Workers' Liberty #53  


Putting the record straight by Steve Score
The case for electoral unity by Tom Delargy
A platform for unity from the RDG
Class politics, not stunts by Elaine Jones
"Zionophobia" by Ernie Haberkern
Bolsheviks were anti-worker by Mike Rooke
For Livingstone... by Paul Campbell
... and Against by Colin Foster

Arguments on left unity

Putting the record straight

I believe the Socialist Party has consistently supported the idea of attempting to unite with other forces on the left. We have advocated the idea of a new mass working class party based on socialist ideas for some time as a result of our analysis of the change in the character of the Labour Party. Of course actually achieving that is the problem! Obviously the forces for that do not yet exist, the question is the best way to get from here to there.

This was before some others also drew that conclusion. I remember attending a meeting in Leicester with Liz Davies speaking (after her removal as a candidate) at which I put forward the idea of a new mass socialist party which was open and democratic allowing the coming together of different trends. Ironically this was a couple of days before the leaking of Scargill's plans to set up the SLP. At the meeting Workers' Liberty comrades argued a position which we used to put - "Socialists should stay and fight in the Labour Party since it the mass party of the working class." This is, of course, all in the past and new circumstances mean that past disagreements can sometimes become irrelevant.

We welcome others joining in that dialogue as long as it is genuine and not a sectarian attempt to adopt a position to score points or recruit from others. If you look at our recent record you will see not only work in Socialist Alliances, but other campaigns also. I am happy to listen to criticism of our policies and record. I know that we are not infallible!

However it does exasperate me when people are inaccurate and do not take up our real arguments. For example:

"The Socialist Party also has taken important steps which may make possible some unity in action and political dialogue on differences among Marxists. It has supported the idea of joint left electoral slates, whereas in May 1997 it stood directly against the Socialist Labour Party in a number of constituencies and sought no mutual-support pact with the SLP."

This is downright wrong! At a national level when Scargill's plans were public we attempted to discuss with him: Firstly the idea of a party that allowed different groups to openly work within it and attempted to unite socialist and radical forces by being "inclusive". When he rejected that we attempted to discuss alliances and pacts both on an electoral level and on campaigning. He rejected that also. Whilst some SLP members (mostly who have now left it) agreed with us, the Stalinist control by Scargill was too stifling. Even without agreement in some cases where we thought they had a genuine base in an area we held back from standing against them. We wrote to Scargill time after time including before the general election, with no response.

At a local level, in Leicester, we have gone to ridiculous lengths to try to get agreements. The first by-election the SLP stood in Leicester we actually went out campaigning for them using their leaflets. We have attended their meetings, and were even allowed, before the Braunstone by-election, to address a meeting proposing an agreement.

Every election has been preceded by letters to the SLP asking for agreement. In the general election we proposed they stand in two of the Leicester seats and we stand in one, West, where we do have some base. Similarly in the last round of council by-elections we made the same offer: you stand in two we stand in one. In both cases they stood in all of them.

Are we to just say: OK, we will let you have it all your own way?

In both local elections where we stood against each other we got more votes than them and, more importantly, had a genuine local base. Unlike them, our strategy is not purely electoral, although we had been standing in elections at least two years before they were set up. In the general election in West they did get 100 more votes than us, because with Scargill they obviously had a nationally recognised figure, got a TV broadcast, etc.

But it is not really that significant. Unlike us they did not build their base or their party and their campaign consisted of merely tying a few posters to lampposts.

I wanted to set the record straight. Now we can get on with the business at hand!

Steve Score, Leicester Socialist Party

The case for electoral unity

In Workers' Liberty 52, Sean Matgamna invited readers to contribute their thoughts on left unity. So, here is my two cents. I will take as my reference point Stan Crooke's criticism of John Nihill's article. These appeared in, respectively, issues 50 and 49. I agree with Stan that John's article on a revolutionary electoral challenge to New Labour was contradictory. But his critique was no less so. Furthermore, by opposing any electoral challenge to the Blairites, Stan attempted to resolve the contradictions not positively, but negatively. The fact that Stan has been proven wrong, and so rapidly, in his assessment of the potential of the SWP, and others, to agree on a United Socialist list should, hopefully, give him pause for thought. It should encourage him to reassess his whole approach.

There is, though, one important aspect of the problem identified by Stan where he is clearly right. He does appreciate a fact which other AWL members have, possibly, yet to fully grasp. All entrist organisations will be hard pressed to participate openly in the United Socialist venture and remain long as members of New Labour. A balance sheet will need to be drawn up by those, such as the AWL, for whom entrism has until recently been thought a useful strategy.

But Stan's proposal is, in effect, for capitulation to Tony Blair. Whatever Stan would like to believe, so long as the fragments of the revolutionary left (and other left reformist semi-allies) can resist the temptations, from internal and external provocateurs, to prise them apart, the United Socialist project can achieve far, far more than past election results would suggest. And these, in turn, will serve the purposes of socialists far better than will Stan's prescription of keeping our heads down and writing Blair a blank cheque when it comes to elections.

A great many of the forthcoming elections will be fought under a system of proportional representation. This will put an end to workers' anxiety that by voting for the party they most want, they could help into office the one they least want. The one or two per cent British revolutionaries have had to settle for in the recent past need be the limits of our ambitions no longer. Reformists who want to form majority administrations, or those who will settle for the position of coalition partner alongside New Labour/SNP/Liberal Democrats, will want to ditch left wing rhetoric which will alienate the middle classes and the most backward workers.

Revolutionaries, however, should not, in the coming period, anticipate more than 10%, nor be satisfied with anything less than 5%. So long as we can agree on the necessity of making the United Socialists a stable project (and one which is no mere electoral machine), rather than an ad hoc, here today gone tomorrow pact, electoral successes on a par with those of Lutte Ouvriere in recent years are not out of the question.

Such votes could not propel us into the old Militant scenario of forming a majority administration which would pass an enabling bill at Westminster in order to nationalise the top 200 monopolies in a single day - and all achieved peacefully, of course. Such votes could, however, completely transform the political landscape in Britain.

The Communist International declared: "Anti-parliamentarism as a principle, as an absolute and categorical rejection of participation in elections or in revolutionary parliamentary work, is a naive and childish position which does not stand up to criticism." Until relatively recently, leading SWP members were championing such childishness. More recently, all SWP members have accepted that this is not a question of principle but one of tactics.

However, those who now recognise that we are dealing with a mere tactic seem no better informed as to just how exceptional were the conditions which Lenin and Trotsky considered a boycott as justifiable. According to the same resolution: "A boycott of elections or of parliament, or a withdrawal from parliament, are permissible primarily when conditions are ripe for an immediate move to armed struggle for power. Such exceptional circumstances hardly explain the SWP's refusal, until recently, to stand candidates. When I have read these quotes to members of the SWP, they have effectively accused me of lying.

SWP members have also criticised the ILP when they stood candidates against Labour on their splitting from it in the 1930s. But Trotsky took the exact opposite position: "It would have been foolish for the ILP to have sacrificed its political programme in the interests of so-called unity, to allow the Labour Party to monopolize the platform, as the Communist Party did. We do not know our strength unless we test it. There is always a risk of splitting, and of losing deposits but such risks must be taken. Otherwise we boycott ourselves." (Writings on Britain, Vol III, p 117).

Trotsky also lambasted the Spanish communists: "If the communists, at this stage, turn their backs on parliament, opposing to it the slogan of workers' power, they would only demonstrate that they cannot be taken seriously. There is not a single communist in Parliament. Of course, the revolutionary wing is always stronger in action, in the struggle, than in parliamentary representation. Nevertheless, there is a certain relationship between the strength of a revolutionary party and its parliamentary representation. The weakness of Spanish communism is fully disclosed. Under these conditions, to speak of the overthrow of parliamentarism by workers' power would simply mean to play the part of imbeciles and babblers. The task is to gather strength for the party on the basis of the parliamentary stage and to rally the masses to us. That is the only way that parliamentarism can be overcome. But precisely for that purpose it is indispensable to develop a fierce agitation under the most decisive and extreme democratic slogans". (Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, pp 148-9)

Clearly there is no consensus within the United Socialists on the point at which work within the Labour Party ceased to be fruitful. The SWP, SP, ILN, Outlook and AWL all disagree on this. In the long run we are all going to have to attempt to justify our opposing perspectives and learn at least to see things from each other's vantage point. But these arguments are for the future. For the present, the important thing is to agree on a United Socialist organisation capable of exposing New Labour's left flank in the electoral arena.

We will, in effect, be entering into an unofficial coalition with reformist workers who are to our right but, nevertheless, desperate to give the Blairites a good kicking, to do so in order to express their anger at New Labour for taking their votes for granted. In return for helping workers still far to our right to achieve this end, they will be helping propel us far beyond the lunatic fringe candidates. By sheer unadulterated honesty, we can use non-revolutionary workers as a springboard to push us beyond the thresh hold required to get our candidates onto Question Time, Any Questions, and regional programmes of a similar type. This has to be the main object of our standing candidates.

Our candidates' arguments will then be in a position to give workers, the unemployed, students and pensioners contributions which will stir the studio audience to life. Our candidates will answer all the questions of the day in a fashion which will expose, time and again, the unpopularity of the priorities of all the parties which put profit above human need. The impression our candidates will make on the studio audience, giving them something to cheer for once, will put the wind up New Labour, and help precipitate a crisis at every level of the party. Our arguments will also resonate next day, and in the days and weeks to come, in all the workplaces, the student canteens and seminars, and in the local communities in a manner not seen since the early 1980s. We will be conjuring up a political environment within which workers, organised and unorganised alike, will be far more receptive to our arguments as to the illegitimacy of profit, and of the necessity of defending our wages, conditions, public services and democratic rights - and doing so by direct extra-parliamentary action, legal or otherwise.

Tom Delargy, SSP member

A platform for unity

The Revolutionary Democratic Group wants discussion on the following platform, as a basis for unity on the left.

  1. For revolutionary democracy. We hold a revolutionary democratic attitude to all questions of bourgeois democracy (e.g., civil liberties, women's rights, national question, racism, constitutional change, etc.). We utilise bourgeois democracy, defend it against all anti-democratic forces, including the capitalists and the fascists. We seek to extend all democratic rights by mass struggle and revolutionary action. We consider the working class is the only genuinely democratic class under capitalism. We consider that the working class can become the leading force in society by championing the struggle for democracy.
  2. For workers' power. We support the democratic self-organisation of the working class in trade unions, workplaces and communities. We are in favour of workers control of all industries and services. We are in favour of replacing parliamentary democracy with a more advanced form of democracy, based on workplace councils electing delegates to a workers' parliament. This must be defended by an armed working class organised as the state (i.e. the dictatorship of the proletariat).
  3. For international socialism. Socialism cannot be built in one or a few countries. It must be developed by the international organisation of the working class. Socialism is the transitional period between world capitalism and communism.
  4. For world communism. Our aim is to abolish the world market system of capitalism and replace it by world communism. Communist society is a classless world-wide community based on global planning, co-operation and mutual solidarity between the people of the world.

Steve Freeman

Class politics, not stunts

The Labour Party Conference and National Executive Committee have lost their old policy making role. The leadership has rigid control over the Labour Party, over candidates as well as policy. The trade union financing continues, but there is a lot of capitalist money too. The unions are effectively imprisoned within these structures - the once "open valve" between the unions/Constituency Labour Parties, and between CLPs and the party conference no longer exists.

In this situation I agree the central thing for socialists is to "bring class back to centre stage in politics". We call for a workers' government and for a workers' party to create that government. This new party will be formed by breaking away sections of the existing trade union and Labour movement away from New Labour. This process is not straightforward, it is not clear exactly how a new workers' party will be formed. What is clear is that as sections of the labour movement come into conflict with the New Labour Government, we need slogans and a strategy to give it direction, i.e.:

When it comes to standing in Parliamentary elections we must consider carefully. Workers' Liberty participates in the Ken Coates campaign in the Midlands and in the left list being put together in London. There may be a case for trying this in London where it can be done quite anonymously. As a generalised position to be carried out everywhere, regardless of local circumstances, I'm against it. I'm in favour of flexibility. We should support protest candidates but not adopt a blanket policy of pushing for slates of the revolutionary left. Sections of the left are now beginning to make a fetish out of small scale electoralism. We should not follow their lead!

In the past we have rightly argued that the main block to revolutionary left unity is the habitual actions of the SWP, SLP and Militant (Socialist Party). They only join with us - in the National Union of Students for example - when they think it will benefit their "party building". They don't help build joint initiatives: they are parasites on such campaigns.

In many circumstances a blanket policy of electoralism, even if it were possible, which I'm not convinced it would be, would discredit us as an organisation which takes the trade union movement seriously. We don't just participate in stunts: we put forward strategies which take the broad labour movement forward and attempt to put them into practice. I'm not saying that such people wouldn't work with us as a result; they would just see it as an irrelevance - nothing to do with really trying to organise people into an effective alternative to Labour.

The problem isn't just that our only possible partners will cheat and are probably unable to work with us democratically, but that they have the wrong politics on how we build a new workers' party. Each one proclaims itself the new workers' party! Our ideas of the centrality of class politics, the importance of democracy and the proper relationship between the Marxist party and the labour movement are alien to them. The SWP have no understanding about organising the rank and file within the unions: they are a block on effective union action in UCLH and Sheffield UNISON. They zigzag on policies just to respond to what's popular. The majority of the left think democracy and debate is unnecessary. Their manifold nonsense on "anti-imperialism", and their anti-semitism, infect the labour movement wherever they touch it. It is sometimes possible to unite around campaigns or disputes. How you build a workers' party, and what its politics need to be - then that's something else entirely. The SWP show how serious they are when they say that Paul Foot will only stand for Mayor of London if the great Ken Livingstone doesn't.

The left is shrunken; it has not recently campaigned in the Labour Party or the unions; class struggle is at a low level; election campaigning is unlikely to lead to a vibrant, democratic, working class-based ongoing organisation. Joint candidates which come out of campaigns around disputes, protest candidacies if left Labour candidates are stopped from standing by the Blairites - yes! But back Tommy Sheridan with his nationalistic, populist drivel in Scotland?

Elaine Jones


In his article on Hal Draper and Zionism, Sean Matgamna coins a new word - "Zionophobia". The coinage is based on an older one, namely "Stalinophobia." The second term was widely used in the '50s in the United States to define anti-Stalinists, usually ex-Trotskyists, who out of a "legitimate" fear of Stalinism supported things like removing democratically elected union officers because they were members of the Communist Party or because they refused to swear an oath that they were not members of the Communist Party.

The "third camp" socialists at the time did not argue, as did most liberals, and of course the Communists and their supporters, that there was nothing really to fear from Stalinism. Instead, they argued that Stalinism could only be defeated by democratic, political means.

Now, by analogy, there certainly are such creatures as "Zionophobes". There are people on the left who, especially since the 1967 war, have argued that Israel is an imperialist coloniser society that has no right to exist.

What confuses me about Sean Matgamna's use of the phrase is that it is not clear whether or not he agrees that Zionism, like Stalinism, is an evil. An evil which we should not allow to blind us to all other considerations, but an evil still.

The idea of a "Jewish" state in which, by definition, one fifth of the population are defined as not really citizens can hardly be squared with democracy any more than can a "Christian" state which defines Jews or Muslims as second class citizens. (I realize this sounds like a far-fetched analogy to Europeans but those who call for a "Christian America" are a significant minority in a number of states.) And how can the process of "ethnic cleansing" documented in Draper's two chapters on "Israel's Arab Minority" be consistent with democracy?

Opposition to Zionism as a nationalist ideology and opposition to the brutal realities of the state of Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinian people can lead people to deny the Jewish people their rights. In some cases such opposition slips over the line into pure and simple anti-semitism. Just as opposition to Stalinism can and has led people to support some very unsavoury "anti-Communists".

Third camp socialism has always been about rejecting the necessity of choosing between the lesser of the two idiocies.

Ernie Haberkern

Bolsheviks were anti-worker

Sean Matgamna's introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution claims that Trotsky, in his struggle against Stalinism, elaborated a "metaphysics of the nationalised economy". In wrestling with the nature of the social formation emerging in Russia during the 1930s, Trotsky argued that nationalised property was ultimately what defined the proletarian class character of the workers' state, degenerated though it clearly was. The superiority of the USSR lay in the existence of its planned economy, despite the ruthless dictatorship of the Stalinist bureaucracy over the workers and peasants. Trotsky's fetishism of nationalised property led to the view that revolutionary progress could come about through what Matgamna calls the "Stalinist locum", without the working class holding power. And it was this latter position which was bequeathed to the post-war Trotskyist movement with disastrous consequences for its political programme.

The introduction to this book, and the articles collected in it, do indeed mark a welcome attempt to look critically at the entire Trotskyist tradition. Alan Johnson's article in WL50/51, The pilots who weathered the storm provides support for Matgamna's critique in the form of a defence of the Third Camp Marxism of the Shachtmanite WP-ISL: "Democracy and its indispensability for working class rule is the heart of the Third Camp's analysis of Stalinism and its view of Marxism and the socialist project" (p.38). Both Matgamna and Johnson therefore forcefully expose Trotsky's substitutionism in respect of his analysis of Stalinism in power. Their critique is deficient in several respects however.

Firstly, they fail to give specific content to the "democracy" which they say is indispensable for Marxism and socialism. This is in fact in keeping with Trotskyist tradition and indeed Trotsky himself, who repeatedly relied on stating glibly that a democratising of the existing soviet structure would have been sufficient to put the USSR back on a socialist course.

Johnson typifies this approach when he lists a number of general conditions which must accompany planning:

"Planning, the encroachment of a new social logic, is absolutely impossible without untrammelled democracy, civil liberties, a culture of pluralism with maximum space for initiative from below, and for accountability of the government representatives." (p 38).

The factor critical for socialist planning is the one thing nowhere mentioned in either Matgamna's introduction or Johnson's article - workers' management of production based on organisations created by workers themselves (workers' committees/councils). It is this which distinguishes planning as technique from planning as proletarian class rule. This silence on the question of the workers' management structures which must constitute the core of a workers state renders their criticism of Trotsky's nationalised property fetish seriously incomplete.

This deficiency, an affliction of the entire orthodox Trotskyist tradition, is closely related to an equally long standing tendency to be uncritical, and even unenquiring about the early years of Bolshevik rule, on the assumption that it was fundamentally sound. Apart from the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt, which has always been vigorously defended by Trotskyists, the Bolshevik record (with Trotsky in the forefront) on the factory committees and the militarisation of labour, in other words, with respect to the embryonic forms of the workers' state, was anti-proletarian.

What is also glossed over in the Trotskyist tradition, precisely because it is an expression of the same deficiency, is the closeness of Trotsky's conception of industrialisation and collectivisation to that of Stalin in the late '20s.

Johnson illustrates this blindness when he (correctly) criticises Trotsky for equating property forms and property relations (i.e., social relations). But he makes the usual (Trotskyist) mistake of taking it for granted that the "property relations established by October" were those of a healthy workers state. What has to be shown, but what is here assumed, is that workers' rule in the form of factory committees and production councils (i.e. workers management of production) was established in the Russia in those early years. In fact the embryonic forms of workers management never survived the early phase of the revolution. Trotskyism has never felt the need to do this because it remains at its core fundamentally substitutionist - in placing the party before class on the question of the form and content of workers' rule. It has always remained silent, or when pressed been apologetic, over the record of the Bolsheviks in dismantling and suppressing the direct rule of the producers.

Thus a contradiction lies at the heart of this critique of Trotsky and mainstream Trotskyism. Its guiding principle is that socialism is and must be the act of the working class, but it remains myopic about the substitutionism at the heart of Bolshevik practice, and the same substitutionist approach which Trotsky carried over into the Fourth International. The significance of these two articles is that they take the critique of Trotsky and the 4th International as far as it is possible to go while remaining part of that tradition. In the last analysis, however, they remain incomplete.

Mike Rooke

For Livingstone...

Why is Workers' Liberty so obsessed with the crimes of Ken Livingstone? The movement to get him elected as Labour Mayor of London is the most potent challenge yet from within the labour movement to the Blairite machine, and it is centred round the simple and just demand for Labour's members and affiliated trade unions to have a free choice of candidate.

We often support limited political movements with leaders or figureheads who are dubious characters. Take Tony Benn, for example. Supporter of the 1964-70 Labour government's attempt to shackle the trade unions. Supporter of the Morning Star, which was as much the paid servant of totalitarian regimes as Livingstone's Labour Herald was. Yet, in the Bennite movement of the early 1980s, we were able to let criticism on these points take proper second place to our support for the movement.

Why the different attitude to Livingstone? Is it a double standard whereby consorting with Russia's totalitarian regime is a venial sin and consorting with its Arab similars a mortal one? Or a reflex reaction to Livingstone's ultra-factionalism against WL? You should remember Trotsky's advice to Martin Abern: hatred is a very bad guide in politics.

Paul Campbell

... and Against

We can support movements of working class self-assertion, however limited, because their development and internal debate help us to promote our politics against the unreliable leaders. To support a mood of wishful thinking about Ken Livingstone as the coming champion of the left can only increase confusion. There is no real "movement"; and in movements where he has been active Livingstone - unlike Tony Benn - has been a destructive factionalist allied with the most noxious sects. Examples: welfare state, Gulf War, anti-racism, free education.

A Labour Left which accepts Livingstone as its leader is a Left which accepts having its own development stymied and subordinated to what Livingstone himself has called "cynical soft-sell" politics. Yes, softness on Russian Stalinism is as bad as softness on Arab tyrannies. But on the issues which we disputed with Tony Benn in 1979-81 - Stalinism, nationalism on Europe, and so on - he represented the majority views of the Left, developed over decades.

Livingstone tries to introduce political confusions and corruptions all his own into the Left. We do not hate; we simply do the unfashionable thing of saying what we think.

Colin Foster

Back to the contents page for this issue of Workers' Liberty

Back to the Workers' Liberty magazine index

[ Home | Publications | Links ]