RESPECT: the “unity” coalition
A new political gathering on the left wing has been formed and is attracting some attention to itself of late. But what is this group and what will it mean for the working class?
R.E.S.P.E.C.T, standing for “Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environment, Community, and Trade Unionism” was formed on 25 January when over one thousand people gathered in central London for the launching of the new organisation. The group has been initiated by ex-Labour MP George Galloway, posing as some kind of figurehead, and the Socialist Workers Party, the Stop the War Coalition, and various smatterings of other left wing groups and trade unions.
The initial declaration of this new organisation uses the language of socialism: “We want a world in which the democratic demands of the people are carried out; a world based on need not profit; a world where solidarity rather than self-interest is the spirit of the age”.
Observers will have noticed that they remain silent on how this new world is to be obtained, instead focussing on the mass discontent whipped up by the political blunderings of George Bush, Tony Blair and other spokesmen of the western capitalist class, in particular on the recent invasion of Iraq and the anti-war sentiment this provoked.
The anti-war movement was vast up to a point, and served as yet another example of how capitalism’s interests are not tied up with those of the workers. The spontaneous outburst of protest against imperialist war was an inspiring event for any socialist, but, as we know, the movement was massively ignored by the powers-that-be, and led to a feeling of let-down among those workers who thought that capitalist parties represented them. Now that the war has reached its conclusion, many people may be searching for a new “political alternative”.
Respect has stated on several occasions that it wishes to be that alternative. For instance:
“But the yearning for a political alternative is even wider than the anti-war movement. Pensioners, students, trade unionists, Muslims and other faith groups, socialists, ethnic minorities and many others have been deeply disappointed by the authoritarian social policies and profit-centred, neo-liberal economic strategy of the government.”
However, so far they have held back from talking about how they intend to get to this new alternative or even about whether they think it will work within the present economic system. The majority of their propaganda to date consists of highlighting the recent problems of the capitalist class in Britain and elsewhere, but where they fail is that they seem to be under the impression that the current administrators of capitalism are unpleasant, lying manipulators and exploiters by choice rather than the system itself being to blame.
On some level it is perhaps unfair to judge just yet, since Respect is young and has yet to make an impact on the political scene, and on one level they are correct: there is a yearning for change. There has been a yearning for change ever since class society developed, that yearning of course is more generally known in socialist circles as the product of the class struggle. The class struggle is the irrefutable antagonism of interests in present society between the class that owns and profits from the means of production, and the class that creates the wealth but does not possess any means of producing wealth of their own. Those who “yearn for change” are certainly aware of some form of injustice or antagonism inherent in present-day society, and may be attracted to the new Respect coalition. Unfortunately, since Respect is not direct about what exactly they are aiming for, and how it is to be achieved, they run the risk of becoming caught in the quagmire of popular but ineffectual reformism.
List of Reforms
To date, Respect has provided the working class with promises for a better world, peace instead of war, riches instead of poverty, happiness instead of misery, but is quite silent on a possible future away from capitalism, and have instead stated the following aims to adjust the present economic system:
1. An end to the war and occupation of Iraq. We will not join any further imperialist wars.
2. An education system that is not dependent on the ability to pay, that is comprehensive and gives an equal chance in life to every child no matter how wealthy or poor their parents, from nursery to university.
3. A publicly owned and funded, democratically controlled NHS, free to all users.
4. Pensions that are linked to average earnings.
5. Raising the minimum wage to the European Union decency threshold of £7.40 an hour.
6. Tax the rich to fund welfare and to close the growing gap between the poor and the wealthy few.
7. The repeal of the Tory anti-union laws.
8. Opposition to all form of discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs (or lack of them), sexual orientation, disabilities, national origin or citizenship.
9. The right to self-determination of every individual in relation to their religious (or non-religious) beliefs, as well as sexual choices.
10. The defence of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Opposition to the European Union’s ‘Fortress Europe’ policies.
11. We will strongly oppose the anti-European xenophobic right wing in any Euro referendum. But we oppose the ‘stability pact’ that the European Union seeks to impose on all those who join the euro. This pact would outlaw government deficit spending and reinforce the drive to privatise and deregulate the economy and we will therefore vote ‘No’ in any referendum on this issue.
12. Support for the people of Palestine and opposition to the apartheid system that oppresses them.
13. An end to the destruction of the environment by states and corporations for whom profit is more important than sustaining the natural world on which all life depends.
So ends this rather lengthy list of reforms and promises. It is aimed at drawing in many disillusioned people eager to see the better world promised come to realisation. The reforms won’t work though, because of a basic misunderstanding of the type of society we live in. We live in a capitalist society, a society where goods are only produced for profit. In such a society, it’s logical that the creation of profits must take precedence over everything else. Hence the Socialist Party’s policy of not advocating reforms, since attempting to attack this profit-making machine with piecemeal reforms, rather than consistently aiming for the complete abolition of capitalism itself, is doomed to failure and frustration.
There is a chance those among the SWP already know this, since it ties in with the Trotskyist approach to reforms and struggle, but as long as they hold that the working class as unable to develop a revolutionary understanding of society, they will continue to attempt to deceive us by providing us with “transitional demands” in the hope that the workers will become so enraged at capitalism being unable to work in their interests that they will want a revolution. In reality people can simply become disillusioned with the reforms put forward by the left wing and abandon any interest in politics.
It would be of interest to see just how large a hold the SWP has on the rest of the coalition, as they reportedly made up half of the delegates at the founding conference. Speculation on the chance Respect may go the way of the Socialist Alliance seems already to have entered the minds of many people, and it’s a strong possibility that infighting between the SWP and the other groups may break out just as it did in the SA.
Voices from the remnants of the Socialist Alliance
At the conference to launch Respect in Portsmouth, it was interesting to note that questions from the audience and replies from the speakers hinted that the Socialist Alliance was a spent force, and one that nobody would wish to see again. It seemed to be held by the audience of students and workers that the SA had failed miserably, and that its policies had been ineffectual and misguided from the very start.
While this would be a ray of hope to revolutionary Marxists that the working class are starting to become increasingly annoyed at Trotskyist attempts to manipulate them, it’s of interest how some of the parties who made up the SA are reacting to the Respect Coalition.
The so-called “Socialist Party” of England and Wales (SPEW, formerly known as Militant Labour) have issued a statement to the new coalition, claiming that they will support them in the European elections but feel unable to join with them for the moment. They dredged up the past where they butted heads with the SWP inside the SA, with the end result that they left the organisation and the SWP consolidated its stranglehold. They also appear to be upset that they were not invited to join with the coalition earlier, a strong indication of the antagonism between Militant and the SWP, but since they are not a part of the new coalition (something the SWP is certainly pleased about) it seems they will have little effect on the future of Respect.
Although the Communist Party of Britain (who publish the Morning Star) never was a part of the Socialist Alliance, their reasons for not joining with the Respect Coalition shed light on the SWP’s relationship with the rest of the Leninist Left. In a statement on the new group they said:
“We reject participation in the Respect Coalition proposed by George Galloway and others. It is a narrowly-based front for the SWP which has emerged from the remnants of the failed Socialist Alliance, and is likely to divide not only the labour movement but the anti-war movement as well. Its main constituent organisation holds quite different views to those of our party on the role and potential of the trade union movement and its leadership, on the national question and the nature of imperialism, and on the socialist countries past and present.”
The text is somewhat sceptical as to the ability of the non-SWP factions in Respect to resist an attempt by the SWP to overwhelm the entire organisation, but time will tell if such scepticism is well founded.
Other statements follow that the CPB believe the new coalition could be harmful to a movement that wishes to “recapture” the Labour Party and “return” it to the interests of the working class. How exactly a pro-capitalist party such as Labour, which is and always has been for the continued existence of capital, can be turned towards the interests of socialism is something that will remain a mystery.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) remained in the Socialist Alliance, and is a small but vocal group of Trotskyists, so far refusing to join Respect and heaping all manner of warnings of impending disaster on its reformist and opportunist tactics. Focussing on George Galloway, who has been set up as a “leading figure” in the coalition, they have attacked his pathetic claim that he needs “£150,000 a year to function as a leading figure” and also his shady ties to the former dictatorship in Iraq. The AWL attacks Respect’s soft approach to socialism, in so far as Respect’s only mention of the word socialism is that it makes up the “S” in the word R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Up to now the AWL has been the most eloquent voice of protest and warning heard from the Leninist Left, but its repeated calls for the standard Trotskyist demands of nationalisation and state control do not impress the revolutionary Marxist nor any worker who does not simply wish to see the current free market regime replaced with a system based on state capital.
While the CPGB (not to be confused with the old CPGB whose name they picked up and who publish the Weekly Worker) has joined with the Respect Coalition, like other groups, it has voiced concern about overwhelming SWP involvement in the new coalition’s politics, via a leaflet that they distributed at the Portsmouth meeting, which is summed up in the following:
“In order to keep a disparate alliance together, the Socialist Workers Party, which will surely make up the bulk of the convention, and its allies are junking principle after principle to launch Respect.”
We are certainly hearing voices of caution from several groups, some outside of the Socialist Alliance and some within, who are wary of SWP interference in this attempted new movement in left wing politics. This could be a simply matter of political feuding; some left groups may be jealous of the SWP’s numbers and disturbing tendency to use this to pack meetings or on some occasions intimidate and/or initiate violent attacks on its political opponents.
However, we should not forget that a lot of these groups would not for a moment hesitate to act in the undemocratic and pushy manner that the SWP do, if they thought it would hasten their aim of introducing a state capitalist regime in Britain such as that which was started by the Bolsheviks in Russia.
While it may seem unfair to judge a new political movement before it has had an effective chance to prove itself, it would seem that we should not get our hopes up for Respect. As stated and proved, they have made it clear they are advocating reforms to capitalism, and while these reforms may at first seem attractive, it is certain they would always be at odds with the very nature of the economic system we live in, i.e., capitalism. Lacking an honest revolutionary stance for a new society, reformism becomes caught in a pointless and frustrating circular battle with an economic system that is based on exploitation. As long as the accumulation of capital takes precedence, either in the hands of the individual capitalist or state institutions, the primary concern of exploitation of labour and making profit will take precedence over the concerns of human need.
It may seem cynical to write off the coalition completely, but when even former allies in the Socialist Alliance are showing such doubts on its ability to create a new workers movement, it’s clear to socialists that Respect should be treated with caution if not scepticism. The fact that if and when Respect have any success, George Galloway is bound to come under attack by the media for his supposed friendly links to the old regime in Iraq. A man such as Galloway with such a dubious political background can only spell trouble for Respect’s appearance as credible left wing organisation, but for the moment they seem oblivious to this danger.
One thing is certain though, a socialist organisation will get nowhere without a firm grasp of democracy, sound Marxist principle, a disdain to conceal its socialist objective, and a membership in full possession of the facts about current society and the revolutionary alternative. Respect has none of these organisational principles, and is showing no sign of understanding or desiring to develop any of them.