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Socialism and left unity - a critique of the Socialist Workers Party
By Peter Taaffe
Reviewed by Steve Score
When people first become interested in socialism they often ask: "Why are there different socialist groups? Why can't we just get together and fight the common enemy?"
This desire for unity is understandable and very important because of the need to build a strong left-wing alternative, and a new mass workers' party in particular, especially now that the economic crisis is exposing the failings of capitalism to many more people.
The two biggest groups on the Marxist left in Britain are the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It is important to explain the differences in ideas, analysis and approach.
Socialism and Left Unity - a critique of the Socialist Workers Party by Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party, demonstrates that the politics of the SWP have been a major obstacle to building a strong working-class socialist movement on a principled basis. It gives many examples of the way the SWP has operated, but also explains the theoretical and political approach that underpins the SWP's mistakes. It contrasts this with the Socialist Party's approach.
This is not a point-scoring exercise. The issues discussed in the book are vital questions: How can we rebuild the workers' movement? How should Marxists work with others? How do we raise socialist ideas? How do we approach political differences?
Peter deals with a range of issues, from the historical roots of the SWP, to their analysis of the political periods we have been through, the anti-capitalist movement, the attitude to the Labour Party, work in the trade unions, anti-racism/fascism, building new workers' parties and the internal democracy within the party.
The book shows how often the SWP has jumped from one approach to the opposite and back again. Its participation during recent years in attempts to build a viable and broad alternative to the capitalist political parties shows this.
The Socialist Party has explained that the Labour Party has changed from being a workers' party with a pro-capitalist leadership, to a completely capitalist party. This has created the need for a new, independent, working-class party. There have been a number of attempts in the direction of building such a party in England and Wales.
For example, the Socialist Alliance (SA) was initiated as an electoral alliance, with a leading role played by the Socialist Party. It was based on a federal approach, proceeding by agreement between the different groups involved.
When the SWP appeared to suddenly turn away from their opposition to standing in elections they joined the Socialist Alliance. They then misused their weight of numbers to transform it into an organisation under their control. Eventually they decided that socialism was electorally unpopular, and unceremoniously closed the SA down.
They then established Respect with George Galloway. But this party was not created on an inclusive and fully democratic basis. Instead of explaining the need for a party based on the working class to fight in its interests, they watered down the socialist message, concentrating instead on attempting to build alliances in an opportunist fashion.
More recently the split in Respect between the SWP and George Galloway (and the expulsion of some prominent SWP members from their party) over control of the apparatus, has resulted in a another turn in an, as yet, unclear direction.
Of course, when the political situation changes, it is important for socialists to be flexible in their tactics and change tack when necessary. However, this has to be accompanied by a discussion on how the situation has changed and what is necessary, and an honest acknowledgement if mistakes have been made.
The SWP has not done this. Their approach has been characterised by frequently putting the narrow interests of their own party before what is required to take the movement forward.
In the recent past the SWP often opportunistically dropped explicitly socialist politics when working with other groups. It is certainly important to work with other forces in a democratic fashion - something the SWP does not do - but at the same time a party should be honest in debate about political differences.
The Socialist Party continues to build the Campaign for a New Workers' Party, at the same time as clearly arguing for a programme to achieve socialism. I would recommend that all active socialists, whether members of the Socialist Party or not, read this book. The lessons contained within it can be a guide for future struggles.
Socialism and left unity
A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
by Peter Taaffe
£4 introductory price if you order now plus 50p postage (standard price £6)
Socialist Books, PO Box 24697, London E11 1YDTel: 020 8988 8789
In The Socialist 10 December 2008:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party editorial
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Workplace news and analysis
Environment and socialism
Socialist Party review