Just to ponder a little on this question of the alleged left-right split in Respect – I’ve written a bit on this, but I think it’s worth teasing out further. Nothing I have seen in the past few weeks changes my opinion that the “left-right” view being put forward by the SWP CC is anything more than a rhetorical device. What in fact has been striking about the CC’s interventions has been the almost total lack of politics. To date, I have seen absolutely no evidence that there is any deep political division behind the split. Which is not to say, of course, that there is not a serious question here in terms of the future direction of Respect.
Actually, the seeds of this go back right to the beginning of Respect, and the SWP’s formulation that Respect was not a party (there can be only one true party) but that it was a “united front of a special type”. Nick Wrack argues that this is under-theorised, and he’s right, but it’s hardly the point. You have to set this alongside the SWP’s long history of working through “united fronts” which in fact turn out to be little more than fronts, having virtually nobody in them but the SWP. A particularly blatant example occurred in the early 1990s when the British CC relaunched the ANL, and the SWM leadership in Dublin decided that Ireland also needed an ANL – in a country with no Nazis! The Irish ANL’s only regular activity for years thereafter was to march up and down O’Connell Street once a year. (Some anti-deportation work was also done, but there was no reason why an ANL was needed for that.)
Most examples aren’t nearly as staggeringly stupid as that one, but we know the pattern. The SWP will set up a single-issue campaign, get some well-regarded individuals to sit on the committee, and do activity under its banner. The purpose of this is to allow the party to do campaigning work in a broader milieu, to try and get support for a campaign that couldn’t possibly be mobilised by the SWP as such, and, last but not least, to recruit into the SWP. Critics sometimes charge that these campaigns are purely about recruitment, but they aren’t – the other functions are important as well, and it’s too cynical to suggest that SWP comrades don’t care about the issues in themselves. But this way of working – termed “united front” work although it bears little or no resemblance to the Comintern concept – has become a deeply institutionalised part of the SWP’s culture.
Now we turn to Respect, the “united front of a special type”. There was a clear schema at the founding of Respect, and people like Callinicos and Rees were quite open about this. That was that there would be a broad left-of-Labour formation – but not a party – emerging from the antiwar movement, that reformists would be in the majority and that the SWP would be the Marxist wing, which would swim in this formation and recruit to “the party”. The trouble with these schemas is that real life tends to work differently. For instance, the SWP in Ireland has been involved in recent years in no less than three electoral fronts, none of which has included anybody significant outside its own ranks, so it has had to substitute for the absent reformists, vote against policies it believes in, and act as a conscious right wing.
This is one of the big reasons why I was hostile to the setting up of Respect in the first place. If Respect had emerged organically, that would be different, but I didn’t think it was the SWP’s job to set it up. On the other hand, Respect now exists, and poses some interesting questions. One is that, yes, the SWP has acted as a substitute for the absent reformists. Another is that, unlike the usual SWP cornflake-box front, Respect has developed a bit of substance, a bit of a life of its own, and it contains a lot of people who don’t want to join the SWP and for whom Respect is a worthwhile project in its own right.
So, in this light, how are we to judge the issue of the “left-right split”? As I’ve said before, I think much of this only makes sense if you judge things in an idealist sense. And again, there’s a whole lot of plagiarism going on. The arguments being deployed by the CC about “communalism” and Asian businessmen are off-the-shelf arguments that have been used by the AWL, and in a moderated form the Weekly Worker, for several years. (Minus, of course, the AWL’s peculiar stance on “the Mooslims”, which gives its position some substance.) And then the Matgamnites and Conradites return the compliment by regarding, or affecting to regard, the SWP as the proletarian socialist component of Respect which must be supported against the “petty bourgeois” element around George. The justification for that is the idealist one that the SWP are Marxists and the other side mostly aren’t. It also leads to the delicious scenario where the Weekly Worker, whose whole purpose for being in Respect is to recruit the flotsam and jetsam of the SWP, can’t appeal to SWP expellees because it’s cheering on the expulsions.
What I want to argue is this. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to talk in terms of “left” and “right” in this discussion, as formal positions are less important than functional perspectives. But I do think the SWP can be described as the conservative bloc in Respect. That’s why, although I’m much closer to the SWP than to George in formal politics, I hope they get their ass kicked in this fight. If they get their ass kicked, there are possibilities for Respect to grow, to develop, to change – where it would go is unpredictable, but then we’re talking possibilities here. If the SWP win, you’re talking about Respect becoming a tightly controlled SWP front, which is, in the Rumsfeldian sense, a known known. We’ve been there before and don’t need to go back.