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The Independent Labour Network and the Labour Party

I READ Martin Sullivan’s article ("The Independent Labour Network: Another Sectarian Dead End?") in What Next? No.11 with interest. I can appreciate that confusion surrounds some of the activities which have grouped together around the Independent Labour Network (ILN).

Most of our members are people who are profoundly concerned about the evolution of the Labour Party, since the death of John Smith. By their nature these people tend to have close contacts with others.

But in some parts of the country members of existing Socialist groups have sought to give help, and have naturally expressed their own views in working with the ILN. The result is a forum, rather good natured and tolerant, but encompassing a wide spectrum of views.

As the dialogue continues, it is to be expected that disagreements will be expressed in a more systematic and orderly way. But it is clear from the nature of our project that it was designed to enable continuing discussion between Socialists who remain in, and others who have left, the Labour Party.

For this reason, I can only give you my own views, which I voice within the wider discussion, and which have greater or lesser influence in different parts of the country. Perhaps they are concisely expressed in the enclosed paper, which was written in the form of an open letter to John Prescott, after the resignation of Peter Mandelson from the Government. [The letter is reprinted in this issue of What Next? – ed.]

I hope this open letter may clarify the position, which is very far from dismissing Labour Party members from the argument about what we should do next.

Ken Coates

Whose Side Are You On, Bob?

I WAS A bit surprised by the harsh tone of Bob Pitt’s reply to me on the Grassroots Alliance ("Yes It Is: A Reply to Jonathan Joseph", What Next? No.11). Maybe this was a result of the "discussions" we had at the recent Network of Socialist Campaign Groups AGM, rather than the actual piece I wrote for What Next?. But I also get the feeling that Bob’s bluster is cover for his own positions which show a profound distrust of the far left, leading him to reject open discussion in favour of closed deals with the "sensible" people.

I don’t want to get involved in arguing with Bob over who does the most work in the Labour Party. I’ll just say that, contrary to his claim, a number of Workers Action comrades are highly active in the party. I don’t think Bob really has the right to question my involvement either, given that for the twelve years I have been in the party, we have never lived in the same area and so he has no knowledge of what I may or may not get up to.

But I will briefly state Workers Action’s view of Labour Party work. We have never held the view that the main point of Labour Party work is to score left points against other groups. To do this would be to treat the Labour Party as an ephemeral thing, something which you can just go in and out of without taking too seriously. We have always held the view that Labour holds a strategic importance, that it (and labourism as an ideology) monopolises the political consciousness of the working class and that the way to characterise the party is not by its politics alone, but by its structural ties to the British labour movement.

The consequence of this is that a serious orientation is necessary. Reputations are not based on words alone, but on deeds. When times are hard, we need to be there, doing the work. That is what we are doing.

Bob chooses to base his assessment of us on two unfairly chosen examples. First, my original article in What Next? No.11 and Workers Action No.5. This was not intended to outline our position on Labour Party work. It is something directed at the far left for discussion. It necessarily entails a discussion of the rights and wrongs of the strategy and tactics of the various sections of the left. That does not mean that this is the sole focus of Workers Action’s Labour Party work.

Second, Bob claims that we had a propagandist approach to the Campaign Group Network AGM. This is partly true, necessitated as it is by the fact that the Campaign Group never does anything!

In fact there was virtually no practical discussion at the Network AGM at all. The organisers had deliberately filled up the agenda with meaningless workshops in order to avoid discussing practical proposals to take the group forward. That is the nature of the SCG and that is why our "rhetoric" is critical of it. In fact, the only practical proposal put to the meeting was opposed – by Bob! This was to call for an open conference of the Grassroots Alliance to discuss the way forward. Contrary to the view that we try to distinguish ourselves from all others on the left, we and the other left groups worked together on this issue, while Bob finds himself with the despicable Socialist Action crew, trying to cover things up.

This is the real issue that Bob needs to address. Whose side is he on? What are the implications of saying "A special conference of the Campaign Group Network, or the Grassroots Alliance itself, to discuss the political basis of the alliance would have served no purpose other than to offer a forum for sectarians to condemn the bloc with Labour Reform"?

To me it sounds like Bob trusts the right more than he trusts the left. He doesn’t want to make the Grassroots Alliance accountable to left activists in case they have any influence over it. Yet he is quite happy to let Socialist Action, Labour Reform and the rest of the right decide for us.

The central argument of Bob’s reply to me is that Workers Action and the rest of the far left aren’t really interested in influencing actual developments. The crazy thing is that the logic of his reply to me is that we should be prevented from influencing actual developments!

Jonathan Joseph

Bosnia and Al Richardson

THE HYSTERICAL tone of Al Richardson’s letter ("Once More on Bosnia", WhatNext? No.11) in defence of Mike Jones’s article, "Some Comments on the National Question in Yugoslavia" in issue No.9, plumbed new depths in political contestation. Name-calling ("anti-Serbian racists") and personal insults characterise the letter. Calling into question one’s socialist credentials also feature as a telling part of his argument. This mode of discussion serves no purpose. In the circumstances – to coin a phrase – it generates more heat than light. His letter certainly does damage to his reputation as a socialist ideologue. It seems that when Al Richardson invited views on "the National Question" – to which we responded – he probably did not expect his request to be taken seriously. Thus when we wrote a carefully researched article on the issue, the response was insult and calumny.

This naturally raises the question, what is socialism and what makes a socialist? It seems that to pass the test one has to genuflect in the appropriate direction, and be able to recite Marxist texts like mantras. Which frankly means "When I, the great Cham, speak, let no dog ope his mouth". When I – with Paul Trewhela, Dave Hollis and Naz Rassool – took Mr Richardson at his word and entered what we thought was to be a reasoned debate, we called forth his rabid reaction. This is regrettable since it does not make for democratic discourse.

What Next? and New Interventions are supposed to be organs where ideas can be explored in order to make meaning of a world gone mad. It would be wise for individuals like Mike Jones and Al Richardson to refrain from using the journals to impose their views as the definitive ones on all subjects.

Having read much of Richardson’s writing, I acknowledge the worthy contribution he has made to socialist theory. Unfortunately, his tendency to dominate and play the bully detracts from that. I shall refrain from any further comments regarding his views on race and racism, and gender issues. It is clearly not his field of expertise and, therefore, for him to make pronouncements on these issues is presumptuous in the extreme. We were particularly saddened by his personal slur of racism. In the South African context, from which three of the contributors come, we have spent a lifetime suffering the viciousness of racism – and also, political bullies. To be now vilified by him as racists is particularly insensitive. We know the bitter experience of raw racism only too well. Sinking to this level of insult is indeed a sad comment on leftist discourse.

With regard to Al Richardson’s vitriolic criticism of Professor Bajric’s account of Slavic history, I have to leave it to him to respond.

I assure you, Mr Editor, that as far as we are concerned, the issue is now closed.

Joe Rassool

Hal Draper and the International Socialists

MY APOLOGIES to Ian Birchall ("Hal Draper and the International Socialists", What Next? No.11) for failing to mention the ISUS, the American member of the sort-of-International founded in 1970. My only defense is that I never heard of it. And that is a very peculiar fact. From about 1966 until 1969 I was chairman of the executive committee of the Independent Socialist Club in Berkeley, California. I continued in that capacity after the organization was renamed for about a year. I was a delegate to the first and second conventions of the International Socialists (IS). Although it was clear that the change of name was intended as a repudiation of the Independent Socialist League (ISL) tradition, no one ever argued openly for joining a "regroupment" consisting of the American IS, the Cliff group, and Lutte Ouvričre. Neither of my good friends Sam Farber or Joel Geier ever discussed it with me.

If Hal Draper was supposed to be part of a delegation to this international conference it would have been news to him. For two reasons. In the first place, he regarded the construction of fantasy Internationals with, at best, amused contempt. In fact, he considered the resignation of the Appeal group from the Socialist Party in 1938 and the foundation of the Socialist Workers Party to have been a mistake and voted against it at the time. In the second place, Hal Draper stormed out of the 1968 meeting which reported on the founding convention of the IS and refused to take any responsibility for the organization until he resigned from it three years later. He rightly saw the change of name as a repudiation of the politics of the ISL – his politics – but not on the question of "state capitalism" versus "bureaucratic collectivism". It was the anti-working-class politics of the new leadership of the IS that he reacted against. Hal Draper never made any secret of his contempt for the Cliff type of sect but it played no role in the debate in the IS which led to his resignation and that of other comrades.

The Reorient group, composed for the most part of union activists like myself, which formed in opposition to the new anti-union, anti-working-class politics of the IS published a number of documents and held a series of classes outlining our views. My introduction to the document in What Next? No.10 is simply a summary of those documents. None of them even mention the British IS or Lutte Ouvričre. And the defenders of the new IS leadership didn’t mention this "regroupment" of "small mass parties" either. It had no relevance to the debate. It is part of the tradition that founders of imaginary Internationals like Ian Birchall believe that the politics of the international left are profoundly affected by their play acting. In reality, in so far as people hear of these international conferences at all they tend to find them comical. Anyone who wants copies of the documents in question can order them from the Center for Socialist History.

Ernie Haberkern