Oct 07 2008

Respect Split

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 6:55 pm

Ed Walsh, (Irish Socialist Network) gives his personal views on the recent split in Respect

Originally printed at http://www.irishsocialist.net

The British Left has now experienced two acrimonious splits in the space of eighteen months. After the grim transformation of the Scottish Socialist Party into two bitterly-divided camps (The SSP split has been covered in back issues of E&L including an article by the Irish Solidarity Network entitled Crisis in the SSP, Emancipation & Liberation No. 14, Spring 2007), their comrades south of the border now have their own feud to manage.

Whatever else happens, it seems clear that the two factions emerging from within the Respect coalition will not be working together in the same organisation for a long, long time.

57 varieties – still unfit for human consumption

If you listen to the Socialist Workers Party, it would appear that the vitriolic parting of the ways between themselves and virtually every other prominent figure in Respect is the result of a left/right divide. The SWP are the left wing, while George Galloway and his allies represent a rightwards-moving, communalist, electoralist tendency that had to instigate a witch-hunt against Britain’s largest Trotskyist grouping in order to smooth the path for their own march towards the centre ground.

Unfortunately for the SWP, very few people outside their own ranks give this theory the least bit of credence. It’s quite true that there are notable political differences between George Galloway and the SWP, and you’d expect that any group chiefly shaped by the thinking of Galloway would be quite distinct from one in which the ideas of the SWP played a dominant role. But that doesn’t seem to have been what provoked the falling-out.

Rather, the immediate cause of the split was organisational. Questions of organisation are themselves deeply political, of course, but not always in the sense that one faction is more radical, less given to compromise in the pursuit of left-wing goals than the other. In this case, former allies of the SWP in Respect have levelled accusations of authoritarian control-freakery against the organisation – they claim that the SWP would have preferred to destroy Respect rather than give up total control over its structures. Previous experience with the Socialist Alliance in the UK counts against the furious denials of the SWP leadership (as does the track record of numerous campaigns in Ireland).

This article is not going to waste much time on SWP-bashing (you can find plenty of it in the community of leftist bloggers if that’s what you’re looking for). It’s more useful to ask what political conclusions might be drawn from a trail of broken alliances and wrecked campaigning fronts. It doesn’t seem very plausible to assume that the SWP (or any other far-left group with a similar record) does this sort of thing for the craic, because they really enjoy sabotaging political initiatives.

The root cause appears to be the lack of democracy in the ranks of so many Trotskyist organisations. All too often, we find radical groups to be dominated by a permanent leadership faction which marginalises or co-opts dissenting figures within the ranks. Without a healthy culture of debate and disagreement inside the party, it’s going to be very hard to establish a good working relationship with non-members – chances are, the leadership is going to import the same high-handed, autocratic methods and try to establish its own hegemony through manipulation. This sort of behaviour is made all the easier when the average member is unable to challenge the approach of the leadership without exposing themselves to the threat of expulsion.

Theoretical arrogance

Along with this democratic deficit, you would have to include as a factor an odd kind of theoretical arrogance – the belief that one group (be it the SWP or anyone else) represents the vanguard-in-waiting, already armed with the correct ideas to lead the working class to victory. It can’t be said often enough – nobody active on the Left today has worked out the perfect strategy, otherwise they would have settled accounts with capitalism long ago. We all have an awful lot to learn, the best we can manage is to set out with a fairly solid set of guide-lines based on the experience of the past and keep our eyes and ears open for new trends as they emerge.

Anyone who believes they know all the answers already and can trace the path to be followed in advance is going to be sorely tempted to take authoritarian short-cuts – if we know what conclusions people should end up drawing, why not save the time and trouble and do the job for them? The best safeguard against this tendency is the firm conviction that all the bother of thrashing out political differences and contending with views you consider mistaken is not a tiresome distraction from the real business of socialist politics – on the contrary, it is a vital and indispensable part of the socialist project, which requires that millions of people learn to think for themselves and shed the passivity nurtured by the power structures of capitalism. Any project of radical change which is steered to victory by a handful of infallible leaders will simply replace one system of elite rule with another.

Wrong direction

If you’re familiar with socialist history, and appreciate how closely the modern day Trotskyist groupings model themselves on the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky, you’ll find it very hard not to think of the critical points made against Bolshevism by Rosa Luxemburg and other socialists of her day so many years ago. The evidence that far-left authoritarianism can be traced back to its roots in the Leninist tradition appears very strong. This is not to say that every group which comes out of that tradition is bound to be authoritarian – the French LCR, for example, practices genuine pluralism, and many sincere opponents of undemocratic chicanery in Respect and the Socialist Alliance come from a similar background. But more often than not, the influence of Bolshevik theory and practice has pushed radical socialists in the wrong direction.

Some readers may be starting to groan at the prospect of yet another discussion of 1917 and all that, so don’t worry, this is not the time. It’s frustrating that we still have to spend time debating issues that appear very remote from contemporary politics – there’s so much in the modern world that demands hard thinking from socialists, and it seems more useful to spend our time discussing recent events in France, Bolivia or Palestine than rehearsing old arguments about Red October and its aftermath. Leninism still casts a powerful shadow over the organised radical left, though, and can’t just be ignored.

New directions

It’s far too early to say what will emerge from the fracturing of Respect. The SWP has pledged to carry on with its own version of Respect, despite having lost all its significant allies – how long they will persist is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t seem as if the modus operandi of the party will change. Its top-down, ultra centralised style of organisation will continue to frustrate its own potential and antagonise its would be allies. Ken Loach’s remark that the SWP leadership want subjects, not comrades cut right to the heart of the matter.

Unpredictable

The Respect Renewal current, which gathers together the likes of Galloway, Loach, Salma Yaqoob and the Socialist Resistance group, is more unpredictable. A lot will depend on George Galloway himself. Galloway does not have a good track record when it comes to matters of democracy and accountability. He has been saying the right things on this score since the faction fight exploded over the summer, but it’s not at all clear if he means it, or if he’s just saying what he thinks people want to hear. As the best-known public face of Respect, he can do a lot of good or a lot of harm.

To be very cynical, the socialists in Respect who have lined up with the Scotsman had a simple choice. They could trade off the very real possibility of being shafted by Galloway at some point in the future, against the certainty of being shafted by the SWP right now. The choice they made was understandable, and they can reasonably argue that Respect minus the SWP is not just a Galloway vehicle – it includes other figures like Yaqoob and Loach with a high public profile, and might now be able to reach out to left activists unwilling to work with the SWP.

One common denominator between the left-wing crises in Scotland and the rest of Britain was the involvement of a leader who became a media personality and ended up making a complete arse of themselves in the public eye. While Tommy Sheridan appears well-set for a career of undignified but lucrative clowning-around (reports of his stand-up show left people gasping in disbelief), Galloway has gone some way towards repairing the damage inflicted by his turn on Celebrity Big Brother. It’s not clear though if he’s really acknowledged what a disaster it was.

Tabloid fodder

The experience of Sheridan and Galloway shows the dangers for the Left inherent in a heavily mediatised society. Not only do we have to worry about the hostile propaganda of right-wing newspapers, we also have to reckon with the possibility that prominent left-wingers will end up becoming tabloid fodder if they don’t watch themselves. The record of Joe Higgins as a TD suggested one way to avoid this peril – he earned plenty of column inches by coming out with great quotes in the Dáil, while projecting a rather austere, puritanical image that seemed to protect him from being lampooned. The lack of a permanent tan did Higgins no harm either.

While clearly not as radical as Sheridan, Galloway or Higgins, Ken Livingstone is another left-winger who has learned to handle the media in his own way, after finding himself one of the tabloid hate-figures of the 1980s. Ironically for someone who earned himself the undying hatred of New Labour, Livingstone’s media image has endured better in the long run than the spin-obsessed Tony Blair. The Left needs to spend time studying examples like this, and figure out the best (or the least worst) way to use the mainstream media as a platform without allowing it to suffocate our movements in a haze of glib, personality-driven nonsense.

As long as Galloway remains the best-known figure in the re-organised party, we can expect to hear plenty more talk about his notorious visit to Baghdad. It’s only fair to point out that much of this criticism has come from hypocritical pro-war commentators – their own champion Tony Blair has a much grosser record of cosying up to tyrants, from Suharto of Indonesia to Karimov of Uzbekistan, yet that doesn’t appear to bother them.

Nor is Galloway the only progressive figure who has demeaned himself in such a manner. The Sandinistas supported the Polish military dictatorship of Jaruzelksi, while Nelson Mandela offered a fawning tribute to General Suharto during a visit to Jakarta while the murderous occupation of East Timor was still in progress. More recently, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have done their reputations no favours by exchanging compliments with unsavoury figures like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

But there’s only so far you can go with qualifications and caveats of that sort before acknowledging that Galloway’s Iraqi performance will always be a black mark against his name. The key point, surely, is that his current position and reputation owes so much to his role in the anti-war movement. Arthur Scargill supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was shameful, but it wasn’t directly relevant to his leadership of the miners’ union during its titanic battle with Thatcher. Galloway has opposed the Iraq war all along and put himself on the line to do so – it’s bloody tragic that he has tainted that creditable record of activism by a compromising appearance in pre-war Iraq.

The best hope for Respect Renewal seems to be that Galloway will take a step back and allow other figures to take a leading role. His behaviour in the past encourages scepticism – but Galloway does have strengths as well as weaknesses, so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that his better side will win out. Only time will tell.

Islamophobia and the Left

One of the most striking things about Respect’s development to date has been its ability to win support from a significant layer of British Muslims – both in terms of its voting base and its activist cadre. This has also been the source of much criticism. In the more ludicrously over-charged rantings of some journalists, Respect has been presented as an alliance between Islamo-fascists and the far left, akin to the BNP. More restrained critics have spoken of communalism, or accused Respect of watering down left-wing principles and forming dubious alliances.

There is more than a grain of truth in such criticism (at least in the more balanced stuff, not the hysterical diatribes). Socialists who have always opposed imperialism and the war on terror, and who recognise the need to combat Islamophobia, have been critical of the approach taken by Respect in its efforts to win Muslim support – Gilbert Achcar and Tariq Ali being two notable examples.

But critical comments need to be qualified by recognition that left-wingers can make even more damaging mistakes in the opposite direction. The French radical left has totally failed to mobilise support from Muslims in France who are at the sharp end of racist discrimination, harassed by the state and demonised by the far right. It sat on the fence while the Chirac government introduced its hijab ban with hypocritical calls for Muslims to “integrate” into a society that largely treats them as second-class citizens. The LCR section in Saint-Denis even turned down an application for membership from a young Muslim woman, because she wore the hijab and that would have been bad for the party’s image…

So while it’s important not to compromise with conservative and reactionary tendencies that undoubtedly exist in Muslim communities, it’s equally vital that the Left doesn’t adopt its own version of mainstream prejudice and see all practising Muslims as fundamentalist bigots. Christianity has more than its fair share of bigotry, but that hasn’t stopped leftists from embracing Christians in all kinds of progressive struggles. The same principle should apply to Muslims.

The achievements of Respect deserve to be stressed as well as its errors. British society is saturated with anti-Muslim racism. The recent controversy involving Martin Amis, one of Britain’s best-known novelists, showed how bad things have got. Amis made a number of explicitly racist comments directed against Muslims, advocating their persecution by the British state. He treated his audience to smug lectures on the superiority of western civilisation of the sort that should have died with Rudyard Kipling. When left-wing academic Terry Eagleton tackled Amis for his racism, he was booed and hissed by a large section of Britain’s literary intelligentsia, who were quite happy to let the novelist off the hook after he slithered his way out of responsibility for his comments and responded to Eagleton with vulgar abuse.

From the high-falutin’ literati to the dregs of the tabloid press, it’s become acceptable to say things about Muslims that would never be tolerated if Jews, black people or homosexuals were in the verbal firing line. A study commissioned by Ken Livingstone recently established that over 90% of references to Islam in the UK media were negative. Muslims in Britain and other European countries form one of the most impoverished and down-trodden sections of the working class, and the Left badly needs to connect with their experience. Nor should it be a question of enlightened socialists bringing their ideas to the benighted Muslims – we have at least as much to learn as we have to teach.

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