A Plan But Not A Clue

Supporters of the LSA like to think they are leading the working class, but are in reality more often than not threatening open collision with it. G.O’Halloran explains why.

Crime writer Raymond Chandler once remarked that "if you believe in an ideal, you don’t own it, it owns you." Nowhere is this more apparent than within the various organisations currently coalescing beneath the Socialist Alliance banner, who off the back of the ‘success’ of saving a deposit in a by-election or two, are clamouring for unity to be formalised within a ‘Party’, and thus at a stroke restricting support to true believers only.

Needless to say the truest believers are those elements least likely to have the courage to look objective reality in the face. The type of people who after 83 years of calamitous international failure have the gall to say 'Here is the truth kneel here'. In an ideal world the Socialist Alliance would, according to them, be best served by becoming a replica of their own top down structures, dogmatic programmes and undemocratic constitutions, and adopting as much as possible their strategies, tactics and even slogans. Thus political survival - without change - is the common denominator which explains why the sects are all busily beavering toward the creation of- one big sect. That is not to say there are not tensions. There are. But in the wider scheme of things they are artificial, for all are heading unerringly toward political or organisational boundaries, to firmly separate them from those whom, they nonetheless doggedly maintain are their constituency.

For some, this necessary creation of boundaries will be best achieved by insisting the alliance be ‘revolutionary’ only. For others like the SWP, there is the insistence that it must be made ‘comfy’ for those on New Labour’s Left. (Which is to say made politically comfy for themselves.) But what is perhaps most striking about the London Socialist Alliance in particular, is the absence of an analysis of how these previously bitterest of rivals found themselves in an alliance in the first place. Nowhere is there an acknowledgment that the road they have been on for forty years has led up a blind alley, and so it is survival, aligned to the total lack of enthusiasm for retracing steps, to possibly picking up another road which forked off a certain distance back, which is currently binding them together.

In contemporary terms reality fares no better. Examples abound. All of whom serve to illustrate that though the Left may have a unity ‘plan’, collectively they haven’t a clue. One reason why, if, in the unlikely event they were ever to snap out of it, something quite calamitous will be needed to do it.

It is true, that here and there, as a result of operating in the political mainstream, practical adjustments have been forced on them. Despite this tentative contact with reality, events by and large continue to be viewed through the prism of the sect, and thus their overall view of the world remains a savagely ‘distorted’ one. So distorted in fact, that they can conclude, that defining issues such as constitution, structure and programme are best addressed - in house, without consultation with, much less direct input, from the working class proper. Such introspection is the clearest message yet that the Socialist Alliance is geared, not to replacing the socialist sects, but to accommodating them as a priority. Which is one reason many find it ‘exciting’: the internal workings are as familiar and gratifying as their own internal structures, but on a grander scale. Thus while the SA structures provide the impression of momentum, dynamism and growth - to the myopic - the overriding objective of ‘hot-housing the revolutionary party’ remains unchallenged.

A recent Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) leaflet illustrated the common design succinctly. "A key question facing socialists in contemporary Britain is that of the unity of revolutionaries, the question of Party." As they explain, for the CPGB, the "logic" of the Socialist Alliance means "the unity of revolutionaries in a single organisation with a revolutionary programme and organised on democratic centralist lines". If pressed, the ‘logic of revolutionary unity’ is the reforging of the Communist Party proper, accompanied naturally, with a big red ‘C’ and all the usual trappings. An ambition which explains why their boundless enthusiasm for erecting barriers between the SA and the class holds no fears for them.

In that context the triumphant tone adopted following the national Socialist Alliance conference in Coventry on September 30 is understandable. "The protocol recommended by the [national] officers was that we should ‘welcome’ as part of the SA intervention any groups standing under their own name, provided they agreed to ‘make their participation in the Socialist Alliance campaign clear on their election material’. The CPGB put forward an amendment deleting this. For us it is essential that we move toward the necessary centralised but democratic forms. Our amendment was carried by 206 votes to 174." (Weekly Worker, 5. 10.00).

Attacking this whole segregationist drive, one LSA delegate commented: "Those who try to limit this movement to the unification of all conscious revolutionaries in a single genuinely democratic centralist party, with a revolutionary programme to arm our class for the battles ahead, fell into the trap at the Coventry conference of telling new independent forces that their general election candidates will only be supported by the SA if they take its name."

But that is not all the Coventry conference was telling independent working class forces, As well as saying we won’t support you, it was also telling them if you are not with us, we naturally reserve the right to stand against you. As a result, instead of being an element to theoretically ‘enrich’ the class, the sect, as Marx himself remarked, invariably demands that the ‘class subordinate itself to the sect’. The SA conference decision of which the CPGB is so inordinately proud, is exposed as a classic and self-defeating example of such an approach. While correctly the CPGB insist the "age of the sect is dead" they are also more than happy to kill off the concept of the ‘big working class tent’ almost casually. Largely because they believe that their blue-print is the only "path out of the sectarian impasse that held back the Left in the 20th century." As well as confusing symptom and cause, because they refuse to return to ‘where historically the road forked’ (‘not all the Left have failed’) the ‘path’ they insist leads‘out’ merely leads back in.

Over thirty years ago Hal Draper, the renowned American intellectual, identified the formula followed religiously by all sects before and since. Naturally in the act of sect building, real working class interests or concerns, are the very last things considered, "Generalised as the normal pattern, this hothouse road to a revolutionary ‘Party’ (or facsimile thereof) went like this: You raise the Banner of the Correct Program to establish your organisational boundary...You do this regardless of the objective situa-tion for it is a supra historic imperative...You do this with whomever you have around -2 other good people for example...You declare yourself the Revolutionary Party since you have the Correct Program, eventually the workers will have to come to your door.., and you have your sect". As is all too apparent the similarity between the designs the CPGB and Drapers’ analysis are almost tragically comic.

In place of an inclusive strategy with a clear-cut class character, which adapts ‘the programme and ideals to what the working class is ready for’, as Marx might have recommended in the circumstances, we see instead all the SA components, the CPGB included, embracing instinctive antithetical method.

A set course which only highlights the reality of the Alliances nationally, even without a possibly fatal alienating push toward centralisation, already lacking any resonance outside of the ‘revolutionary Left’ as it is. Significantly, of the members present in Coventry, almost 80% were reported as ‘members of existing organisations’. A further cause for alarm, for affiliates not otherwise preoccupied with sect building, is the realisation that of the 3,000 independents supposedly recruited during the GLA election campaign, less than a handful have materialised or been retained. Part of the reason may be that the names and addresses nominally collected under the auspices of the LSA, were instantly ‘blagged’ by the SWP.

Tellingly, rival factions were neither concerned nor surprised at such a blatant hi-jacking. Given the opportunity, they reasoned, it is only what any sensible sectarian would have done. Of the untold (possibly terminal) damage to the integrity and credibility of the project itself within the capital, not a word. What sense of injustice there was revolved around being denied the opportunity for ‘sloppy seconds’, and a go at the list themselves!

As might be expected, SWP manouevering not restricted to pinching membership lists the CPGB, it too has a set design for the future of the SA’s. Once again it is governed not by immediate or wider needs of a working class movement but by the motivation to create the least possible political distress to a declining membership. Therefore what they have in store for the future of the SA is a kind of ‘Anti-Labour League’ within which the smaller component parts, will, once gobbled up, be tolerated but invisible, while the real work in the words of prominent SWPer Weyman Bennett, be directed toward giving disillusioned Labour liberals "a home". In contrast to the CPGB who are seemingly set on constructing a politically barren environment with constitutional barriers against any unwelcome working class incursions that might dilute the existing revolutionary hegemony the SWP are complimenting this conservatism by ensuring that the SA’s remain socially homogeneous as well. Keeping in mind, that the LSA is already governed top to bottom by, at best, an educated, white collar, upper echelon of a seriously fragmented working class, any new Labour elements attracted will decisively reinforce the cultural separateness of the SA from the section of the class currently unrepresented. For any serious bridge building between the Left and working class a yawning chasm of ominous implication.

Oddly the third discernible trend, the ‘tendency’ most fearful of change, and currently the brake on the ambitions of the other two, is the least objectionable. Which is not to say the Socialist Party hacks are anymore attractive, honest or visionary. If anything their visibly desperate attempts to avoid being hoovered up by the SWP, more often than not makes them appear somewhat less principled. Once again though, motivated by the threat of being the permanent and despised minority, (prior to involuntary liquidation), their counter-position vis-a-vis the other trends is to aim for the setting up of a ‘mass workers party.’ Here too, as the use of the antiquated ‘Amish-type’ language exposes, is the refusal to acknowledge that the British manufacturing base, and along with it industrial workers, are declining year on year and as a consequence the cherished ‘point of production’ even discounting the impact of globalisation, is fast becoming strategically irrelevant. That said, in comparison with the alternatives, it is not hard to have some sympathy with the stated objective.

For what it offers, in contrast to the CPGB who simply want to collectivise the sects, and the SWP who sees the SA as being an extension of themselves, is, at least when decoded, a call for an orientation, via the inevitable ‘point of production’ detour, to the working class proper.What’s more, the SP can, unlike their detractors, point to up to half a dozen councillors as evidence of their sincerity. Unpromisingly, this relative success is used as a bulwark against their detractors, and on occasion, indeed whenever the opportunity arises, against the very concept of sect unity itself. Because again for the SP, the base motivation is not the creation of real political change, but rather to stave it off as best they can, for as long as possible.

Ironically the Socialist Alliance was originally an SP initiative. Nowadays under the pressure of its detractors the body language, is of a blind man being cajoled to dance on a roof by relatives he unwisely included in his will. A not dissimilar paranoia was of course what defined Scargill’s leadership of SA rival and forerunner, the SLP, and like him the collective leadership of the SA are marked by the same aversion to reality. But where Scargill wanted to make the SLP safe for Stalinism (all too successfully) by proscribing Trotskyite sects, the LSA have over corrected his sectarianism by ensuring it is doomed to be a safe haven (for a time anyway) for themselves, and for themselves only.

On top of that what, along with a now defunct SLP, the three discernible trends within the LSA share, is an unbroken ideological conviction that the working class exists to service them, the ‘Party’. Accompanying this perspective is the notion that sect unity alone, the mere gesture of pooling resources without any other tactical adjustments, is guaranteed, is in fact historically obliged, to deliver a significantly enhanced electoral appeal overnight.When it doesn’t happen. to avoid demoralisation they merely pretend it has. In a letter to The Guardian Anna Chen LSA press officer quoted the Centre for Research into Elections who apparently claim the SA enjoy "the best record for the far-Left in post-war Britain" (Guardian 33.1.01 ).There are at least a couple of major considerations that need to be factored in before such a claim can be sustained. One, the platform of the SA is by no stretch of the imagination "far Left". And secondly, and more significantly, the SA are for the first time pre or post war competing as the only party intent on claiming the title ‘socialist’.

In truth, as successive London Socialist Alliance council by-election results (Rise Park, Romford 35 votes, Hackney Wick 134, Stratford in east London 60 votes, Custom and Silverhouse east London, 55 votes and the latest 61 in White Hart Lane in Tottenham) vividly illustrate, stepping up a gear without understanding the need to return to ‘where the road forked’ serves as a compound on the original boo-boo. Apologists may point to the "success" of saving deposits in two parliamentary by-elections but in each case there were special conditions. An indication of how laboured the LSA electoral performance really is, is proved by the fact of the one ‘candidate’ backed by the IWCA in 1999 still retains more than 70% of the total accrued by the LSA in the five by-elections it contested in 2000.

Centrally, what the unity miscalculation ignores, is that sects are by definition politically sterile. Accordingly any combination thereof cannot ever hope to be greater than the sum of the parts. ‘Unity’, as we have repeatedly stressed, will not be enough. In such a context, all the ill-considered drive toward centralisation resembles is a film of the sects initially breaking away - run backwards.

Hitherto, the price paid for being on the wrong political track was public indifference, and the ignominy of being regarded as a joke by working class communities, And on the surface it may appear that the LSA is still being ignored. But it is worse than that. In London, certainly in the by-elections contested, the work has been put in. In White Hart Lane for instance, the LSA candidate could boast that he had ‘more canvassers supporting him than all the other parties put together’.With such a well-oiled party machine the message must be getting across’. Which means that having eliminated the usual political get-outs, what remains, no matter how unpalatable, must be truth. And the truth being, the unreconstructed ‘ideal’ to which the Left remain so devoted is no longer being ignored, it is now being consciously rejected.Thus, as a result of being ‘owned by the ideal’, the Left are not leading the working class but accelerating toward open political collision with it. Calamity awaits. Worse than stupidity this is crime, beyond crime, this is, also, fittingly, punishment.

Reproduced from RA bulletin Vol 4, Issue 10, March/April 2001