Nest Of Mac No | 08.08.2003 15:26
Britain: Socialist Workers Party replies to its critics
Workers Power Global, London, 3 August 2003
Socialist Worker (SW) rarely replies to its critics on the left. But for two weeks running it has felt obliged to answer those who have criticised plans to push the Socialist Alliance (SA) into an electoral block with leading figures from local mosques, most particularly in Birmingham.
Rob Hoveman, the SWP National Secretary of the SA, reported (SW 27.7.03) that the National Council, meeting in Birmingham, “voted to reject various motions that were critical of reaching out to Muslims. But the very small Workers Power organisation took the opportunity to declare they were leaving the SA because it was a “reformist swamp”.
This account is false in two respects. None of the motions before National Council were “critical of reaching out to Muslims”, indeed the Workers Power resolution had three paragraphs devoted to how the SA could win Muslims who had fought alongside us in the anti-war movement “to the project of a working class, socialist alternative to New Labour.”
Secondly Rob Hoveman’s claim that Workers Power was leaving the SA because it was a “reformist swamp” is quite simply a fabrication. This was neither said at the meeting nor in our statement on leaving the SA. What is true is that for the entire history of the SA we have always opposed limiting its programme and its policy statements to those demands which are realisable within the framework of capitalism. Such a programme is indeed reformist, even if those who draft it and fight for it consider themselves revolutionaries. But no change occurred on this so this was NOT the reason Workers Power was obliged to leave the SA.
We made clear we were leaving the SA because we would not continue to support it if the SWP majority pursued its policy of a cross-class electoral alliance with religious institutions or their representatives. That was why we put down a resolution rejecting this policy. It was defeated — due to the SWP majority— and so we withdrew.
The following week John Rees devoted a full page of SW (2.8.03) to ‘The Left After the War’. Most of this article was devoted to defending the new SWP line on broadening out the SA electoral alliance, including involving representatives of the ‘Muslim community’ radicalised by the war. This article is yet another attempt to smear the opponents of the SWP’s new line.
The war has, according to Rees, ‘redivided the left’. He advances a three-part taxonomy: right, left, ultra-left/sectarian. There is a pro-war left, (Clare Short (before her re-conversion) Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and Christopher Hitchens). Then there is ‘the left that built the Stop the War Coalition’. (the SWP, the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Party, the Green Party, the Labour left, trade unions and Globalise Resistance, large sections of the Muslim community and CND.)
Thirdly there are “a small number of left sects”, who Rees claims “opposed the foundation of the Stop the War Coalition or, though nominally supporting it, actually opposed it at every turn or took no active part in building it.” The avoidance of naming names of organisations and the sliding scale of supposed opposition to Stop the War should warn even the most artless reader that sleight of hand is going on here. Workers Power joined the Stop the War Coalition from the beginning. We supported the involvement of the Muslim community, the mosques etc. Our members worked in its local STW groups and initiated or helped set them up in a number of areas. Our trade unionists — especially our teacher members — initiated walk-outs, marches and demonstrations when the war started.
Some of Rees’s charges (specifically vis-a-vis involvement of Muslims) apply to the Alliance for Workers Liberty. This shunting together of different organisations and different issues (technically called an amalgam) is a sure sign of a dishonest and shaky argument.
The purpose of all this is to say to SWP members, many of whom are worried about this new line, ‘you have no need to listen to the arguments of those who criticise us: they are all do-nothing, sectarian islamophobes.’
But the real core of Rees problem is how to re-assure Socialist Worker readers (and SWP members) that ‘talk of “cross class alliances” or “popular frontism” by a minority in the Socialist Alliance’ is completely wrong. He fails. Here the argument resumes its slithery course.
The Muslim community he says “is in its majority working class” and it “has been the bedrock of Labour support in many inner cities’. The first statement is scarcely surprising since the ‘Muslim community’ like all communities, and the populationin general, is a multi-class community. It is a social pyramid; at its top are a few well known multi-millionaire capitalists, followed by a layer of small industrialists - often employing sweatshop labour of their own communities, lawyers doctors, and other professionals and religious leaders.
At its base is a much larger mass of lower middle class, working class and unemployed workers.
The real question is which class the “leaders” of this community represent. The religious leaders, in general, will represent the most influential (i.e. those who make the biggest financial contributions). Certainly these leaders have traditionally mobilised a substantial vote of the community through the mosques to support Labour in the past. Just as the Catholic priests mobilised voters with an Irish background, because of the Tories support for Loyalism.
Is it possible that there will be individual imams who are, or think they are, socialists, just as there have been “socialist” priests and rabbis. Their participation in progressive political movements is possible but they do not make up a phenomenon for which a new tactic or “broad alliance” is needed.
Rees continues: ‘Of course there is a minority inside the Muslim community that is middle class”, but this is not a problem because— “they too have been on the receiving end of the Labour government attacks about “asylum seekers”, “terrorism” and “fundamentalism”. Some have been radicalised by the war. This has made them open to working with the left. ‘ But even these attacks fall with different degrees of severity according to class and political alignment. What we are talking about is what these leaders class position means when we try to draft an electoral programme with them.
We agree socialists should, trying to win the organised and unorganised Asian workers, the militant Asian youth to a fighting socialist and anti-imperialist platform. But this does not mean winning the supposedly influential leaders of the community. Many of these community leaders, after the courageous fightback by Asian youth in the Lancashire and Yorkshire towns, urged their parents to take them to the police stations and hand themselves over, a disastrous course of action.
To enter into negotiations with the leaders of the Mosques, the imams and the elders, to deliver the votes for a broad (i.e. vague, limited, empty) political platform headed ‘Peace and justice’ is to go to the wrong place altogether. Why is the SWP, which used to denounce electoralism in general, now engaging in extreme electoral cretinism?
Seeking an alliance with a religious community, as a religious community, its clergy and institutions, clearly means compromising on the platform that is to be fought for. Hence the SWP denounces making abortion or gay rights a shibboleth. John Rees in his article tries to turn the tables on his critics saying that “critics of the Socialist Alliance strategy who claim that all Muslims are anti-gay or anti-women are speaking from … ignorance’. Certainly Workers Power has said nothing of the sort. Certainly many individual devout muslims may accept the democratic argument that it is not up to the state to impose discrimination or oppression on women or gays.
What we have said is that the Mosques, as institutions based on the Qu’ran and the Sharia, condemn gays and are against many democratic rights for women, such as the right to abortion. To say this is not Islamophobic. So too is the Catholic Church, Protestant evangelicals, Orthodox rabbis etc. This does not mean that all believers in their congregations are anti-gay bigots and supporters of the oppression of women (although a good number are).
Many ordinary Muslims will support socialists even though they disagree with women’s and gay liberation – they will support them because they are anti-war and anti-imperialist, because they are anti-racists and fighters for the oppressed. They may even change their minds on these issues IF the socialists for whom they vote— or with whom they work — stay true to their own beliefs on these issues and do not drop them as “shibboleths” or obstacles to winning votes from the “broad community”.
But the SWP/Socialist Alliance are not going to ordinary Muslims, to the workplaces and factories, to the unions with large numbers of Asian workers, to the youth who are often in conflict with the elders and the Mosques, they prefer to go to the tops. They want a bloc with the whole community, even if that means a cross-class alliance and chucking out vital principles.
It is inconceivable for example that Dr Nazim as head of the Birmingham Mosque could publicly agree to back a socialist campaign that openly campaigns for lesbian and gay rights, the right to abortion, secular education and the separation of church/mosque from state etc. It is highly unlikely that Muslim businessmen will support a substantial rise in the minimum wage, repeal of the anti-union laws — let alone the expropriation of the whole capitalist class. This is why it is wrong in principle to establish an electoral alliance with members of the exploiting class.
Having made the case for an electoral alliance with the Muslim community that includes its ‘middle class’ elements, at the end of his article John Rees says “There is no cross-class alliance being proposed for the future of the Socialist Alliance’!
But he then immediately enquires: ‘But is it absolutely ruled out that socialists could enter such an alliance?’ He goes on to cite in his favour “the body that made the Russian revolution - the Soviet of Workers, Soldiers’ and Peasants Deputies’” an example he thinks where Marxists have made alliances ‘with sections of the middle class, or the petty bourgeoisie, to use Marxist jargon’.
Rees obviously hopes this piece of confusionism will convince wavering SWP’ers that the SWP is merely following in the footsteps of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But it is not. The class alliance the Bolsheviks made was with the peasantry. The peasantry — even the small stratum of rich peasants — had a revolutionary grievance against Tsarism— ownership of the land; the great landed estates of the tsarist nobility.
Yet the Bolsheviks never presented a common electoral programme with the peasantry. They included in their programme for socialist revolution and working class power the pledge of land to those who till it, land to the peasants. To achieve this they worked in the soviets, a form of the united front, to make a revolution. They tried to win over the poor (landless) peasantry and agricultural workers to the Bolshevik programme and party.
In fact if you translate John Rees ‘s method into the period of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International where you find the idea of a worker/peasant party, a cross class alliance, is in the programme developed by Stalin and Bukharin and put into practice with disastrous results in the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. Beyond this you get the Popular Front of the 1930s. Such a strategy was entirely alien to Bolshevism from 1903-1917 and from the Third and Fourth Internationals in their revolutionary periods.
The reason Workers Power is so opposed to this “new” alliance is not at all out of pedantry and a lack of concern for taking up the enormous opportunities to build a new mass revolutionary movement. We supported Stop the War and urged it to go further and form people’s assemblies in every town and city to draw in masses of workers and trade unionists, youth, the immigrant communities. We want not only the rank and file but their leaders too. But we insist on the duty to criticise these leaders when they hold back or duck out of the fight.
Likewise in the anticapitalist movement — and in Globalise Resistance too — it is we who argue for a real broadening and opening out, the building of social forums, like those in Italy which can mobilise hundreds of thousands. And in the Socialist Alliance we argued for a policy of approaching the unions at every level to win them and their resources to the idea of a new working class party, which will debate out and agree on its programme. Revolutionaries we believe should argue for a revolutionary programme.
The problem for John Rees and the SWP leadership is that they do not believe the new movements — anticapitalist, antiwar, and a reviving trade union and political current can actually be won to revolution. They believe we have to produce “big results”, especially electoral success. How? By mimicking reformism or populism and striking deals with the reformist or populist leaders, based on no awkward criticism and “not making shibboleths” out of any programmatic issue they object to. In fact this method will arrest the development of the hundreds of thousands new activists moving towards revolution. The revolutionary Communist International and the Fourth International had a term for this method — centrism.
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