Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, November 19, 2007

Respect: Going Back to the Future

The founder of the British Socialist Workers Party, Tony Cliff, when asked about the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the U.S.S.R), used to make the point that it was 'Four words - Four lies'*. In other words, it was not a 'Union' since Stalinist Russia controlled the satallite states around it in the manner of Imperial Russia, it was not 'Soviet' as there were no longer any Soviets (Workers' Councils) there, it was not 'Socialist' since the working class no longer had any democratic control over industry or society but instead bureaucratic state capitalist, and it was not a 'Republic' since the nominal leader (from Stalin onwards) had all the autocratic power of old Tsars (Emperors). Recently, it might seem that the 'Respect: the Unity Coalition' is in fact 'Three Words: Three lies' since its recent split - George Galloway's recent remarks about the SWP (describing us as 'Russian Dolls' and 'juvenile dwarves' while telling members in Tower Hamlets - including his former election agent to 'fuck off') certainly show a certain lack of 'Respect' and there sadly seems to be little possibility now of 'Unity' or 'Coalition' between the Gallowayites and the rest of Respect. Yet I would argue that what is left of the Respect Coalition - despite the departure of the Gallowayites - shows that, for all its weaknesses, it still remains the single best vehicle for uniting the left to build a socialist alternative to New Labour.

People can read reports of the recent Respect conference in Socialist Worker and on Lenin's Tomb, and since I was not at the conference I can add little to those very positive and excellent reports. What I want to do here is try to explain a little about why the split has taken place for readers of Histomat who are outside either Britain or Respect itself and are wondering what on earth is going on. My previous brief post on the issue may have made it seem all there was to it was George Galloway's ego, which is a superficial explanation and rather unsatisfactory from a Marxist point of view - which places the role of the individual within wider politics and society and places emphasis on social production and the collective power of social movements rather than the psychoanalysis of the personalities of politicians in order to explain social change. Only time will tell whether George Galloway is the new Robert Kilroy-Silk.

Indeed, and this is where my argument kind of starts, I think it is perhaps interesting to compare and contrast Galloway's 'Respect Renewal' project to Neil Kinnock's project of 'renewing Labour', a project which ultimately gave birth to 'New Labour'. Only in this case, obviously Galloway is trying to 'renew Respect' so that it becomes something like 'Old Labour' or what he would call 'real Labour'. This was, to be fair to him and others within Respect who also had/have this vision for Respect, a legitimate political project and one that could arguably have been worked for within the initial Respect Coalition as formulated - which brought together both old Labourites like Galloway alongside revolutionaries like the SWP to work to build a left alternative. And indeed, there are no doubt still people within the Respect coalition who have this vision for Respect who I hope still feel able and happy to work for it within Respect. But the point was, that the Respect Coalition was precisely that - a coalition with people with different visions for what Respect should become. For Galloway, the hope was to build up another Labour Party to replace the hideous rotting putrid fungoid bureaucratic lump which bears the indelible stain of dead children from Iraq and Afghanistan and which still goes under the name of the Labour Party despite its open support for neo-liberalism and imperialism.

There were also of course those of us within Respect like the SWP which had a different vision for Respect - for us 'Labourism' (and to be frank 'Parliamentary Socialism' in general) as a political tradition was bankrupt and indeed an historic obstacle to the development of a militant working class culture within Britain - and we hoped that the development of Respect could help to undermine the power of Labourism over the British working class movement by giving militants and socialists an alternative political home to the rather unsatisfactory 'home' offered by the powerless Labour Left since the demise of Bennism. But the important thing to remember was that Respect did succeed in bringing together people despite their alternative strategic visions for the future on the key issues - opposition to the 'war on terror', opposition to the rise in racism and Islamophobia that war set in motion, and opposition to the corporate takeover of Britain and the world that neo-liberalism represents. That unity was of course forged through struggle in building the anti-war movement in Britain around the Stop the War Coalition, a unity which remains as important as ever as Brown eyes up war on Iran (or failing that perhaps war in somewhere like Sudan) to try and restore the prestige and glory of British imperial power (sorry of 'Western humanitarian intervention') after the catastrophic disaster of Iraq.

What went wrong?

Historians of the future will no doubt argue long and hard about exactly why this unity within Respect broke down, and I don't want to attempt a full analysis of this - which will bore many readers of Histomat - even if such a full analysis is even possible at this stage. However, as Dave Renton pointed out to me, the split essentially took happened in three places - Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, and on the National Council of Respect itself. One might want to add a fourth place where the split took place - the blogosphere - where there was also a split among the blogs which supported Respect - and now noisy pro-Galloway blogs continue to pump out their propaganda like there is no tomorrow.

Perhaps the decision of Gordon Brown to move towards calling an early General Election in August this year prompted Galloway, fearful of losing his Parliamentary seat, to attack the SWP so that should he lose he would be able to have a scapegoat to blame - if he had not made some sort of criticism against the SWP before he lost then any attack post election would seem rather weak. We can only speculate about Galloway's 'thinking'. Nevertheless, once he made his attack on the SWP he decided to use it as part of a wider attempt to shift Respect decisively onto the road of 'renewal' - ie to turn Respect from a Coalition of reformists and revolutionaries into an openly reformist Party on the Labour Party mould. Just as Neil Kinnock when 'renewing Labour' decided to purge the Labour Party of the Militant Tendency so Galloway decided to try and do the same - at least in the few areas of the country where this might be possible thanks to recent electoral success - Tower Hamlets and Birmingham and there was a significant block of 'others' who might be his allies. This witch-hunt was necessary as the apparent problem with Respect for Galloway was that SWP support was seen as an electoral liability and apparently Respect was seen as too 'socialist' - exactly the same kind of arguments used by Kinnock of course when purging Labour of Militant.

Galloway's problem of course was that the SWP in Respect was rather more significant in both size and influence than the Militant Tendency was in the Labour Party in the 1980s. This is why Galloway's 'witch-hunt' never really got off the ground - there was very little material base for it within Respect. For example, where I am in Leeds, the number of potential supporters for a witch-hunt of the SWP is well, pretty close to zero. I doubt whether anyone seriously thinks Respect in Leeds would be viable or possible without the SWP - to put it bluntly. This is why the Gallowayite blogs continually scream that they are not involved in 'witch-hunting' the SWP - yet just because the witch-hunt has very little support within Respect doesn't mean that essentially it is still that - a witch-hunt.

When Galloway realised that his witch-hunt had failed - and that he would not be able to win a vote for expelling or removing SWP members from leading positions within Respect democratically at national conference - he had one option left - which he has taken. To split his supporters off into a separate organisation where they can try and relate to the desire for a left of Labour political organisation in Britain without the SWP. Instead of the need for sizeable numbers of rank and file activists and the labour movement norms of democracy, Galloway's 'Respect Renewal' project will be built as 'New Labour' was built - from above - using the mass media, spin doctors, celebrity supporters, rich backers, etc etc. If the development of New Labour was tragedy - then the development of 'Respect Renewal' truly is farce - this is indeed the Eighteenth Brumaire of George Galloway!

The future

Fortunately - what is now 'Old Respect' or 'real Respect' does have not only a future - but more of a future than 'Old Labour' seems to be having at the moment. People are tired of Brown's 'Labour Party Capitalist Britain', they desperately want an alternative which fights for the things that Respect stands for - Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community and Trade Unionism. The potential to build a grassroots democratic socialist alternative to Labourism in Britain from the bottom-up, which bases itself on the mass movement and whose elected representatives never try to rise above that movement for the purposes of making a political or media 'career', is greater than ever. Respect to Respect!

*A pedantic point I know, but an anarchist once told me that the phrase originated not with Cliff but with Cornelius Castoriadis. This is highly possible, but I do not know one way or another - if any readers know more about this then please clear up this matter of undoubtedly burning relevance for the contemporary international working class movement.

**Ever since the days of norse mythology, dwarves have had a place in in the literary imagination of some, and is it now possible that the term 'juvenile dwarf' might replace the [quasi-racist] term 'political pygmy' as a derogatory term for one's opponent in political discourse? Quite why first pygmies and now young dwarves deserve being invoked in this manner is however another question...

Edited to add: Witches and Russian Dolls: The Crisis in Respect

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At 9:11 am, Blogger DAVE BONES said...

Do you not think people will say, why not call "Respect" the SWP? As it is now. Why call the SWP respect? because no one would vote SWP?

I can't join in on either side of this split. From their writings I've seen online both Galloway and Rees are clearly idiots with a lot of very genuine lefties fooled into following them. I knew that a long time ago.

Wake me up when there is genuine left wing politics with people actually enthusiastically involved.

At 11:53 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Dave - the SWP could stand by itself as a political party in elections - after all it has done in the past. The problem with this is that it would be a very idiotic and sectarian thing to do - there is a crisis of political representation in modern British politics - a democratic deficit - that is felt and resonates far wider than simply the revolutionary Left.

The duty of revolutionaries is not to simply declare 'we are the one way to salvation - and you can vote for us', but to try and work with people breaking from New Labour to the Left to build a united radical left alternative.

Respect in its history has shown the potential for this strategy to be successful - think of the enthusiasm and hopes generated by Galloway's win and then his Senate Speech - and to hit New Labour where it hurts them - at the ballot box. The SWP standing by itself would get some votes - but it would not be able to undermine Labourism anywhere near as effectively.

Even with the departure of the Gallowayites, Respect is not just 'the SWP' - indeed the Chair, national organiser and most of the new elected national council are not SWP members. Yet to give up on the project of trying to build a left alternative to New Labour that would be to leave the political vacuum in British politics to be filled by the fascist parties like the BNP, who tap into the despair with mainsteam politics and parties among many people. Whatever the weaknesses of Respect, to simply give up on politics while New Labour continues with its relentless attacks on working class communities and criminal wars is not a serious option for anyone who is genuinely on the Left.

At 6:18 pm, Blogger DAVE BONES said...

You sound totally genuine, so good luck! I never could stand Galloway. If a teenage pop star can see through him I can't see why everyone else can't.

The SWP aren't going to unite the HUGE number of people who agree with them on principle outside their ranks because they don't want to.

I've only turned up once to one of their meetings and could see they were totally scared of debate. Everyone says so.

I recorded my experiences here.

When you get politics you get ego. It gets in the way. A little office spat between your stupid leaders and the rest or yours genuine hard work goes up in smoke.

'ave em.

If I gave a shit I wouldn't stand for it.

At 9:15 pm, Blogger DAVE BONES said...

Maxi Jazz Faithless-

I do not believe in the power of politics to change things. People change, Politicians follow suit.

I'd like you to convince me. I'm more about simply uniting the majority so that Politicians get the idea and follow suit.

Do I think it'll happen? I don't know but its worth a go and I honestly can't see playing the game the lunatics play in the asylum is good for the human spirit.

At 2:44 pm, Anonymous a very public sociologist said...

Not a bad post Snowball, but IMO it suffers the same problem as a lot of arguments being put by your side - acknowledgment that the original Galloway document contained legitimate grievances.

Now, everyone knows there's plenty of problems with Galloway, and I couldn't understand why so many SWP comrades felt it necessary to defend his appearance on Big Brother, along with his many other antics. Surely being in a 'united front' means its components retain the right to criticise and disagree with one another.

But nevertheless Galloway did have a point regarding the state of Respect. While the SWP made Respect a going concern and comrades put in the majority of the work, your leadership's strategic orientation meant Respect wasn't making the kind of headway it could have been making. It needed to have a real campaigning presence between elections, but because your leadership ultimately subordinated the needs of Respect to the needs of the SWP, this couldn't happen. With a general election appearing imminent and Galloway being the only MP, I think he had every right to raise these criticisms.

Another point that has come out of the faction fight, but has long been the experience of other left activists, is how alienating working with some (not all) SWP comrades can be. I know Militant had this problem in the 80s but IMO it's an issue that has been largely resolved - you tend not to find too many independents slagging the SP off for its sins these days. The reports of packing meetings, etc. are extremely off-putting, but tally with a lot of peoples' experiences.

IMO you and your comrades need to seriously look at these issues. I'm pleased to note this is happening, if the leaked internal bulletin is anything to go by. If you can, not only will the SWP be stronger but the left as a whole will be better for it.

At 11:58 am, Anonymous Roobin said...

Sorry, VPS, but that's mostly unfair and missing the point. Maybe you really had to experience things first hand to know what was going on.

Since the general election and the senate appearance Galloway has worked to distance himself from the SWP activist base. He never wanted to be our puppet and in one way I can't blame him. At the time of the letter I thought he was trying to subordinate the SWP to his plans. In the short term this is, again, not surprising, in long run this is not acceptable: if the SWP is what it says it is then it can't have those kind of terms dictated to it in this kind of way.

What caused the fight was stuff coming to the surface was the actions of Galloway's staff and supporters. They were pitching for a split. It was only when some of them were expelled from the SWP that they came out into the open. Hence the leaks, hence the riddiculous briefings, hence the revial of pocket members: anti-democratic practices that make the SWP alleged 'packing' seem communal.

The SWP was expecting a ruckus at a united conference. It doesn't generally mobilise its members and supporters in this way. Given the Gallowegians determination to fight dirty it was right. The only mistake the SWP made (and consistently made) was that it thought it was playing one particular game when its opponents were playing another. The Gallowegians weren't looking to take over at the conference, the conference didn't even figure.

The question is why all this and why now? I think there is a general recognition that a realignment of the left will happen soon. Whoever gets to lead it will set the tone for years to come. It is vitally important for British capitalism that the revolutionary left is either bows to a new popular front or is shut out of the process althogether. Hence the cocktail of venom and glee, right across the spectrum, from Newsnight to the S.'U' network. "At last, maybe now we'll get to throw a muzzle over the SWP".

At 12:05 pm, Anonymous Roobin said...

By 'communal' I mean by standards of commune democracy.

At 8:31 pm, Anonymous a very public sociologist said...

Thanks for your considered response, roobin. I haven't got a lot of time right now but your post kind of proves the point I'm making - that the SWP had a particular vision of Respect, and Galloway and friends had another. They want Respect to develop in a party direction and assume the proper trappings of a party, rather than being an on-off election vehicle as it has become in many areas. Your leadership has never been convinced of this direction, so a split at some stage was inevitable unless one or the other changed their minds.

This is a shame considering how its adding rancour to a left still deeply mired in sectarianism. See the posts over at Action Not Theory for instance on the split in Manchester.

The point is now the split is an accomplished fact, how can both sides of the split build bridges with each other and the left outside, such as ourselves in the SP, the CPB, the Labour left, and the ranks of the unaligned. If as you say a left realignment is imminent, we've all got to find ways of getting on productively.

At 9:41 am, Anonymous Roobin said...

"They want Respect to develop in a party direction and assume the proper trappings of a party, rather than being an on-off election vehicle as it has become in many areas... so a split at some stage was inevitable"

Except that, in most Respect branches, Gallowegians or no-Gallowegians, most members wanted to see a united conference. The critique of UFoaST (as I've now just called it) is an afterthought. It's actually quite a good creative ambiguity. As you well know we can all call for a mass workers party; I can summon up the dead, they just don't come. Between now and then there must be some way of working together, and calling the SWP big and mean and taking your ball away isn't one of them.


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