Correspondence Between the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party
To the Socialist Party: 1 December 1998
As you know the local elections are going ahead next year.
The Socialist Workers Party plans to contest these elections in a small number of constituencies.
We believe it would not be in the best interests of the Left for both the Socialist Party and the SWP to be running against each other in the same constituencies.
It seems to us that it would make sense if we were to divide our constituencies between the two parties ahead of these elections.
We would like to propose a meeting between representatives of our two organisations to explore whether we can reach an agreement on this issue.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Socialist Workers Party [Ireland]
To the Socialist Workers Party: 11 December 1998
We were surprised to receive your letter of 1st December. We recognise by your action in standing in the General Election of last year that you have effected a fundamental change in your policy on revolutionaries standing for election to bourgeois institutions.
This however has not stopped the Socialist Workers Party from continuing to denounce the Socialist Party for being “reformist,” for adopting a “parliamentary road,” and on a number of occasions attempting to link us to the not only reformist, but Stalinist, Workers Party. All this is done on the basis that we stand in elections. It seems that it is ok for revolutionaries to stand in elections as long as they are not very successful in doing so.
You are entitled to criticise the Socialist Party in any way you wish but you cannot have your cake and eat it. You cannot denounce us for standing in elections, (which we believe revolutionaries should do, as in any other field where we are taking on our class enemies, as seriously and as effectively as we can), and at the same time seek an election agreement with us. We would like an honest clarification from you in relation to this.
The Socialist Party favours the maximum co-operation between anti-capitalist and socialist forces. The Socialist Party fought the General Election of 1997, not only under our own banner, but as part of an alliance which included the Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaigns, Cork Householders Against Service Charges, and the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Group. We did so in an attempt to give working people an alternative in that election on as wide a basis as was possible.
That alliance recorded over 20,000 votes, won a Dail seat (through the Socialist Party) in Dublin, and narrowly failed to win a second one in Tipperary. The only response you made at the time or since has been to attempt to deride the Socialist Party for having, according to you, some sort of obsession with parliamentary politics. This dishonest assertion flies in the face of reality, that this alliance emerged from one of the most significant non-parliamentary struggles of working people ever seen in this country for decades.
You made no attempt to seriously analyse these developments, to look at the class base of the forces involved, their programmes, etc. In fact, the SWP stood against one of the candidates of the alliance in Dublin South Central.
We believe co-operation on the left or in struggles of working people is only possible when there is agreement on a principled basis. This has to firstly include an honest approach to questions of political differences.
The other key principle must be to maximise forces to have a greater impact in the class struggle, to help take such struggle forward, or to have a greater impact in workers’ organisations such as the trade unions, to combat bureaucratism and to argue for a militant programme.
Such co-operation can raise the standing of socialist organisations and the ideas of socialism in the eyes of workers, and achieve real successes for the left.
We have, however, never experienced any desire to engage in such principled co-operations in any sphere of activity from the Socialist Workers Party. This was the case in relation to the anti water charges campaign, it is the case in relation to the movement against racism and deportations, and it is particularly the case in the trade unions.
We wish to raise the question of two unions in particular, SIPTU and the CPSU. In both of these unions, there is an opportunity to develop a strong rank-and-file opposition to the right-wing bureaucracy. This was demonstrated by the 43% vote in SIPTU against P2000 and followed by the excellent vote of Carol Anne Duggan in the elections of the National Officers.
The Socialist Party welcomed the initiative of standing in those elections, and did what we could to gain the highest possible vote. However, we were seriously hampered in doing that, as were other left activists, by your approach. You refused to have a broad campaign. As a result, a great opportunity to build an organised opposition has been seriously lost.
In the CPSU, there is an opportunity to build a rank-and-file opposition which can take that union out of the hands of the right-wing. This is seen as a major threat by ICTU. Yet, you persist in attempting to form an alternative grouping to that which already exists. In plain English, attempting for sectarian reasons to split the left and the ranks when they are involved in a major struggle.
Despite our differences over these issues, the Socialist Party would be open to discussing the issue of co-operation, but only over the range of issues raised in this letter, in addition to the question of next year’s elections. In relation to the elections, we would also want to have a discussion on the question of programme. As you are aware, there are serious differences between our parties on a range of issues, but particularly on the national question. Up to quite recently, you supported the “armed struggle” of the [Irish] Republican movement. We would like clarification on what your position is now on this issue.
If we could arrive at a position where there was an honest approach to political differences, a real co-operation in the interests of the workers and socialist movement in general, while leaving organisations free to defend their own programmes and attempt to build their own forces, and creating the basis for some mutual respect and trust, then a discussion may have some useful outcome.
Socialist Party [Ireland]
To the Socialist Party: 11 January 1999
We wrote a very brief letter to you in December requesting a meeting to discuss possible areas of co-operation regarding the forthcoming local elections. We wished to avoid a situation where candidates from both organisations stood against each other in particular constituencies, as occurred at the last election.
We were puzzled, to say the least, to receive from you a letter which, instead of addressing the issue, contained a serious of denunciations of the SWP.
The SWP, you claim, makes ‘dishonest assertions’: we have never shown any desire to engage in ‘principled co-operation;’ etc, etc. (The latter we find quite bizarre given that both our organisations sponsored a recent Asylum Rights March and are currently engaged in working with wider forces to oppose deportations).
You state that the reason for outlining this series of denunciations is that there has to be ‘firstly…an honest approach to questions of political difference.’
Our political differences are long standing and well-known. We think it is unusual, to say he least, to make discussing these differences a pre-condition to other organisations – or is this approach reserved for an open revolutionary party?
We would prefer you to state clearly whether you are prepared to co-operate with us over the local elections and whether and if, so to arrange a meeting to discuss the nature of this co-operation.
Just to repeat, our position is that despite long standing and serious differences between our two organisations on a whole range of political questions it would be to the advantage of the Left if we could arrange some degree of co-operation in the forthcoming local elections. That is still our position.
However, as you insist on the ‘honest account’ of political differences first, let us spell out what we consider these differences to be and then return to the substantial issue. It may, after all, clarify matters beyond the issues of the elections.
We consider that the most important differences between the SWP and the SP can be found in the following main areas.
The nature of the Stalinist regimes of the former USSR and Eastern Europe:
The SWP took the view that the countries of Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba were state capitalist societies where a bureaucratic class collectively organised the exploitation of workers through the state’s control of the forces of production.
These societies were not socialist as their Stalinist defenders claimed. Neither were they “post-capitalist” or “transitional.” They were state capitalist. Unlike most of the Left, we saw nothing progressive in these regimes and we did not defend them as better than the ‘forces of capitalism in the West.’
We never accepted the argument that the ‘planned nature’ of their economies meant that they could escape the contradictions of capitalist crisis. We saw the collapse of these regimes not as a setback for socialists, but as an opportunity to begin the fight for real socialism in those countries. Far from the 1989 revolts opening a period of defeat for socialists, we saw it as the first aspect of a wider crisis which would engulf the global system.
The Socialist Party’s predecessors, the Militant Tendency in the Labour Party and then Militant Labour, took a very different view. While denouncing Stalinism and claiming adherence to the letter of the Trotskyist tradition, you nevertheless regarded these regimes as “deformed” or “degenerated workers states.”
The mistaken characterisation arose, in our view, from a confusion that equates nationalised property relations and the existence of a ‘planned economy’ with the existence of some sort of workers state.
For the SWP, as for Marx, the decisive criterion is social relations of production – which class controls industry and society. The key question is whether the working class is really in control and is the real ruling class.
For those with eyes to see it was obvious that workers not only did not control industry but were systematically deprived of basic democratic rights. To describe such a society as a “workers’ state,” as the Socialist Party and its predecessors did, is to make words lose all meaning.
This was more than a dispute about words. Marx argued that the emancipation of the working class must be accomplished by the working class.
For genuine socialists the working class must take control of society in a revolution from below. The regimes that came to power in Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War were installed not by workers’ revolutions but by Stalin’s armies.
If you believed they were workers’ states, “post capitalist societies,” etc, then you believed there was a way to liberate society that did not involve workers’ revolution.
Workers’ revolution then became an optional extra and the self-emancipation of the working class merely one option among many possible roads to socialism.
In characterising these societies as state capitalist we understood that the regimes were instruments for the oppression and exploitation of the working class.
We therefore had no difficulty in putting ourselves in the same camp as the workers opposing these regimes and seeking democratic rights, whatever illusions in Western democracy. We were therefore not at all depressed when these intensely unpopular and oppressive regimes were overthrown or collapsed in the 1989-90 period.
This was in sharp contrast to those, like yourselves, who saw these societies as workers’ states, etc. They saw the collapse of Stalinism as the “restoration of capitalism.”
In reality, the ruling classes in Russia and Eastern Europe sought to liquidate the crisis by re-organising themselves around state capitalism based on state monopolies and instead sought to introduce a greater reliance on market mechanisms.
The belief that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented some form of ‘defeat’ for socialist forces is entirely wrong. Tragically, it has led many on the left to retreat from an open revolutionary approach.
Parliament and elections:
The SWP believes, along with Lenin in his famous pamphlet The State and Revolution, that the existing state is organised to suit the interests of big business. Its structures cannot be adapted by workers for their use. Instead it must be smashed and replaced by workers’ councils – directly elected deputies from the workplaces, etc.
Parliament cannot be used as the means by which socialism in inaugurated because real power lies elsewhere – in the boardrooms of big business.
In any revolutionary upheaval in the industrialised countries a key question will soon emerge: shall power in society be exercised either through the old parliament, representing the capitalist class, or through workers’ councils?
As this question will only be settled by the contending forces of the rival classes, it is vital that socialists are clear on the issue.
In our view, your organisation is ambiguous. Formally you may distance yourself from the parliamentary road to socialism but you also hold open the possibility that socialism can be achieved by a mass movement ‘backing up’ its parliamentary representatives.
In present conditions this can lead to a danger of focussing workers’ struggle on the need to win support in parliament rather than relying on their own strength to establish victory.
In the longer term, your ambiguity on the question of parliament can prove disastrous. In a revolutionary situation every reactionary element will rally around the cry to defend the ‘institutions of parliamentary democracy.’
The sharpest expression of your ambiguity on this issue has been the recent developments in your international tendency. Your Scottish equivalents, for example, have renounced the project of constructing an exclusively revolutionary party but have explicitly embraced the notion that “at this stage,” the Socialist Party needs to unify reformists and revolutionaries within the one organisation. We believe that these issues will also emerge for you in the future.
All of this has some consequence for how our organisations approach the question of elections – but not the way you caricature it in your letter.
The SWP has never taken the view that revolutionaries on principle should not stand for elections. We stand in the tradition of the Bolsheviks who argued explicitly against the “ultra lefts” who abstained from elections. Your claim that we ‘denounce’ you or anybody else for standing in elections is therefore wrong.
Equally, the claim that we have seen the light and come around to your viewpoint may be comforting for you but is pure fantasy.
For the SWP, elections can provide a platform for revolutionary propaganda. Clearly we aim to receive as high a vote as possible but we do so on a clearly revolutionary basis.
The SWP is a very active party conducting agitation and propaganda on an ongoing basis. Electoral work is subordinate to the overall work of the party. We do not therefore see preparation for elections as the dominant focus for our party’s work.
We take seriously Lenin’s motto that ‘an ounce of struggle is worth a ton of votes.’
While this means that we approach the question of parliament and elections from different standpoints, we nevertheless believe there is a scope for co-operations. The nature of that co-operation needs, of course, to be discussed.
Socialists have been divided between the two main strategies for the unions. Some have argued a “Broad Left” strategy. What is necessary is to simply replace the current trade union leaders by others who claim to be more militant and left wing.
The SWP believes the problem runs deeper and requires a rank-and-file strategy.
The SWP believes that the union bureaucracy does not just sell out because it has terrible politics (which it has) – but also because it functions as a privileged layer within the labour movement with explicit material interests to defend by maintaining the ‘orderly’ process of industrial relations.
Splits develop within the bureaucracy between the Left and the Right – but these splits are secondary to the difference of interests between the rank-and-file and the bureaucracy.
The recent attack by the left bureaucrat, Peter Bunting, in the NRBU on the rank-and-file organisation, Busworkers Action Group, confirms this analysis.
For this reason, the SWP has long advocated the formation of rank-and-file organisations that are not simply electoral machines to enable left wingers to enter the bureaucracy but aim to build a base at workplace level through militant struggle and become capable of taking action that is independent of the bureaucracy.
In our view, the SP takes a different approach. On a number of occasions you have failed to challenge the left bureaucracy of the unions.
The most prominent recent case was the events leading up to the closure of Packard Electric where you accepted the argument about ‘globalisation’ advanced by the ATGWU bureaucracy and failed to argue for occupation of the plant.
During the last campaign against Partnership 2000 you fought very hard to put left bureaucrats PJ Madden, the INO general secretary, on the campaign platform even though rank-and-file members of his union were furious with his sell-out policies.
We believe that these mistakes arise from a notion that capturing bureaucratic positions can change unions – even if they are not linked to a wider rank-and-file movement that is able to exercise its industrial muscle at workplace level.
You mention two unions specifically. In SIPTU, an SWP member Carolann Duggan defied the dominant pessimism of the left in that union and ran on a clear rank-and-file ticket with open socialist politics. Her campaign was a broad campaign that was open to anyone who agreed with her policies.
Your slur that the SWP refused to have a ‘broad campaign’ is silly. One of your members attended campaign meetings and of course the size of the vote is a tribute to the fact that scores of SIPTU members worked in this campaign.
The case of the CPSU brings out more clearly the differences in our approaches. The reality is that the union had a ‘broad left’ dominated executive but unfortunately it failed to advance militant policies and so lost out considerably the following year. In response, supporters of the SWP launched a new bulletin which advocated a rank-and-file strategy. None of this precludes co-operation with the Broad Left as was demonstrated in the recent vote on Partnership 2000.
Oppression and Northern Ireland:
The SWP takes seriously Lenin’s injunction that socialists are not simply trade union branch secretaries but work as tribunes of the people openly opposing oppression.
This is vital in Ireland where although there have been gains for the middle class, the Catholic population in Northern Ireland still face the sectarianism of the Northern Ireland state and suffer harassment from its police force.
The SWP calls for the smashing of the North’s sectarian state and the formation of an Irish workers’ republic. We openly oppose the practice of Orange marches going through Catholic areas and have joined resistance to these marches.
We never accepted the argument that the IRA were the main cause of the violence in the North. The IRA’s violence was a tragic response to the sectarianism of the Northern Ireland state and could not simply be equated with that of loyalist forces.
(The claim that we supported the tactic of armed struggle is wrong and most probably designed to win the cheap support from forces to the right of both the SWP and SP – we have consistently attacked the armed struggle as counterproductive and helped to initiate labour movement sponsored demonstrations which opened the way for peace).
We openly opposed sectarian oppression while at the same time clearly attacking Republican politics, in particular for their dismissal of Protestant workers.
For us, the main divide in Northern Ireland is the class divide. Precisely because of this we are determined to raise all the necessary issues in all sections of the working class. We categorically reject the patronising approach that issues to do with the sectarianism of the state and oppression cannot be discussed in areas such as East Belfast.
The Socialist Party has a very different record. While you formally acknowledge the state is sectarian, you have never taken part in any campaign to call for the removal of British troops.
You refused even to support the demand for political status during the H Block struggle.
In the siege of Drumcree by Orange bigots and their demand to be allowed to strut through and intimidate the Catholic Garvaghy Road, you claim this is a “clash of rights.”
Unlike the SWP, you have not clearly opposed the so-called “right to march” of bigoted Orangemen through Catholic areas in cases like this. Once again, a key difference between us is your tendency to make formally “correct” abstract propaganda while failing to grasp the central issue of the need to oppose oppression.
Most recently, we believe your politics have taken a further shift. You now seem to argue that there are ‘two minorities’ in Ireland and entertain the possibility of a separate socialist state in Northern Ireland alongside a socialist state in the South.
Logically, this can only lead to a form of Green and Orange socialism that would make permanent the divisions in the working class.
Our view is that both Republicanism and loyalism have to be decisively challenged by fighting for a socialist united Ireland.
Both or our organisations stand outside either the Stalinist or Social Democratic traditions. But our differences as discussed above are serious. This explains why our parties are separate.
We could go on to discuss these differences further and undoubtedly you will not find our reply satisfactory from your point of view. However, to repeat: it was not our intention to start out with a long discussion of the differences – you insisted that these differences first be discussed.
To return therefore to the substantive issue at hand. If you are interested in co-operating in the electoral field we would suggest a meeting to discuss the nature of this co-operation.
(If you are not interested, for whatever reason, please let us know so we can terminate futile discussions and prevent any posturing on the issue.)
For our part, we wish to be absolutely explicit from the word go about our intentions. To facilitate discussion we would make a number of limited proposals.
Firstly, we believe that both parties – on the basis of their general positions outlined in their respective papers – should call for a vote for each other’s candidates. As has been made clear this does not amount to an endorsement of everything each party has said but it is a basic recognition that a vote for SWP or SP is preferable to a vote for the right wing or reformist parties. Do you share this view?
Second, we believe there needs to be a ‘non-aggression pact’ where we do not run candidates against each other. In an even moderately positive atmosphere we could come to agreement on this.
Third, and more difficult, might be a short platform where we outline areas of agreement. This however, as you say, should still leave organisations free to defend their own specific programmes.
As each of our organisations has expressed in a sharp fashion the nature of their differences, we suggest we now focus on the issues of elections. We request you to respond to the three suggested areas of co-operation outlined above either in written form or at a meeting to be arranged at a mutually agreed time.
We look forward to your early reply.
Socialist Workers Party
To the Socialist Workers Party: 28 January 1999
Further to my phone conversation with Richard, I am writing to confirm our attitude to your proposal for a meeting in the short term. We intend writing a longer reply to the questions of political differences and other points in your letter of 11 January.
We are disappointed with your response to the issues we raised in our letter. We feel that you have avoided the issues raised in relation to co-operation on the left, and particular in relation to the points we raised on work in the unions.
These are for us important issues. We would like to resolve them in the interest of creating better opportunities to build a fighting opposition in this key area. They have not been raised as an excuse for avoiding co-operation in other areas.
Given your response, we feel there would be little benefit in a meeting at this stage. We intend publishing your reply, along with our first letter and a reply to your most recent letter, and we hope that from a discussion on these and other questions which might come up that a better understanding of the politics and approaches of both parties may emerge.
To the Socialist Party
It is time the left grew up. We originally wrote to you with a simple request for a meeting to discuss co-operation in the forthcoming elections.
However we have now found ourselves engaged in an elaborate sectarian charade where you have not only refused to have a meeting with us but then, ironically, you tell us that the issues you want discussed “have not been raised as an excuse to avoid co-operation in other areas.”
If this double talk were taken in isolation it might have the black humour of a Monty Python sketch. However, the situation facing working-class people is far too serious for these petty games.
As I am sure you are aware, this correspondence takes place against the background of a major crisis facing Fianna Fail. The revelations about Haughey’s lifestyle and the corruption that accompanies conventional politics has given working people a glimpse of how the bourgeoisie really works.
This makes it all the more astounding that you refuse to even meet to discuss the possibility of calling for a vote for each other’s candidates; to avoid standing candidates against each other and to draw up a limited joint manifesto.
We now challenge you to state publicly which other left wing parties do you call for a vote besides yourself? Your own paper suggests that you will be fielding less than twenty candidates in the forthcoming local elections. Are you seriously suggesting that if there is no Socialist Party candidate in a constituency that workers should not vote for any other candidate?
Finally, we suggest that if you wish to publish this correspondence as a debate that you publish all the correspondence and that you accord equal space to both parties in the debate. If you wish to write us another long political letter we would be more than willing to supply you a reply for publication.
However, to repeat, our primary concern is the need for both our parties to show some degree of unity in the coming elections. We urge you to have a re-think.
Socialist Workers Party