Home

RESPECT OR CONTEMPT?


"If the Labour Party didn’t exist, the Trotskyites and revisionists would have to invent it." That’s what Marxist-Leninists used to say back in the nineteen seventies. For many decades these elements tried desperately to radicalise the Labour Party, some from within (e.g. Militant) and some from without (e.g. Communist Party of Great Britain). In, out, shake it all about. The more they tried to ginger up the Labour Party the more reactionary it became until in the nineteen nineties it abandoned any pretensions of social democracy with the adoption of Blair’s New Labour programme. This left these elements in a fix because the strategy of changing the Labour Party had little credibility left among people of radical inclinations.

Both the Trotskyites and the revisionists had claimed to advocate revolutionary change but somehow or other this was supposed to come about through critical support of the Labour Party in elections. What they were not prepared to do is to face up to the challenging, demanding and difficult task of building a truly revolutionary movement in an advanced capitalist society such as Britain. Given their essentially reformist politics they needed to find or create a new version of the old Labour Party.
 
 

NEW MODEL PARTIES

The first new model brought out was Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party founded in 1996. Initially it attracted quite a few disaffected Labourites, Trotskyites and revisionists although its programme was hopelessly reactionary wanting, among other things, to reopen abandoned coal mines and cotton mills. Also, the party was very much King Arthur’s fiefdom and there was no way the already existing left organisations were going to subordinate themselves to it. The SLP stood some candidates in the 1997 General Election when they achieved very modest votes and again in 2001 when their support was derisory with Arthur being humiliated by Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool.

The next offering to come off the shelf was the Socialist Alliance formed before the 2001 General Election by a number of organisations including the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), Communist Party of Great Britain (Mark 2), etc.. Their platform was unashamedly a reformist, Old Labour one with no pretensions to revolution. Just like the Scargillites in 1997 the votes they polled were small and it wasn’t long before they were at sixes and sevens with each other and organisations started to drop out. As a result the SWP, who initially were rather cool about the whole enterprise, have been left in the predominant position in the SA and effectively control it. Even so the performance of SA in the 2003 local elections secured only one local council seat and in the Brent East parliamentary byelection in September 2003 their candidate won less votes in a whole constituency than some SA candidates had in local wards a few months before.
 
 

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED …

But the show must go on. During the last two years the Stop the War Coalition – largely led and controlled by the SWP – has galvanised many new sections of the population into political life and revived and revitalised some old ones as well. The SWP see this as an opportunity to build a new electoral alliance. Only a few months ago they were talking about launching a platform of "Peace and Justice" candidates particularly in association with elements from the Muslim population of Britain. Despite offers from the SWP of opportunistic compromises, such as on women’s rights, this failed to get off the ground. Not to worry, let’s move on to something else.

Now, in time for Christmas, we have RESPECT, a lash-up platform that stands for ‘respect’, ‘equality’, ‘socialism’, ‘peace’, ‘environmentalism’, ‘community’ and ‘trade unionism’. SWP have managed to recruit George Galloway, Ken Loach and George Monbiot as signatories to a draft declaration. This delaration is much the same as the Socialist Alliance platform, i.e. a reformist and not a revolutionary platform. It is hoped to get other left organisations, trade unions, progressive pressure groups, etc. involved. The immediate objective is to stand candidates in elections to the European Parliament and the Greater London Authority next June. But where will this lead?

ELECTORAL ILLUSIONS

It is possible, although not very likely, that RESPECT could win some seats in local, national and European elections and come to constitute a new social democratic party. It is even remotely conceivable at some stage that RESPECT could become a partner in some sort of coalition government. But this is not going to bring about fundamental changes to this capitalist society. More likely would be that RESPECT would increasingly become absorbed within capitalist parliamentarianism as has happened with the Greens in Germany and abandon even its mild reformist demands.

Of course, if this view is put to SWP members and some other leftist victims of election fever then they admit that socialism cannot be brought about through capitalist parliaments. However, they say, the great majority of the people still believe that real change can be brought about by electing radical candidates to the House of Commons. People have to find out through experience that this strategy does not work. Only then will they be prepared to turn to revolution.

This is the same opportunist excuse that was used to justify supporting the Labour Party in elections. In fact, both the opinion polls and their increasing reluctance to vote show that a large section of the population do not think that real changes can be brought about under the present political system. Yet the Trotskyites and revisionists carry on pushing this reformist line that many of them know is false. They say that if they put forward an openly revolutionary line it will alienate them from the working class. Ironically, the reality is that none of these organisations have any significant presence in the working class.

The whole RESPECT enterprise is blatantly dishonest because it is trying to win support for a political strategy that its proponents know will not work. It is treating people not with respect but with contempt.

EXHAUSTION OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY

Social democratic politics emerged in the Western European countries during the late nineteenth century. The aim of parties such as the German Social Democratic Party and the British Labour Party was to gradually change capitalism into socialism by means of electing representatives to parliamentary assemblies who would pass the necessary legislation. Violent revolution was held to be unnecessary and could be avoided.

Such parties did win mass support and succeeded in bringing about reforms on matters such as welfare, housing and education. The resistance of the capitalist class to such demands was considerably reduced by the threat of communist revolution following the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. The ruling class realised that capitalism and their privileged position in it could be preserved by accepting social democratic reforms that would be paid for by the working class and which would actually reduce and stabilise class conflict.

By the nineteen seventies the social democratic political programme had been more or less fully implemented in countries such as Britain, France and Germany. One consequence was that social democratic parties had become firmly incorporated within the capitalist system. Whereas at the beginning of the century they were on the margins of the capitalist political system they had become a central and generally accepted part of it. In these countries capitalism had become much more stable and secure than fifty years before and the social democrats such as the Labour Party had, whether they realised it or not, played an important part in bringing about this stability.

But just at the point where social democracy seemed to have made the developed countries safe for capitalism, a major new economic depression started to emerge. Despite the practice of Keynsian economic management advocated by social democrats, mass unemployment re-emerged and brought considerable strains to bear on the welfare state. In Britain in the nineteen eighties it was the Thatcher-led Tory governments that started to erode away and dismantle social democratic reforms. In some other countries such as Spain and France it was actually social democratic parties in government that introduced the same policies. It was only in the mid-nineteen nineties in Britain that the Labour Party abandoned a social democratic programme and adopted Thatcherism under the guise of Blair’s New Labour policies. More recently the German SDP in government have gone down the same path.

Social democracy has run its course. It is ironic that the very same political parties that advocated social reforms to capitalism are now busy setting about undermining and abolishing them.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

RESPECT is trying to drag us back to the past with its unimaginative list of traditional social democratic demands to be implemented through Parliament. At the same time large and growing numbers of people are coming to realise that fundamental changes to society cannot be brought about by means of the existing capitalist political system. This is apparent in the mass scepticism about politicians and the falling turnouts in national and local elections. The exposure of the lies that the Blair government has told about Iraq has strengthened this trend.

Certainly, we need to carry on the struggle to defend our hard-won civil liberties such as trade union rights (considerably eroded) and to defend our standard of living. Past experience – as in the cases of fighting discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and gays - shows that extra-parliamentary action can be much more effective in bringing about reforms than by trying to use the mainstream political parties. The main political parties, including the Labour Party, instead of taking the lead have reluctantly yielded to popular pressure on these issues. Environmental issues have only got onto the agenda of the bourgeois parties because of pressure from various green campaigning groups. There are some very pressing and important issues that certainly do need to be taken up such as housing and pensions which the RESPECT platform largely ignores. Certainly we should carry on with and broaden struggles such as those against imperialist war and in defence of asylum seekers. But we need to go further.

RESPECT talks about "a crisis of representation, a democratic deficit, at the heart of politics in Britain" yet by this it simply means a lack of social democratic politicians in Parliament. What this sort of reformist politics ignores is the fact that our whole society is fundamantally undemocratic, is run along authoritarian lines. The economy is not controlled by the great majority of workers but by a small minority of capitalist owners. Essentially the same authoritarian structures pervade most aspects of our lives such as the habitat, education, health care and the mass media. It is not the great majority of the people who create and are affected by these things who control them. Rather it is a small minority of capitalists and their functionaries who exercise power in most aspects of our lives not for our benefit but for their own immediate profit and privilege. Democracy means rule by the people and for this to become a reality instead of the present sham a revolutionary solution is necessary. Past experience around the world shows that capitalist rulers will not give up their power voluntarily so they will have to be overthrown by means of revolutionary action.

This is the most important political task facing us, building a real revolutionary movement to replace existing organisations such as the SWP that waffle about revolution but in practice pursue social democratic, reformist politics the latest manifestation of which is RESPECT.

Harry Powell

December 2003