Dave Spencer has been a committee member of Coventry Socialist Alliance since 1992. Before its abolition in 1986, he was a Labour Councillor on West Midlands County Council. Here he assesses the way forward for the SAs in England.
The SA in England is a hybrid organisation – neither a party nor a federation. On the one hand it consists of several Left Groups who seem intent on maintaining their own identities. On the other hand it attracts individual members who would probably prefer the SA to be more like the Scottish Socialist Party. It is an organisation in transition.
United organisation is needed
In my view it should be in transition towards a party. This means the Left Groups should have some strategy of withering away within the SA in the not too distant future. As I see it there are no major political differences between these groups that could not be contained in an open and democratic socialist party. The most important differences used to relate to the nature of the old Soviet Union – was it a deformed workers’ state, state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist? Some believe it still is a workers’ state apparently – good luck to them – but is it a dividing issue here and now? I think not. So why do they still maintain their separate existences when the crying need is for a united organisation to fill the vacuum left by the implosion of Stalinism and the commitment to global capitalism of Social Democracy?
Events in the recent French presidential elections show that this is not just a British disease; the French Left is split into several Left Groups for no obvious political reason. The separateness is historic, stemming back into faction fights in the 1950s. These Groups find it difficult to move on politically, to think strategically or to work with other people without running the show. They seem stuck in the world of several decades ago yet with an incredible air of smugness and self congratulation – in spite of what is quite clear to everybody else – that they have failed to attract a large working class base. Frankly would you like to live in a society run by Peter Taaffe or Chris Harman and his cohorts or by Lutte Ouvriere, the Lambertistes or the Sparts for that matter. I rest my case. The working class may be somewhat backward in consciousness at the moment but they are not entirely stupid – they are not going to vote en masse for these people. These Groups appear to outsiders more like the revolutionary groups in The Life of Brian than anything that is seriously going to change society.
The two characteristics of Left Groups almost as an iron law are sectarianism and bureaucratic centralism. I take sectarianism to mean putting their own organisation first above the interests of the working class as a whole. I take bureaucratic centralism to be a top down approach from the central committee – no real democracy, no accountability, no involvement of the creativity of the membership or of the working class. To me these two features of Left Groups need to be exposed and fought against; they are obstacles on the road to building a mass working class party.
Examples of sectarianism abound but just to take a few examples. The December 1st Conference of the SA in England saw the sectarian departure of the Socialist Party who had to some extent dominated the SA since 1996. At that time they had seen the SA as a tactical means of heading off the possible appeal of Scargill’s SLP. They really did not have any strategic idea of what to do with the SA. They could pick it up and use it for their own party building or drop it as the case may be. They could have developed it along the lines of Scottish Militant and the SSP. They chose not to do so. In the run up to the December Conference the SP comrades in Coventry argued for a federalist structure for the SA on the grounds that why should they give up the hard won contacts and bases that they had built up through consistent work day in and day out so that the SWP could walk into their patch and make members — why should their members be told what to do by people with less commitment and experience. To me the role of the SP in the SA has been sectarian from day one. They put the building of their own party before developing a broad alliance. Their view now is that the SA is a rival to be fought against.
Since December 1st the SWP have become the dominant force in the SA. At the SA public meeting in Coventry during the local elections, on every chair was placed a leaflet advertising the next SWP Marxist Forum meeting, not the next SA meeting. The SWP do not seem to be clear what to do with the SA either! They seem to see SA activities as a vehicle for SWP party building in the same way as the SP did.
Old habits die hard of course but they have to die and be given a kicking on the way. Some comrades argue that it is a really good sign that the Left Groups have come together. Others argue that this is more a sign of huddling together for warmth rather than a desire to build something new. Perhaps it is a mixture of both. At the first meeting of the SA Independents in Birmingham in January there were two main points of view. One welcomed the new SA structure and the involvement of the SWP. Their idea was to swamp the SA with more independent socialists so that the members of the Left Groups become less dominant, less sectarian and the political differences less obvious. The other view was more critical of the SWP and gave examples of SWP sectarianism in their SA branches which make it very difficult or well nigh impossible to work with them. Their view was that the Left Groups are actually a barrier rather than a help in recruiting independent socialists to the SA.
In my view sectarian behaviour should be exposed on every available opportunity, even at the risk of being called sectarian because you are being critical! As Trotsky put it in the Manifesto of the Fourth International –
not for one single day should we tolerate sectarians in our organisation.
No to Machiavelian manoeuvrings
The question of bureaucratic methods should also be exposed. The internal regimes of most Left Groups make the bourgeois courts seem enlightened. Members are encouraged to behave like sheep rather than being trained like self sufficient Bolsheviks. In some cases Left Groups from the Stalinist tradition like Scargill’s SLP do not believe in democracy and at least that is clear. To me that is a splitting issue; we should have nothing to do with people who are against democracy. No say in the running of the organisation – no membership. Marxism and socialism must be heard and must be debated openly. No diktats from above, no Machiavelian manoeuvrings and spindoctoring. Full accountability of the Central Committee with instant recall. At the moment it is as though some Left Group leaders are frightened of their membership and certainly frightened of them talking to heretics from other groups or independents in case they get contaminated.
Open political and theoretical discussion is absolutely vital in the SA branches. There are a number of reasons for this. It is no longer clear what socialism means any more. The Stalinist and Social Democratic versions have gone but their message still lingers on. The idea of nationalising all industries as in Clause 4 of the LP constitution was a simple slogan. But in the age of globalisation we need more international ideas for running a socialist economy. And nationalisation itself is not the end of the matter. We can demand the re-nationalisation of the railways but what we want is a socialist integrated transport policy. What would that be like? We can demand more money for the NHS and an end to privatisation but what would a socialist health system be like? Green ideas of sustainability must be addressed; the ideas of changing the course of rivers and moving mountains about like Trotsky promised during the Russian Revolution seem to us like a nightmare today. We need to draw together programmes for a socialist future – not just react in a defensive way to the attacks of the ruling class. In planning our programmes we should draw on the experience of the workers in the industries and services concerned.
Prioritise long term aims
Political discussion at a time when the answers are not obvious must be open. That means comrades must be prepared to say what they think and sometimes get it wrong and change their mind. It must be a process where comrades develop politically not an arm wrestling contest between various Groups or factions or a fight for who can win the vote.
To transform the SA into a mass party, creative ways have to be found of involving the working class – the youth, the women, ethnic groups as well as Trade Unionists. This means organising in working class estates in a consistent manner not just arriving at election times. This is not easy but it is very rewarding and examples of good practice need to be shared and copied. This sort of work tends to break down sectarianism and bureaucratic methods because the long term aim of building a working class party is put before the short term aim of winning a few recruits or a vote for a particular sect.