The Socialist Unity Network
The author is a National Executive member of the of the Socialist Alliance in England

Prospects for a broad socialist party in England

Andy Newman


An on-going debate has been running between Murray Smith of the SSP and John Rees of the SWP in the pages of the ISJ and Frontline over what kind of party socialists should be building today. Earlier this year Alan Thornett joined the debate with an interesting article in Socialist Outlook #2 that helped to clarify the disputes relating to the Labour Party.[i]


This debate has been followed closely by many members of the SWP in England, particularly those who were active in the Socialist Alliance. It is therefore extremely interesting that this useful exchange of ideas and perspectives has been continued to include a discussion of Respect – the Unity Coalition.


Leading SWP member, Alex Callinicos has written a particularly useful document, “The European Left Tested Electorally”, which has been published in Discussion Bulletin #5 of the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency:[ii] This explains the SWP’s strategic objectives with Respect, and describes why they think the Socialist Alliance failed. The same Bulletin also contains important articles by Stathis Kouvelakis that analyze what he sees as the relative failure of the French far left, particularly the LCR in the regional elections.


In Response, Murray Smith has published an interesting article on the International Socialist movement’s (ISM) webpage, “The European elections and the anti-capitalist left[iii] This article is very significant for those on the English left seeking to build a broad socialist party. Murray Smith poses an important question very clearly. “For the SWP leadership, does Respect represent a particular tactic for building a broad socialist party, or does it represent an alternative to such a party?


Murray Smith has considerable experience of the political situation in France, and his contribution to the debate about the French elections is particularly useful. However, perhaps understandably he does not engage in a detailed way with Alex Callinicos’s account of the Socialist Alliance and Respect in England.


Many English socialists have experienced the launch of Respect, and the effective closure of the Socialist Alliance as a setback for our goal of building a broad socialist party. If the leadership of the SWP do see Respect as an alternative to building a broad socialist party, then the demobilisation of the Socialist Alliance is a step backwards. This article examines the evidence from an English perspective.


How good was Respect’s vote?

A Marxist analysis must be evidence based, and any attempt to stretch the facts to support an argument is at best a lapse into idealism. Callinicos argues that in much of Europe the far left vote in June 2004 was worse than achieved in 1999; the only exceptions he quotes are England & Wales and Italy. There are two problems with this.


Firstly, who is Callinicos including in the far left? Does he include the parties affiliated to the “Party of the European Left”, or only the parties of the European Anti Capitalist Left? This is an important dividing line in Europe at the moment. The Party of the European Left is accurately described by Falvia D’Angelli as “an alliance of Parties prepared to make governmental agreements with the neoliberal left[iv]. The Italian Rifandazione (PRC) has joined the Party of the European Left, and in June 2003 General Secretary Fausto Bertinotti announced that the PRC was prepared to enter a coalition with parties of the centre left. This was a strategic defeat for the class-struggle left within the PRC. If Callinicos is prepared to favourably report the electoral success of the PRC, why does he not also report the success of the German PDS which increased its vote to 6.2% across the Bundesrepublic, winning 6 seats, and coming first with 30.8% in the State of Brandenburg? Sinn Fein also won two MEPs, and has since associated itself with the European Left Group in the parliament. Sinn Fein take positions to the left of Respect in some areas, for example, their representatives are pledged to only take a workers wage. If we consider the results of all the left parties then overall the performance across Europe was not as bad as Callinicos suggests. When the sky is less dark the bright star of Respect may seem to shine less brilliantly.


Of course, votes gained by the anti-capitalist LCR/LO list are more unambiguously votes for class struggle than votes for the European left, PCF. However, despite signing the manifesto of the Parties of the Anti Capitalist Left, it is not clear whether RESPECT will evolve away from or towards the Party of the European Left, given the involvement of Galloway and the possible future involvement of the CPB, who may not turn down the possibility of coalition with Labour given the opportunity (this eventuality could arise in a town council chamber if RESPECT’s localised successes continue). RESPECT has also stood some candidates, such as the excellent anti war activist, Anas Altikriti, who do not come from a Labour movement background. Should anti-war activists be elected into council chambers who are not socialists then they may even contemplate alliances with ostensibly anti-war parties such as the free market Liberal Democrats. This may seem unlikely at the moment, but the Respect coalition combines very diverse elements and not all future developments may be to the liking of the socialists within that coalition.


Secondly, to present RESPECT’s performance in England and Wales as an exception to what he argues was a generally poor performance across Europe is eccentric. Remember that in 4 Euro constituencies RESPECT achieved less than 1% of the vote, and in 4 more it achieved less than 2%. Of course we do not necessarily judge the success of the far left by electoral results, but as I shall argue the price of Respect’s rather modest electoral achievements has been high.


As John Nicholson, a member of RESPECT’s national executive argues: “The particular local and European elections held this summer produced mixed results and conflicting analysis. Respect did very well in London. It has also been lucky (up to now) with the calling of by-elections in the Midlands and particularly Tower Hamlets, where its victory has to be seen as significant. On the other hand, the results were poor in almost all the south of the country, and underwhelming in the north”[v]


Callinicos does recognise the considerable unevenness of RESPECT’s vote, but argues that “attempts to adduce objective factors to explain these variations are largely unconvincing. The subjective factor – determined, creative and consistent campaigning that mobilised diverse networks of resistance in some areas, but not in others – seems to have played a critical role” Callinicos is simply wrong here, and is relying upon assertion rather than evidence. As I have demonstrated elsewhere by detailed psephological analysis of the votes and the 2001 census returns, RESPECT’s vote correlates very closely to the proportion of Moslems in any particular area, and RESPECT typically received dismal votes in areas with few Moslems.[vi]


Of course we must agree with Murray Smith that “The impact that Respect has had among Muslim and immigrant communities represents a huge step forward[vii], and as I have written elsewhere: “Had this simply been a communal vote then we would expect to have seen a higher turnout in areas with concentrations of Moslems – there is no evidence of this. What we do see is the choice by many thousands of individual Moslems to vote for a progressive party on a programme that, if implemented, would be severely challenging to British capitalism. There was little difference in the vote in Tower Hamlets between those who voted for Oliur Rahman a Bangladeshi, and those voting for Lindsay German, an atheist woman.


Nevertheless, it is unclear whether RESPECT has gained any significant support outside of these Moslem communities. Were we starting from scratch then this would be understandable but the Socialist Alliance had built a modest electoral base, and there is evidence that these voters were not attracted by RESPECT. To quote just one example, a total of 1538 votes went to Socialist candidates in the local election on June 10th in just 5 wards in Wakefield but only 1184 people voted for RESPECT across the whole town. This picture is repeated around the country, most starkly in one ward in Sheffield where a socialist candidate received 5.5% of the vote and Respect only 0.3%.


It may seem that I am flogging this horse to death, but there has been considerable hype about RESPECT’s electoral success. As John Nicholson convincingly argues, the very uneven performance “unfortunately enables Respect to claim (and believe?) that it is more popular and that it represents more of a coalition than it does. While it appears to have grown in members, to a larger level than the Socialist Alliance (at most about 2,400 members), it is very uneven in its geographical and political content.”


The Socialist Alliance – What went Wrong?

Murray Smith very charitably declines to expand upon his observation that “Alex Callinicos’s essentially ‘objectivist’ reasons for the failure of the socialist alliance are unconvincing … … However that is the past. The task now is to develop Respect from what must be considered very promising beginnings”


The question remains, if we do not explain what happened in the past, then how will we prevent failure from reoccurring.  Indeed if we do not examine what happened to the legacy of the Socialist alliance how are we able to judge whether Respect has made a promising start? I suspect that if Respect were to announce an intention to contest elections north of the border, then Murray Smith might discover a less generous streak within him. But for now, understandably he leaves the task of engaging with these arguments to those of us in England who have first hand knowledge of the events.


Alex Callinicos argues at length that the Socialist Alliance was doomed by its failure to attract a significant proportion of Labour’s base. According to Callinicos, “What offered the opportunity to break out of this impasse was the anti-war movement.” But if we think through this narrative it leads to some interesting conclusions.


Certainly, the Socialist Alliance promised more in its heroic era than it delivered. As I have argued elsewhere: “Although the Socialist Alliance made good early progress, its character changed over the last few years because it suffered the loss of many of the original ex-Labour people who got the local SAs going from the early/mid 90s onwards and who piloted the discussions with the SWP, locally and nationally which led to the SWP joining the SA, and the SA extending into London. However a very important question is why the thousands of activists who used to promote a left social democratic agenda within the Labour party, did not gravitate towards the SA. To a certain extent the issue of distrust towards not only the SWP but also historically the Militant probably played a part. Certainly the SA project suffered over the last two years from the defection of the Socialist Party and a rupture with some of the most significant Labour Lefts in the national (and in some cases, local) leadership.[viii]


The most prominent example was the resignation of Liz Davies, a former Grassroots member of Labour’s NEC as national Chair the SA in October 2002. Slightly later Mike Marqusee, former editor of Labour Briefing left the SA. For the socialist, activist community around the country, Liz and Mike were more significant recruits to the SA and represented more than an individual maverick like George Galloway MP, so their loss was deeply felt. A collapse of trust was cited by both Liz and Mike as their reason for disengagement. There is a need to consider this matter with some sensitivity as not just political differences but also personalities are involved, and many who were politically sympathetic to Liz Davies’s position felt that she used a dispute over an organisational issue as a pretext for resolving a political problem.


Nonetheless, many non-aligned activists would agree with Mike Marqusee’s description of the culture within the Socialist Alliance: “Many will have had the experience of attending a meeting ostensibly to discuss or organise an initiative or campaign only to find themselves faced with a block of SWP members who have arrived with a pre-determined line and set of priorities. The non-SWPers present may hold a variety of views or doubts, but these end up rotating around the axis established by the SWP. It's a lop-sided and ineffectual discussion because a key participant - the SWP - is playing by a different set of rules, and not engaging openly and fully with the debate as others see it”[ix]


Alex Callinicos describes the same phenomenon from the opposite point of view: 


In the absence of a substantial ex-Labour presence, the SA suffered from a structural

imbalance, given that the SWP greatly outweighs the rest of the British far left combined. When, as we usually tried, we applied a self-denying ordinance, we were still, like the elephant in the room, a looming presence. When we asserted ourselves, however democratically, we caused resentment. The Socialist Party

and a few well-known ‘independents’ cited ‘SWP dominance’ when they walked out of the Alliance. Usually they had their own reasons for leaving, but in truth the SWP did dominate the SA—not by intention,

but by default, in the absence of sufficiently strong participation by forces from a reformist background.”


What is revealing here is how static and schematic Callincos’s views are of the living, working relationships on the left. Why should the SWP need to be counterbalanced by “forces from a reformist background”. Was reform or revolution a practical issue in Britain over the last few years and I missed it? Surely the issues facing the Socialist Alliance have all been essentially non-revolutionary, even though we have consistently attempted to relate to the class struggle, reformists and revolutionaries alike..


What is clear is that when Callinicos talks about the SWP asserting itself he is describing exactly the same process as Maquesee does: “a block of SWP members who have arrived with a pre-determined line and set of priorities”. What was required was a change of mind set from the SWP, in the words of Murray Smith: “I am convinced that the role of revolutionary Marxists today is to build broad socialist parties while 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. Had the SWP been prepared to behave in this way (as some of us did) then the numerical preponderance would not have been an obstacle to growth.


All SWP members may agree about the Soviet Union having been State Capitalist, they may even all agree about the Socialist Alliance being a “United Front of a Special Type”, but when faced with tactical issues within the Socialist Alliance why should they all agree? Why cannot they develop a shared position collaboratively alongside the non-SWP comrades? For example, why should all SWP members have agreed with John Rees that the Socialist Alliance needed to be prevented from fielding local election candidates on June 10th? If they disagreed why should they not argue that in public?


The SWP do not always act like an undemocratic monolith, but sometimes they do. Even leading members of the SWP will privately admit that Birmingham Socialist Alliance was undemocratically railroaded in 2003 by packed meetings, to exclude FBU militant Steve Godward from chair. Certainly in the course of Respect’s launch I have spoken to comrades the length and breadth of the country who report SA meetings being hijacked by SWP members who had rarely or never been seen before. It is worth saying that the Socialist Party and the AWL are not necessarily better behaved. Subjectively the majority of individual members of the SWP are non-sectarian, they genuinely want to advance the interests of our class, however they are institutionally sectarian because they believe that it is necessary and even desirable for them to decide (alone or with close allies) what needs to be done and then provide “leadership”.



Breaking out of  the impasse

If we return to Callinicos’s second contention thatWhat offered the opportunity to break out of this impasse was the anti-war movement”, this is undoubtedly true, but why could the SA not have benefited? Why was it necessary to launch a new organisation? If a new organisation was required then why has the SWP, in practice, sought to exclude most former Socialist Alliance activists from participation or influence in Respect?


As I have written elsewhere: “the Socialist Alliance was not allowed to have a higher profile in the anti-war movement. The decision by the SWP, as the largest component of the SA, to prioritise their own publications and prioritise Socialist Worker placards on 15th February meant that the left made less permanent impact on the anti-war movement than it could have done. The gap between the 2 million demonstrators and 1000 revolutionaries was too great, not just numerically, but also politically. The Socialist Alliance would have been able to act as a cog in between. A united left could have made a significant impact on the demonstration, however this opportunity was missed.”


Throughout the existence of the Socialist Alliance, and most markedly during the lead up to war, the SWP sought to effectively compete with the SA. The SWP produced their own placards, sold their own newspaper, organised their own public meetings and attempted to recruit direct to their own organisation. What was good for the goose was good for the gander, and the other smaller left groups followed suit, and only a small number of non-aligned SA activists were promoting the alliance during the anti-war movement. The public perception of the SA therefore was that it was just another, small, competing sect.


So who are RESPECT?

Callinicos describes the process thus: “In many ways Respect had begun to crystallise as a distinct political entity before its actual formation, on the basis of a common approach to key questions that developed in practice among actors from very different backgrounds within the StWC.”


Or as Socialist Alliance National Executive member, Jim Jepps, has described it: Respect is the political expression of the StWC leadership committee. It is a top down formation from some leading individuals in StWC, but not all of them, and most importantly it did not arise from the bottom up within StWC groups around the country. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq most Stop the War groups (including some groups led by the SWP) ceased to meet, and those that continued were ambivalent about a political project arising from StWC. The mood is well expressed by the motion from Bristol StWC overwhelming carried at conference in February 2004 although the arrangements committee had pressed the Bristol delegates very hard for it to be remitted: “This conference recognises the achievements of the Stop the War Coalition in involving people across the political spectrum and re-affirms the political non-alignment of the Coalition.


Callinicos describes Respect thus:

“That left four main forces that came together to form Respect. The first was symbolized by a person, George Galloway, representing those longstanding Labour Party members whose disgust with the Blair government was so absolute that they were prepared to break with their old party. The second was constituted by those elements of the far left that were not blinded by sectarianism and therefore recognised the historic opportunity offered by the anti-war movement. Chief among these was the SWP, but it also included other elements of the SA, and individuals like the great film director Ken Loach. The third consisted of a variety of ‘ethnic community’ activists and intellectuals —most prominently from a Muslim

background, but also involving many in Turkish and Kurdish organisations. Finally, there were significant numbers of trade unionists—on the extreme left of the awkward squad, Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union and, much more equivocally, Bob Crow of the RMT, along with many local

 officials and rank and file activists, particularly in the RMT and the FBU.”


Again, Callinicos relies upon grand narrative sweep to see him through, but if we unpack these elements and examine them the picture is less convincing.


George Galloway MP “represents” those breaking from Labour. What is remarkable about Galloway is how little support he had from Labour activists, and I assume Callinicos chooses the word “represents” carefully to hide the fact that others did not follow Galloway out of Labour. He did not receive even the backing of his constituency party. When Alan Simpson MP visited Swindon for a STWC meeting recently he said that Galloway did not join “Labour Against the war” and in the run up to the vote on the war was not active in lobbying wavering Labour MPs to vote against Blair. Galloway is unpopular amongst most Labour Party activists and in the unions. As John Nicholson describes the situation: “recent ex-Labour members have been as likely to defect to the Liberal Democrats or the Green, if anywhere at all.


Respect is also supported by “by those elements of the far left that were not blinded by sectarianism and therefore recognised the historic opportunity offered by the anti-war movement” Surely it is quite possible to recognize the opportunities offered by the anti-war movement and still have differing  strategic and tactical approaches towards capitalizing on those opportunities? Those who disagree with Respect are not necessarily sectarians. The most substantial part of the revolutionary left to support Respect apart from the SWP has been the International Socialist Group (ISG – the small British section of the USFI). Again there is a need for some delicacy in discussing this due to the personal role of Alan Thornett, who both publicly and it seems privately, is uncritical of the tactical decisions taken by the SWP. There is a great deal of wishful thinking in Thornett’s understanding of Respect, as evidenced by this description: “Unlike the Socialist Alliance Respect now has the real possibility of becoming a party of the broadly the SSP type. This will not happen immediately, but it needs to be the medium term objective. To prepare for this we have to start building Respect along the lines of a party right  now.”[x] The ISG do not have the activists on the ground to carry this out, and the SWP has no intention of doing so, as evidenced by Alex Callinicos’s article and by their behaviour on the ground. Respect is another “united front of a special type”.


In practice the ISG seem to believe that they have more influence of they do not adopt positions to antagonize the SWP. This means that they supported the use of bureaucratic methods to close down the Socialist Alliances, rather then seek to win over undecided comrades by persuasions. They also support, in the person of Alan Thornett,  the October conference of Respect being on a delegate basis, despite the fact that no democratic structures exist to legitimize the election of delegations.


It is important to understand, and this may not be clear to those not personally involved, that over the last 18 months the Socialist Alliance has largely dispersed and very few of its activists seem to have joined Respect. SA activists have been demoralized by uncertainty, and many seem to have been repelled from Respect by the bureaucratic maneuvers involved in its launch, including the crude prohibition of SA local election candidates. Currently, outside of London, it seems only a handful of independent left activists are involved in Respect. As John Nicholson describes it: “.What it is not doing is acting as a coalition for unity, especially regarding socialists, left-leaning greens, libertarians, peace campaigners or anyone with an activist background outside of the approved


The third element is the one with some positive substance; involving “ethnic community’ activists and intellectuals —most prominently from a Muslim background, but also involving many in Turkish and Kurdish organisations.” As Will McMahon reports a Respect meeting in North London: “There was clearly a new layer of people who had been drawn to the meeting by the Respect campaign. A group of Kurdish and Turkish supporters were joined by people from a local mosque and the afro-Caribbean community. These gains were also seen on the battle bus where the megaphone was delivering messages in Kurdish, Turkish and Gujurati. Small but significant gains have been made in this regard over the course of the campaign. New forces are involved and further progress is possible.[xi] This is one area where Respect – and the SWP – can be rightly proud.


Most disingenuously Callinicos describers Respect’s support in the unions: “there were significant numbers of trade unionists … Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union and, much more equivocally, Bob Crow of the RMT, along with many local officials and rank and file activists, particularly in the RMT and the FBU.” It would be more accurate to say that a handful of trade union branches, (where the revolutionary left already have some influence) voted support for Respect in the June 10th election. No union branch has affiliated to Respect. Mark Serwotka has played, to the best of my knowledge, little active role in Respect since the launch conference and has not been attending National Executive meetings. He did however speak strongly in favour of Respect at a fringe meeting at PCS conference. Callinicos makes an extraordinary claim that Bob Crow supports Respect, (however equivocally). There is no evidence that Brother Crow supports Respect at all, and as I write is commencing legal proceedings to challenge the RMT’s expulsion from the Labour party. More or less simultaneous with the launch of Respect the Socialist Alliance organised its third Trade Union  conference to discuss the political fund, which was a modest success with 700 attending, half of whom trade union delegates. It is far from clear whether Respect has greater support than that in the unions, and there is reason to believe support is narrower. Significantly Bob Crow spoke at this conference confirming his unions support for the Scottish Socialist party and John Marek (Forward Wales), but did not mention Respect.


Therefore Alex Callinicos’s description of Respect is overblown, and it is more accurate to describe it as John Nicholson does: “It is a coalition of the Socialist Workers Party (certainly not convincing all its own members) and sections of the "Muslim Community" (some excellent local anti-war campaigners and some significant members of the Muslim Association of Britain), together with one individual, George Galloway MP.


The left in England are in a complicated position, and mythologizing the actual content of Respect does us no favours.


What about the Labour party?

Alex Callinicos has made great play of the failure of the LCR to call for a vote for the liberal but left-of-centre Socialist Party in the second round of the French regional elections. However, on June 10th in Britain most local authorities were up for election, and in most cases there was no far left candidate. These local elections are very important as they determine policies such as local social services, education, etc, and many workers take a great deal of interest in them. Basically these were more important elections than the ones for the European parliament. However, the SWP made no recommendation to vote Labour in the local elections. What is more in SWP internal documents “Party Notes”, the Labour party was described as “Blair’s war party”. the SWP did call for a second preference vote for anti-war Labour candidate Ken Livingstone for London mayor, but Respect made no such official recommendation. In practice then the SWP behaved no differently from the LCR.  


One of the most useful aspects of the exchange between Murray Smith and John Rees has been the clarification (and I believe evolution) of Murray Smith’s position on the Labour party. In a recent article he describes the Labour Party as:  “a bourgeois party - with certain particularities linked to its origins“.[xii] I find this a very acute description. The peculiarities are of course the structural links with the trade unions, and the voting loyalty of most class conscious workers.


So there is no contradiction between Murray Smith’s position and  John Rees’s useful description of the Labour Party: “Labour remains working class in the following crucial senses: its individual members are overwhelmingly working class, even though the apparatus is more dominated by middle class elements than it was before; its voting base is overwhelmingly working class; the majority of its election funds still come from the unions. The unions, as this year's Labour Party conference demonstrated beyond doubt, are still organically connected to the Labour Party … …  there remains a strong organisational bond between the unions, especially the union leaders, and the Labour Party.


Nevertheless, in both words and deeds the Labour party is thoroughly pro-capitalist, and indeed neo-liberal. I agree with Murray Smith that the layer of active support for Labour within the wider Movement is much weaker than it was only a few years ago, and this is particularly the case amongst trade union activists. This is not the same as saying that the Labour party is finished, but it is recognition that the labour party has changed in such a way as to open opportunities to its left. The question of what sort of organisation we need to exploit these opportunities is the heart of this debate.


As Thornett points out, and it is a useful observation,  if we are to wait for the Labour party to leave the field of battle before we attempt to replace it within the workers movement then that day may never come. “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. … … 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.[xiii]


This is the significance of the fact that the SWP continue to echo Lenin’s formulation of the Labour Party as a “bourgeious workers party”. It is not at all clear why Lenin should be considered particularly qualified to discuss the British Labour Party but the strength of his formulation is that it captures the complexity of the Labour party. The weakness is that it is not clear what on earth it means.


In Left Wing Communism, Lenin admits that issues relating to the British labour movement are “highly complex because of the unique character of the British Labour Party, whose very structure is so unlike that of the political parties usual in the European continent “. Indeed, if we study the evolution of Lenin’s thought on this issue we see that he was often quite imprecise (see Lenin on Britain, Martin Lawrence , 1934, in particular between pp 75 to 109). . If the poor man had known his words on the subject were to be regarded as gospel more than 80 years later I am sure he would given it more thought. In June 1913 he wrote “the so-called ‘Labour party’ represents an alliance between the socialist trade unions and the extreme opportunist Independent Labour party”[xiv], but in February 1913 he describes the labour party as “something in the nature of a broad workers party. This is a compromise between the socialist party and the non-socialist trade unions” So within the space of a few months the nature of the contradiction has turned around 180 degrees. At the second congress of the Comintern Lenin in August 1920 was much clearer: “The Labour Party is not a political workers’ party but a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although it consists of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst reactionaries at that who lead it in the spirit of the bourgeoisie.”


Lenin’s understanding of the British Labour Party was based upon his mistaken belief that reformism in Britain was structurally underpinned by an aristocracy of Labour subsidised by the super-profits of imperialism.[xv] This theory was rejected by Tony Cliff in the 1957 article “The economic Roots of Reformism” in favour of the idea that reformism has its material basis in the trade union and Labour bureaucracy.[xvi] The considerable merit of Cliff’s approach was that he was prepared to question the orthodox assumptions held the Marxist left of the day, and examine the actually existing situation and draw conclusions from the facts.


I only introduce Lenin here to show that quoting scripture doesn’t get us very far. We all agree that the Labour Party is thoroughly reactionary, despite its links with the unions, despite the many socialists still misguidedly within it and despite enduring support amongst very many workers. The question is not what words we should use to describe the Labour party but what should we do to replace it?


This question is a sharp one as the neo-liberal policies of the Labour party have led to a growing antagonism with the trade unions, particularly those representing public sector workers. Most dramatically seen by the expulsion of the RMT and disaffiliation of the FBU, but also seen in the withdrawal of £750000 funding from Labour by the GMB, and Kevin Curran’s threat that the GMB would consider refounding a party of Labour, if a third term government does not act in the interests of workers. The recent call by the RMT annual meeting for a conference to discuss working class political representation may come to nothing, but it shows that the door is opening slightly.


A lot of heat is being generated about this doctrinal issue, where Rees and Callinicos are defending one of many formulations that Lenin used to describe the Labour party.  Murray Smith is thinking through the consequences of the whole hearted adoption of neo-liberalism by the labour party, and has come up with what may be a more accurate and useful working description. Alan Thornett  ostensibly disagrees with Murray Smith, but the practical conclusions he draws are the same.


As Murray Smith accurately summarises: “But what is the actual consequence of this disagreement? If the consequence was that [the SSP] refused unity in action with the Labour Party, that would be serious, but it is not the case. The basic disagreement we have with the SWP is not over the nature of the Labour Party or the united front. It is over what kind of party we need to build.”



What are the prospects for Respect?

Murray Smith demonstrates remorselessly that the logic for Respect is to either become a party or to fail. His arguments do not need repeating here. That Respect should become a party, broadly on the model of the SSP, is also the aspiration of the ISG and others. (Of course there are many differences between the English and Scottish situations, and we have to find our own way to such an outcome)


I believe that because Respect has insufficient support amongst the socialist left, and limited appeal to trade union activists it cannot itself become the broad party that we aspire to, but it can still be another step towards such a party. But will the SWP permit this to happen. It seems not. According to Callinicos: “Respect is a coalition—a federal organisation that individuals can join and to which organisations can affiliate while preserving their autonomy. The programme, while principled, is relatively minimal, meaning that Respect is a pluralistic organisation in which diverse viewpoints coexist. This structure is critical if the existing forces within Respect are to have the breathing space they need to work together, but even more so if others— particularly wider sections of the trade union movement—are to be drawn in.


Why a constitution that allows the SWP complete freedom to maneuver  should be particularly appealing to trade unionists is a theme not developed. But surely if Respect meets with electoral success then the elected representatives must be accountable to the membership? In which case, that will be a constraint upon the ability for diverse viewpoints to co-exist.


All this is flim-flam, because elsewhere Callinicos states the important issue: “in such broad coalitions it is essential for revolutionaries to retain independent organisation in order to combine building the coalition with the objective that gives this work its meaning—the construction of a mass revolutionary party.  “[xvii]


The reason is because: “traditional revolutionary organization', whether large or small, has definite practical advantages. The relative ideological homogeneity of a revolutionary Marxist party gives it a greater capacity for rapid and decisive action that looser, more programmatically ambiguous formations.”


There are many grounds for disputing this. Murray Smith has pointed out that building a broad socialist party is a stepping stone in today’s conditions to building a mass revolutionary party in the future. We may also observe that the ideological homogeneity between the International Socialist Organization in the USA and its sister party the SWP in Britain, has not prevented them developing widely different assessments of the current international situation and the tasks of socialists today. What is more remarkable, every single member of the SWP seems to publicly agree with their own central committee, and nearly every member of the ISO agrees with its own leadership.


What is clear is that this process of “a revolutionary party” acting “rapidly and decisively” is perceived by many other activists as outside the democratic norms of the British Labour movement, and is a big obstacle to building the trusting relationships necessary for long term cooperation. Why not take a couple of days longer, and include more people in the discussion? You may not always get your own way, but it will be a learning experience for everyone.


The need for there to be an organizational separation between revolutionaries and reformists is the constant theme of the SWP. Most clearly stated by John Rees: “Genuine unity in action depends on separation on matters of principle such as reform and revolution. We cannot properly determine those immediate issues on which we can unite unless we also properly, and organisationally, separate over matters of principle.[xviii] However, surely the dividing line in the workers’ movement today is not between reformists and revolutionaries, but between those who support and organise class struggle and those who bow down before the god of neo-liberal Mammon? If we organise together in class struggle parties, then the logic of the struggle itself will allow revolutionaries to convince reformists that we need to go beyond the limits of constitutional politics.


This is in some ways similar to the original strategic conception of the International Socialists. In the 1960s the thesis was that there was a “changing locus of reformism” towards the shop stewards movement and the factory floor that was particularly strong in the engineering industry. The logic of this “do-it-yourself” reformism was to bring shop floor organisation into structural antagonism with the bosses, the government and the union leaders. Maintenance of profitability and strong workers organisation and wage push were in the long run irreconcilable. The IS sought to build  rank and file networks that united established militants and encouraged them to defend their organisation even if it led to breaking the law. These Rank and File organisations united reformists and revolutionaries on the basis of class struggle. The weekly paper under Roger Protz was aimed at these established militants seeking to generalize their experience; it was not aimed at those new to politics like today’s Socialist Worker. The belief was that defense of shop stewards’ organisation could be a bridge to a revolutionary party based upon workers’ self organisation. Although not explicitly stated this was a redefinition of transitional politics where it was not the programmatic demands that were transitional, but the forms of organisation that would prosecute those demands. In contrast the Healyites of the SLL/WRP stressed the role of revolutionary political leadership. They sought to build a revolutionary party with a capacity for rapid and decisive action based upon its greater ideological homogeneity.


If the SWP doesn’t change its method of operation within Respect I have no doubt that the project will fail. It may do well enough to continue in a bureaucratic form until the next election, and George Galloway may even get elected in East London. Nevertheless no stable structure can be built on the basis being advocated by Alex Callinicos.


But the problem goes wider than the SWP. Up until now there is no culture of democracy and accountability in Respect. Even to the degree that minutes of national executive meetings are not circulated to members of the National Executive; and notice of executive meetings have been sent out in some cases only 3 days before the event. Ken Loach complained in the pages of Socialist Resistance that even as a National Executive member he sometimes learns of development from the public press.


Bad decisions have been taken. Standing a candidate with a child at Public School for a parliamentary by-election, announcing a campaign to put the Independent newspaper out of business, holding a delegate conference instead of one open to all members. There seems to be hardly any appetite for accountability and democracy in Respect.


What is the way forward?

The adoption of neo-liberalism by the Labour Party and the systematically anti-working class policies of the Labour government are weakening the base of the labour party within the movement. Although the Labour Party still has 200000 members, the opposition within its ranks to neo-liberalism is marginal, atomised and without a plan for advance. Most significantly, the neo-liberal policies of the Labour party have led to a growing antagonism with the trade unions, particularly those representing public sector workers. In our communities and workplaces the Labour Party no longer acts as a pole of attraction for class conscious workers or talented community activists. The experience of Labour in office, in Westminster and in our Town Halls is complete surrender to market forces.


Alongside this development, the anti-Globalisation movement and the mass campaigns against imperialist war have brought thousands into political activity and presented a diverse series of ideological challenges to the neo-liberal orthodoxies that have opened a further space up for the left.

We believe this space can be filled by a class-struggle party, who in-between and alongside elections involves itself in the day-to-day fights to improve conditions for the working class. Across Europe the experience of the Scottish Socialist party, the Portuguese Left Block, the Italian PRC and others show that socialist parties can unite within them those who believe the eventual overthrow of capitalism may be achievable by constitutional means along with those from revolutionary traditions.


Socialists will develop different analyses and sometimes advocate different courses of action. Such differences will be based upon different theoretical understandings and different experiences. However, for the socialist left to gain the specific political weight to influence events in England requires us to cooperate. Socialist Unity is desirable and necessary as a stepping stone to class unity in the struggle against the boss class and to achieve a socialist future.


Unity of the left requires that non-Marxist and non-revolutionary socialists participate on the basis of recognising the importance of independent working class organisation and that the class struggle takes precedence over constitutional politics.


The participation of the Marxist and revolutionary left requires a commitment, as Murray Smith describes, to build a broad socialist party while defending Marxist positions within it, 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.


The need to create a broad socialist party in England arises from the objective and subjective conditions of the class struggle. It is independent of the success or failure of Respect. What is more, because the task of Marxists today is to build a broad socialist party, it is necessary for us to participate in all developments in the workers movement that may contribute to the construction of that party, even if it is not easy.


Despite its limitations Respect has made a significant contribution in winning support amongst Moslems, and other ethnic minorities. What is more, despite the fact that Respect is not on a trajectory that will necessary lead to success, it is still untested. Where Respect exists then socialists should participate within it, help it grow, and seek to move it in the direction of being a democratic, socialist organisation, while at the same time seeking to maintain and build upon the advances that Respect has already made. It is important that we work with and alongside the SWP, but we do not have to accept that they are right just because they can organise majority votes. Often these majority votes do not even represent greater numbers in the meetings, but just show that any disciplined group that has made its mind up before a meeting can win a majority. This process must be challenged. There are significant numbers of comrades in the SWP who are both experienced and committed to inclusive and cooperative working with other socialists. By constructively and positively developing these good working relationships, socialists outside the SWP can encourage the process whereby the SWP as a whole changes its outlook.


We must recognize that Respect has not succeeded in gaining the support of many socialist activists in England, outside of the SWP and ISG. As presently constituted it is extremely unlikely that respect will gain trade union backing.  It is therefore important that socialists explore other options as well. In Coventry the Socialist party have a base, in Walsall the Socialist Alliance are still strong, the Alliance for Green Socialism (AGS) has a base in Yorkshire, in other areas deals with the greens are being considered, and in Liverpool there is an initiative for a new workers’ party. The ultimate success or failure of these initiatives will depend upon whether they are able to transcend the bickering of the left, and actually involve themselves in campaigning in the workplaces, unions and communities for the betterment of our class. The relative size and coherence of the SWP means it remains a vital component of all developments. Whether the SWP acts as an engine for progress or as a break upon it depends upon the comrades within the SWP who can see the advantages of left unity speaking out and seeking to win more influence.


It seems likely that the next general elections will see a mosaic of different left challenges to Labour in England, including some left wing greens. Respect will probably be the largest of these challenges. The demands of socialist unity requires us to seek agreement between all these organisations, and to promote cooperation.


We need to participate at the grass roots level in community campaigns and work within our unions, and encourage and sustain whatever local socialist organisation we can. Modestly we can begin to link these up again nationally, taking advantage of the developments within the unions, etc. We hope that Respect will have a role to play in any future broad socialist party. The success of such a party demands the participation of the SWP, but we will not create such a party by deals between “important” comrades in committee rooms in London.


To quote Nigel Harris writing in International Socialism for an earlier generation: “The fight to achieve popular power, socialism, is not taking place between embattled cliques on high, … … but rather down on the ground where it always was, in a thousand isolated places, each at this stage with its own characteristics. … … And it is here where socialists, whatever their origins, should be, and where they will learn that hope is possible, but only when firmly rooted in real men [and real women] in real struggle.”[xix]






[i]The Rees / Murray debate” Alan Thornett

[iv]   “Italy New Turn for the PRC”. International Viewpoint, May/June 2004.

[v] “A unity coalition” John Nicholson,

[vii]The European elections and the anti-capitalist left” Murray Smith:

[viii]Immediate reaction to RESPECT election results: What a mixed bag.” Andy Newman.


[ix] “Formations for the Next Left” By Mike Marqusee


[x] We've had the election; now let's build RESPECT Alan Thornett This also appeared in Frontline 13.


[xi] North East London RESPECT post election meeting

[xii] Respect – an opportunity and a challenge for the left in England

[xiv] Lenin: “The Labour governemtnin Australia” in this quote he is referring to the British labour party.

[xv] Lenin, “Imperialism the Highest stage of capitalism”

[xvii]REGROUPMENT AND THE SOCIALIST LEFT TODAY”, Alex Callinicos, IST bulletin #2,


[xviii] The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front By John Rees International Socialist Journal, Winter 2002

[xix] “The loneliness of the left” Editorial International Socialism (first series) Summer, 1967.


August 2004


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism