Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 4, 2007

The SWP, Respect and the united front

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm

Yesterday the SWP issued a statement on the crisis in Respect that defended its reputation as having “a long record of working over a wide range of issues with people and organisations with different views to our own.” This reputation, such as it is, is based on following “the method of the united front as developed by Lenin and Trotsky in the early 1920s and further elaborated by Trotsky faced with the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s.” For those unfamiliar with Leninist arcana, the united front was a tactic meant to ally revolutionaries and reformists against a common enemy, most especially the fascists. The SWP makes it quite clear that they are the revolutionaries, although it is not quite so clear who the “reformists” are. They state:

(a) The possibility of fighting back against particular attacks and horrors depends on the widest possible unity. The minority who are revolutionaries cannot by their own efforts build a big enough movement ourselves. We have to reach out to draw into struggle over these questions political forces that agree with us on particular immediate issues even if they disagree over the long term global solution to them.

(b) By struggling over these things alongside people who believe in reform, the revolutionary minority can show in practice that its approach is the correct one and so win people to its ideas. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote more than a century ago, the revolutionary understanding of the need to confront the present system is the best way to win even meagre reforms within it.

There is so much confusion here that one hardly knows where to begin. Let’s establish first of all that the united front was never intended to be applied to electoral politics. The united front could be summarized under the slogan “March separately–strike jointly”. In his December 1931 article “For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism,” Leon Trotsky wrote:

No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself, with his grandmother, and even with Noske and Grezesinsky. On one condition, not to bind one’s hands.

If this is the guiding principle of the SWP’s intervention in Respect, one can only wonder why the crisis took so long as it did to come to a head. Lenin and Trotsky despised the reformists, especially the German social democracy that had been responsible for the murder of Rosa Luxemburg.

When it came to electoral politics, Lenin and Trotsky did urge voting for Labour Party or Social Democratic candidates but they never suggested that revolutionaries and reformists run joint campaigns of the sort that Respect amounted to. Calling for such a vote was conceived in the same spirit as united front actions–a way to undermine one’s opponents. Arguing with the British ultralefts, Lenin made the case for calling a vote for Labour in Great Britain:

At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man—that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.

Was this what the SWP had in mind when it worked to elect George Galloway? Anybody who reads their statement about the split in Respect can only conclude that this is exactly what they think. Galloway, a scrappy old Labour Party politician, probably sniffed this attitude out early on. If I was a politician who had stuck his neck out confronting the warmakers in Parliament, as he did, I would be downright insulted with the implication that I was a “reformist.” One supposes that on a highly abstract level that the term is justified since Galloway was not really about raising “revolutionary” demands to abolish capitalism in Great Britain. But so what? The cutting edge issue today is not the abolition of private property but resisting Anglo-American imperialism’s assault on Arab and Muslim peoples in pursuit of oil. Let’s leave the debate over socialism to a future period when it is more immediate.

The SWP statement reveals an inability to see how such “united front” calculations would undermine efforts to turn Respect into a viable mass party that had the allegiance of the rank-and-file. If the “Leninists” operated in the party as a “revolutionary” wing seeking to promote its own agenda against the reformists in their midst, they would inevitably be perceived as fair weather friends.

The movement toward broad, leftwing parties grows apace throughout the world. Young workers and students invest time and energy in formations like the Socialist Alliances, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Greens in the US and Respect not because they see them as some kind of united front, but because they see no future in bourgeois politics nor in the sectarian formations that these mass-oriented parties attract willy-nilly.

This is not the first time that socialists have questioned the appropriateness of seeing these new types of electoral formations in terms of the united front of the 1920s and 30s. In an article titled “The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front: a reply to John Rees” that appeared in the October 2004 International Socialism, the SWP’s theoretical journal, Murray Smith wrote:

At the SWP’s congress last October it was clear that their concept of party building involves using ‘united fronts’ as a pool for recruitment, with the Marxist forums serving as the conduit towards the party. Running through the positions of John Rees and Alex Callinicos is the idea that there is a norm for a revolutionary party, represented by existing far left organisations and in particular the SWP, and that all other parties are to be judged by how far they correspond to this norm. The existing far left organisations, even the most open of them, remain narrow and tied to their own particular shibboleths. They are a product of a past phase or phases of the class struggle and the workers’ movement.

The task for them now is to invest their intellectual, political and human resources in the building of broader parties and to work in a comradely way to bring the essential conquests of Marxism, the lessons of history, into these new parties. The traditions of mass socialist and communist parties have not been wiped out by the experience of the last 20 years.

The experience of the 20th century has enriched the Marxist programme. It is at present necessary for Marxist currents to organise as such in new parties. When it is no longer the case it will be because Marxist ideas have become largely dominant in the party and such separate organisation is no longer necessary.

Today the main thing stopping the Socialist Alliance (SA) from moving towards becoming a party is a lack of political will, above all on the part of the SWP. I think the SWP is making a huge mistake by relegating the SA to being one united front among others. If the SA were to become a mass campaigning organisation and if the SWP were to throw its resources into building it, then it could very quickly make the transition to a party.

While seeking to understand the new developments in the class struggle, the SWP remains stuck in an outmoded vision of the workers’ movement. Consequently, instead of posing the question of the building of the party in terms of the possibilities at the beginning of the 21st century its approach is in many ways ‘back to the 1970s’, a more open, campaigning approach to building the SWP, but nothing qualitatively new.

Alex Callinicos concluded his article in the IST bulletin with the following remarks:

Since Seattle the revolutionary left has been embarking—along with many others, fortunately—on a new voyage. There is no map to guide us—no set of rules or obvious historical reference point to dictate what we should do. The potential rewards are enormous. History will not forgive us if we miss this chance.

Leaving aside the secondary question of whether the voyage started at Seattle or earlier, those are sentiments to which we can heartily subscribe. It is precisely because the SWP is in our opinion in danger of ‘missing this chance’ that this discussion is so important and needs to be pursued.

Although Smith’s article was focused on problems that the SWP had in understanding the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance, it can obviously be applied to the Respect fiasco as well. After repeated disasters working with those outside the purified “revolutionary” world that the SWP inhabits, one might expect these comrades to wake up to new realities. This is not 1921 and they are not the Bolsheviks, however hard that is for John Rees, Alex Callinicos and company to swallow.


  1. For people (like me) who want some short background on the RESPECT breakup, there’s a minimal amount here:


    Louis, your previous post https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/11/01/the-crisis-in-respect/

    has some information that might help flesh out the wiki.

    Comment by e — November 4, 2007 @ 9:55 pm

  2. But Louis there is a very close relationship between what was done in StW and what was done in Respect. You can’t force politics into pre-determined moulds and the idea for Respect came up as a consequence of activists desires for the activities on the streets to have an electoral expression. However antiquarian our political understanding was it was these politics that allowed us to avoid the kinds of mistakes which you rightly identify with the ISO, without which the StW movement would not have emerged, and consequently, Respect would never have happened. In other words those arguing what you are arguing need to face the fact that all this happened because of our politics not in spite of them.

    A lot of people now hopping on the bandwagon and piling in are people who would have sabotaged this from the start. I would say to my comrades who are currently blocking with them, that once the SWP bashing has finished, these are not people who are likely to be capable of any kind of constructive work at all (constructive work of the kind which we in the SWP have been absolutely central to, whatever other disagreements emerged).

    Historically in this country, Revolutionaries have played a key role in strengthening the wider left. The SWP certainly stands in that tradition, whether it was the launch of the ANL, whether it was in trade union work, whether it was in StW or whether it was in Respect. In reality even our opponents are forced to backhandedly concede this (usually with disengenuous attempt to seperate ‘some of their best friends’ etc from the ‘leadership’, again, arguments that neglect the unfortunate fact that it is because and not in spite of both our politics and our organisation that their ‘best friends’ behave in that way. Much as I like the idea that as an individual I’m a superb and wonderful person and this explains my superb and wonderful nature, sad to say its probably not WHOLLY true. Obviously however my faults are entirely the responsibility of the CC..actually hmmm, it IS an attractive idea).

    When you try and suggest that organisations which unite revolutionaries and reformists cannot function, it seems to me that in the current situation this is a recipe for despair. There is a peculiar situation in advanced capitalist countries at the moment, a situation which we had a fortaste of in the ANL. The absence of a reformism that delivers reforms for some people implies that revolution is on the cards. This is sadly not true.

    What you will get developing is varieties of do-it-yourself reformism. In the past where you had reforms but there was still a gap between these reforms and workers aspirations this kind of creative reformism took the shape of syndicalism. In the SWP we were very creative in relating to this (often being accused of being syndiclists ourselves) but our ability to do so rested on the fact that we were a (more or less) organised group of revolutionaries. It would have been extremely foolish to become syndicalists and it would have been equally foolish to dismiss a massive and burdgening mood of resistance because it wasn’t revolutionary.

    Exactly the same is true today. Except this time we are dealing with a burdgening political radicalisation (which has its ups and downs, its excitements and disapointments, some of them very deep, as with George Galloways recent political degeneration, similarly tragic in my view to what happened to Arthur Scargill).

    Its absolutely right to suggest that some of these tensions relate to tensions between revolutionaries and reformists. It is very understandable in my view, that those whose natural home would be on the Labour left, if such a thing existed, become very annoyed that they are dependent on the organisational and political weight of a bunch of Trots. But the truth is that this unlikely situation is neither their fault or our fault.

    Their is a real and objective need for us to work togeather if the rage which we share on a range of questions is to find political expression. To suggest in advance that such a thing is impossible, or that what happened was inevitable, is to precisely rule out developments which you obviously and badly want to see happen in your own country.

    In my view what we are witnessing here is two quite different kinds of problems being tragically collapsed into one. The first kind of problem reflects genuine difficulties that emerge in response to the transition from a group of activists hammering out their differences informally to get going (a neccessary stage I think) and a later stage where we have become a serious political force. Someone like Salma Yakoob was a real force not only as an electoral symbol but as someone who developed excellent arguments (interest declared I’ve used them) about the relationship between political activity and problems of communalism etc. She was also someone who challenged the whole communal setup (as Respect did in Tower Hamlets) dominated by Labour.

    However its also true that a number of problems emerged at the practical level which ran the risk of duplicating the things which we she undoubtably stood out against. This was because of an argument that emerged around the relationship between electoral success and political progress. These were real tensions and problems, that led to some nasty bust-ups.

    But I think this could have eventually been contained on both sides if it was not for two other things. One was the relatively low level of class struggle (which, oh terrible irony, looks set to pick up even as we speak, meaning that we’re throwing away all kinds of potential opportunities in the midst of this row), and the other was….George Galloway doing a Scargill.

    We gave him enourmous lee-way (probably too much) not just because of his role but because someone who had been through the incredible witch hunts he had couldn’t simply be dropped because their behaviour was becoming erratic. But also because we were trying to avert the damaging split we see happening now (ironically back then it was Salma vs George with us trying to cool things down, something we also had to do with our own membership in the SWP as well as in Respect).

    But what his intervention has done has ensured that what were always going to be tricky and difficult arguments, (for us as well: certainly we have made mistakes) has completely sabotaged and poisened the movement for purposes which are entirely unclear. Its ensured that our differences have got the better of us before we were large enough to contain them.

    The notion that its impossible to have parties that have a left and a right in them is a bit of an odd one, given existing party formations. It makes no sense. Of course there can be. Of course there are greater difficulties with this then there are with other kinds of campaigns but we need to think about how to surmount them. Otherwise there is no prospect for progress at all.

    The notion that revolutionaries cannot play any role in them is rather belied by the fact that its unlikely such a formation could have existed as long as it did without us.

    So all in all Louis, in practice, yours is a council of despair for all those who would like to see electoral formations to the left of Labour. What your argument also does, I think inadvertantly, is to play into arguments which justify the most conservative elements in such coalitions witch-hunting out organised socialists. This is I think incredibly stupid.

    For whatever you think of the existence of Leninists or organised Socialists, in this country, they do actually exist, and in practice, we’ve been the backbone of the left politics which comrades in other parts of the world have seen the expression of in the vast movements of the last decade. You may want to draw different conclusions for your own political practice (I have no problem with this) but just as you have to start with people as they are to avoid ultra left dogmatic rubbish, similarly you have to start with the left as it is.

    And to start with an argument which effectively rules out the participation of the most important left current in Britain (from the point of view of those excited by some of the political experiments of the last ten years) is short-sighted and foolish indeed.

    Comment by johng — November 5, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

  3. I’m sorry, I can’t let nonsense like this pass without comment. For starters, comparisons with the ANL are absurd – it wasn’t an organisation with a broad programme but a specific one established to counter the fascist National Front. Likewise, superficial comparisons between Galloway and Scargill.

    It’s utterly jaw-droppingly hypocritical and dishonest of SWP members to start playing the victimised revolutionary socialists in all this. The word ‘socialist’ might have appeared under ‘S’ in the RESPECT acronym but there was precious little socialism in the subsequent Respect material produced at elections and precious little socialist practice – and that was fine with the SWP. The SWP leadership arrogantly thought they could control Galloway and Respect would provide a conduit to top up their membership, wrong on both counts. Class-based criticisms of Respect and Galloway from the Left met with either denunciations from the SWP of what they considered mere sectarian sniping or hysterical accusations of Islamaphobia. Now they want to play the martyred principled revolutionaries. The truth is that the SWP’s undemocratic cynical and manipulative sub-Stalinoid political practice down the years has finally alienated virtually everybody else on the British Left – either in other organsations or ‘non-aligned’.

    Comment by Doug — November 5, 2007 @ 3:22 pm

  4. I agree with the substance of your analysis and it’s something I thought of back when the SWP UK was flogging the Socialist Alliance. That’s why John Rees had to invent a new concept in Marxism: “united front of a special type.” I’m not against expanding and building on Marxist concepts, but their arguments on this issue reminded me of the bloc of four classes and other such nonsense.

    Comment by Binh — November 5, 2007 @ 3:35 pm

  5. Doug, this is just ranting. Is this the new pluralism?

    Comment by johng — November 7, 2007 @ 4:47 pm

  6. Oh Binh. John Rees did’nt ‘invent’ the term. The term started to be used, if I remember, around the movement which started to be built against the intervention in Kosovo, and I think Callinicos was the first to use it.

    It was a way of talking about a number of shifts in our own political practice around the Socialist Alliance and StW movement before Respect was even thought about. The point about the ANL and the ‘United Front’ was that Hallas pointed out that in modern advanced capitalist countries there were key differences between the 1930s and the 1970’s. In particular it was no longer the case that working class institutions acted as hermetically sealed enclaves of intellectual life, and this had implications for political practice.

    So all in all we had been thinking about this United Front stuff for quite some time. I find rather strange discussions were people are unfamiliar either with the SWP’s theory on these things, or the detail of what actually went on over the last five years, or apparently, even the SWP’s practice.

    “WTF you talking about?” being perhaps the only appropriate response.

    Comment by johng — November 7, 2007 @ 4:55 pm

  7. This post is the most intelligent and articulate examination of the Respect debacle that I have yet seen anywhere.

    Comment by MFB — November 9, 2007 @ 7:20 am

  8. […] peculiar understanding of the “united front” as applied to electoral politics that I have taken up before. Leaving aside Callinicos’s by now familiar defense of his party’s approach to such […]

    Pingback by In response to Alex Callinicos « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 15, 2008 @ 7:16 pm

  9. […] is no need for me to recapitulate my take on the Respect affair and would only refer you to my post of November 2007.  However, something needs to be said about German’s griping over the […]

    Pingback by The fight in the SWP, part five (Lindsey German) « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 25, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

  10. […] in the past by party leader Alex Callinicos. I have tried to explain why in articles titled “The SWP, Respect and the united front”  and “The Crisis in […]

    Pingback by The Socialist Workers Party’s Open Letter to the left « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 11, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

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