Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Workers Power on Respect

Workers Power #314 April 2007 (April 4th)
Respect is not a working class alternative
(George Galloway as Bonaparte)

At the local elections Respect will be trying to gain more council seats. Jeremy Dewar argues that the mish-mash politics it and the main driving force behind it the SWP are putting forward will not advance the class struggle

On 3 May Respect will be standing candidates in the local elections, hoping to add to its councillors in Newham, Tower Hamlets and Birmingham. Members of the Socialist Workers Party will be crucial to these electoral campaigns and were the main force involved in setting up Respect. This would have been inconceivable 10 years ago – back in 1995, the SWP criticised Arthur Scargill’s attempt to set up a Socialist Labour Party because he was focusing on elections: “In words it is possible to talk about combining serious intervention in the elections with struggle outside the Commons. In practice, the two pull in opposite directions. The search for votes pushes a party towards a softening of its message, towards a search for accommodation with the union leaders in order to secure backing and finance. The alternative is to centre on struggle and to recognise that in any situation short of an insurrection revolutionary socialists will appeal to only a minority of the class.” (Socialist Worker, 25.11.95)

From sectarianism to opportunism
Now even back in 1995 the SWP were not getting the question of elections quite right. Reformists, who see socialism being won through parliamentary democracy, do soften their message in order to get backing and votes. But for revolutionaries, elections can be used effectively, so long as they are not seen as an end in themselves, or mainly a way of winning votes, but as a means of conducting agitation for socialism, revolution and class struggle, a way of exposing the capitalists’ lies, broadening and deepening the struggle outside parliament and the council chamber, and a way of winning workers and youth to the workers’ own party.

Communists emphasise that the bourgeoisie would mobilise the unelected judges, police chiefs, top civil servants and even the army to sabotage the work of any government that challenged bourgeois power and privileges. We insist that a revolution will be necessary to overthrow capitalism and open the road to socialism.

As we will see, however, the SWP has not only revised its crude position from 1995 of rejecting socialist participation in elections, but has made a 180 degree flip. It has fallen into the trap of “electoralism”, accommodating to union leaders, Labour MPs and even businessmen and property owners to win votes, and definitely “softening” the socialist message.

This won’t help take the working class forward. In fact, by tying a section of the left to the middle class forces, Respect is acting as an obstacle to the creation of the real alternative that workers need to Labour: a new mass workers’ party (see page 5).

Respect was launched in January 2004 as a way of tapping into the mass antiwar sentiment and transforming the movement into a party that stood in elections on a range of social issues. At Respect’s founding conference, Lindsey German said the aim was to build something “broader, wider, less explicitly socialist” than its predecessor the Socialist Alliance.

Hang on a minute. Socialism is the historic goal of the working class – it is no more nor less than the most consistent expression of our interests. To build something “less socialist” means diverting the working class towards a different goal. Since, in a society riven by antagonism between the classes, there can be no non-class goals. German’s comments mean that Respect aims to win the working class to support policies that are “less” in our interests.Old Labour revisited

And indeed Respect’s programme is not socialist. At best, it is an attempt to re-establish the reformism of old Labour – and the key question that old Labour always fudged was private property. What does Respect have to say?

In Another World is Possible (April 2006), Respect’s fullest policy statement to date, the party calls for the “organisation of society in the most open, democratic, participative, and accountable way practicable based on common ownership and democratic control”. But ownership of and control over what? At least Labour’s Clause Four called for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Respect mimics and dilutes old Labour’s position because it does not want to “frighten off” Labour politicians, like Valerie Wise in Preston, Keith Adshead in Birmingham or Wayne Muldoon in Loughborough. So clarity over the need to forcibly expropriate the banks and major corporations, without compensation, dispossessing the capitalist corporations and placing them under workers’ control, is thrown away. Warnings that any such action will meet resistance from the bosses and the state are simply not given.But such opportunism is not confined to attracting Labour dissidents – it extends to Liberal Democrats like Tafazzal Hussain in Sunderland and Abdul Aziz in Birmingham. Many, like Hussain, are prominent businessmen. And as Respect has become more successful, it has attracted more businessmen hoping to use the party as a way into the council chamber. The most glaring example was the selection of Yasir Idris, a recruitment consultant and property developer in Birmingham’s Moseley and Kings Heath ward. Sixty new members joined Respect in the two days before the selection meeting to ensure he won the contest by 35 votes to 20.

By his own account, Idris is new to politics and knows little about Respect, while his opponent, Helen Salmon, is a nationally known SWP member, active in Stop the War and the student movement. Even Socialist Worker observed: “It is clear that the selection procedure in Birmingham will need careful re-examination to see if it has lived up to the organisation’s aim of being a representative and inclusive coalition.” (03.02.07)

But this is the natural consequence of building a party that straddles the classes. Instead of Respect becoming an instrument to fight the class struggle, it becomes hobbled by conflict between socialists and the middle classes within its own ranks.

Karl Marx once observed that, when opposing class forces are evenly balanced, a leader often emerges seemingly independent of the contending forces, but in fact rules in favour of one or the other. He called this highly volatile phenomenon Bonapartism.

It is no surprise then that George Galloway, Respect’s only MP, has been free to say and do whatever he wants in the name of the coalition. He is the Bonaparte of the Respect Coalition and he has some terrible anti-working class policies. He called for a thousand dedicated border police to keep out “illegal” migrants; he signed an early day motion to review abortion legislation with a view to making it more difficult for women to terminate pregnancies. Notoriously he entered the Big Brother House in an embarrassing piece of self-promotion. And all without any mandate from Respect.

False start
The dominant forces in Respect – the SWP leadership, George Galloway, ex-Labour dissidents and a section of the Muslim petit-bourgeoisie and religious groupings – are keen to keep the coalition going. However, the project remains highly unstable. Once the SWP saw the danger of Respect becoming overly dependent on the mixed class Muslim community, when all its non-Muslim candidates underperformed in Newham and Tower Hamlets, it got Respect to launch Organising for Fighting Unions to boost the trade union component of its acronym. But, as the case of Yasir Idris shows, middle class Muslims will also pursue their interests in the party.

In short, Respect will continue to be a cross-class mish-mash.It doesn’t have to be this way, however. Respect’s limited successes are testimony to the fact that a significant, politically advanced section of the working class – Muslim and non-Muslim – has broken with Labour. However, Respect is not the radical alternative that they need – and deserve.

As Marxists have always argued, the true interests of the working class cannot be achieved while we are still in hock politically to other classes. That is why Marxists have always stressed that the first goal must always be to establish an independent working class party – one that is not connected to the exploiters and which can pursue the working class’ socialist goals consistently.


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