Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 11, 2009

The Socialist Workers Party’s Open Letter to the left

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

In an open letter that appears in the Socialist Workers Party newspaper (the British group, of course, not to be mistaken with the tiny and peculiar American ultraleftist cult), there is a call to unite on the electoral front in response to the election of the fascist BNP’s winning two seats in the European Parliament:

Labour’s vote collapsed to a historic low in last week’s elections as the right made gains. The Tories under David Cameron are now set to win the next general election.

The British National Party (BNP) secured two seats in the European parliament. Never before have fascists achieved such a success in Britain.

The result has sent a shockwave across the labour and anti-fascist movements, and the left.

The meltdown of the Labour vote and the civil war engulfing the party poses a question – where do we go from here?

After discussing the victory of the BNP in terms of the bankruptcy of New Labour, a party that is the class equivalent of the Democratic Party in the U.S. despite its origins in the trade union movement, the SWP issues a challenge to the far left:

Those who campaigned against the BNP in the elections know that when they said to people, “Don’t vote Nazi” they were often then asked who people should vote for.

The fact that there is no single, united left alternative to Labour means there was no clear answer available.

The European election results demonstrate that the left of Labour vote was small, fragmented and dispersed.

The Greens did not make significant gains either. The mass of Labour voters simply did not vote. We cannot afford a repeat of that.

The SWP is all too aware of the differences and difficulties involved in constructing such an alternative.

We do not believe we have all the answers or a perfect prescription for a left wing alternative.

But we do believe we have to urgently start a debate and begin planning to come together to offer such an alternative at the next election, with the awareness that Gordon Brown might not survive his full term.

One simple step would be to convene a conference of all those committed to presenting candidates representing working class interests at the next election.

The SWP is prepared to help initiate such a gathering and to commit its forces to such a project.

We look forward to your response.

Although I am not a British citizen, I would like to offer my response. Far be it from me to issue Leon Trotsky-like pronunciamentos from afar, I have followed the SWP closely enough to offer the comrades some free advice.

To start with, I think it is a step forward to hear things like “We do not believe we have all the answers or a perfect prescription for a left wing alternative.” This is the beginning of wisdom for such groups and bodes well for the future, at least on the verbal level.

In an accompanying article titled “Time to fight back together”, the SWP is even more forthright on the need for unity:

There is a desperate need for an alternative. The absence of a credible left group to vote for means that people remain without a choice when it comes to elections.

Many people wonder why the left can’t unite together to provide a stronger, more credible alternative to the pro-war and neoliberal policies of the major parties.

There is real potential for a united left group to make a real impact—not just by winning votes but also in helping to pull people together to build resistance on the ground.

But here is the problem. The SWP just went through a wrenching experience in building a broad left political party called RESPECT. The resulting split cost it members, influence and the drawing of factional lines in their party. Unless the comrades are willing to reject the methodology that led to this fiasco, I am afraid that they will simply repeat past mistakes.

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”.

Just to recapitulate briefly, a united front was conceived by Lenin as a kind of ad hoc agreement between Communists and social democrats to march together against a common foe, particularly the fascists. In fact, there will be more and more of a need to forge such alliances in light of the success of the BNP.

But Lenin never thought of the united front as an electoral mechanism. He did propose votes for social democratic parties, but that was only a way to get a hearing among rank-and-file members. His main hope was to expose the reformist leaders of such parties, including the Labour Party of the 1920s, in order to win the ranks to Communism.

The SWP never really thought through what this tactic meant when it came to working in a common framework with people like George Galloway who they describe as a reformist. It would also pose problems with how to relate to people in RESPECT, who while not having a background in the admittedly reformist Labour Party like Galloway, had not reached revolutionary socialist conclusions about changing British society. How does one describe them? Revolutionary? Reformist? Or does it really matter?

The point is that such terminology means very little in the current stage of British politics because despite the election of BNP’ers the question of power is not being posed. When someone like George Galloway decides to bolt from Labour, it is the equivalent of Ralph Nader breaking with the Democrats. Leaving aside Nader’s ideology, his act in challenging the two-party system is much more objectively revolutionary than a thousand May Day leaflets from the sectarian universe.

I raise these questions because I see clinging to old habits in the Irish SWP, a group that obviously reflects the thinking of its sister party. In hailing the election to the European parliament of Socialist Party member Joe Higgins (a part of the Ted Grant-spawned Committee for a Workers International, not to be confused with their bitter rivals in the Grantite International Marxist Tendency), the Irish SWP defined its role in relationship to Higgins and the radical movement in somewhat uninspired terms:

The radical left must now enter discussions to form either an alliance or broad radical left party, where different tendencies can co-exist. Previous arguments that such a development might be ‘premature’ make little sense today.

The Socialist Workers Party is already working productively within the People Before Profit Alliance, promoting its own distinctively revolutionary socialist views while working with others on the 90 percent we also agree on. There is absolutely no reason why an alliance of this sort cannot be expanded.

Seemingly unable to break with old habits, the Irish SWP states explicitly what I fear looms implicitly in its sister party’s open letter. When you see a reference to a “broad radical left party, where different tendencies can co-exist”, you get the sinking feeling that they hope for a “united front” of left parties that worked so poorly in RESPECT and elsewhere. Perhaps it is high time that this thinking in terms of “tendencies” (an awful word that reminds me of a psychiatrist’s handbook) is relegated to the dustbin of history especially when the comrades follow up with their desire to promote “their own distinctively revolutionary socialist views”. Unfortunately, this desire to promote such views is depressingly reminiscent of the corporate world’s reliance on special ingredients that make one laxative better than another. For in the final analysis, such “distinctively revolutionary socialist views” more often than not boil down to defining when the USSR became state capitalist or remained a workers state. This is not the proper subject for Marxists today and should be relegated to the back pages of a theoretical quarterly.

What the SWP should consider is a total break with their modus operandi and moving toward the approach of the NPA in France. Initiated by the Trotskyist LCR, the New Anticapitalist Party decided to put aside questions of “distinctively revolutionary socialist views” and emphasize the real questions facing the left in 2009. Hopefully, since the SWP seems to have a good grasp on these questions, they can begin to take the next step and evolve toward a more transparent and open political framework that has the possibility of truly uniting the left. In other words, they should return to the road of V.I. Lenin, the 20th century’s greatest exponent of left unity based on the evidence of 1917.


  1. “What the SWP should consider is a total break with their modus operandi and moving toward the approach of the NPA in France.”

    I agree, though experience on the British left suggests that this is not going to happen. The SWP have issued this rather cheeky call from a position of weakness. They have not been making the weather politically since the Respect split, most branches are moribund, they aren’t recruiting and yet they’re shedding members. The SWP calculates that the smart move for them now is unity on their terms. Any new workers’ formation in Britain should exclude this organisation as a matter of practical necessity.

    Comment by Vengeance and Fashion — June 11, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

  2. Actually Louis, I think you don’t understand the NPA or what Lenin was proposing in the 1920’s.

    First, Lenin never called for socialists to put a side “distinctively revolutionary socialist views” a phrase you incorrectly attribute to the NPA, he argued for revolutionaries to use a united front tactic and try to make electoral agreements with the reformist parties of the day while maintaining organizational independence and integrety of politics.

    EXAMPLE:: http://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch09.htm

    Second, tendencies exist for very good reasons: some on the left believe in reform and some in revolution. What you are calling on the Irish SWP is to just desolve it’s organization and drop it’s politics. Its called liquidation, and isn’t a recipe for challenging capitalism or overcoming reformist ideas.

    Comment by sparkie — June 11, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

  3. “Many people wonder why the left can’t unite together to provide a stronger, more credible alternative to the pro-war and neoliberal policies of the major parties. There is real potential…”

    Note how they don’t provide an answer as to why the left can’t unite.

    All they can do is issue proclamations such as this once a year. “The Left must unite, the Left must unite, let’s not lose this opportunity, the Left must unite, oh why can’t the Left unite” is Callinicos’s contribution to Marxism for the last 30 years.

    Comment by Antonis — June 11, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

  4. Just curious: What criteria do you use to justify calling the American SWP “ultraleftist”? I agree that it is a bizarre cult out in cloud cuckoo-land, but am puzzled by this designation. Although I don’t follow the cult closely, I don’t think ultraleftism ever played a role in the group, and if it does now, what has changed to make it so? It is a craven and uncritical worshiper of Cuba, and has abstained from the antiwar movement (pathetic though that movement is) against U.S. imperialism in Iraq, but “ultraleftist”? Please explain.

    Comment by David Thorstad — June 11, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

  5. Workers Power’s response to the SWP’s open letter, supporting their call for a conference


    Comment by rb — June 11, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

  6. To the curious: Back in the 60’s & 70’s when a group called PL (Proletarian League) used to physically attack SWPers they were called Ultraleftists because they were uncritical of Stalinism. During the 1st Gulf War when Workers Vanguarders pathetically critisized & abstained from the anti-war movement they were rightly considered Ultraleftists. Considering their craven attitude toward Cuba and their pathetic abstention from the current anti-war movement (deflated as it now is particularly in the Obama era notwithstanding) — it’s fair to categorize the SWP as an ultraleftist cult of Barnes rather than a socialist party.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 12, 2009 @ 1:26 am

  7. This just strikes me as more left trainspotting, with shoddy binoculars to boot.

    Comment by djn — June 12, 2009 @ 1:58 am

  8. David, I call the SWP ultraleft because it attacked the antiwar movement that developed in 2003 for not being anti-imperialist. This is the same screwy argument I heard from PL and SDS in 1967. Thank god I had the good sense to listen to Dan Styron when he convinced me that this was an ultraleft position. Who would have ever thought that the SWP would be pushing the same garbage in 2003.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 12, 2009 @ 2:41 am

  9. Anyone who enters SWP enters at there peril.
    They want to eat up any other left group because they feel that they are the “only ones” and what they say goes.
    In my local branch of STW it is nearly all SWP members and sadly they will not listen to suggestions they have one agenda and that is to dominate just look what they done to the Respect party they decided that they could not control is so they tried to destroy it the same with many more left groups that went ahead of Respect.
    I say stay clear of the SWP as they do not believe in elections and while they are sitting back waiting for the Revolution to come, the rest of the left should try to unite and form a real coalition without the SWP getting involved.
    Perhaps getting behind Respect should be the right direction as they have 1 MP and will have another with Salma Yacoob and whoever they field in the next election we should use what is there and build upon it

    Comment by ironit — June 12, 2009 @ 8:22 am

  10. Hi Louis, great blog and interesting comments on the Irish situation. Just one factual error, which does not detract from your analysis. Joe Higgins was elected to the European Parliament and not the Irish parliament. This fact allows the right to downplay the significance of Joe’s achievement as European Parliament elections have traditionally in Dublin, where Joe was elected, favoured at least one left wing candidate who held anti-capitalist or anti-establishment views – in the past this was Patricia McKenna of the Greens.

    While exited on an emotional level with the advances of the far left in the recent Irish elections, not just the Socialist Party and the SWP affiliated People Before Profit Allicance, but other groups like the Workers and Unemployed Action Group in Tipperary, I feel that your analysis above is a more accurate assessment of the meaning of these victories.

    Comment by CMK — June 12, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  11. Global Crisis and Parliamentary Farce

    Has the crisis bottomed out? This is the question tormenting economists the world over, the question gripping the analysts of the major economic and financial institutions. Many signs are being taken to mean a slowdown in the freefall, but uncertainty rules. No one can be sure what the future holds. The only certainty is that the recession is continuing and that recovery, if it comes at all, is not expected until next year. In April last year, the IMF anticipated a 3.8% growth in the world economy: today it estimates that Gross World Product will contract by over 1.3% during 2009. In the UK, shrinkage of the Gross Domestic Product is estimated minus 3.8% for the current year: that of overall EU production at minus 4%. According to the World Bank, 150 million people in the world will be added to the total already living below poverty level. The crisis that exploded in the heart of the rich imperialist countries is spilling over the developing countries, with devastating results.
    Meanwhile the number of unemployed in the UK has reached 2.1 million, and is expected to increase to 3 million in the coming months. According to the Financial Times, UK public spending amounts to 52% of the country’s GDP. Since revenue amounts to 38.7%, the result is a «gigantic general government deficit of 13.8% in GDP». And the paper comments that these are «wartime» figures: the UK has «lost control over public spending».
    The about-turn towards state control in the UK is in danger of running up against a «fiscal debacle».
    If the country finds itself the poorer, everyone knows who will have to carry the major burden.

    The great electoral market

    While financial and economic institutions, while chancelleries and Cabinets are discussing and taking decisions, such as bailing out the banks, which will affect the lives of millions, beyond their walls the race for parliamentary seats grows ever crazier. The elections to the European Parliament are looming. The nearly 500 million inhabitants of 27 EU countries stretching from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, will be asked to delegate decisions for the next five years to one of the many parties presenting themselves: a great “market research” from which the ruling class expects indicators as to the mood of the electorate. “Market research” organised and financed through political parties that in their totality represent «the whole range of all possible solutions for the preservation of the social system which in one way or another they accept and defend» as Arrigo Cervetto wrote back in 1960.
    In 1912, Lenin observed that the elections «are compelling all the parties to intensify their agitation and rally their forces, so that they may return the greatest possible number of deputies of “their own” party.
    In Russia, as in all other countries, the election campaign is attended by the most brazen self-advertisement. All the bourgeois parties, that is, those which uphold the economic privileges of the capitalists, are advertising themselves in the same way as individual capitalists advertise their goods. Look at the ommercial advertisements in any newspaper – you will see that the capitalists think up the most “striking” bombastic and fashionable names for their merchandise, which they praise in the most unrestrained manner, stopping at no lie or invention whatever.
    The general public – at any rate in the big cities and trade centres – has long since become used to commercial advertisement and knows its worth. Unfortunately, political advertisement misleads and incomparably greater number of people: it is
    much harder to expose and its deception much more lasting. The names of some parties, both in Europe and in Russia, are chosen with a direct eye to advertisement, and their “programmes” are quite often written for the sole purpose of hoodwinking the public. (V.I. Lenin ‘Political Parties In Russia’ 10th May 1912)

    The recurring “Vote Left” farce

    Ideologies change, but the parliamentary market continues to pour an ocean of “political advertisements” onto the heads of the electorate. The Foreign Minister, D. Milliband, asks for a vote that will “bring Europe closer to its citizens”. A Labour Party that is seeing its popularity plunge turns to calling on the electorate to “stop the Fascist Right”. Behind Labour’s banners trail a number of Left organisations, all asking for a “vote for the Left” i.e. a vote for the same “New Labour” that has governed imperiaist Britain since 1997. The call is echoed by the trade unions, perhaps in the vain hope that such a vote could balance their ultimate weakeness in organising the working class to defend its wages and its living conditions.
    The “Fascist Right” scarecrow is useful because of the despicable revival of racist and xenophobic ideologies that always exist in our society, and because it is frequently the extreme manifestation of profound and extensive phenomena. But a vote at the ballot box cannot erase such attitudes: this can only come about through a consistent organisational activity and a increase in working-class consciousness.
    Conversely, a “vote for the Left” perpetuates the ideology of the “social state” seen as the guardian of the working-class and as the “defender of democracy”. Guardian and defender of that same bourgeois democracy which, when convenient, attacks the workers’ conditions and their trade unions via a succession of parties that serve only one master: the capitalist system. The same imperialist democracy that strengthens executive powers, that increases bureaucratic structures, and which, as history demonstrates, when convenient, reduces the margins for political action by resorting legally to force «even in the most democratic countries» as Lenin cautions us.
    Since the bourgeoisie became the ruling class, it has metamorphosed into an imperialist bourgeoisie, and has even become on the whole reactionary, because on the whole its interests lie in maintaining the capitalist social order. The bourgeois fractions and the parties born out of those fractions split up and come together again on how to achieve their class interests. This is why we maintain that “Fascism and Democracy are the two faces of the same social system”. Today imperialist democracy follows a principally socialimperialist line that involes the exploited class in imperialist interests. Tomorrow, that same imperialist democracy could be led towards using violence to contain class struggle. Such violence would not be entrusted to the present squalid followers of Fascist ideology, but to the administrative bodies of bourgeois “democratic” power, and the workers’ only defence will be their capacity to organise and to fight.
    The plea to vote for “left-wing” parties is only a part of the usual parliamentary game, and strengthens social-imperialist ideology in the hearts of the masses.

    The crisis of parliamentarianism

    In the course of the electoral competition, imperialist European groups headed for the political consolidation of Europe as a continental power seek to influence and simultaneously sound out the mood of the electorate, spreading the illusion that an individual “counts” because of his or her vote. But the real decisions are taken outside parliament, in the cabinets of executive power, on the boards of the central banks and of the big financial institutions, within the unwieldy structures of bureaucracies.
    In his introduction to the Second Congress of the Third International, “Theses on Participation in Parliament”, L. Trotsky asserts «Under no circumstances today can parliament be, for communists, the theatre of struggle for reform, for the improvement of working-class conditions, as it was in certain moments of the past age. The centre of gravity of political life has definitively moved outside parliament».
    The crucial decisions in the management of the current crisis have been taken by those who have “directed” the summits of the main EU countries: by the boards of the European Central Bank and the Bank of England: by the top levels of Commissions.
    The big combinations of industry and of finance fight over the conquest and the partition of the markets, and to this end they use states, parties, ideologies, and when required, armies. The era of imperialist democracy ratifies decisions taken elsewhere, while ineffectual chatter, horse-trading for clients, parasitism and ideological propaganda lord it over all.
    This is the meaning of “historical crisis of parlimentarism”, irremediably affected by what in 1852 Engels defined the «incurable malady of parliamentary cretinism, a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and its future, are governed and determined by the majority of votes in that particular representative body which had the honour to count them among its members”.

    Strategic abstentionism versus electoral passivity

    Abstentionism is a reflection of this irremediable crisis of parliamentarianism: the mirror-image of a widespread loss of trust, even though passively expressed.In the 1979 elections, the first with direct universal suffrage to the European Parliament, 63% of those eligible voted. In the last elections of 2004 45.7% went to the ballot box (in Great Britain this figure was only 38.9%). For the next round of elections Eurobarometer estimates an abstention of 66%: it could be that only 1 voter in 3 will go to the polls.
    This is a “non-vote” that reflects the social and political passivity of the masses, albeit struck by the crisis and by the restructuring processes that are assailing the world economy. Great battles are looming between the groups and powers of different continents. Between a rising China that is taking its place among the great powers and an America pulling back in the fight to preserve its position, European imperialism is arming for the global contest. In these battles the international proletariat must increase its internationalist consciousness and its capacity for struggle, in order to become a real «power among the powers». To electoral passivity, we oppose a conscious abstentionism, which translates rejection of parliamentary illusion into and active internationalist politics. A strategic abstentionism, since it is based on a scientific understanding that one cannot use the parliamentary platform in a revolutionary way. What is useless today will become impossible tomorrow, when the levels of class struggle will drive the bourgeois state down the road of violent repression.
    In 1979 Arrigo Cervetto wrote: «In Italy, the abstentionism of waged workers is a phenomenon that for a variety of reasons is present in all elections, and only arrogance allows the parliamentary parties to ignore it, denying it all importance. But abstentionism has, to a certain extent, been an objective and consistent factor for one part of the proletariat that has never deluded itself that it could improve its conditions via the ballot box. It is not true to say that the whole working class has always voted MPs into Parliament, conferring on them irrevocable and unchallengeable power. We may be a minority, but we have never voted in such a way: we have never given anyone a blank cheque. From parliamentariainism’s irremediable crisis, we have understood the need for a strategic vision of abstentionism, and our Leninist organisation has not used the parliamentary platform as a mere tactical choice, a temporary convenience. From the storehouse of historical experience, we have drawn the conclusion that as in centuries past the development of the productive forces had ordained democracy as the appropriate form of representation, the development of those productive forces in our century, with a scientific and technical revolution of immesurable importance, ordains the communist form of representation, in which the theory and the practice of intellectual and manual labour are fused into a single activity. Faced with the historical necessity which the human race has now reached – that of operating a political practice that corresponds to productive, scientific and technical development, democracy has become an outdated political form useful only to imperialism and to a ruling class that exploits to its own advantage the results of collective labour. The proletariat are producers, who at their current educational and technical level, and at the present level of economic development, can not longer accept to be represented in a parliamentary democracy that separates delegated powers, decision-making and implementation. The proletariat are producers who require to be represented by the Communist form, which blends delegated powers, decision-making and impelmentation: a new political practice that corresponds to social methods of production. Democracy makes a mockery of participation. Conversely, Communism is the only true participation, because it is based on productive practice and not on chit-chat. Abstentionism expresses at a theoretical, political and organisational level history’s future trend: it is real and class-centred participation versus a negative and passive parliamentarianism».

    Comment by John — June 12, 2009 @ 11:31 am

  12. […] Louis Proyect To start with, I think it is a step forward to hear things like “We do not believe we have all the answers or a perfect prescription for a left wing alternative.” This is the beginning of wisdom for such groups and bodes well for the future, at least on the verbal level. […]

    Pingback by Response to SWP call for a new left-wing initiative | — June 12, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

  13. Thanks for your comments Louis. There are plenty of young and old comrades in the SWP with genuine dedication to work towards a communist social order. Though, with its own reading and implementation of democratic centralism SWP remains devoid of any dynamicity (refer to its reaction to the Lindsey oil refinery strikes) and projects an image of working more in a succubus cult mode trying to gorge on the energy and enthusiam of new recruits (hence the comments by ironit) rather than a open socilist platform.

    As you mentioned, the open letter, hopefully, is symptomatic of the wisdom dawning on the SWP CC, though serious doubts still linger as the British left broadly has yet failed to engage in an honest serious self-critique. Even in the wake of one million brits voting for the fascist BNP the British left is rehashing the usual slogans – absence of alternatives, failure of the trade union movement, New Labour, Greens, SLP, SP, NO2EU, etc. ‘Defending’ the ‘white working class’ as not racist but disillusioned and angry at the performance of the New Labour, the British left fails (or avoids) to acknowledge rampant racism within the the British society, which sadly is present, albeit in genteel forms, in the left movement.

    Coming back to the SWP; with John Reeses (claim – working class is black/white, and the British migrant workers of chinese origin are useless for the left movement) and Lindsey Germans, (claim – need of the white socialists to raise the level of politics among South Asian muslims), in SWP, it is trapped by its own sanitised yet euro-centric and racist vanguardism and so is, more or less, rest of the left.

    Comment by Anarcho-Polpotist — June 15, 2009 @ 12:21 am

  14. […] the left, so-called, is dwindling away. Perhaps the left has antagonized its potential public? The Socialist Workers Party’s Open Letter to the left In an open letter that appears in the Socialist Workers Party newspaper (the British group, of […]

    Pingback by Darwiniana » SWP open letter and ‘Islamophobia’ — June 18, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

  15. Re. the abstentionism post. I have advocated as an alternative to abstention mass spoilage campaigns. In “unity of action,” such can be creatively combined with electoral protest vote campaigns by the same political parties.

    Comment by Jacob Richter — June 21, 2009 @ 2:56 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: