Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 1, 2007

The crisis in Respect

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

The fight that has broken out in Respect should concern anybody who is interested in building broad left-wing political parties. If this party had continued to prosper, it would have served as an inspiration to radicals and socialists everywhere–especially in the US where efforts to build an alternative to the Democratic Party, our version of New Labour, have proved exceedingly difficult. While it is possible that Respect might work through its problems, it is necessary to figure out what went wrong in order to prevent them occurring in the future.

Since the charges and counter-charges defy substantiation, especially from afar, this article will avoid trying to establish who did what to whom. That being said, from the evidence I have seen so far, the crisis seems to be of the sort that grips just about every broad left-wing electoral initiative that “Marxist-Leninist” groups take part in. One of my goals in analyzing the Respect crisis is to try to understand why this is such a chronic disease of the left.

If you read Chris Bambery in the latest Socialist Worker newspaper, you would get the impression that this is all about attempts to purge the left, especially given the title of his article “Stop the attacks on the left vision for Respect“. Bambery writes:

All those who share the original vision of Respect as an inclusive coalition with a strong socialist component should reject the attempted coup in Respect and the attempt to declare the SWP expelled through email and press statements.

If this was about some sort of move against the left, you find scant documentation in Bambery’s article except for this:

Underlying the current arguments is a growing acceptance by some that it’s only Muslim votes that can ensure electoral success.

That has led to a dropping of the original conception of Respect as a wider working class organisation.

Given the importance that this fight has for the radical movement, it is unfortunate that the alleged underlying political differences are summarized in such a cursory fashion. If “Leninist” politics is about anything, it is about making political differences clear so that working people can make intelligent choices. On this score alone, Bambery and his comrades fail miserably.

Others on the left who have served as a kind of Greek chorus depict the SWP as waging a misbegotten struggle against “communalism,” a term that would refer to, for example, catering to the Muslim community. You can find myriad references to the SWP charging its adversaries with “pandering to communalism” but I can find no article written by the SWP with this exact phrase. Moreover, if anything, the SWP has been widely regarded as doing just the opposite. For example, in an article on Marxism and religion, Gilbert Achcar chided the SWP for working with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) when Respect was being launched:

All we need to do is look at the arguments used by the fundamentalists in calling for a vote for Respect (and for others, such as the Mayor of London, the left Labourite Ken Livingstone, much more opportunist than the Trotskyists in his relations with the Islamic association). Let us read the fatwa of Sheikh Haitham Al-Haddad, dated 5 June 2004 and published on the MAB website.

The venerable sheikh explains that it is obligatory for those Muslims living under the shadow of man-made law to take all the necessary steps and means to make the law of Allah, the Creator and the Sustainer, supreme and manifest in all aspects of life. If they are unable to do so, then it becomes obligatory for them to strive to minimise the evil and maximise the good…

This fatwa needs no comment. The deep incompatibility between the intentions of the Sheikh consulted by the MAB and the task that Marxists set for themselves or should set for themselves, in their activity in relation to the Muslim populations, is blatant. Marxists should not seek to harvest votes at any price, as opportunist politicians who stop at nothing to get elected do. Support like that of Sheikh Al-Haddad is a poisoned gift. It should be harshly criticised: the battle for ideological influence within populations originating from immigration is much more fundamental than an electoral result, however exhilarating.

So if the SWP has decided that Galloway and company were “pandering to communalists,” then clearly they have reversed directions so sharply that one can only wonder how comrades like Lindsey German did not suffer whiplash as a result. Finally, the charge of “pandering to communalism” was first raised by Islamophobes like Nick Cohen, who Alex Callinicos answered in an article titled “Respect isn’t a communalist organisation,” where he writes:

Ah but, Cohen and his ilk might object, look at the fact that the only Respect councillors to be elected or re-elected were Asians. This proves that Respect is a communalist party.

This outcome isn’t particularly surprising. “All politics is local,” said the US politician Tip O’Neill.

In the very closely fought contests between Labour and Respect in Tower Hamlets and Newham, the advantage that derived from being Asian proved often to be sufficient to make the difference between victory and defeat.

If it is difficult to evaluate the “communalism” issue, it is even tougher to weigh the charge that the left is being purged by rightist forces. Although I have sometimes questioned George Galloway’s judgment, especially after his appearance on the reality TV show Big Brother, where he lived in a house for three weeks with the likes of Dennis Rodman, he hardly comes across as rightward-moving. Indeed, the August 31st report he gave that touched off the crisis does not even begin to suggest that he feels threatened by socialists. Mostly, he offers various administrative changes including the appointment of a National Organiser, who would work alongside the National Secretary, a post held by John Rees:

Relations between leading figures in Respect are at an all-time low and this must be addressed. I have proposals to make which are not aimed at a change of political line, still less an attack on any organisation or section within Respect. They are aimed at placing us on an election war-footing, closing the chasm which has been caused to develop between leading members, together with an emergency fundraising and membership drive to facilitate our forthcoming electoral challenges. Business as usual will not do and everyone in their heart knows this.

An SWP internal document responded to Galloway’s report with a mixture of trepidation and steely reserve to defend their party against what they saw as a looming purge. As is the case with Bambery’s article, the document analyzes the differences in terms of Galloway pandering to the Muslims while they seek a broader, radical alignment:

Respect was thrown out of balance from the start by the failure of other leading figures on the Labour left to take the kind of principled stand that George did and break with New Labour. This made Respect disproportionately dependent on the excellent support it won from Muslims, as became particularly clear in last year’s London elections. It is the effort of the SWP, in response to this weakness, to widen and diversify Respect’s working-class support that George and his allies have been attacking.

One can only repeat the observation made earlier. If this is a case of Galloway resisting moves to broaden Respect’s appeal, there is a failure once again on the SWP’s part to fully document this charge–even in a document distributed to its members. This struggle cries out for political clarity on the part of the orthodox Leninists, but none seems forthcoming.

Adding to the sense that the SWP is failing to rise to the political challenge is the expulsion of Nick Wrack, an SWP member who broke discipline and sided with the Galloway forces. Considering the fact that the Bolshevik Party failed to expel central committee members who broke discipline over taking power in 1917, Wrack’s offense seems trivial by comparison. In an article titled “Out Towards the Open Sea” submitted to the SWP preconvention discussion, Wrack suggests a different approach to work in groups like Respect:

Further, we must not give the impression that we always want to be in control. The left and other new forces who we want to involve in Respect or whatever develops out of it will not get involved if they see the organisation dominated by the SWP. We must ensure that the structures and methods adopted are always rigorously scrutinised to see if they create an impediment to others getting involved.

This issue of domination keeps coming up in electoral formations like Respect and any broad social movement that invites intervention from “Leninists.” Fundamentally, it is related to the sense of non-party members that they are somehow subordinate to the larger calculations of their Marxist partners. For the 11 years I was in the Trotskyist movement in the US, I heard this charge repeatedly. Sometimes it is a function of old-fashioned red-baiting such as the kind that Democratic Party supporters in the National Organization for Women mounted. But more frequently, it was driven by a correct perception that the Leninists had their agenda worked out beforehand and would never be convinced to change it by non-party activists. In other words, the Leninist party was the true source of correct analysis, strategy and tactics and the mass movement was like clay that must be molded in accordance with its larger goals. This is a formula for disaster, no matter the best intention of the Leninists.

While the British SWP is not known for the kind of batty faux Bolshevism of groups like Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labor League or Jack Barnes’s American SWP, you can find occasional outbursts of Zinovievist excess. In 2001, they booted the ISO out of their international movement because it supposedly did not understand the importance of Seattle–whatever that means. In a report titled “The Anti-Capitalist Movement And The Revolutionary Left,” Alex Callinicos tries to explain why the ISO had to be expelled:

The truth is that the ISO leadership did not regard Seattle as an important priority. They expected it to be dominated by protectionist trade-union leaders and preferred to concentrate their efforts what proved to be a much smaller demonstration where they felt they could have more impact…These arguments are evidence of a deep-rooted sectarian mentality that judges demonstrations by the politics of their leaders and mechanically reduces changes in consciousness to shifts in the economic class struggle…A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have lead up to it, and thrashing out the means for its rectification — that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties and how it should educate and train its class and then the masses.

If the largest left group in the US has politics that are virtually the same as the group that is expelling it for “sectarianism,” one can understand how a simmering discontent finally came to a full boil when Pakistani grocers and Egyptian cabdrivers, never having read a word of Marx, came into contact with people who were capable of such bureaucratic aggression.


  1. […] American commentator, Louis Proyect, has written an account of how he sees the devekoping crisis in Respect. I don’t agree with […]

    Pingback by SOCIALIST UNITY » LOUIS PROYECT ON RESPECT — November 2, 2007 @ 5:03 pm

  2. My 2 cents from a short-term tactical perspective are the Liberal Democrats. They are the 3rd largest party in the UK w/ 63 MPs out of 646(almost 10%) Although they are centre-left & libertarian, they are strong environmentalists, have steadfastly opposed the war in Iraq, & opposed to the more draconian authoritarian powers that the last 3-? Prime Ministers have accumulated(I start with the Iron Lady herself, if you want to go as far back as Churchill(he set the precedent of being PM & Defense/War Minister at the same time. Think Rummy on steroids) If the Green Party, etc. in this country had 10% of the members of the House of Reps. they would have roughly 40-45 seats. Maybe not a bad start….

    Comment by m.c. — November 2, 2007 @ 5:11 pm

  3. I attended and voted in the founding meeting of Respect. As an idealistic 17 year old, I truly believed there was hope there – the chance to do better, the chance to help each other, an opportunity to seize the initiative. I really thought that the kind of sectarian bitterness and pointless squabbling in the left could be overcome. The last four years have shown how wrong I was. I am disgusted with Galloway and disgusted by the Respect party. Nothing has been achieved – and I fear that nothing ever will be – by this party. I feel betrayed.

    Comment by J.F. — November 2, 2007 @ 9:06 pm

  4. Is your last paragraph referring to the ISO? I can’t decipher its meaning.

    Comment by Binh — November 7, 2007 @ 9:09 pm

  5. Yes, I was referring to the ISO. As to the meaning, I was trying to say that if the SWP can bully around the ISO, think about how it is perceived by much more vulnerable activists who have not developed the hard shell associated with “Marxism-Leninism”.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 7, 2007 @ 9:34 pm

  6. I was trying to say that if the SWP can bully around the ISO, think about how it is perceived by much more vulnerable activists who have not developed the hard shell associated with “Marxism-Leninism”.

    Point taken but they didn’t manage to bully us around. That’s why we were kicked out. You’d think the Brits would’ve learned something about Americans from 1776…

    Comment by Binh — November 8, 2007 @ 5:44 pm

  7. […] SWP açısından bakılırsa, olay, tarihsel olarak komünistlerin yeşertmeye çalıştığı “geniş cephe” koalisyonlarının genelde akıbeti olan başarısızlık durumuna bir örnek daha […]

    Pingback by İkiye bölünen RESPECT « Ehk2 — November 21, 2007 @ 2:16 am

  8. […] In order for a united left group party to succeed, it cannot be a “united front” as conceived 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 Respect”. […]

    Pingback by The Socialist Workers Party’s Open Letter to the left « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 11, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

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