By Jane West and Nicky Dempsey
The crisis in the SWP has provoked a discussion including everything from prurient gossip and snide sectarianism to serious political analysis. For those interested in advancing the cause of socialism a potentially disintegrative crisis in the numerically largest current of the British far left is a serious matter, therefore worthy of serious comment.
There are really two issues involved. First, why this crisis in the SWP has developed. Second why the capitalist media, who are implacable enemies of anything progressive, have decided to take such an interest in the matter. As will be seen the two issues are very different.
The causes of the crisis in the SWP
The immediate trigger of the crisis in the SWP is well-known – a failure to deal adequately with an accusation of rape made against a leading SWP member . Whatever is established regarding the truth or otherwise of the allegation in the case, the turmoil in the SWP is evidence of a widespread rejection of its handling.
However, although the very serious issue of how to respond to an accusation of rape triggered the present upheaval, the roots of this crisis lie in the fundamental politics of the organisation, of which its approach on this issue is just one aspect. This crisis is the third significant one in the SWP’s recent history. First there was the political division around tactics in Respect – which the SWP had helped found. This led to the departure of the key SWP members engaged in the project who stayed with Respect while the rest of the SWP pulled out when they could not get their way. This was followed by a division with precisely that section of the SWP leadership that had organised the fight that led to the split over Respect – this second group were expelled or left the SWP and went on to set up Counterfire.
This latest conflagration in the SWP therefore is best understood as a further stage in a drawn-out crisis.
The real roots of this crisis are that the SWP was founded on a wrong analysis of the international class line of divide between the international working class and imperialism which led to major misunderstandings of the class struggle. Its famous strap-line ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism’ expressed its analysis that the Soviet Union was a variation of capitalism, dubbed ‘state capitalism’. No class distinction could be drawn between this ‘state capitalism’ and the capitalist and imperialist powers.
Most immediately this fundamentally wrong analysis led it to completely misunderstand the events of 1989-91 in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. The SWP failed to understand that the destruction of the USSR, and the re-establishment of capitalism constituted a great victory for imperialism which set back the class struggle internationally. This fundamentally wrong analysis therefore led the SWP to radically misunderstand, and wildly overestimate, the relation of class forces in the imperialist countries and therefore the potential in the class struggle in the UK and Europe.
Throughout the last two decades the SWP’s comrades have therefore been led to expect a major upsurge in the struggle in the imperialist centres, which has failed to materialise, while turning their faces away from the really progressive developments in world politics such as Chavez in Venezuela, Castro in Cuba and the whole advance of the left in Latin America. This over-heated view of the possibilities in the class struggle also led to a sectarian and wrong attitude to other forces pursuing limited but progressive struggles within the imperialist centres – one of the issues which lay behind the wrong approach of the SWP in Respect.
At the same time, the non-Marxist categories involved in the theory of ‘state capitalism’ means the SWP failed to have a correct position on a series of questions – for example, it lies behind its failure to understand the class line of divide in the current struggle in Syria, with the SWP supporting forces which are actually controlled by imperialism, and leads to an incorrect approach to the struggle against forms of oppression, such as that of women.
However, despite these wrong positions, on many key issues, including the struggle against imperialist interventions and the fight against fascism, the SWP maintained correct positions and engaged in vigorous activity. Therefore the correct attitude to the SWP by forces seeking to progress the interests of the class struggle, has been to work with it in a totally non-sectarian way on those issues on which it is correct while debating and arguing with it on those questions on which it is wrong.
The capitalist attack on the SWP
The capitalist media attack on the SWP, however, is being carried out for the exact reverse of progressive reasons. The SWP has come under the attack of the Daily Mail and numerous other capitalist forces not for the issues on which it is wrong but because of those issues on which it is right. To the degree positions on which the SWP is wrong are being used it is only because these weaknesses can be exploited by the capitalist class for reactionary purposes.
No one who has the slightest understanding of the utterly reactionary character of the Daily Mail can believe it devoted a two page spread to a sensationalist expose of the dispute that provoked the crisis in the SWP for any progressive purpose at all.
The Daily Mail’s interest has been echoed by the bourgeois media as a whole, which has devoted considerable space to the issue, and it has drawn comment from such as Nick Cohen, well-known for his propensity to attack the left since his damascene conversion to support for imperialist military adventures with the Iraq war in 2003.The Daily Mail, notorious for its support of Mosley in the 1930s,and whose staff more recently did not feel it necessary to ask guests dressed in fascist uniform to leave a party it staged, is not only clear in its overall position but it is also notorious for its overt sexist coverage.
Similarly, Nick Cohen soon deviates from dealing with ‘sexism’ to his real political issue, claiming the SWP ‘made a mockery of its claim to be “socialist” when it joined with the Islamist religious right and persuaded the Stop the War campaign to support the “resistance” in Iraq…How can people be shocked when men and women who condone jihad fail to direct the alleged victims of rape to the police? It would be more shocking if they did.’
It should be self-evident that neither the Daily Mail nor commentators of the Cohen variety are writing such articles out of deep concern about the epidemic of rape in Britain, its victims and the culture that is tolerant of it.
It is estimated that round 400,000 women are sexually assaulted and 80,000 women are raped in Britain each year. Less than one in six cases of rape are ever reported to the police and only one in 16 ever result in conviction, the lowest conviction rate among a survey of 33 countries.
These newspapers do not have a stellar record of campaigning on this.
So why has the bourgeois media given the issues in the SWP so much attention when most of the activity of the left is studiously ignored? It is not because of the weaknesses of the SWP but precisely because the SWP opposes capitalist austerity and the imperialist war in Iraq – positions which correspond to the interests of progress and the working class. It is under attack from these sources because of the issues on which it is right.
To put the issue in its real context, rather than concern about rape or women’s rights, this large scale media interest is driven by the aim to weaken or destroy as much of the left as possible. This is particularly important in advance of the election of a deeply right-wing Labour government in 2015.
The bourgeoisie is increasingly reconciled to the fact that the chance of a Tory victory at the next general election is negligible. Tory support is in long term decline and is currently fluctuating around the low 30s in percentage terms, while the Lib Dems are struggling to maintain a poll rating in double figures. Their common platform of maintaining austerity into the next Parliament will not turn this electoral situation around. And recent attempts to shore up support from liberal-minded voters on gay and lesbian marriage have instead merely highlighted how reactionary the Tory party is.
Under these circumstances a Labour or led government in 2015 is overwhelmingly probable. The Labour poll lead has also taken the ground from under the campaign of the Blairite Labour right to change the leadership in advance of the General Election, so the most likely outcome in 2015 is that Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister, and Ed Balls is Chancellor.
The bourgeoisie is therefore focused on two goals.
Its first goal is to commit Labour to the same draconian spending plans, further attacks on welfare spending and on union rights as the Coalition government. In this it seeks to use the Blairite right of the party, which remains strongly organised through Progress and is powerfully present in the Shadow Cabinet.
While their hope of changing the leadership is off the agenda, the Blairite right has switched its focus to campaigning to shift Miliband’s policy agenda to align with the Tories. For example, Alan Johnson has called for a tougher line on the unions, including reducing their say in the Party. The Telegraph claims, probably correctly, that a strong lobby in the Shadow Cabinet is demanding Miliband ‘sign up to Tory spending cuts’. Blair himself has intervened to say that Labour policies have to do more than ‘simply protect people who are vulnerable’ if it wants to be credible.
With the continuing impact of cuts and austerity, there is no prospect of rapid economic growth by 2015. For the bourgeoisie this demands the continuation of austerity to further drive down working class incomes and increase profitability. Unlike during the Blair administrations – when a booming economy created slack for limited concessions to the working class – for Miliband, any refusal to continue the austerity policies would pitch Labour into a direct conflict with the priorities and interests of the ruling class.
There is little likelihood of this, as Miliband and Balls have already made it clear they will maintain the fundamentals of the coalition’s policy. But this is not what the electorate are hoping for or anticipating. In turning to Labour, voters are looking for an end to austerity and this is what they hope a Labour government will deliver.
The gap between what Labour’s supporters expect it to deliver, and what it will actually do, is likely to lead to vigorous movements, struggles and campaigns, in the unions, in Labour itself and to its left, seeking to shift Labour to the left or the strengthening of forces to the left of Labour altogether.
This therefore leads to the ruling class’s second goal: to reduce, divide, weaken and confuse any potential leftward pressure on Labour or emergence of forces to its left. This is why the bourgeois media is jumping on the crisis in the SWP to run a campaign against it. It is taking the opportunity of the SWP’s crisis to weaken as much as possible a significant component of the left that would oppose Labour’s austerity policies and help organise the resistance to it. And to discredit and smear the left in general.
In other words it should be clearly understood that the current attack on the SWP by the Daily Mail and its ilk is not carried out to ‘improve’ the left but to damage it as much as possible.
The British left has suffered a series of blows and become more disunited over the recent period. Some of these wounds are self-inflicted.
Whatever discussions continue on the left about the issues raised by the crisis in the SWP, there should be no confusion about the fact that the bourgeois media campaign against the SWP has no progressive content whatever. It is merely part of an offensive to weaken the left as much as possible now and prevent the emergence of a powerful left campaigning against Labour carrying out austerity policies after 2015.
The left should continue to debate out its differences, which includes both current issues in the SWP and its fundamental politics, but it should never let this prevent it from acting together to defend the interests of progress.