Issues and directions for the London Socialist Alliance
A document for discussion
Alliance for Workers' Liberty, 1 August 2000
The main political axis
Over the last five years or so, Tony Blair and his circle have constructed a neo-liberal "party within a party" on top of the Labour Party. With big-business funding, and now state patronage, Blair's machine has lifted itself away from the ties that the old Labour Party had to the organised working class. Last year's Labour Party conference (no debates on policy, after two years of flagrant neo-Tory government) and this year's (seven meek debates on safe issues) flag up the change.
A larger gap than in previous times has developed between the political aspirations and desires of the majority of class-conscious working-class people, on the one side, and the Labour machine on the other. Millions of working-class people have effectively been disenfranchised.
The trade union leaders, dim and demoralised after 18 years of Tory battering, have cringed to Blair. The Millbank machine thus has not needed to move to cut all the mechanisms of Labour's trade-union link, as before the 1997 election it frankly indicated it might do. At present it can get union money, and fairly safe union block votes, at low cost. The theoretical possibility is still there of the unions using their remaining positions in the Labour structure to pursue union demands. It remains hypothetical not only because the union leaders are so wretched, but also because Labour's constitutional changes have narrowed the possibility of challenge to a "press-in-case-of-emergency" red button which only the most determined union leaders are likely to push.
That relationship between the union leaders and the Labour machine, in turn, both shapes and is shaped by political atomisation in the working class. There is much class resentment against Blair's "new Tories", but as yet little confidence to challenge them head-on. The collapse of Stalinism is a factor here.
Yes, some of us argued that the Stalinist states were not "post-capitalist" or any sort of "workers' state", and hardly anyone imagined they were workers' paradises. Yes, in the longer term the collapse of Stalinism helps us immensely by clearing the ground for the revival of genuine working-class socialist politics. But in the immediate the cleared ground looks like a daunting wasteland to many workers who previously gained a confused sort of confidence from thinking they saw a proof, hideously imperfect but real, of the viability of alternatives to capitalist production. The words "socialist", "communist", "planning", and even "left" smell of squalor.
Turning round the unions
The main strategic task of the organised working-class socialist left is to turn round the trade unions, to reorient the mass organisations of the working class towards struggle and towards organising new layers, and to rebuild a political culture for self-emancipation in the working class. The "new anti-capitalist" mood burgeoning after the Seattle anti-WTO protest is an immense boost for our efforts here.
For us in the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, these priorities imply a whole range of tasks and policies. We produce and distribute workplace bulletins addressed to the whole workforce. We fight in the unions for them to take up battle for their own policies - the "minimal" ones like those for legal workplace rights for all employees, as well as the "bigger" ones against PFI and anti-union laws, for re-nationalisation and for public services. We raise the idea of unions dissatisfied with the Millbank machine forming their own Labour Representation Committee, which might take shape initially as a ginger group in the Labour Party (or on its fringes, like the new US Labor Party with the Democratic Party) and later become part of a new mass workers' party.
We promote the fundamental idea of working-class political representation; the need for a mass workers' party, however formed; and the need for a workers' government, a government based on and accountable to workers' organisations which takes radical measures in the interests of the working class against the privileges of the rich.
Around, and in association with, that struggle, we advocate the ideas (transitional demands) which we believe can guide effective working-class politics, from "tax the rich" through "open the books" and "workers' control" through to the expropriation of the giant financial institutions and big capitalist companies and the replacement of bureaucratic/parliamentary rule by workers' democracy.
This is not a matter of demanding that the British working class repeat the experience of the Labour Party, but rather of basing ourselves on the actual political axes and organisations of today. We do not know how a mass working-class socialist party will emerge in Britain. What we do know, however, is that the unions are currently being pushed back to the status of political "clients" (like the US unions in the Democratic Party) and they should fight against that. In any case a new mass working-class socialist party will not emerge without convulsions inside the unions. It cannot be built just by leftists declaring and recruiting to "our own" labour movement alongside the one that has developed in Britain over 200 years.
The place of electoral activity
Abstractly, this emphasis on the centrality of the struggle inside the trade unions could be taken to imply a perspective of semi-clandestine burrowing-away in the trade union branches and avoiding any public, high-profile challenge to Blair until a large enough section of the unions has been radicalised. This would be false because the class struggle has to be prosecuted on the ideological and electoral-political fronts as well as in the trade unions; and we have to rally new young activists for the struggle as well as labouring to turn round the long-established organisations.
At election time, the old slogans like "Vote Labour and fight!" are obsolete. To have any political grip, they had to mean: "vote Labour, and fight through the trade unions - maybe the constituency Labour Parties, too - to impose working-class demands on the Labour leaders, hold them to account, and eventually to replace them". In 1978-9, the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory which we then initiated meant exactly that. But the union/Labour channels have been progressively blocked.
Either we abandon the whole arena of electoral politics to the Blair machine - saying, in effect, to working-class people, that we will help them fight on any number of single issues against the government, but dare not counterpose an overall alternative to that government - or we take the fight for a workers' government into that arena, too, by standing independent working-class socialist candidates.
Why spend money and energy standing candidates? Why not concentrate instead on workplace-bulletin production, immediate trade-union activity, strike support activity, door-to-door paper sales, street demonstrations, etc., all of which could benefit greatly from more resources? The answer is that there is a political job which electoral activity can do and the other activities - vital though they are - can't. The other activities protest and fight against particular policies of the government and the bosses. Our electoral challenges publicly counterpose an overall alternative to the very class nature of the government. Of course, in our socialist meetings, educational classes, and pamphlets, we can explain the general idea of a workers' government and our overall opposition to capitalist class rule all the time - but only electoral activity presents that idea in an immediate, active form to a broad public: vote for the Socialist candidate because workers should have our own politics and our own representatives, rather than resigning ourselves to a capitalist "lesser-evil"!
That is the specific purpose of running independent working-class socialist candidates - to raise publicly and actively the idea of workers' political representation, to rally workers and youth round it, and thus to give life and spark to the wider battle to turn round the labour movement.
The "big idea" for election campaigns
Obviously our candidates and our campaigns must take up a wide variety of issues, from the more general (tax the rich, Health Service, privatisation) to the specific and local. Without that specific agitation, our broad message of working-class political representation would become empty and abstract. But it is vital that our candidates and our campaigns have a common underlying "big idea", rather than just be strung together around whatever left-wing demands seem most catchy at the time. Without that "big idea", our message is just a loose collection of "good causes". Voters may sympathise with the "good causes", but probably won't find them sufficient reason to vote for a candidate who does not look like winning.
The need for a "big idea" is indicated not only by political reasoning, but also by practical experience in France. The 1.5 million votes won by Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvriere in France's 1995 presidential elections were the best electoral result by a revolutionary left candidate in Europe for many decades. She achieved it partly by persistence - standing in every presidential election since 1974 - and partly thanks to the dedicated effort of her organisation's members, but also thanks to a consistent political approach. While declaring herself openly to be a revolutionary communist, and taking stands as appropriate on current political issues, she has emphasised that her presidential campaigns are not about this or that current issue or programmatic goal. They are about allowing workers to use the ballot-box to send a clear and simple message to each other and to the Establishment - that they want policies in the interests of "the world of labour" and not of profits. In the 1995 campaign this core message was spelled out, usefully we think, through a nine-point "emergency plan for the workers and the unemployed". The very idea of an "emergency plan" for the working class became a mobilising theme over and above the detailed demands.
Over the years in France, the LCR has consistently done much worse in elections than LO, despite having an organisation of comparable size, a bigger broad political periphery, generally a much higher public profile, and a more extensive productive of literature. The reason is that LCR election campaigns have usually come across as a welter of good causes rather than a sharp, immediately-focused and consistent working-class message. The LSA has voted in favour of using wording such as "a workers' voice", or "workers' representatives on workers' wages", or "standing up for workers, the jobless, pensioners and students", as has sometimes used them. But it has rejected making this its "big idea" or unifying theme.
Socialism as a slogan
As far as we can understand, the alternative "big idea" preferred by some of the other groups in the LSA is "socialism". In the debates about a name for our alliance, we in the AWL backed the ones including the word "socialist" as against vaguer and blander ones. So far as we can tell, "socialist" is generally interpreted by working-class audiences to mean "left Labour", or "like old Labour pretended to be", but without any sharply-formed implication that "socialists" necessarily favour the nationalist or gradualist schemes of the old Labour left. It's probably better than any other available single word as a headline description of ourselves.
But it's better partly because it's understood to cover many different meanings. It cannot really carry any more weight than that. North Korea is "socialist", in common parlance, and so is the French government. Our voters will probably understand that we do not follow Kim Il Sung or Lionel Jospin, but they will not "spontaneously" have any clear idea of what we mean positively by socialism. Moreover, to young people who have come into politics over the last five years or so, with no conspicuous Labour left, the word "socialism" often conveys no meaning at all.
The GLA campaign revealed a "spontaneous" (so to speak) recognition by the groups in the LSA of the limitations of "socialism" as a unifying political theme. After a short while, the posters and stickers no longer had "socialist" written large on them, but instead (on grounds of avoiding confusion with the SLP, etc.) read "vote LSA". What 's "LSA"? A drug? A disease? The crank group that recruited Patty Hearst? Only a few are likely to know and remember the acronym, and of course it is useless outside London. As far as we know, the only literature produced in or around the LSA which attempted to explain positively what we meant by "socialism" was a little leaflet produced by us, the AWL, which devoted a couple of sentences to it. "Socialist" may do as a one-word label, but not as a unifying political theme.
"Vote for a socialist alternative"?
At the LSA committee meeting in July, John Rees of the SWP suggested an alternative umbrella slogan for the general election: "Keep out the Tories/ No to New Labour's Tory policies/ Vote for a socialist alternative". It was only an off-the-cuff suggestion. Nevertheless, discussing it now may help us clarify our ideas for the time when we have to make definite proposals for the general election.
Even the least-aware voter will know, if we're standing, that we're standing against both Tories and Labour and that we are an "alternative" of some sort. To that information John's three-part slogan adds only two messages: that we differentiate between Tories and Labour (it implies that we're standing to give some sort of reprimand to Labour about its current policies, but we abhor the Tories whatever their policies); and that the alternative we offer is socialist.
The first message has value. There is still a difference between the Tories and Labour. That millions of workers are disgusted with Blair does no mean that the Labour Party is finished. Of those disgusted workers, some can turn to the right - listen to what they say about refugees! - and the majority of the more class-conscious, organised and politically aware ones will still vote Labour ("we've got to keep the Tories out", "there's no real alternative", etc.) Most of the most important unions are still affiliated to the Labour Party, and not likely to affiliate to anything more left-wing any time soon. Labour still has more activists, at least for the purposes of elections, than the radical left. There are openings for independent working-class electoral activity, but it will take a lot of digging to enlarge those openings into broad highways.
We need a steady, consistent effort to spread the influence and ideas of the LSA in the trade unions - not just a quick mailing to trade union branches, followed by scooping-up support from those union branches where we can easily bang a resolution through. And we need a considered, patient tactic towards Labour Party and independent Labour activists.
All that said, though, "Keep the Tories out" is not a good headline for our candidates to announce themselves. The argument we have to win with Labour voters is that they should vote to send a clear political message, rather than "keeping the Tories out" at all costs. We can make a general rule of avoiding marginal seats, but no-one thinks we can make that an absolute principle (does Dave Nellist not stand in Coventry? do we renounce on principle standing against Barbara Roche?). So "keep the Tories out" can't be the headline for our candidates. To use it would be to attempt to conjure away sectarianism by a literary formula, rather than by the active strategy and perspective for the labour movement (not just for building a self-proclaimed "socialist alternative" on the edge of it) that we need.
"No to New Labour's Tory policies" is a worthy slogan, but lacks any cutting edge against the Labour voter who dislikes the "Tory policies" but prefers to stay with Labour in the hope that something better will turn up some day, somehow. So the only real cutting edge in John's formula is one out of its 15 words - the term "socialist". And that, as we have seen, is not a sharp blade.
In short, the 15 words convey, essentially, to the casual reader and listener: "We're here, we're roughly on the Labour side, but we're more left wing, and we want you to come over and vote for us". This message simultaneously lacks bite and implies a sectarianism in the sense of lacking broad perspectives for the labour movement.
"A workers' voice", "Workers' MPs on workers' wages", "Speaking up for workers and the jobless" - there's a lot of room for discussion on honing better slogans around that theme. But some formula along those general lines would be best to summarise all our election agitation about diverse issues. It is also a unifying theme for our strategy and perspectives in the broad labour movement. It is a political guideline for trying to build local LSA branches which are genuinely broad and open to working-class organisations and activists, rather than remaining (as perforce they mostly started out) consortia of the different organised left groups.
The other issues which have been contentious in the LSA and Socialist Alliances are the number of candidates we should stand in a general election; the "no paper sales" rule adopted by the LSA conference in June; and whether we can go beyond our electoral alliance to broader unity.
Standing against left Labour MPs?
Any socialist election candidacy has some value in so far as it broadcasts a few general ideas of socialism to a large audience and may attract a few people to become organised socialists. However, there are other ways of doing those jobs - more efficient ones, so experience suggests, while the working-class socialist left is still small. The specific case for putting resources in election candidacies now is that they can provide irreplaceable leverage for the broader struggle for working-class political representation.
To do that, our candidates need to have a certain minimum of personal credibility and activist support. That suggests a relatively prudent and cautious approach to general election candidacies - within the limits, of course, of having enough of them to make a visible impact.
On the other hand, if some components of the Socialist Alliance - specifically the Socialist Party - want to put resources into a broader spread of candidacies, they have a right to their choice, and it would be foolish and divisive to try to deny them Socialist Alliance endorsement. We need not argue about this, except in cases where the Socialist Party is intent on putting up Socialist Alliance candidates against Labour MPs who (as a proposal from Dave Packer at the July national Socialist Alliances meeting put it) "are recognised as left by the workers' movement".
If we had a full-fledged revolutionary party - an organisation of sufficient weight in the working class that most politically-aware workers would see it as embodying the activist initiative for working-class self-emancipation - then we might well stand against the most left-wing of reformist MPs. Or we would offer them a "pre-selection" - a prior vote of workers in the constituency as to whether the revolutionary or the reformist should be the workers' candidate against the Tory.
But we do not have such a full-fledged revolutionary party. The groups in the LSA which at one time or another have decided to start calling themselves "the party" (SWP, SP, CPGB) are essentially ideological factions, as are those of us who have been more restrained about proclaiming ourselves (AWL, ISG, WP). We will become more than that only with a sensitive and careful tactical approach to the mass of workers who see themselves as socialists.
To stand against the left MPs is to renounce attempts to apply leverage to the contradictions within the Labour/union structure, and instead just to plant ourselves in our own corner and appeal to the working class to come over to us one by one. To recruit workers one by one is vital. But it cannot be the sum-total of socialist strategy, least of all in a country like Britain with a long-established, deeply-rooted web of labour organisations to which class-conscious workers feel loyalty.
There are, of course, very few left Labour MPs, and most of them are weak.
However, most of those few are in constituencies where the revolutionary left is also relatively strong. The tactical imperative to seek a "united front" approach to the workers who look to those left MPs has some practical consequences for us, and they should be accepted.
As for unity, our view is that if we have a basis for unity in addressing the working-class electorate - and on repeated occasions, not just as an odd exception - then we have a basis for unity. If the basis is not good enough for us, then how come it is good enough for the working-class electorate?
Obviously a full-fledged united organisation would have to have a proper program, not just a brief electoral platform, and there would be dispute about many parts of the program. If we were united in one working-class socialist organisation, then there would be many issues that we of the AWL would want to argue about, sharply and with some feeling. But the proper rules for a working-class socialist league should be those that the Bolshevik party operated before 1921 and that we in the AWL operate today: unity and discipline for the actions decided by the due democratic processes of the league, but the right to dissent, including in the public press, on all ideological questions.
In 1999 the SWP tried to build a mass movement, with Stalinoids and pacifists, on the single slogan "Stop the war", NATO's war that is, in Kosova. They vehemently opposed any immediate or active advocacy of the right to independence for Kosova, which has been held under imposed and usually terroristic Serbian imperialist rule for almost all the years since 1913. The AWL argued for independence for Kosova, for Serbian troops out of Kosova, for arms to the Kosovars, and for no trust in NATO bombs or troops.
We did not support NATO. We exposed its hypocrisies and crimes. But we could not support the slogan "Stop the bombing" unless and until the political conditions existed for that slogan not to be an alias for "Leave Milosevic alone to do his worst".
If we and the SWP had been inside a common organisation, then we would have had angry arguments. Arguments as angry as those we had when we (then under the name Workers' Fight) were organised as a tendency inside the SWP (then called IS) - in August 1969 when IS supported British troops going on to the streets in Northern Ireland, and we insisted on opposing them; and in summer 1971 when IS switched from the old Marxist line (which we continued to uphold) of "In or out [of the European Union], the fight [for international workers' unity against internationalising capital] goes on", to one of "Britain out of Europe". Although the 1969 dispute involved higher emotions than the 1971 one, 1969 did not produce a split, but 1971 led the IS-SWP leaders to expel our tendency. Acrimonious disputes need not produce splits if the organisation has an open regime, which it did in 1969 more than in 1971. (Arguably 1969 did create irreparable divisions, which 1971 only finalised, but that is hindsight. That it went that way depended on the nature and trajectory of the organisation rather than on the mere existence of sharp political dispute).
A healthy working-class socialist party, or proto-party, must be able to surmount sharp disputes without splits. There are no guarantees. The best democratic regime cannot and should not prevent all splits. But the organisation that "guards against" splits by reducing itself to a monotone one-faction outfit firstly will not avoid splits and secondly will be of no use to revolutionary politics. It will lack the conflict and tension, and pressure for self-correction, necessary to thrash out a consistent and decisive revolutionary policy; and when disputes erupt (as they will despite the tightest rules: reality changes, the most powerful and sealed-off of Central Committees will sometimes fall out among themselves) it will lack the means to deal with them.
The LSA and paper sales
Along the same lines, the majority at the LSA conference in June voted that "no such activity" as sales of affiliated organisations' papers "shall take place while canvassing on behalf of the LSA". The rational undercurrent here is that the LSA should come across to new people as a coherent force, and one welcoming the unaffiliated, rather than a stew of sects. For that sort of reason, when different activist left factions combine for opposition groups in trade unions, for example, they generally avoid ostentatious "party" self-labelling. But no union opposition group, as far as we can remember, has ever banned its members from selling socialist newspapers while on union activity. Nor has the Scottish Socialist Party, a rather more developed alliance than we have in London, needed to ban its diverse factions from promoting their own publications.
Some unaffiliated LSA supporters see the ban as protection for themselves and assertion of the LSA identity above factional identities. Actually it may turn out otherwise. Given the greater numbers of the SWP, and its penchant for flyposting, if other political identities within the LSA are to be kept in purdah, then the casual observer is likely to assume that the LSA is the SWP in drag.
If the LSA functions as an extension of the SWP, but with the addition that it protects the SWP from electoral competition from other activist left groups and thus the chagrin it suffered in the late 1970s when it was outpaced electorally by the IMG and Socialist Unity, then that makes sense for the SWP. It does not make sense for the other factions in the LSA, nor for the LSA as a whole.
A proper development of the LSA requires that the press of the different revolutionary factions not be consigned to the Alliance's equivalent of a newsagent's top shelf, but instead read, discussed, and debated.
Action and debate
To some comrades, especially in the SWP, to propose a united organisation which would frequently bubble with dispute reveals a morbid introspective mentality. When, in some of her speeches to LSA meetings during the Greater London Assembly campaign, our comrade Janine Booth urged people to find out more by reading all the left press - not just our Workers' Liberty and Action for Solidarity, but also Socialist Worker, Socialist Review, IS Journal, The Socialist, Socialist Outlook, Weekly Worker, Workers' Power, etc., all of them, as far as time and finance allows - some SWP members found it downright bizarre.
Why spend time indoors reading or discussing when we could be out on the streets and active? Who but a sectarian could want to do that? But out on the streets we are usually trying to promote ideas, with leaflets, papers, and so on. To spend time clarifying our ideas is no waste. After decades of Stalinist domination of the left - which has left its imprint on the anti-Stalinist left, too - and in a rapidly-changing world, we have a vast job of self-education and theoretical elucidation to do. Without a revolutionary theory, no revolutionary movement, as Lenin put it.
Isaac Deutscher, in his biography of Trotsky, demonstrated the "practicality" of debate.
"By means of [its] drill the Stalinised Comintern achieved extraordinary feats of discipline. But discipline of this type was destructive of the efficacy of a revolutionary party... The strange discipline and ritual tied the party agitators hand and foot when what they needed was a free and easy approach to those whom they desired to win for their cause. When the European communist went out to argue his case before a working-class audience, he usually met there a Social-Democratic opponent whose arguments he had to refute and whose slogans he had to counter. Most frequently he was unable to do this, because he lacked the habits of political debate, which were not cultivated within the party, and because his schooling deprived him of the ability to preach to the unconverted. He could not probe adequately into his opponent's case when he had to think all the time about his own orthodoxy and to check perpetually whether in what he himself was saying he was not unwittingly deviating from the party line. He could expound with mechanical fanaticism a prescribed set of arguments and slogans; but unforeseen opposition or heckling at once put him out of countenance..." (The Prophet Outcast, pp.36-7).
At times of mass action, debate becomes even more central. Read John Reed on the Russian Revolution of 1917. "The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land... Then the talk, beside which Carlyle's flood of French speech [in the revolution of 1789-94] was a mere trickle. Lectures, debates, speeches... What a marvellous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod [the Putilov factory] pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they would talk!...".
The segregation of the activist left into mutually-distanced factions, each with its own circle of readers for its press, sympathisers for its campaigns, and listeners for its meetings, each pretending the others do not exist, is not a sign of vigorous practicality, eager to get on with the job without unnecessary talk. It signifies inertia, complacency, narrowness - the opposite of revolutionary thought. (Polemics, as James P Cannon put it, are the sign of a revolutionary party). With the Socialist Alliances we have only just started to rise out of the dimness. We should set the aim of a united revolutionary league which will be coherent in action but allow full rights of dissent and faction on ideas, including in public.
And as the first steps we should promote both wider unity in action - in joint trade-union fractions, for example, as well as in elections - and greater debate.