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A Response to ‘A Response to Anna Chen’

Anna Chen

Passages from ‘A Response to Anna Chen’ appear in italics, and are followed by Anna’s comments.

I can’t really go along with your critique of the SWP’s wider politics. My own criticisms would be from the right rather than, as yours are, from the left. For example, unlike you, I don’t think the StWC leadership was wrong in refusing to put a Socialist Alliance speaker on the platform at the Hyde Park rally at the end of the 15 February anti-war demonstration. The speakers the StWC did invite were nearly all figures with a public profile and some sort of mass base of support, and were chosen to represent the broad forces opposing the war. That was why (quite rightly) the Lib Dems got a speaker. By your own analysis – i.e. the fact that it has managed to get just "one solitary councillor" elected – the SA didn’t come into that category.

I would have been more comfortable with Kennedy’s inclusion had the Lib Dems anti-war stance been consistently opposed to the war after bombing began. However, I felt it was vital to get a broad range of dissent over this issue – although I’m sure we’re agreed that the line had to stop with the BNP. But should the protests should have included Tories, military and secret service personnel as well? Maybe. I don’t know, but, it was Kennedy’s prevarication over the war that worried me, not his role as Lib Dem leader.

There were so many representatives from small, obscure groups and bodies that few in the crowd had heard of, that I still believe the SA – as the self-styled alternative to New Labour – should have been represented. Had Liz [Davies] or even Dave Nellist still been our chair, I can’t imagine them not getting a place on the platform. As the SWP, in dominating the STWC, choose the speakers, this looked like a deliberate attempt to write the SA out of history. Remember, the two STWC press persons who were attempting to smash down the media walls with varying degrees of success, were Mike [Marqusee] and myself, both SA activists. And the SA had done so much nationally to build the demos. Following the SWP’s order to SWP members not to do any work for the SA, I believe this was part of a pattern of running the SA into the ground, scuttling the whole project.

Where I think you hit the nail on the head is when you point out that, having mobilised such a huge demonstration, the SWP and its allies in the leadership of the StWC "need to explain where those people have gone since then". But you don’t offer any answer to this question.

Indeed, I don’t feel qualified to offer an answer that’s set in stone to this. All I can do is offer up my observation that everything screeched to a halt despite all those shouty reports that anti-war protests would intensify, not stop, once war began. One minute we’re supposed to have sit-downs and take over town centres with our pots and pans, the next Lindsey German is telling everyone that direct action is "elitist".

I think there was a very good chance that, had everything not broken up for the SWP leaders’ summer break, and had someone continued the forward pressure started by Mike and myself, we may have kept the movement and public focused on the main issue – which should surely have been getting the troops withdrawn, and continuing to expose the Blair Government’s lies that got Brutish troops there in the first place. WMDs, Dr Kelly and all that. And what a missed opportunity to politicise a whole wave of young activists who now hate the far Left because of the undemocratic practice they’ve witnessed. This is the greatest scandal – the shocking waste of all that young talent and energy.

My own explanation would be that the SWP’s ultra-left politics offered no perspective for the hundreds of thousands of people, many of them new to political action, who marched in protest against the war on 15 February, and this played an important part in the StWC’s failure to mobilise them in any effective way after the demonstration was over. Lindsey German, John Rees & Co certainly did their best to get the maximum numbers out on the demo, but that was so they could turn to the SWP’s members and periphery and say: "Look, we have organised the biggest political demonstration in British history. See what a powerful and important party we are." They regarded the demonstrators quite cynically, I would say, using them basically as a stage army, and had no interest in them apart from that.

Yes, I think they hit the ceiling of their abilities with this huge demo. They are incapable of turning that energy into something more lasting because they play fantasy politics. The real deal scares them.

It’s worth noting that the SWP later claimed to have sold 9,000 copies of Socialist Worker on what, according to them, was a demonstration of two million. Even allowing for the SWP’s usual practice of fiddling the figures (which would suggest that there were one million on the demo and sales amounted to 4,500), this means that only one in every 220 demonstrators was attracted to the SWP’s politics even to the extent of forking out 80p to read its paper.

That is pretty shocking, but strangely unsurprising.

Having fulfilled their allotted role of making up numbers on the demo, what use were these people to the SWP? So, whereas the StWC’s perspective after 15 February should have been to concentrate on organising these broad forces so as to put pressure on MPs (particularly Labour MPs) with the aim of producing the biggest possible revolt against Blair’s war policy in the House of Commons, the SWP argued on the contrary that parliamentary politics was an irrelevance and that the only way forward was sit-down protests in city centres, college occupations and other such forms of direct action and civil disobedience – none of which appealed to any but a tiny minority of those who took to the streets on 15 February.

And then went and contradicted themselves with the "elitist" accusation.

Of course, proper methodical pressure should have had some effect but I don’t think the superannuated student "radicals" who run the SWP have ever grown up. They are quite incapable of doing this. That’s where Mike Marqusee was such a boon. He understood this terrain and that’s another reason why he had to go as Rees was so useless by comparison.

In my opinion the SWP leaders acted, again, entirely cynically. They wanted to narrow the post-demo activities down to a militant core of anti-war campaigners, who they hoped would provide them with potential recruits in way that the mass forces on the 15 February demo could not. This is not to deny that there was also probably an element of "honest" self-delusion at work here, in that the SWP invariably tends to wildly overestimate the level of political struggle and popular radicalisation. This was what underlay the StWC’s utterly impractical proposal that the trade unions should organise political strikes in response to the outbreak of war. It was also apparent at the launch of the People’s Assembly, which was the StWC’s main initiative after 15 February. The SWP spoke in all seriousness of the Assembly going into permanent session and forming a popularly supported alternative to the existing Westminster parliament. And this at a point when all eyes were on the House of Commons in the run-up to the final vote over whether or not to back war on Iraq. At the time, one SWP ally in the StWC leadership told me breathlessly that an earlier parliamentary vote endorsing the government’s Iraq policy had "discredited bourgeois democracy", and that the People’s Assembly was a step towards an alternative form of direct democracy – a sort of embryonic soviet! I got cross and told him this was just infantile nonsense, a response which I think erred on the side of diplomacy.

Oh my gahd! The so-called "People’s Assembly", by all accounts, was a graphic reminder of the total lack of democracy on the Left – like a north Korean rally. I saw the Chinese Cultural Revolution from an uncomfortably close vantage point, and I can see raging parallels.

Of course, it was never likely that Blair would suffer a defeat in the House of Commons. The combination of Tory support and the "payroll vote" was almost inevitably going to provide him with a pro-war majority. Realistically, the task of socialists was to ensure the biggest possible rebellion in the Parliamentary Labour Party, so as to undermine Blair’s position as party leader and provide more favourable conditions for a struggle within the labour movement against the New Labour clique. But the SWP had no interest in this. After all, its perspective is not to pursue a fight within the labour movement’s existing political wing, the Labour Party, but to build a "socialist alternative" outside of and in opposition to Labour.

I remember them going on about pulling New Labour to the Left and this seemed like a damned good notion. Unfortunately, they talk the talk ...

The reason I agreed with the need to build an alternative to Labour (hmm, let’s see if I can remember – it seems so long ago) was that decent Labourites were leaping away like fleas off a dog, rightly repelled by the Torification of their beloved party. Intrinsically, the Labour party has always made accommodations with Capital that made it impossible to do anything more than shore up the few benefits made to the British working class. This would mean a continuing process of allowing wc rights and benefits to be shaved away bit by bit; no matter how slowly, it would always be a downwards motion.

But the biggest block to a vibrant, thriving labour movement seems to me to be the lack of a labour movement at all under current conditions – apart from the odd dead-cat bounce. I think that Steve Godward’s situation as a firefighter who ended up fighting on his own, abandonded by his own organisations – both SA and FBU – is a sobering illustration of this. I don’t believe that the SWP could ever allow a thriving alternative to take root and grow as that would make them redundant. Therefore, by their own twisted logic, they always have to act as saboteurs, just in case the class gets ahead of itself (uneven consciousness, dontcha know) – meaning anything smarter, better, more principled and more efficient than themselves has to be crushed.

That there wasn’t a bigger revolt in the PLP was not of course solely down to the SWP’s political inadequacies. Other factors were involved, including Clare Short’s pathetic capitulation to Blair on the basis of his transparently spurious assurance that the UN would play a major role in post-war Iraq, and the tactical ineptitude shown by certain Campaign Group MPs in calling for Blair’s resignation at a meeting of the PLP, both of which helped to consolidate support for the party leadership among Labour MPs. But the SWP, through its dominant role in the StWC, certainly made a contribution to this, by squandering the political potential of the 15 February demonstration through a combination of cynicism, sectarianism and ultra-left silliness.


As for the Socialist Alliance, in the light of what I’ve said, you can see I don’t share your view that the SA represented "the best chance of revival the Left has had in years". I don’t think it’s possible to build a socialist alternative to the Labour Party by fusing a number of far left groups, adding a sprinkling of individual activists, denouncing the treachery of the Labour leadership, standing against Labour in elections, and calling on working people to rally to the spotless banner of the new socialist organisation. This was how the Communist Party of Great Britain was launched (rejecting Lenin’s advice about the need to work in the Labour Party), and it’s the basic reason why the CPGB remained marginal to mass politics in Britain throughout its seven decades of existence.

Well, Bob, as my confidence in my own judgement has all but evaporated, you may well be right.

All I know is that the the morale boost felt during those two campaigns was widespread, real and heartfelt. And even if it had only succeeded in pulling Labour to the Left and enabled Labour lefties more room to manouevre, it would have been worth it.

It also gave us an idea of the power that remains to be tapped when people begin to feel confident, focused and united. What a wonderful dream. It was on the first battle bus during the London mayoral election campaign in 2000 that I felt a surge of hope and joy as I looked round at all my new "comrades" (or so I thought at the time). It was a new beginning, a fresh chance to put sectarian nonsense behind us and fight the real enemy. Call me Ultra Left but that meant the treacherous New Labour and the capitalist system it reinforced.

One of the things I have learnt is that you simply cannot trust the majority of the far Left leaders at ANY level. They love the abstract mass – but they hate the real people in the mass. It’s all about the acquisition of personal power – and we’ve had the benefit of Orwell and Stalinism to tell us where that road leads.

Socialism is supposed to be a progressive force in society. In it’s present form – led by phonies, charlatans, the psychotically ambitious, the terminally thick, the craven and the downright nasty – it isn’t. At least in England.

The mass CPs that were formed – in France, Germany and elsewhere – arose out of crises, conflicts and splits in already existing working class parties. When such parties do exist, as a general rule that is the only way a left alternative (or at least one with significant popular support) can be established. In Britain, divisions within the Labour Party have never reached the point where they have led to a mass breakaway at national level, so the possibility of building a new left-wing party in opposition to Labour has never arisen. Even during the past decade or so, as the Labour leadership’s rightist politics and suppression of internal democracy have produced considerable tensions within the party, this has resulted only in partial and localised splits.

Militant made a valiant attempt and failed to change Labour from the inside. Rather than splitting and creating a bright new movement, New labour seems stuck in a downward imploding spiral, nosediving in ever decreasing circles. Surely we need to jump outside that kamikaze trajectory?

True, these limited splits have allowed some successful electoral challenges to Labour to be made from the left. But a study of the processes through which they arose only underlines my point about how a political alternative to an existing mass workers’ party can emerge. The Scottish Socialist Party, for example, has its origins in a de facto split that took place in the Glasgow Labour Party, after Tommy Sheridan and others were expelled for their opposition to the Poll Tax. Sheridan’s then comrade Dave Nellist was likewise thrown out of the party in the course of the Labour leadership’s purge of Militant. Dennis Canavan, Ken Livingstone and John Marek were all stitched up in in internal party selections and then expelled after deciding to stand as independents against Labour. It is no accident that their candidacies resulted in electoral success. Through their earlier work in the Labour Party, all of these individuals – Sheridan, Nellist, Canavan, Livingstone and Marek – had established political records that the general public was familiar with and broadly supported. And even a loyal Labour voter could understand that these candidates had been forced, by the Labour right wing’s undemocratic practices, to stand against the party. People were also angered by the fact that party apparatchiks were trying to dictate to the electorate who they could and couldn’t vote for. It was this combination of political respect, personal sympathy and anti-bureaucratic sentiment that won these candidates their votes.

The Socialist Alliance, as I’ve said, was formed by entirely different methods. As a result, most people haven’t even heard of the SA. Its individual candidates have no political record of which voters are aware, have conducted no struggles in the Labour Party, have never suffered expulsion for their political principles, and consequently are almost entirely unknown to the electorate. Why, then, should any significant section of the electorate consider voting for them? As recent experience has shown, if traditional Labour supporters are disillusioned with New Labour, they may vote for the Lib Dems or even the BNP, but they won’t vote (at least in any significant numbers) for the SA. From the outset, election results for the SA have, predictably, been almost uniformly disastrous.

Bob, I cannot argue with this.

With a glimmer of schadenfreude I note that the SWP’s own beloved MAB recommended a vote for the Lib Dems in Brent, so even they aren’t swallowing the line.

I only regret that it wasn’t given a proper chance because there was something there, even if it turned out that it wasn’t the complete solution. The profile was successfully being raised – the next test was, once we had grabbed everone’s attention, did we have any solid policies to offer? We failed miserably. We couldn’t even offer meaningful support to the striking firefighters despite having one as an SA general election candidate!

This has presented serious problems for the SWP leaders. As Mike Marqusee points out in his Signs of the Times article, Lindsey German and John Rees can get away with doubling the numbers when it comes to reporting attendances at demonstrations or meetings, but in the case of elections the figures are there in black and white for everyone to see. In the London Assembly elections in 2000 the SA averaged 2.9% in the constituencies it contested and got 1.6% in the top-up section, in the 2001 general election its candidates received an average of 1.6%, and numerous interventions in local elections and by-elections have produced derisory vote after derisory vote. Even in the Hackney mayoral election Paul Foot, who at least enjoyed some sort of name-recognition, could muster only 13% as against 42% for the right-wing Labour candidate. All in all, the whole enterprise has become a bit of a political embarrassment for the SWP leadership. The only victory the SA has registered was in Preston, where Paul Lavalette was elected as a councillor with the support of the local mosque. This was obviously why the SWP made its turn to the idea of "Peace and Justice" candidates (a turn which would now seem to have reached a dead end, judging by reports in the Weekly Worker).

I still maintain that the SWP made this turn prematurely having done everything it could to halt steady progess that was being made in its tracks. Skating across the surface, failing to put down roots, acting like tourists, sniffing out what’s up for grabs, they require instant gratification. That’s as much to do with the psychopathology of the Left as it is with the "politics".

If success could be achieved on that basis in a single ward in Preston, the SWP leaders reasoned, why not try and repeat it on a larger scale in a big city? Birmingham, where Labour had lost control of the council in the May elections at least in part because of Muslim opposition to the war, and where CLPs had been bureaucratically suspended in order to block so-called "Asian entryism", seemed to offer fertile ground. As you say, this then created a crisis in the SA, as other socialists opposed the SWP’s readiness to junk parts of the SA programme in order to build their new alliance, and the SWP responded with organisational measures to remove its critics. But it wasn’t the SWP’s "Peace and Justice" turn that caused the failure of the SA. Rather, it was the failure of the SA that caused the "Peace and Justice" turn.

The SA might well have failed in the end. But I still believe that this experiment should have been allowed to go the distance without being smashed up by Georgy Porgy and his pals. Other things I’ve learnt: aside from a few notable exceptions, there is absolutely zero solidarity in the movement. It’s actually quite deranged and debased in that way. Personal status for onseself and one’s cronies quite openly comes first. There is no diversity and none is wanted. Even if there was suddenly a mass party, I’d never trust it after my experience – and I’d advise all minorities to give it a wide berth ( as they already do for the same reasons).

It’s all very sad. And that’s why I’m returning to try and get my creative work up and running again.

So, while I’m the last person to rally to the defence of the SWP, I think you’re wrong to accuse them of having "strangled the SA". No doubt the SWP’s methods within the Alliance have indeed been characterised by "a welter of intrigue, malfeasance, and allegations of assault". But however democratically the SWP leadership had behaved the SA was always a non-starter as an electoral alternative to Labour, for the reasons I’ve outlined. If there is to be a "post-mortem" of the SA’s political failure, as you suggest, that is the only realistic conclusion that can be drawn.

The upshot is that I am no politican. I am politically informed with my heart in the right place and was prepared to do the work. Any mass movement will contain a lot of people like myself but it seems that we get recruited in order to be given a kicking and make screwed-up individuals feel powerful. The skills I brought to the movement were for the pusposes of the movement (such as it is). Had I realised thay would be appropriated by the SWP and treated as if they were in the personal gift of the little pashas, I wouldn’t have touched this lot with the proverbial ten foot pole. Thanks for the above, Bob. I’ll continue to chew it over.