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The Rees / Murray debate

Alan Thornett


There is increasing agreement, amongst the left in Britain, that the new period of radicalisation, opened up by the emergence of the anti-globalisation movement and the mass anti-war movement has created the best opportunity for many years to reshape and revitalise the left. This is reflected in the Launch of Respect - the best opportunity yet in England to create a party on the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in Scotland.

An important debate continues, however, as to whether such a new organisation should be a political party or simply an alliance with a more limited function - mainly, though not exclusively, around elections. This debate has gone on inside the Socialist Alliance (SA) since it has existed. SWP leaders have seen the SA as a "united front of a special kind", in order to treat it as one of a number of united fronts to through which the SWP functions. The ISG, and Socialist Resistance, have argued for the SSP organisational model: a broad anti-capitalist party, democratically constructed, with the revolutionary organisations as platforms within it, with a common publication, and a common framework for campaigning activity.

This debate continues in an exchange between John Rees of the SWP and Murray Smith and Nick Ketterrel of the SSP in the SWP's magazine International Socialist Journal (edition 100 autumn 2003). Murray's piece is entitled: "The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front: a reply to John Rees". The articles by Murray and Nick are reprinted from the ISM's publication Frontline, and argue for the SSP model to be applied in England.

This exchange also covers the issue of the class nature of the Labour Party (LP), which both Murray Smith and John Rees argue (from opposing directions) is the determining factor in the type of alternative we need to build.

Murray Smith insists that social democratic parties, across Europe, including the LP in Britain, are now straight capitalist parties and not 'capitalist workers parties', as the far-left has traditionally seen them. This change, which he says is a matter of "fundamental importance", has come about because reforms are no longer possible (since the end of the post-war boom) and because these parties have opted for the full neo-liberal agenda. They were forced, he says, by changed economic conditions, to choose between taking an anti-capitalist stance or a straight pro-capitalist stance, there was no middle way any more. They chose the pro-capitalist road and became straight capitalist parties. This has created a situation, he argues, where it is possible to "skip over" such traditional parties of the working class and move directly to building left alternatives. These alternatives should be parties like the SSP, not alliances like the SA.

John Rees argues that, on the contrary, the LP remains a capitalist workers party, and consequently the new organisation we need to build should be an alliance and not a party. "If Labour is finished", he argues, " the whole political; territory that it previously occupied is, potentially at least, open to a new socialist Party". Since the Labour Party is not finished, he concludes, we need to continue to have a united front approach to it. Hence the SA - and by implication Respect - should be a 'united front of a special kind'.

Murray Smith is right to argue for the SSP model in building an alternative in England, but wrong on the class nature of the LP. John Rees is more right on the class nature of the LP but wrong to advocate building a united front of a special kind, rather than a political party, as the alternative we need today. I say 'more right' because John Rees bends the stick too far and presents the LP as if little has changed: which Murray Smith rightly describes as a "static view".

They are both wrong to see the type of alternative we need today as determined by their respective views on the class character of the LP. Its class character is an important issue, of course, but it is not the factor which determines whether we should be building a party or an alliance in England today. That rests on the objective need for a new left broad alternative - which is common ground - and on what is the most effective way to build it. In my view that is as a political party of the SSP type.

This does not exclude a united front approach to the Labour left. In fact a united front approach to the them can be carried out far better by a party than an alliance. The most important thing is to give them confidence that the new organisation is a genuine new alternative and not the existing far-left in a new hat. A party is more understandable to them than a loose alliance with the far-left organisations still functioning publicly in their own name and with multiple papers being sold at public events. Also, relating to the Labour left in campaigning work is far better achieved by a party, which conducts a full range of campaigning work, than a united front of a special kind - which would not by definition.

There is also an awkward logic in arguing that you cannot build alternative parties whilst the LP remains a capitalist workers party, since there is absolutely no guarantee Blair will complete the process and transform it into one. In fact there is little sign that he needs to, since the current situation suits him very well. He has curtailed trade union influence in the Party, maintained a low level of strike action through the anti-unions laws, but retained substantial trade union support - even if this is reduced and critical support - at the electoral level. To rule out building a new party until the LP becomes a straight capitalist party, could, therefore, exclude the building of a broad party for the foreseeable future. John Rees has said in the past that he does not rule out building an alternative which is a party, but this comes close to ruling it out.

To argue that the SA is a united front of any kind does not make sense. It has an extensive political programme and presents itself as an alternative in elections. When I argued this at Marxism 2002, John Rees's riposte was to quote Trotsky, saying that everything from a trade union to a soviet was a united front. But such examples from the 1920s or the 1930s of calls for unity between the mass Communist Parties and the mass Social Democratic Parties do not tell us very much today, when the united front is best understood as 'march separately strike together': the unity of diverse forces around a single issue. In fact the SA has evolved towards becoming a political party - which is its logic. It has come up against two main obstacles, however: its own narrow political composition, and the SWP model - which has effectively been imposed on it.

Murray is quite right to argue, against John Rees, that we are no longer in a period of reformism without reforms, we are 25 years into a capitalist offensive designed to strip away the gains of the post-war period - and new Labour is leading it. New Labour has many Tory policies, some worse than the Tories themselves. This does not mean it is a straight capitalist party, however. The class nature of the LP is not determined by how right wing its polices are, but by the way it is perceived by sections of the working class, and its continuing, though severely strained, connections, politically and organisationally, to the unions. It remains a fact that, after years of reformist ideology, important sections of the working class still, in some way, see Labour as their 'own' party. Many others do not, of course, and have left or stopped voting Labour as a result. That is precisely where the opportunity has opened up for the left.

It is Blair's stated intention to heal the breach with the Liberals which occurred at the beginning of the 19th century when the LP was formed. In other words change the LP into precisely a straight capitalist party. But the process is incomplete, and the distinction between a completed and uncompleted process, is in this regard, is very important. We cannot, therefore, as Murray argues, "skip over" the issue of the LP and the place it occupies. Such a view has consequences. In the case of the Socialist Party, which has a similar view to Murray on this, it has put them in a leftist position on the debates in the trade on the political fund and affiliation to the LP.

Although the LP has not become a straight capitalist party it has undergone major political and structural changes which must be taken into account. Its internal democracy has been destroyed, the strength of the left within it decimated, and its relationship to the unions weakened and its relationship to the employers strengthened. Under these conditions a fight-back within it is not impossible but it is extremely difficult. The main opportunities for building an alternative are now firmly outside the LP. These are major developments. We cannot ignore them, or wait until the change in its class character is complete before altering our tactical approach to the LP. Nor has this been the case. On the contrary the left has dramatically changed the way it relates to the LP, including the SWP - which has undergone a radical change in this regard. The bulk of the left is now outside of the Labour party, and in favour of standing candidates against it. Twenty five years ago the bulk of the left was in it (other than the SWP) and the Labour left was massive. Standing candidates against i! t a minority activity. Today the unions are questioning their funding of the LP. Even union leaders who argue for reclaiming the LP, rather than building a new organisation outside, often want to reduce their funding to it in today's conditions under pressure from the membership. These are the conditions under which the choice between a political party or a loose alliance.

The building of broad parties also raises the issue of the relationship between such broad parties and the revolutionary organisations which exist inside them. This is where the SSP model is so important and instructive as a model for England and Wales, and beyond. In the SSP the revolutionary organisations have existed inside it as platforms from the outset. It was a complete break from the horrors of the SLP, at an earlier stage, when Scargill rejected what he called a "federalist" approach and decreed that anyone joining the SLP would have to leave any other political organisation they were in first. Fortunately it appears that Respect is rejecting this approach from the outset and is to allow political platforms within it.

In the SSP the political organisations retain their own political independence and have platforms within it. They organise meetings in there own right, and sell their own publications inside the SSP. Externally, however, its different, there they all sell the SSP's publication, Scottish Socialist Voice. Additionally they all conduct their campaigning work thorough through the SSP structures. The SWP accepts this way of working in Scotland but is strongly opposed to it in England. There they advances a model by which revolutionary organisations affiliate to the broad party/organisation but continue to fully function as public organisations, prioritising their own publications and reserving a range of campaigning activities to their own party profile.

It is hard to see John Rees's interpretation of the united front other than as a convenient framework from which to defend this model and its application by the SWP. He has argued, in the past that the advantage of keeping the SWP as a public organisation is that at certain points - the setting up of the StWC was argued as an example - an open revolutionary party like the SWP is far more effective than a broad alliance because it has a fast and effective decision making process. Therefore it needs to continue that way. But this is wrong in fact and theory. The initial meeting which set up the StWC coalition could equally have been called by the SA as by the SWP - which actually called it. This is particularly the case if the SA had been acting more as a party, it could have called it just the same after a meeting of its leading body. In any case the SWP could have acted through the SA to inject more urgency if that is what was considered to be necessary.

The application of the SWP conception means that every demonstration, and every major event of the left, loses its visual identity to the revolutionary organisations - in particular to the SWP because it is by far the biggest. Dozens of SWP stalls and flags and placards and paper sellers ensure that every major event looks at first sight like an SWP event. This is what shocked the European left when the SWP arrived in Florence for the ESF in 2002.

To argue that this is wrong is not to down-play the importance of the revolutionary organisations - far from it. Revolutionary socialists are about building revolutionary parties. For us the goal is a mass revolutionary party which can challenge capitalism. This is the strategic objective, and, for us, there is no alternative to this. For us the building of a broad party has to be the best road toward a mass, or a much bigger, revolutionary party. Broad parties are both the most effective way to organise the left in this period against the right, but it is also the most effective way to build what will ultimately be necessary in order to put an end to capitalism - a mass revolutionary party. Such parties could not produce the latter if they were not the former. And they could not produce the latter unless they can win the non-revolutionary section of the party to a revolutionary perspective. Murray Smith is right on this.

Challenged by John Rees on the way he presented his position in an earlier article Murray Smith clarifies this - and it is a very useful clarification and contribution:

"Let me start by clarifying my position. I am convinced that the building of revolutionary organisations of the type of the SWP, LCR, etc, in their present form, is becoming redundant and that these organisations should contribute to the building of new broad parties that function as currents within them. I do not believe that the strategic perspective of building revolutionary parties, that is, parties capable of leading a revolution, a socialist transformation of society, is redundant.

"I am convinced that the role of revolutionary Marxists today is to build broad parties whilst defending their own Marxist positions within them, with the aim, not of building a revolutionary faction with an 'entrist' perspective, but of taking forward the whole party and solving together with the whole party the problems that arise, as they arise. I would put the question as follows: To overthrow capitalism and carry out a socialist transformation of society we need a mass revolutionary party. Starting from where we are today, what is the best way to get there? When John Rees counterposes the 'broad socialist party' to 'revolutionary organisation' he is describing two choices that effectively confront revolutionary socialists today. However, when he later counterposes a broad socialist party to a revolutionary party he is wrong. Building a broad socialist party today may in fact be the best way to advance towards a mass revolutionary party. What would be the necessary attributes of such a party? In particular, such a party would have to be clear that it is not sufficient just to take control of the existing state machinery but to replace it with democratic organisations of working class power, that the working class has to maintain its political independence in relation to all other classes and that the struggle is international".

This, in my view, is exactly the right approach to prepare for the building of a future mass revolutionary organisations in today's conditions. It is the contribution which the SSP and the ISM inside it has made for the revolutionary movement in Britain. The idea that a mass party which can challenge capitalism can be built by one by one recruitment, and a single tradition from a small party to a mass one is an illusion. Even a party which has been as successful, in far left terms, as the SWP cannot do that. There are tens of thousands of young people, mobilised by the stop-the-war movement, who are open to socialist politics but who will not immediately join a revolutionary party. But many will join a broader party and work with revolutionaries in that framework. The best way to win them to revolutionary politics is to bring them into broad parties and make the experience of struggle with them.

For many years reformism in the form of the Labour Party was dominant in Britain and the revolutionary organisations consigned to the relative side-lines. This is not the case today. With the decline of the Labour left and the collapse or decline of the CPs the far left has been brought much more centre stage. This was the lesson of the stop the war movement. The challenge for the far left today is to ensure that the opportunity is not missed.

April 2004

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