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A Bad Case of the Trots

Anna Chen

An edited version of this article appeared in Tribune, 5 September 2003, under the title ‘They Put the Rot in Trotsky’

Who’s been putting the dick into diktat? Who put the rank in rank and file?

After 18 years of Tory rule, many leftists less than thrilled by a Labour Party galloping rightwards in its pursuit of discredited Conservative policies joined the far Left to support the socialist cause. In pressing for a left-of-Labour alternative, the Socialist Workers Party deservedly made itself a pole of attraction, and hitching up with the fledgling Socialist Alliance in the 2000 London mayoral elections provided a welcome boost for both organisations.

After a highly promising start, it’s clear the far Left is now such a basket case it’s amazing no-one issues public health warnings. Not so much Darkness At Noon as Carry On Comrade; I haven’t seen so much backstabbing, treachery and naked personal ambition since Dallas came off the air. This is a world which provides leaders rather than leadership and where, as they say, your opponents may be in front of you but your enemies are behind you.

SA chair Nick Wrack’s recent Tribune article claiming business as usual at the SA coalface was headlined, ‘We’re still alive and kicking’. Kicking who, Nick? New Labour? The far Right? Nope, looks like the membership to me, comrade.

But then Nick should know. As an independent member of the SA executive committee who made chair once fellow lawyer Liz Davies had been manoeuvred out under mysterious circumstances, he has presided over the destruction of the best chance of revival the Left has had in years, watching while the SWP’s old habits reasserted themselves and strangled the SA amid a welter of intrigue, malfeasance, and allegations of assault. And this year we saw electoral chicanery increase the SWP’s presence on the SA executive committee from three out of 22 to 13 out of 36, confirming fears that the SA is merely the SWP in a funny hat.

Now that the SWP’s fratricidal Tammany Hall tactics in Birmingham have split one of the healthiest anti-war groups in the UK and all but destroyed the SA, we need an honest appraisal of what is going wrong.

Regarding the labour and anti-war movements as its own private property, the SWP has come on like some sort of Bolshevik Re-enactment Society, purging activists according to whim, and hobbling our own side. This includes replacing a raft of proven socialists in Birmingham with SWP hacks hastily recruited to the SA (which probably accounts for Nick’s recent ‘doubling’ in membership numbers) in order to pack out meetings. The purgees include the highly respected Birmingham SA chair, general election candidate and victimised firefighter Steve Godward, and the very able press officer, Rumy Hasan, himself from a Muslim background.

Not only did the SA do nothing around the recent firefighters’ strike, rendering Godward dangerously vulnerable (he was eventually sacked), but we were then treated to the sight of John Rees, editor of the tiny SWP theoretical journal, sitting in judgement on a much-loved working-class militant and declaring that he ‘represented very little’. Professional revolutionaries – don’tcha just love ’em?

At the same time as the SWP was failing the striking firefighters – who should surely have been our cause célèbre – it also hamstrung us in the Stop the War Coalition, ordering SWP members not to do any work for the SA during the build-up to the big February demo. Then the SA executive cravenly accepted being denied a speaker on the 15 February anti-war platform despite the membership playing a key role in building the movement at every level. Even so, the SA’s nominal ‘chief press officer’, SWP Central Committee member and now suddenly spokesperson for the StWC, John Rees, swanned about on stage within inches of the microphone throughout. Lucky old Charles Kennedy, whose Lib Dems picked up much of the anti-war vote even though they supported the war once bombing had begun, must have thought it was Christmas.

Too many antiquated attitudes are being swept in under cover of the war, with power relations found under capitalism thriving unchallenged in far Left organisations. The SWP are fond of espousing anti-racist sentiments. And yet, for example, a District Organiser can insist that because ‘all’ Chinese supposedly work in catering and are therefore atomised, we must all be petit bourgeois: the deadliest insult in the far-Left lexicon apart from ‘fascist’. When I questioned this at a meeting, Rees barked that ‘The Party’ doesn’t do any work with the Chinese because ‘it’s British workers who count, not Chinese’. We apparently experience no racism because ‘the axis of racism is black and white’.

But the reason Nick’s article could be illustrated with a photograph of Chinese people rallying behind the Camden Socialist Alliance banner at the 2001 demonstration when a thousand Chinese protested at government attempts to scapegoat us for the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak, was that the SA had a press officer who was able to take up their cause. It’s just one example of setting down roots and doing something practical and effective alongside a community instead of ignoring them until election time, which is how the SWP-dominated SA plays it.

Unfortunately, the SA no longer has this facility. The effective press operation that helped us to punch beyond our weight in the media in both the general and London mayoral elections was gratuitously wrecked by the SWP without a word of protest from their acolytes in the executive. Even more scandalously, the SA remained quiescent during the last local elections when the far Right took off, leaving rank and file socialists to campaign without a national press operation to back them up. Our vote remained stuck at around five per cent while the BNP gained several times that. The SWP are sufficiently deluded to insist that, in the present political climate, the election of one solitary councillor constitutes some sort of victory. Instead of holding a post-mortem, they scamper for their next get-popular-quick scheme, a clandestine electoral lash-up with the Birmingham mosque, because, according to Rees, they no longer have any use for the ‘Left ghetto’. No wonder they act as if the only alternative to New Labour is not the SA, but the SWP.

And now we reach the SWP’s Clause 4 moment. Whilst wooing the religious leaders of the Muslim community, SWP CC member and StWC convenor Lindsey German announced that women’s and gay rights are no longer regarded as ‘shibboleths’. Having degenerated into a top-down organisation where ‘democratic centralism’ means all centralism and no democracy, perhaps it’s understandable that they would feel flock envy for those they regard as leaders of a monolithic community.

Their top-down instincts may chime with the religious leaders’ control over their congregation, but it means ignoring the struggles of working-class, secular, gay and women Muslims. It reinforces the image that all Muslims are under the control of the clergy and negates any possibility of liberation for the oppressed. Socialists have already mutely attended meetings where Muslim men and women sit separately and a Muslim woman speaker apologises to her elders from the platform for wearing insufficiently modest clothing.

Having run the SA into the ground, the SWP now threaten to do the same to the fragmenting anti-war movement. Many are pointing out that if the SWP/StWC wishes to take credit for getting up to two million protesters onto the streets, they need to explain where that two million have gone, and why everything all but ground to a halt once bombing began.

In my own case, having established press operations for the StWC after September 11, it was with a sense of bemusement that I found myself accused of the crime of making myself ‘indispensable’ by senior SWP members. I am now banned from doing press for the StWC even though they admit they need help. You’d think I was the Evil Daughter of Fu Manchu rather than a committed activist who plugged a gap previously ignored by the geniuses on the Left.

The fractures threaten to widen if the StWC – which, after all, now owns the anti-war ‘brand’ – remains obstructive to other anti-war efforts. Their refusal to back the Menwith Hill and Fairford airbase campaigns, hostility towards the Peace Not War CD organisers, and their pre-empting of a Socialist Party-initiated student action by two days, make some suspect they prefer competition to cooperation.

It would be nice to see all September events being built by the movement as a whole. We’d all rather work with the StWC but what do you do when you oppose the war but no longer trust the movement’s self-appointed leaders?

If the Left wants to grow it has to decide whether it genuinely wants fresh socialist talent in the movement as it claims it does, or whether it stagnates. The choice is clear – use it or lose it. Everything else is just ice-picks at dawn.

Anna Chen is a former press officer of the Socialist Alliance and Stop the War Coalition.