shake off the petty narcissism of our different projects and work together to create united left alternatives.” Yet anyone reading the same week’s Party Notes setting out the SWP’s immediate priorities will have been struck by the prominence given to projects which are universally viewed as wholly owned SWP fronts. The comrades may deny this, but any serious non SWP activist would disagree with them.
Like it or not, until a fully developed critique of that long established method is produced by the SWP’s leadership and it has successfully changed the organisation’s practice and culture, most activists will be sceptical of a unity proposal from the organisation.
Although the SWP’s leadership feels that it has satisfactorily learned the lessons of the Delta case, that is not a widely shared view. The perception from the outside, and it’s one which has been echoed by many former members, is that the leadership’s first response was to protect the man, marginalise the woman and make the SWP a very hostile environment for anyone who took her side. The subsequent splits and loss of members are strong evidence of this. The question of how women are protected from sexual violence and how allegations are dealt with are important ones for socialists. Moreover, for us it is self evident that “feminism” is not a word that should be used as a political insult and, in fact, any new organisation must seek to be strongly feminist.
Finally, there is the question of who the appeal is addressed to. The SWP is already a component of TUSC, a coalition which has set itself the aim of building a new working class party. TUSC’s role in such a process isn’t mentioned. Left Unity has had some success attracting people who are interested in creating a new socialist party. The left isn’t just the SWP plus people who haven’t yet seen the wisdom of joining it. It embraces existing groups, networks and new phenomena like the People’s Assembly. The components of the left with whom the SWP wants to work are all entitled to be addressed by name and have their questions answered.