SWP unity appeal leaves the big questions unanswered

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.

  1. Hello,

    You write:

    ‘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.’

    It was not just the SWP who voted in a bloc, in my experience there were two distinctive blocs, not just the SWP version.

    You also write

    ‘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.’

    Any group to the left of Labour, Socialist Resistance or the SWP may say they are individuals but the members of those groups think the same way, if they did not think the same way why be a member, why not junk SR or the SWP, and join the broad left party which SR, Davies, Hudson want it to be. I think the question should be to address the ‘revolutionary vanguard’ party. At last night’s meeting, many appeared to echo the sentiments, that we should drop the left and concentrate on unity.

  2. “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.”

    Fifteen years. That would be since 1999 then. I seem to remember being a member of an SR forerunner called IMG working in an alliance called “Socialist Unity” in 1979 with such blasts from the past as Big Flame and the Libertarian Communist Group, busting our guts to get SWP to work with us, way back in 1978/9. Plus ca change. There’s something vaguely noble in beating your head on the same wall for 35 years because you know it is right.

  3. In some recent speeches and articles Alex Callinicos has made clear (yet again) that the SWP regards itself as THE party of revolutionary socialism in the UK. All other groups are therefore sects who exist merely because they have failed to understand the superiority and historical destiny of the SWP.

    This will not come as a surprise to most of those with experience of trying to work with the SWP.

    While the recent article in Socialist Worker indeed leaves many questions unanswered, until the SWP’s self-perception (with all the associated sectarianism and elitism that this entails) changes, these questions are secondary barriers to some sort of unity.

    We have little choice but to work with SWP members where and when we have to. But more substantive unity projects at this time are likely to be a colossal waste of time. The SWP will pay lip service to such the value and necessity of such projects – until some new political ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme takes their fancy and they bolt off on their own yet again.

    Let’s not waste time on this. Wait for the next SWP call for unity in 3 or 4 years time, and then we can see if they have changed sufficiently to take such calls seriously.

    Mike

  4. “We tried to engage with the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).” Could you explain further. I do not understand what the problem was – given it has a federal structure, surely that would – given the fractious left in the UK – the best vehicle at this stage to organise with? No the best explanation….

  5. Paul, the federal structure was a big part of the problem. It meant that TUSC was always designed to be a series of mutually exclusive blocs, any one of which could veto a proposal thus undermining the very concept of democratic decision making. So, if you weren’t a member of the SWP, SP, RMT or ISN you had no influence over decision making. We argued that a new organisation needs to be based on individual membership and that the groups should not insist on that caricature of democratic centralism which obliges their members to vote the same way on everything all the time. This was not a widely shared view.

    It’s a pretty insignificant issue, but SR were allowed to attend meetings and speak though we were on some sort of probation and weren’t allowed to vote. It’s a funny sort of proto party that allows people to give it time and money but offers no democratic influence.

    The final thing is that you really have to look hard to find evidence of TUSC when there isn’t an election in the offing. Left Unity by contrast is open to everyone and has a year round existence. In our view it’s a much more positive model than TUSC. However, we have supported and will support credible TUSC candidates and hope that we end up in the same larger left of Labour organisation as the people who currently support it.

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