Monday, November 12, 2007
Electoral Slates and Joint Slates
by Duncan Hallas
by Duncan Hallas
Socialist Workers Party Bulletin No 3 May 1977
Introduction by neprimerimye
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 his younger 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 regards itself as a Trotskyist organisation and is affiliated to the biggest of the various bodies claiming to be 'the Fourth International'. It claims top have 680 members. Some of these - I do not know what proportion - operate inside the Labour Party as 'entrists'.
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.
Similarly, a Socialist Students Alliance has been set up (on much the same basis) as a rival to NOISS, and the IMG paper tells us "the SSA has now replaced NOISS as the major force after the Broad Left", a claim as hollow as those made for other 'fronts' the IMG has sponsored over the years.
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'.
For weeks on end, the IMG paper carried attacks from all and sundry on the 'bureaucratic', 'sectarian' and of course, politically hopeless RTW leadership, complete with atrocity stories. Red Weekly sees this sort 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'!
Now we learn that the IMG is going to launch a new weekly paper called Socialist Challenge which will also serve its various front organisations - these now include a Scottish Socialist League and an Asian Socialist League (in Birmingham) as well as the various Alliances and the IMG members in the Labour Party. It will, so Red Weekly tells us, "be a non-sectarian polemical paper". There are no prizes for guessing who most of the polemics will be aimed at!
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...
Our comrades also argued for joint activity to extend beyond the electoral arena, to build the implantation of the revolutionary organisations".
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."
This was written, in part, to defend the IMG's rejection of the IS proposal to unite the two organisations into a single party which was our policy in 1968 and 1969. In those days, they believed that they could build their organisation faster and better than ours could be built. then we would unite when they had the majority.
In the event, we built and they did not - they are little stronger now than they were then. One reason is that we turned our backs on sectarian bickering and they did not.
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.
There is a fundamental issue involved. We know that the revolutionary party can only be built by involvement in workers' struggles. In these terms the IMG is irrelevant in most cases. They believe that the way forward is argument - polemic is the word they use - about policies between people who regard themselves as revolutionaries. We left that kind of thing behind years ago.