Left Unity

The Socialist Party welcomes the opportunity to debate publicly the differences between the Socialist Workers Party and us. This is not a matter of sterile point scoring or dogmatic hair splitting.

Our objective is first of all to clarify the points of difference and, by doing so, hopefully to resolve them. The existence of a number of organisations on the left complicates the task of building a Marxist party. Where differences are not fundamental, the needs of the class struggle must override secondary and sometimes petty divisions that may have built up through years of separate existence.

When we engage in discussion with other organisations that claim to stand in the revolutionary socialist tradition, we engage in debate, first and foremost, to see if it would be possible to reach principled agreement on both ideas and method, and then to see if this agreement could be successfully tested in action over a period. Where this can be done, we would be in favour, not just of co-operation, but also of fusion into a single organisation.

We have to say frankly at the outset that, given what we have witnessed of the past and present role of the SWP, we are not confident that this discussion will take us in that direction.

Even if we do not end with agreement, the exercise will not have been wasted. A public setting out of differences in method and in ideas will be of benefit to our own members and to activists on the left generally. We have to justify to working class people, who instinctively seek the maximum unity of organisation, why there exists more than one organisation which lays claim to the Marxist tradition. If there is no basis for fusion we have to be able to demonstrate that these differences are both serious and irreconcilable, and that a fusion would merely blunt the revolutionary instrument, not strengthen it.

Your initial approach to the Socialist Party was, of course, not about fusion or about the clarification of differences, but was a proposal for electoral co-operation up to and including a joint platform setting out areas of political agreement. But in our correspondence points have come up which we feel further debate can clarify. For our part, we are in favour of joint campaigning work – and electoral agreements – with other genuine forces on the left. Unity in action – the drawing together of the maximum forces at the point of attack – is an essential ingredient of the class struggle. Broader campaigns are needed where these allow greater forces to be drawn into action than would be possible under the banner of a single organisation – provided, that is, that the content is not diluted to the point where a campaign is broad but too politically blunt to have an impact.

United action allows us to raise a broader banner and to reach layers of the working class we might otherwise not have been able to penetrate It also permits us to demonstrate in practice to others that our ideas and methods are principled, practical and effective, that we are the best and most consistent fighters for the interests of the working class.

The Socialist Party has always sought to work with other activists and with other organisations, notwithstanding the fact of ongoing political disagreements. In the trade union field we have worked with others in numerous broad left/activists organisations in order to present the strongest challenge to the right wing leaderships. Our campaigning work – on racism, on water charges, against sectarianism in the North, and on innumerable other issues – has often been conducted together with individuals who are not Socialist Party members, and with other political groups.

In the 1997 Forum elections in the North we very successfully allied with other groups to form the Labour Coalition and won two seats as a result – an achievement which would not have been possible under our own banner. This victory created an opening for a new working class political force to be built. The seats at the talk’s table could have been a platform for a public challenge to the establishment and to the sectarian politicians. This did not happen only because a right wing rump, which effectively broke away from the Coalition, took the seats and was recognised by the Tories and by New Labour.

This does not mean that the experience was not worthwhile. In the struggle with the Labour Coalition, we were able to win all but a tiny handful to our arguments. We won over important sections of the Coalition – for example West Tyrone Labour ultimately dissolved itself into the Socialist Party creating a firm base for Marxism among the working class of that area. During this time, the Socialist Workers Party stood on the sidelines criticising us for our electoral involvement and for working with others in the labour tradition.

This was not surprising given the fact that the SWP was at the time shifting from its position of many years which had been to advocate a vote for Sinn Fein in all Northern elections. Previously, when we have stood candidates, both as “Labour and Trade Union” and as Militant Labour, SWP members were actively supporting Sinn Fein.

As far as the South is concerned, we fought the 1997 general election as part of a broader alliance that came very close to winning two seats. We had already established ourselves as an electoral force through the 1996 Dublin West by election and were hopeful of winning a seat. Yet, we still saw the importance of working with others and of presenting the broadest possible alternative for working people.

By contrast, the Socialist Workers Party stood separately. If your concern is for left unity why did you make no approach to us at that time? Why did you remain outside the left alliance of which we were part? The truth is that you responded to our vote in the 1996 Dublin by election by doing a somersault on the question of standing in elections. You made a headlong rush to stand in 1997, even running a candidate against us in one Dublin constituency. This sectarian attempt to challenge and cut across us on the electoral front failed. It is out of this failure that you have newly discovered the “merits” of unity.

Genuine Unity

We are for unity – because it advances the general interests of the working class, develops the class struggle and points to increased participation by broader layers of workers. We are for unity where it is possible to link with genuine forces that have a real degree of influence among the working class and which are prepared to work in an honest, principled and democratic manner.

But there are provisos. In entering broad campaigns and alliances we weigh seriously the potential. Do the other forces within them have a genuine basis for support? Are the structures genuinely democratic? Would such agreements enhance our standing among class-conscious workers and within the working class generally? Or would the fact of standing too close to others whose activities do more to repel than attract workers leave us tainted by association, and more isolated as a result?

And so, while embracing the idea of unity and united action, we will not automatically embrace every appeal we receive. We will be especially cautious about approaches from the milieu of ultra left groups, because our experience of such groups, the Socialist Workers Party included, has been almost entirely a negative one.

Take an extreme example, merely by way of illustration. Were we approached for united action by some bizarre grouping as the tiny Spartacist League, we would politely decline the invitation and pass quickly on. We think the Socialist Workers Party would probably do the same, In the first place this is a tiny organisation that represents absolutely nothing in the working class movement. They have no record of mass activity and their intervention in any movement is marred by a uniquely vitriolic sectarianism. And on top of all this there is the fact that their whole past approach to us has been to denounce us as “reformists,” “electoralists” and in the North, as soft on “oppression,” “conciliatory” towards the Orange Order and so on.

United action with a group, the sum total of whose influence is zero, adds nothing, but attaches to us a quite unnecessary brake that could only have the effect of slowing the momentum of our own organisation. Saying no to such approaches is not sectarianism; it is an expression of our refusal to immerse ourselves in the same sectarian swamp as them.

We do not think the Socialist Workers Party is exactly akin to the Spartacists. But if we were to set out a spectrum of left organisations, placing those with a real basis in the workers movement and a democratic approach to co operation at one end, and ingrained sectarians like the Spartacists at the other, we would have to place the SWP, by virtue of method and history, at a point closer to the sectarian end of the spectrum. There are obvious parallels between the political criticisms levelled against us by the Spartacists and the SWP. There is also a similar method of debate, which is to misquote what we say, distort our views and then to tilt at the windmills of arguments we do not put forward.

In saying all of this we do not intend to denigrate individual members of the SWP. We acknowledge that most people join your party attracted by what at first glance appears to be a vibrant revolutionary force. They do so out of a genuine desire to change society. Most will come to discover that their first impression was superficial. The most serious will quickly conclude for themselves that there is more to revolutionary politics than slogans and emphatic pronunciations; that the working class movement does not so easily divide into the SWP “revolutionaries” on one side and various shades of “reformist” and “traitor” on the other.

Moreover, we cannot hold your present membership responsible for ideas you once put forward – on the North for example – ideas which you strenuously, but dishonestly, now deny. We think that your membership – and even some of your leading members – are kept quite deliberately in the dark about old positions you once held on a number of issues, positions which are now a serious embarrassment given your recent political somersaults.

When considering your proposal for an electoral agreement it is your actual ideas, past and present, our actual record in campaigns that we take into account. We cannot consider joint work in elections in isolation from how you work in other areas. You cannot be for left unity in one field, where it happens to suit you, and continue to behave in a sectarian manner in campaigns, in he trade unions and other areas. Wherever possible the Socialist Party has tried to work with Socialist Workers Party members on specific campaigns. Along with others on the left we have found this a difficult, if not impossible, task.

Generally, the record of your party is one of refusal to engage in genuine co-operation. How many times have genuinely broad campaigns called protests or activities and then found that some new “campaign” has been launched which is holding its protest a few days or a few hours earlier. The new “campaign” almost invariably turns out to be a fig leaf for the SWP, some fictitious “organisation” or “committee” which is “sponsored” by SWP members in different guises.

The problem with SWP “committees” and “campaigns” is not that you have initiated them. We applaud bold initiatives in launching mass activity where these can tap into a mood among the working class and the youth. The real problem is that they are never given any life – there are no structures, no internal democracy – they are simply an implementation device for decisions taken elsewhere by the Political Committee of the SWP.

The Anti Nazi League is a case in point. The name had an attraction for some young people who genuinely believed it to be an open broad-based organisation. On closer examination they found no such thing. It had no internal life, no structure, and no substance; in short it was a deception, a phantom called into being and then placed in storage at the whim of the SWP leadership.

Most recently, your behaviour in relation to the movement against NATO attacks in the Balkans has shown that, despite your verbal appeals for “left unity” in other areas, your whole approach remains hopelessly sectarian. As soon as the NATO bombing began, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins called a meeting of representatives of six parties, the SWP included, to set up a broad campaign of opposition.

Instead of throwing its weight behind the “Coalition Against the War” the SWP decided to put its real efforts attempting to build a separate “No to War Campaign” – while at the same time still keeping one foot in the broad Coalition. The “No to War Campaign” insisted on running rival activities to those of the Coalition and at times refused requests for joint activities.

This was not justified on the basis of any political difference between the two campaigns. “No to War” was not a “socialist” or “revolutionary” campaign. It had three vague and quite liberal demands. Speakers at public events include pacifists, advocates of UN intervention and others.

The intention was to create the impression of a “broad” campaign when the reality was very different. “No to War” like other SWP “broad” campaigns was just an extension of the SWP. The non-SWP speakers invited to appear on platforms have no input into the campaign. There was no democratic structure, only a sham committee which meets to ratify decisions which have already been taken elsewhere by the SWP.

This campaign exposed the inability of the SWP to work in any situation where they are in a minority in Belfast, Socialist Party members and people from other groups joined the “No to War” group. Without exception all of these people very quickly became completely frustrated by the undemocratic manner in which the SWP tried to run it. When activities proposed by the SWP were rejected in favour of other activities, the SWP simply ignored the votes and went ahead to implement their proposals, using the “No to War” title. Effectively, when they lost control they simply split off and set up a rival “No to War” campaign based around themselves. The result was the ludicrous position of two anti war campaigns, both called the “No to War Campaign,” advertising rival events. Your sectarian behaviour repelled all those who initially took part in the hope that, through united action, an effective anti war movement could be built.

If the SWP were interested in building a broad anti-war movement, there would have been no question of setting up a second campaign. The fact of two campaigns with a similar, almost identical programme only sowed confusion and weakened the opposition to the war. If the SWP were really for left unity why did you not agree to merge the two campaigns, agreeing a minimum programme but giving every participating group freedom to put its own explanation and programme inside? Your refusal to do so only exposes the inability of the SWP to enter into genuine co-operation with anyone.