The politics of the
split in Respect
Respect combined the disadvantages of the new - the limitations of the contemporary single issue campaign that knows what it is against and not what it is for - together with the limitations of the old - the attempt to maintain the failed reformist politics of yesterday in the form of a protest group dressed up as a party. Now it has split into rival camps. Phil Sharpe examines the reasons behind the break-up of Respect.
Both sides in the split in the Respect party between the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the supporters of George Galloway focus on organisational reasons for the break-up of the party. These include differences about selection of council candidates and an inability to work together in a national office. As a result, the essential political reasons for the split are obscured by claim and counter-claim.
The George Galloway faction, now known as Respect Renewal, is based upon identical policies to those that led to the founding of Respect - for example, building the anti-war movement, opposition to New Labour and rejection of Islamaphobia.1 The SWP has not been in revolt against any of these policies; a basic programmatic unity still exists between the two sides of the split in Respect.
So what lies behind the split in a party that was created out of the mass movement against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and which saw Galloway standing as Respect defeat the New Labour candidate in the 2005 general election? What prompted Galloway to change the locks on Respect offices to keep opponents out and the SWP to expel a number of leading members?
Some have, mistakenly, portrayed the struggle as a split between so-called Leninists and supporters of a pluralist conception of socialism.2 Yet it would be a mistake to side with the SWP because they are seen as representing some sort of adherence to secularism, democracy and socialism. On the other hand, it would be an illusion to support the Galloway faction as one that represents the aspiration for unity within Respect and to build the organisation as a pluralist and democratic organisation.
One attempt to provide “Marxist” support for Galloway has come from John Lister and Alan Thornett of the Socialist Resistance organisation. In “Beyond Fake Unity3 they argue that the SWP has increasingly been motivated by a desire to undermine Galloway's leadership of Respect. They point to the bureaucratic expulsion of several senior SWP members, like the trade union activist Nick Wrack, for expressing sympathy for the Galloway leadership.
Lister and Thornett, who have spent a lifetime participating in various organisations, say that what the split in Respect shows is that the SWP is unable to genuinely work with those it disagrees with in order to build a broad-based political movement:
"From the prestige and credibility it gained by acting as the principal organised political current in the most successful political regroupment to the left of Labour since World War two, the SWP leadership has now cemented itself in the position of a rigidly centralist and dogmatically sectarian current that would rather smash three year's work and destroy hard won political alliances than tolerate any genuine pluralism or political development in Respect."
The entire blame for the split is, therefore, laid at the door of the SWP, which is said to put its own narrow organisational concerns before the opportunity and potential to build a new left-wing force. So the authors of this document conclude that what they define as pro-democracy forces have no alternative but to boycott the Respect conference scheduled for 17 November. Instead, activists should devote their energies to the construction of a new left-wing organisation, starting with the Respect Renewal conference on the same day in a different part of London. Respect Renewal, they argue, can “create the condition to unite with those from the Labour left, the trade union left and the activists of ecological and climate change campaigns which can present a political alternative to the betrayals of New Labour”.4
The Lister-Thornett document is a travesty of the truth, and an attempt to rewrite history in order to justify support for the Galloway faction. Respect conferences, including its founding event, were not based on democratic controversy and lively debate. Important principles, such as the necessity for an international strategy for the realisation of socialism, were effectively sidelined and replaced by an emphasis on a national struggle for the implementation of practical reforms. From its beginning, Respect situated itself as a left social-democratic, reformist formation rather than a revolutionary party.
A pronounced tendency to adapt to what was considered to be the prevailing ideas emanating from the anti-war movement was organisationally expressed in the justification of an elite organisation based around a coalition between the leadership of the SWP and Galloway. They were united in opposing any prospect of a revolutionary alternative emerging within Respect. In other words, Respect was not a genuine workers’ party that could allow for the formation of lively trends of opinion, real and authentic pluralism or the promotion of alternative policies.
There is no evidence, therefore, to justify the claim that Galloway represents the pro-democracy forces within Respect. Instead, it seems self-evident that Galloway is motivated by one aim, which is to ensure that his leadership is not undermined and challenged. How can such an opportunist become part of the leadership of what would be a plural, democratic and mass alternative to New Labour? The authors of “Beyond Fake Unity” proclaim that such an organisation is their aim. But the expedient means they support cannot realise the end. On the contrary, rotten methods can only result in a rotten result.
The only aspect of principle that Galloway adheres to is opposition to the war in Iraq, but this is not sufficient in and of itself to create a principled political movement. To develop such a movement means first recognising that New Labour is an agency of the interests of global capital and that parliamentary democracy has been transformed into an authoritarian, market state.
But the last thing that the SWP and Galloway ever wanted was to put forward a strategy that could create the beginning of effective opposition to New Labour. It was in the interests of both the SWP and Galloway to maintain the credentials of Respect as a anti-war movement, and to leave deliberately vague the question of what else Respect stood for. The fact that Respect was said to stand for Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community and Trade Unionism was little more than an empty slogan. In practice, Respect was happy to stand for being against the Iraq war and little else.
However, the Thornett document continues to peddle the illusion that Respect minus the SWP can be the instrument of a political alternative to New Labour. In practice, it will be even more reliant on its actual mass base of Muslim small businessmen. It is highly unlikely that such a base will generate a socialist approach. Instead a vague populism, and minimal opposition to the war, will constitute the policies of such a formation. Indeed, this was already the trend within a Respect based on a Galloway-SWP coalition. All that the split has done is accelerate this trend in relation to the pro-Galloway forces.
What then of the SWP? They present the struggle in the heroic terms of being a struggle for socialism: "We urge everyone to support our position that we need to defend Respect as a project that has socialism as a central part, that will not make endless concessions in order to win votes, and that stands up for democracy."5 In other words, the perspective of the SWP is based on the myth that Respect has always stood for socialism, or at least until the latest power-mad schemes of Galloway threatened to undermine it.
The SWP reject any self-critical acknowledgement that the politics of Respect were not socialist, and that what was actually required was a struggle to develop a socialist strategy within Respect. They also deny the charge of sectarianism levelled against them by Galloway’s supporters.
The SWP argue that they have a long tradition of developing united fronts with those who do not agree with their politics, as in the Anti-Nazi League and the more recent Stop the War Coalition. United fronts, historically speaking, can bring together those who believe in reform and those who advocate revolution around given and limited aims which do not compromise competing and alternative programmes. Respect is being retrospectively presented in a similar manner. The SWP claims:
“Our approach was that of the united front. We agree on a minimal set of points that were the maximum that our allies - and many thousands of people activated by opposition to the war - would accept, but which were fully compatible with our long-term aims. Hence the name which was given to the new organisation, Respect, the unity coalition, was less than the full blooded socialist position we would ideally have preferred but which would have put off other people who wanted some sort of anti-war, anti-racist anti-neoliberal alternative to New Labour."6
The SWP’s attempts to impose retrospectively the concept of a united front on Respect will not wash. Respect could never be seen as or become a united front precisely because of the fact that it was already a party, which was ostensibly intended to provide a whole range of policies on different policies. Respect was, therefore, much more than a limited campaign with a particular purpose, like the Stop the War Coalition.
What the SWP established, however, was a political unity with a more right-wing and populist form of reformism (the Galloway wing). This was made possible by the fact that the SWP is, in practice, a pseudo-revolutionary organisation – one that hovers between reform and revolutionary politics. This can be characterised in political terms as left centrism. What made Respect actually workable in practice for three years was that the open reformist aims of the Galloway wing did not undermine the centrist outlook of the SWP. The question of organisational unity with avowed reformists was given precedence and priority over any commitment on paper to developing revolutionary strategy and perspectives.
Indeed, the SWP itself does not present the conflict between themselves and Galloway as a struggle between reform and revolution. Instead, they portray the differences as an expression of the breakdown of the original agreement between the SWP and Galloway to build a common organisation. The original aim to make Respect a “real unity coalition of the anti-New Labour left” was being compromised by Galloway's ambitions, the SWP claims.7
Galloway is accused of promoting selection lists of primarily Muslim candidates, or deliberately promoting communalism in order to oppose the selection of SWP candidates. The issue, therefore, was that the reformist essence of Respect itself was being compromised by these organisational measures:
"Principled socialists had no choice but to argue against such things. They represented a fundamental shift of sections of Respect away from the minimal agreed principles on which it had been founded - a shift towards putting electorability above every other principle, a shift which could only pull Respect to the right."8
So the struggle about what Respect should stand for is reduced to who should be the Respect candidate in Birmingham, Tower Hamlets or some other area. Galloway was subjected to criticism because his approach meant that "there was no future in appealing to workers on just class or anti-war arguments... and there had to be a shift towards courting ‘community leaders’".9 The power struggle is presented as a question of orientation:
"It is not a fight over personalities, but over politics. Do we try and build a political home for all those who are disgusted from the left with New Labour. Or do we allow it to shrink into an organisation for promoting a few political careers - and one media career - in a couple of localities."
This comment is also meant to suggest that it is the SWP who are “determined to fight for Respect as it is originally conceived”, and that it is Galloway who has betrayed these principles.10
Yet Respect was always built upon rotten foundations, which means the view that the SWP are somehow defending principled politics against a type of opportunism is a nonsense. The SWP are no longer able to reach amicable agreement with Galloway about the selection of candidates, and so they suddenly start shouting about communalism in the name of class politics. The actual content of class politics, the advance of the struggle for human emancipation and the construction of the classless society, is reduced to what is electorally advantageous to the SWP. The actual politics of Galloway are avoided by the SWP.
The SWP are not only incapable of developing principled politics to differentiate themselves from Galloway, they are also unable to recognise that what has happened is the result of the very logic of Respect itself. Populist politics proved incapable of transcending Respect’s communalist base. Galloway is merely expressing the logic of this base, and is explicitly constructing his politics in these terms. The SWP is pragmatically rejecting this logic, not because it has a principled opposition to this perspective, but rather because it is becoming marginalised in the process of the selection of candidates. The result is an SWP revolt formally dressed up in the clothes of class politics. Maintaining and extending the organisational influence of the SWP becomes the central issue. Neither side represents principles, and none should be supported in this dispute.
The supporters of Galloway blame the breakdown in relations on the “control freak” methods of the SWP. Some of their comments also indicate a real hostility to the very idea of a revolutionary, disciplined party – a role which the SWP claims for itself – and to the ideas of Marxists such as Lenin and Trotsky. However much of a travesty of a revolutionary party the SWP is, such remarks are anti-communist and designed to appeal to those more interested in protest and reformist politics rather than the transformation of capitalist society.
Galloway’s supporters say that the interests of the SWP are being put above that of Respect. They cite the SWP’s support for a breakaway Respect group in Tower Hamlets, and the promotion of a rigged and undemocratic conference as evidence. So they have called the alternative Respect Renewal conference, saying: "We will have no intention of giving up the support for a pluralistic, democratic and broad left wing movement."11 The only way forward, they suggest, is a negotiated split in order that the aims of Respect can be carried on in a new organisational form. Their view is that Respect Renewal is the only political basis to advance the aims of the anti-war movement and opposition to New Labour:
"We remain committed to the radical policies which have been the cornerstone of Respect since its inception. Our organisational model is based on plurality, democracy and transparency."12
These apparent worthy aims come with no organisational and political model to explain how democracy will be realised in practice in the new Respect Renewal organisation. There is nothing to suggest that the old elitism of Respect will be not be continued in a new form. All that has actually changed is that Respect Renewal will be without the SWP. What is actually being proposed is the continuation of Respect as a national pressure group within British politics and to act as a vehicle for the re-election of Galloway. It cannot be transformed into a political party without further ruptures, conflicts and splits.
Yet this future is a bleak one because the politics of mass protests is coming to an end as a result of ideological exhaustion. The anti-war movement has been declining, and disillusionment with New Labour is starting to revive the Conservatives rather than a left lacking coherent policies. Without the organisational muscle of the SWP, and the ebbing of communalist politics in many directions, the future of Respect Renewal is doubtful. Respect Renewal and the SWP-based Respect will only represent rival reformist alternatives. The very rivalry between them, as with the break up of the Scottish Socialist Party, will only accelerate their common decline.
In conclusion, the break up of Respect is an indication that the attempt to conceive of a pressure group organised around a single issue as a party, was bound to result in failure. The split that has occurred is an expression of the problem about transforming a mass protest campaign into a viable political party. For such a party lacks a distinct identity, ideology, strategy, and policies that go beyond the limits imposed by what has been a single issue campaign. Any attempt to go beyond these limitations, even in relation to the organisational question of the selection of candidates, was always liable to create the conditions for a split.
This is an important question because the crucial issue of trying to tackle the lack of political representation caused by the reactionary role of New Labour can only be resolved by the formation of a genuine working class party. A party with a programme, and the connected capacity to say what it is for as well as what it is against. In contrast, one of the aims of Respect was to hold together its disparate forces on the most minimal basis.
The party was the single issue campaign, and for a short period of time could obtain prominence and popularity as a result. But this could only last for a temporary period. The time always arrives when what is still effectively the single issue campaign has to make comments on other issues. In other words, it has to effectively act as a party. The failure to carry out this role means that people start to discover the limitations of the mass protest movement masquerading as a party. The result is disillusion with the organisation, its popularity starts to decline, leading to crisis and the tendency for a split.
Such a scenario happened with Respect. It never updated its website in order to issue policy statements on the latest question. Furthermore, Respect never developed a functioning newspaper that could have discussed question of policy, and been the forum for the development of a democratic culture of the organisation. Crucially, Respect was unable or unwilling to relate to other important developments like the John McDonnell campaign for deputy leader of the Labour Party. Instead Respect stayed within its own self-imposed sectarian isolation, an isolation that intensified by its own increasing internal strife.
In broader terms, we can establish that Respect failed not because it was new, and the forces of the old were too strong for it, such as the continued domination of New Labour within the working class movement. Rather it was the last gasp of the old, the attempt, however partial, to reassert a type of social democratic, reformist politics in an era that is no longer conducive to this type of mass movement. Indeed, Respect combined the disadvantages of the new - the limitations of the contemporary single issue campaign that knows what it is against and not what it is for - together with the limitations of the old - the attempt to maintain the failed reformist politics of yesterday in the form of a protest group dressed up as a party.
These various limitations could not be held together by the charismatic leader. In the end, he became the problem, as Respect divided either for or against Galloway. But organisational problems are not themselves the cause of the problem; rather they represent the effect of a flawed attempt to revamp socialism as a single issue campaign, as mass protest, as electoral struggles, with a vague and populist appeal lacking a coherent content. The ideas were diluted to the extent that they bore little relation to the struggle for human emancipation.
When the tide turned against the impetus of the mass movement, when fewer turned out on the demonstrations, when the elections results became less impressive, Respect lacked a perspective that could explain these developments. Respect could only project these external political developments and problems internally in the form of internecine strife. The result is a split.