Thursday, December 28, 2006
All around me I hear calls from the most varied of people demanding that I attend this demonstration or that meeting. Each and every demonstration, campaign, meeting or even petition is vitally important and has the potential to change the world. Failure to attend even one such event proving my betrayal of the world revolution. Or so the headless chicken tendency would have it.
How some of these, no doubt worthy, causes further the aim of world revolution or even enable me to play some small role in pursuit of that goal is not explained. Indeed I often suspect that those who raise this criticism do so as they are unable to deal with the political criticisms raised from time to time of their own pet projects. There is nonetheless a serious question to be asked here as to what should individual comrades do? The only way I can answer this question is to look at the various tendencies on the left in Cardiff.
To begin I should say that politically it is my understanding that socialists need to take their propaganda into the working classes, in the first instance into the workplaces, and that their propaganda needs to be openly revolutionary. As I understand it we are passing through a period of recovery and recomposition for the working classes in this country. It follows that I am of the opinion that what can and must be built today is a revolutionary propaganda group and that it must be built in the workplaces and among the young people. As we are years away from mass struggles the idea that a new Mass Workers Party must be proclaimed now is plain wrong as is the idea that revolutionaries must participate in a populist party.
Of course there is a lot more to be said on the above and such a group cannot simply be proclaimed by one militant or even by a small handful of militants. It needs to come out of the workers own struggles both on the theoretical level and that of experience; the past history of the revolutionary movement cannot be ignored but must be assimilated and overcome. The low level of struggle means however that mindless activism and self proclamation must be excluded as valid methods for building anything but recruiting fronts for sects. The goal of even a small open thinking propaganda group that is not lost to the various traps which beset the groups is then not likely to be reached in the near future.
How then to contribute to that aim? One could maintain activity in one’s own workplace and/or trade union. Which work is mandatory in fact but unless backed by other militants elsewhere extremely hard to sustain and many comrades lack the opportunity to do such work. And if one is not a trades unionist then membership and involvement with a trades council is excluded as a way of generalising one’s politics. Or one could join one or other of the political groups that exist or failing that one or other of the many single issue campaigns. They all need and actively seek recruits so why not get involved?
Cardiff being a regional centre and a university city is blessed with a variety of campaigns and political groups so with the above in mind I intend to glance at a sampling of them. In my opinion most cities and towns in England and Wales will have a similar variety of campaigns and groups so much so my conclusions as to what an individual comrade might do in such circumstances would likely be identical in most such cities.
I’ll begin with the largest organisation on the left the Labour Party. Which I submit does not provide a meaningful site of activity for any socialist let alone a revolutionary and in Cardiff, as in so many places, it lacks any real activist base to which one could relate. It does however still have the passive allegiance of much of the working class in the city and of the workforce which is drawn from across south east Wales too. That the local trades council is not loyal to Labour only points up the fact that it consists of a tiny number of largely isolated militants, some members of the Socialist Party, and has no real influence in the workplaces or amongst the rank and file.
Moving on then to the Socialist Party and its youth group International Socialist Resistance together they are probably the most substantial grouping of socialists in the area. But all told I doubt they have much more than a score of members and their organised periphery, largely defined by membership of either their front group the Campaign for a New Workers Party or involvement in the semi-moribund CRISIS group, is tiny. They have little real influence and are, from my point of view a quite rightist tendency, no point joining them in my view even if I were permitted! More realistically the CNWP is their creature and any view dissenting from their own as to how it should function is not welcome.
As for the Socialist Workers Party it is a tiny shrunken rump, many older members having been relegated to National Member status and told to abandon activity. As for its creature Respect the populist Coalition, in Cardiff it seems to have died. Quite how or why one would orientate to the remaining dolts and naifs involved is beyond my comprehension. Similarly I cannot understand why anybody would seek out the three aged members of the Permanent Revolution network/group, although they are pleasant enough people in person, as harmless eccentrics often are. Or indeed the Social Forum talk-shop they have spent the last few years building only to see it dominated politically by hopeless liberals lacking even an activist agenda. It is in any case pretty much moribund.
Also moribund, word of the day, is the Peoples Autonomous Destination a project of some of the folks associated with the Cardiff Anarchist Network. PAD being a squat in which ‘art works’ were displayed and vegan sarnies consumed, or so I’m told as I tend to avoid such things given the habit of those involved not to bathe regularly. CAN however is perhaps the largest radical grouping in Cardiff these days and certainly the most visible. Although it doesn’t actually do anything as a group and is dominated by lifestyle type anakids despite its publication, entitled Banned! although it isn’t, featuring stories which touch on class. But any real class orientation would seem to be unthinkable for most of the group who are clearly more concerned with liberal issues like bike routes and macrobiotic pasties. Curiously one of the groups participants was described to me as a ‘union organiser’ which is true only if one can call an appointed trade union official an organiser.
CAN then does not provide an avenue for anybody seeking class politics, indeed its meetings are by and large only open to those accepting their ideology, given that typically they are only concerned with protesting injustices against ‘people’ in general and do not accept that the working classes are the real subject/object of the social revolution. For them the oppressed are to be woken from their slumbers by their providing an example to follow through direct action exploits. In practice then, like so many anarchists before them, they are simply more militant liberals.
Talking of liberals there are several single issue campaigns with branches in Cardiff. Most are the property of one or other left sect or another and most do very little. None of them would appear to have any interest in reaching out to the working classes. This is true of the Stop the War Campaign which has been led by the SWP from the beginning by virtue of their being first in the field and by making alliances with various individuals. This has kept the meetings of the group small and repelled new activists due to the meetings simply rubberstamping anything the London leadership suggests and being very dull indeed as a result. Curiously at one point a trade union officer was elected to the local steering committee but true to form the comrade elected did exactly nothing. Despite my harassing the comrade concerned, a member of the ill-named cpgb group, via e mails with suggestions as to activity directed towards the trades unions.
In addition to the STWC there are numerous other single issue campaigns most of which are very middle class, respectable and lacking in both activity and any interest in the working classes. Some admittedly do want donations from trade union bodies but other than that see nothing of interest in that sphere of life. Perhaps the two most interesting campaigns to have any activity here in the last decade are the Campaign for Climate Change and CRISIS. The latter being a campaign set up prior to the closure of the Cardiff Royal Infirmary some years ago to call for protection of the services provided by that hospital. Although briefly important, due in part to the work of the SP, it has had no real impact for years now but given that few of the services formerly provided by the CRI have been lost and new facilities have been built this should not be surprising. As for the CCC it is a national campaign with no discernable working class aspect to it and oriented on youthquake demonstrations. A rather aimless and pointless campaign if we are to be truthful.
As well as the above there are many other political groups and single issue campaigns existing in Cardiff but I an find no reason for involving myself with them other than episodically. In the first place few have any base or orientation towards the working classes and those that do tend to orientate not to the class but to trade union bureaucrats. Their political approach is one that is completely alien to me as it always means approaching the class through its existing leadership but the central problem we face today is that not only are our current leaders worse than useless the very forms of leadership current within the organised sections of the class are reactionary by virtue of their very nature.
More immediately problematic for active involvement with those campaign groups which temporarily flourish due to events in the real world they tend to lack any kind of democratic culture. Thus the approach of the SWP in the STWC was such that as far as the local branch was concerned what needed to be done was to simply follow the instructions and orders coming from London without question. This meant blocking political discussion other than on some small ill attended committee and such committees are very boring indeed tending to drive young activists away. As for the idea of doing work directed towards the unions and workplaces this was not to be countenanced and even when a trade union officer was elected, as I detailed above, nothing was done and nobody seemed to even care. Not that things were any better in the SP dominated CNWP meeting I attended with any opinions that dissented from those of the SP being howled down by members of that group with the result that the CNWP is no more than a cadaver.
One aspect of the problem in the political groups and in the single issue groups both is that they are both adversely affected by the very low level of the democratic culture in this society generally. Student unionism has become a very bad joke indeed mirroring parliamentary politics with its emptiness and irrelevance to daily life. Meanwhile trade union democracy is hollowed out as fewer and fewer bother to attend union branch meetings and shop stewards positions go uncontested left to whoever fancies the job. As for the major political parties they have serious problems even locating enough members to stand for local councils so emptied out have they become. All of which mean that elected representatives at all levels relate less and less to their constituencies and act towards them in a manner that echoes the hierarchical organisational forms that characterise capitalist society.
Yet for a class conscious workers’ movement, I am talking here of a movement not of the various institutions commonly referenced as such, to exist it must possess a vigorous democratic culture or new leaders and methods of struggle simply cannot come into being. In which case it is absurd to expect all but a tiny minority of those entering radical politics to understand the unique nature of the working class as the subject/object of social revolution. It is this minority and its willingness to orientate towards the workplaces and to serious master Marxist theory that is vital to any future revolutionary project.
However locating such a tiny minority cannot be done unless a revolutionary propaganda group can be brought into being in the next period. Something I freely confess I find unlikely in a country in which the existing far left groups seem intent on moving ever further away from Marxism in pursuit of goals quite alien to the working class goal of communism. At best in most towns and cities the opportunity to raise genuinely Marxian views in the various campaigns which momentarily flourish and then as quickly wither has been and will for the foreseeable future continue to be fleeting. There is then no good reason to prop up such campaigns based as they are on politics inimical to the communist goal.
What then can isolated individuals do? In truth very little for most of the time. Attempt to locate fellow thinkers and form discussion groups; redouble one’s personal efforts top conquer the Marxian method; work as best on can in those fields which are open despite the lack of any immediate breakthrough and engage in whatever other tasks one’s personal talents or opportunities open.
But most of all communists need to avoid the temptations of running around like a headless chicken. Although the chicken being a stupid bird has the excuse of not knowing it is already dead. A lesson more and more leftists will learn in the months and years to come as they realise they too are as good as dead. May they rest in peace.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Thursday, December 07, 2006
by Duncan Hallas
Socialist Workers Party Bulletin No 3 May 1977
The following article by Duncan Hallas, a founder of the Socialist Review Group in 1950 and for many years a leader of International Socialists, does not appear on the Marxist Internet Archive. It is a fascinating document which reveals much about both the SWP and its rival groups nearly thirty years ago. A reading of this article is a useful exercise in debunking much of the accumulated bunkum of the intervening years.
The article is also extremely funny when read with the benefit of hndsight as it is replete with considerable ironies. For example in reference to the unity mongers of the International Maggot Group (IMG) Hallas talks of them placing the emphasis of their politics on many varied social groups but not on the working class to whch they paid lip service as supposed marxists. In particular Hallas subjects the IMG to some ridicule with regard to its front groups in Scotland and in Birmingham amongst the Asian population. Given that the SWP of today has adopted the IMG's position on Scotland, worse it tails Scottish nationalism in the form of Tommy Sheridans personal project 'Solidarity', and panders to a communalism more reactionary than that of the Asian Socialist League one can only wonder what the author would have to say today if hisyounger self were confronted with such a blatant political degeneration.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of the article is that it stands as an effective polemic against the SWP's turn to electoralism, with the still born Socialist Alliance, and more recently to a grotesque populism with the misnamed Respect. The strident tone of the piece should not be neglected however and detracts from the essays considerable merits as an educational piece. This almost hysterical tone can only be explained in reference to the factional struggles that had rent IS in the years immediately prior to the foundation of the SWP. A subject this blog will without doubt return to in the future.
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Some comrades have asked if we should reconsider our attitude towards an electoral pact with other organisations on the revolutionary left.
In practice, this is only raised in connection with the IMG, since the other organisations which have run candidates in the past, the WRP, etc, are not interested. The IMG, on the other hand, is making the issue a central feature of its propaganda and is directing 90 per cent of this propaganda at SWP members and sympathisers.
At Stechford, IMG members distributed leaflets at Paul Foot's meetings which deplored competition between Foot and Heron (the IMG candidate) and concluded; "the IMG repeats its call to the SWP to discuss with us the possibility of united far-left slates in the coming elections and especially in the General Election. All socialists will pay a price for needless disunity in the future." They had previously called for a joint candidate in Stechford, a joint slate in GLC elections and so on.
Well, why not? We are certainly in favour of joint action with everyone in the working class movement, whether Labour Party members, CP members, independents or whatever to fight the fascists, to fight hospital closures, to fight the Social Contract and so on and so forth - always provided it is action. We do not, however, form blocs to make propaganda. We put forward our own ideas in our own paper.
The distinction is obvious enough. Unity in action with everyone who can be pulled in to support the particular action, irrespective of their views on other matters. Independent expression of our own ideas at all times. We don't stay out of any genuine working class struggle and we don't make our participation conditional on others agreeing with us. At the same time, we don't hide or dilute our politics or pretend to be other than we are.
How does this apply to parliamentary etc. elections?
Revolutionary intervention in parliamentary elections at present is essentially a propaganda operation, a means of contacting people and involving them in some of our activities and of recruiting.
We judge our success (or failure) in a contest by members recruited, contacts made, SW readers gained and so on and not mainly by votes gained.
Of course, it is very pleasing if we get a better than expected vote, a little disappointing if we get a lower than expected vote. But it is not the main thing. We are not parliamentary roaders.
Even in circumstances where there is a serious prospect of winning a particular contest this remains true. It would be very useful for propaganda and, indeed, agitational purposes to have a revolutionary MP, or even better to have several.
But this will always be secondary to building the party in the workplaces, to fighting for leadership in the day to day struggles of working people and inside the unions.
Our aim in contesting parliamentary elections is to build the SWP. We do not put the emphasis on getting the biggest possible vote for the 'far-left'.
Protest votes, and that is what is being spoken of, are not without significance, but they are incomparably less important than building the party.
Where does this leave us with respect to the IMG? Since many of our members do not come into contact with this organisation, it may be useful to say a little about it.
The IMG differs from us politically on a number of matters; for example, it regards Russia, China, etc, as workers' states, although degenerated or deformed and it is keen on slogans like 'the sliding scale of wages', 'open the books' and so on.
But, the most important difference, I believe, is not these disagreements, but the approach to building the revolutionary party. The IMG puts the emphasis on building blocs, fronts, alliances etc with other organisations, and what it calls 'the broad vanguard' (ie unaffiliated left wingers) and within these blocs etc it hopes to establish its own 'hegemony' - meaning dominance. It hopes to dominate a sort of left coalition which will develop, it hopes, into a party.
The IMG regards the SWP as the biggest obstacle in its path - rightly so in view of the relationship of forces - and tries hard to use other (non-IMG) people to put pressure on us. For unless the growth of the SWP can be checked, their strategy can't work.
Thus it has set up a Socialist Teachers Alliance in opposition to Rank and File Teacher )from which the IMG teachers split). The STA includes a fair number of non-IMG people, mostly to the right of the IMG, and, having come out of split, denounces R&F people as 'sectarians' and 'splitters'.
"The time has come", says a writer in a recent issue of the IMG's paper "for the SWP/R&F to break out of its sectarian politics, acknowledge the STA as a force with equal, if not greater influence both in London and nationally, and unite to win a massive vote....etc." But we were united in R&F until they split.
In fact, the STA is an unstable alliance held together by a dislike of unofficial action and hostility to the SWP. Its leaders regard R&F as tending to 'adventurism' - as in the 'no-cover' campaign - and put nearly all their emphasis on work in the union machine. It runs candidates against R&F candidates in union elections.
After the recent NUT conference, the IMG paper claimed that the STA had definitely replaced R&F as 'the main tendency' on the left and had had 50 delegates (15 recruited at conference). The real significance of the conference was the decisive victory of the right on, all issues. The STA is, to some degree, an adaptation to right wing dominance, a soft option for soft lefts.
The SSA ran its own slate against NOISS (as well as the Broad Left and the Tories) at the recent NUS conference.
There is no Socialist Engineers Alliance or Socialist Electricians Alliance but that is only because the IMG has few people in industry (although they do support the 'independent Broad Left' paper Engineering Voice against Engineering Charter). In the recent TGWU's General Secretary election the IMG called for a vote for Thornett, not Riley.
Where the IMG has no possibility of setting up a rival organisation, it often 'supports' SWP efforts. The Right to Work Campaign is a good example and it is not unfair to say that IMG 'support' for the Right to Work marches last year was of the sort Lenin called 'support as the rope supports the man being hanged'.
Red Weekly sees this sport of thing as unimportant. Nearly every issue contains attacks on the SWP (three per issue is the norm) alongside calls for 'unity'! Compare the absence of attacks on the IMG in Socialist Worker.
In spite of our forbearance, they continually denounce the SWP as 'sectarian'!
Some of our comrades understandably get indignant about this kind of thing, but we should not take it too seriously. It does us little damage, but to reply in kind would do us much more damage. And it will not build the IMG.
Hiding your politics, sailing under false colours, never builds in the long run.
The 'electoral unity' proposals have to be seen against this background.
What the IMG has in mind is not a practical arrangement that seeks to avoid, or at any rate minimize, the Stechford type situation of two far-left candidates. What they are after is, as they admit, a 'joint-slate', a common platform and a united campaign - and not only an electoral one.
An article in Red Weekly on the French municipal election agreement between far-left groups puts the line very clearly: "while Lutte Ouvriere initially saw the agreement as requiring only joint electoral work, the LCR (the French IMG) correctly insisted on the need for a national joint platform...
Now this is nonsense. Either there is basic agreement about building the party - in which case the organisations ought to unite in a single party - or there is not, in which case they cannot 'build the implantation'. How can we build jointly with the IMG when, wherever they have the strength, they build blocs against us with forces to the right of us? to repeat, we are out to build the revolutionary arty, not to maximise the vote by alliances Which hinder building.
Is actual unity feasible? The differences on Russia etc are, in principle, containable in a single democratic-centralist organisation provided that there is an agreed approach to building the party in the working class.
In the past, the IMG has put the emphasis on work everywhere except in the working class, but in the last few years it has changed its line and says it agrees with us on this.
Unfortunately, it has moved well to the right at the same time and thinks in terms of blocs with various 'independents' who have official positions, rather than building rank and file movements.
Another problem is that the IMG is a coalition of permanent factions (they call them tendencies), a state of affairs they regard as positively desirable, and are not likely to accept democratic-centralism as we understand it. And, of course, they want to stay affiliated to their 'Fourth International'.
But the basic difficulty, I believe, is that most of them do not want unity at all but only 'unity manoeuvres' to try to strengthen themselves at our expense. Their problem is that we would have a huge majority in a united organisation. If we accept, as we must, that they seriously believe in their own political conceptions, then their attitude is understandable.
Understanding, however, is not the same thing as weakness and it would be both weak and extremely foolish to give countenance to these 'unity manoeuvres.'
The IMG has developed a theory to justify its peculiar tactics. This theory says that it is 'sectarian' to put the emphasis on building the revolutionary party. 'Unfortunately, the present sectarian course of the SWP placed the needs of their organisation above the best interests of the working class," says the Red Weekly. This goes down well with people who like to be on the left but don't want to commit themselves to an organisation. It is not so new either.
Years ago Trotsky wrote of the SAP, a left breakaway from the German Social Democrats, that when they "criticise the 'party egoism' of the Social-Democracy and of the Communist Party; when Seydewitz (an SAP leader) assures us that so far as he is concerned 'the interests of the class come before the interests of the party,' they only fall into political sentimentalism or, what is worse, behind this sentimental phraseology they screen the interests of their own party. This method is no good... The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a programme, the programme cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party."
That is our position and it used to be the position of the IMG too. "We start from a profound conviction that the problem of carrying out a social transformation in Britain requires above all the building of a mass revolutionary party," wrote Pat Jordan, then National Secretary of the IMG, in 1969; "We regard the present fragmentation of the left as arising from the lack of such a party. Once the process of building the revolutionary party proceeds beyond its embryonic stage - that is when a given tendency clearly established its hegemony in theory and practice - regroupment will commence."
Jordan also dealt, in this article on Unity and Sectarianism, with the sort of approach the IMG now has, the method of blocs and alliances: "such a project is fraught with dangers. It is one thing to organise a campaign on a single issue such as Vietnam, where for revolutionaries the issue is so clear cut, but another thing once one attempts to cover a whole series of questions, each of which can give rise to political and tactical differences."
This was directed against various 'independents' and 'New Lefts' who wanted a bloc rather than a party.
The IMG has changed its line because of our growth, its marked inferiority to the SWP and its unwillingness to go for real unity. An electoral bloc of the sort they propose is not on. Submerging the SWP in some 'front' is out of the question. We fight under our own colours.