A tale of two... "Respect" conferences

Author: 

Robin Sivapalan

17 November was a faintly farcical day for the labour and socialist movement in the UK. There were four different events of sections of the left that each seek to hegemonise, if not unify, the rest of the left.

I went to the Labour Representation Committee annual conference as a member, and to the Respect, Respect Renewal and Socialism 2007 conferences to sell Solidarity and to distribute leaflets. There is already a good report by Chris Ford on the LRC conference here.

At the “Respect” conference at Westminster University, two AWL members handed out copies of our leaflet, ‘Turn to the Left’. It was essentially an SWP event; extra observers were turned away "for lack of space".

One observer who did get in, from CPGB/WW, told me he reckoned about 400 people in attendance including observers. The comrade summarised that practically no direct discussion took place about the actuality of the split.

Failing to take this opportunity to openly take stock of reality with the SWP membership, the leadership essentially put on a show of business as usual, with bland motions amounting to a rally. It seems unlikely that further reports will contradict this basic outline.

Dispatching a handful of SWP-ers to leaflet and intervene at the Galloway rally, calling for unity, the SWP leadership seem to have established the line on four basic points: it was Galloway’s people not the SWP who split, the SWP are lovely to work with and really democratic, that they are the left wing heroes who have been diligently working to move Respect to the left poltically and who have been witch-hinted for their efforts, and most ludicrously, that there is no doubt that Respect is essentially still on track as an electoral vehicle.

Though unsurprising, this persistent level of political mindlessness is disappointing. The attitude of the AWL has been to encourage honest socialists in the SWP and its periphery to try and make sense of the contradictions of their situation, to ask some basic questions and face reality squarely, demanding an honest assessment of the recent political record of the SWP; to attempt to draw conclusions that reorient their organisation towards Marxist socialist perspectives and activity.

There should be a serious attempt now to address questions and criticisms that, over the years, the AWL and others on the left have put to the SWP membership and leadership about their ‘communalist’ electoral opportunism, their abortive attempts to ‘party build’ by dispensing with basic socialist principles and priorities - of working class political representation, secularism, women’s and LGBT rights.

The SWP, I think, bear the main responsibility for the failure to build an anti-war movement with a politics based on international workers’ solidarity against Imperialism and against regional capitals and repressive theocratic and militarist regimes. Indeed, they have scuppered attempts to do this in the movement, most recently excluding Communist Students and HOPI from the Stop the War coalition.

Clearly this is not just an issue of internal significance for the socialist souls of SWP members; the organisation will continue for some while at least, to serve the function within the British labour and student movement of a turnstile for young people seeking out socialist ideas and activity, educating and mis-educating a significant layer of workers and students about how Marxists reason and organise against capitalism for workers’ democracy and socialism.

SWP-ers should identify the key questions for themselves, seek out fellow members and other socialists to try out and argue their ideas afresh and be open to re-educating themselves in the aftermath of this fiasco.

It’s true, there is scepticism among AWL comrades as to whether there exists any real possibility of genuine Marxists within the SWP being granted the freedom to openly raise their criticisms. I think the NC and EC of the AWL have been correct in encouraging a proactive and positive engagement with open SWP members at this conjuncture. I couldn’t really predict what the outcome and fallout will be for the SWP, but we certainly shouldn’t just drive by and stare disinterestedly at a car-crash – but rather support SWP members, where they’ll accept it, in holding the leadership to account and forming a platform within the organisation on the basis of internal democracy and Marxist class politics. I do doubt the possibility of this, and certainly wouldn’t want to see the AWL approach the SWP leadership to work with Respect as things stand.

Galloway taking the initiative to split is his business. We should say good riddance, but not that this now makes the Respect project worthy of support or intervention. We wouldn’t join the SWP to intervene. Respect is now not much more than the SWP, whatever their remonstrations to the contrary. For that matter, as Mark Steel’s recent comments suggest, an honest accounting of the SWP’s own forces would be interesting.

I’ve attempted, over the last month, to discuss with many SWP and Respect members the origins of the current crisis in Respect; what this says about the political perspectives and tactics adopted, especially measured in terms of the project of working class political representation. There is a small minority, among the people who I have spoken to who are willing to see the split with Galloway as being evidence that the calculation to forge a ‘party to the left of Labour’ – neither with the unions or most other socialists- around someone as dubious as Galloway - not even really on the left of Labour - was a mistake.

However, most are unable to decide upon what quantity of truth they will now allow into their estimation of Gorgeous George. Being ironic, scathing, dismissive - or worse, being defensive still and telling half truths - about Galloway is not enough. Putting the record straight is necessary but also openly denouncing the leadership for years of apologising for and promoting him.

The worst thing is the politics that the SWP have ingested from Galloway into the body of their own political perspective. I’ve always felt that the one of the most pernicious aspects of this has been, on the one hand, the patronising and, to a degree, racist inability to understand that (especially young) people of a Muslim background can be approached as potential rational socialists, and, on the other hand, the accusations of Islamophobia and racism levelled at those, including myself, who point out the serious error of the Respect approach.

I can see how young white middle class students, thoroughly steeped in cultural relativist and post-modernist ideas from their campus educations, can fall into the trap of essentialising other people, seeing themselves as singularly capable of rational Marxist political thinking and action, while for others socialism must be drip fed under their careful incubation sometime in the future.

For me, is not enough to appeal to people of a Muslim background as if their only or even main relationship to the world is through being anti-war. This stance was taken to keep the door open to all sorts of reactionary leaders not for rank-and-file Muslim workers and youth. What is a disgrace is the capitulation of all more experienced SWP members - especially of women, Black and LGBT members - to this degeneration in anti-racist socialist working class solidarity.

Conversations have been mixed. I have to say that I have been heartened by the number of SWP comrades who have not closed ranks in a defensive manner and on the contrary have thawed in recent weeks; who, rather than shelter behind demagogic insults, engage in discussion of their assessment of what is going on and what conclusions they draw from it. When, as yesterday, this happens under the nose of a party hack, the member is invariably whisked away to attend to a more pressing responsibility.

I find it incredible that SWP members put up with the shame of being shooed away like a naughty child with the barest attempt at a pretext – the sheer control freakery of their senior members. If they are not trusted to hold their own as SWP members, or more to the point, if they are not trusted to understand and discuss what they are involved with politically with other socialists, then this needs to be addressed. I have never known any AWL comrade to behave like that and feel the need to attempt to quarantine our members. The opposite is of course encouraged.

There is much more, to be said, of the outstanding, deep-seated challenges facing the SWP if it is to turn to socialist politics. Much of use can be found on this site. I know that individual SWP members that I come across as an activist in various campaign and events feel deeply the seriousness of the situation for the SWP, and have been jolted awake.

I can’t see any option other than for the SWP rank-and-file to seize this opportunity to re-assess some of the major debates that have emerged over the last years as a starting point to carving out a future for socialism in the SWP.

Comments

Quick report on Respect Renewal

Very brief report on the Respect Renewal event (I went in as an observer).

About 150 people to start with (11.30), growing to 200 when I left (12.30). So it was probably up to 250 later on. Quite a lot of people who looked of Muslim background (mostly men), but not that many. A real mix of all sorts of Stalinists: Morning Star sellers, the RCG had a stall, Socialist Action had six people there (when I asked one, Peter Leary, whether he and his group had joined Respect, in typical SA fashion he refused to answer and scuttled off...)

SWP intervened with very apolitical leaflet calling for "unity". I saw about ten people who I thought I recognised as ex-SWPers not giving out SWP materials but instead being pally with organisers etc.

The agenda was heavily dominated by speakers; in theory room for discussion from floor, but they were running so late with so many speakers I can't imagine there was much. I stayed for Galloway's speech and then left. Thick with demagogy: "Is George Galloway right-wing? President Bush doesn't think so!" etc etc.

More later.