RESPECT? Are they having a laugh?
Sunday 25 January saw the formal launch, amid much fanfare, of George Galloway and the SWP’s new project, the Respect Unity Coalition, rather unfortunately abbreviated to RUC. RESPECT, we are told, is itself an acronym, which stands for ‘respecting equality, socialism, peace, environmentalism, community and trade unionism’.
In the run-up to the launch, the ‘unity coalition’ aspect of the new group’s name was more emphasised, perhaps in response to Ken Livingstone’s threat of legal action, since Respect is also the name of London’s annual anti-racism festival. While Galloway has dismissed this threat as trivial and insulting (“Nobody can confuse an annual festival with a ballot paper for an election. He obviously feels his electors are morons”), it is notable that any mention of the word ‘Respect’ was singularly absent from the group’s first attempt at an official web page (www.blairout.com), which refers only to “a unity coalition”.
In fact, prior to the launch of the new website at www.respectcoalition.com at the end of January, information on the new alliance was singularly hard to come by. Despite reams of debate in the ‘left’ press over the last few months over the pros and cons of joining, and after an initial printing in the Socialist Worker of 13 December 2003 under the heading ‘Declaration for left electoral challenge to New Labour’, the ‘founding declaration’ was nowhere to be found.
According to Socialist Worker, the declaration was put together by “the forces that came together at a watershed 1,300-strong meeting in London at the end of October”, namely George Galloway, RMT general secretary Bob Crow, noted liberal journalist George Monbiot, Birmingham Stop The War Chair Salma Yaqoob, SWP luminary John Rees (billed as Socialist Alliance), and two more ‘left’ social democrats, namely Linda Smith of the London FBU and Trotskyite film maker Ken Loach.
A declaration of … what?
So what does this famous declaration contain? Well, something for everyone, it seems. There is a passing mention of ‘imperialist wars’, but no explanation of what imperialism is, and no indication from the rest of the statement that the authors themselves have any idea. Apart from the vague demand to “bring back into democratic public ownership” the railways and other public services – a demand which even sections of the bourgeoisie agree with – there is little socialism in the declaration. Instead every attempt is made to sow further confusion and add to the popular misconception that the post-WWII welfare state was some kind of socialist utopia, when the need is to explain the peculiar conditions which, following the Second World War, gave rise to the establishment of the NHS and other parts of the welfare system. Similarly, the call to repeal the “Tory” anti-trade union laws, as if Labour were not equally in favour of all such measures! Never mind the repressive “Tory” laws; what about Labour’s “anti-terrorism” laws? Of these draconian measures, no mention is made. There is a call for an end to race and gender discrimination, but no mention of the imperialist state’s reliance on racism and sexism as weapons for keeping the working class divided. And just to be sure that people are thoroughly confused, these weapons of the capitalist state are likened to discrimination against gay and disabled people. The message? Racism is the result of individual ignorance and prejudice, rather than a proven tactic of the ruling class.
While the declaration itself, a mere 560 words in length, was so broad as to render itself meaningless, the signatories were equally hard to pin down. Just whose project was Respect? Some sources listed Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka (Trotskyite leader of the Public and Commercial Services union, PCS) among the signatories. Other accounts dropped both names but added the SWP’s Lindsey German, editor of Socialist Review to the list, while signatory George Monbiot was notable by his absence from the stage-managed launch in London.
The above-mentioned conference, packed with well-rehearsed and suitably enthusiastic SWP delegates along with a smattering of social democratic hangers-on and a few rather lost-looking unaffiliated individuals, saw the various motions and amendments to the declaration ‘discussed’ and voted out in record time, much to the chagrin of the various other Trotskyite groupings in attendance such as Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and the ironically-named CPGB.
The result? The original statement’s 11 bullet point demands have been expanded to a whopping 14(!) and it is now to be reproduced as a complete election manifesto cum membership form (well, who can be bothered reading more than a single page these days?) Meanwhile, the convenors of the conference have appointed themselves leaders of the new ‘coalition': “I’m calling for support of a slate of those people who had a part in building Respect. We recognise there are deficiencies, but initiative has to come from somewhere, and not everyone can be involved in the same way. It is a temporary executive, elected until a conference in the autumn,” declaimed ‘independent’ Trotskyite and SA Chair Nick Wrack to the assembled throng as they obediently voted him in as chair of Respect too. No mention of the fact that Respect isn’t really expected to survive past the summer.
The launch of the coalition comes after months of negotiations by Galloway towards an electoral vehicle that might be able to harness at least some of the votes of the two million that turned out for last year’s record-breaking anti-war demonstrations. The chances of Respect fulfilling its self-imposed task of one million votes in June’s European elections are dwindling fast, however. The original ‘Peace and Justice’ coalition, proposed by Galloway to the Greens after his expulsion from the Labour Party, was rejected by them, as was Respect, and although the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Communist Party of Britain (CPB)/Morning Star all joined in talks before the founding conference, in the end none of them actually agreed to join – the MAB apparently because of the mention of women’s and gay rights in the declaration; the CPB because after much debate the membership voted 60 percent against doing anything to upset its old opportunist line of clinging on to the skirts of the Labour Party and seeking to ‘influence’ it for ‘socialism’. And this despite Galloway’s readiness to drop every demand that might not be acceptable to all parties.
Gone, then, is Galloway’s dream of a Stop The War Coalition turned electoral vehicle – an organisation in which George presumably hoped to benefit by playing the role of ‘neutral’ arbiter between the liberal Greens, conservative Muslims, SWP Trots and CPB revisionists. What remains is a dwindling number of left liberal ‘personalities’, headed by George himself, vying for control with the front-obsessed control freaks of the counterrevolutionary SWP, who have put that other social democratic ‘unity’ project, the Socialist Alliance, on the shelf for the duration.
Despite Galloway’s best efforts, the unions are also notable by their absence. Mark Serwotka and Linda Smith are on the executive in a personal capacity, but since both their names are intimately connected with the SWP, that’s fooling no-one. A ‘left’ trade union conference on 7 February dashed Respect’s hopes in that direction as, for all the denouncing of Blair and ‘Blairism’ by those present, there was no rush to jump the Labour ship. Even Bob Crow, courageously refusing to be bullied by the Labour Party on the question of affiliation of local branches, made it clear that as far as the RMT was concerned, they would continue to affiliate to Labour if that party would allow them to.
Find out what it means to me …
So what does Respect actually stand for? Despite the ‘excitement’ in the columns of Socialist Worker, there is remarkably little discussion of any substance. “We are urging people to come to the convention and be part of a serious left challenge to Blair,” intoned John Rees before the conference. Afterwards, the talk was all organisational: “We held a very enthusiastic meeting last week to begin building Respect in the West Midlands. We invited anyone who wanted to discuss how we could get things moving,” said Ian Mitchell, an SWP activist in Birmingham.
“We then need to plan the different aspects of our campaign: membership, finance, press and publicity, meetings and activities. We need to involve as many people as possible. Our meetings should be welcoming and inclusive. There have to be well planned Respect conventions in every constituency to select candidates by the middle of March. Only members will be able to vote so we need to sign people up. It’s only £10 to join but we hope that working members will pay more by monthly standing order,” writes Nick Wrack in Socialist Worker of 14 February, but like the old birthday card, it’s just another way to keep idiots happy – on the fundamental questions of what Respect is really aiming to do and how that will advance the cause of the working class, Respect and the SWP are equally silent.
This, of course, is no accident. The only aim Respect has clearly set itself is to harness the power of the anti-war marchers into an electoral force for a single day. This will, apparently, be a wake-up call for Tony Blair: if enough people vote, who knows, they may just succeed in forcing him out of office! The question of who we’d get in exchange is not one that bothers any of the luminaries involved in this ground-breaking experiment.
So, in order to appeal to the maximum number of people, Respect remains quiet on just about everything of importance. Like the anti-war coalition it emulates, it values the size of its audience above everything, and no trivial agenda, like attempting to educate that audience in, for example, the real reasons for war, the nature of imperialism and the inevitability of crisis and poverty under capitalism, is going to stand in the way of Respect attracting the biggest audience possible.
Respect materials are brief and vague and full of soothing words like unity and community – words rendered completely meaningless by their lack of class context. Whose community? Unity with whom? No answers are forthcoming … Meanwhile, Galloway himself is given free rein to bring in the masses in his own inimitable style. For if there is one thing George is really skilled in, it is good old demagogic posing and making himself appear all things to all people.
Addressing ‘Marxists’ and even ‘Leninists’ through the pages of the Morning Star, he is full of pseudo-Marxist phraseology: “By uniting, as the Bolsheviks once did behind the simple slogan ‘peace, bread and land’, all those who know that everything must change, that we can’t go on like this, we believe that we can turn these elections into a decisive referendum on Bush, Blair, privatisation and war … Waiting for Godot is not a Marxist perspective that I recognise. We have to fight on all fronts, the war front, the industrial front, the ideological front and, yes, the electoral front.” With breathtaking audacity, George has no scruples about comparing his rank opportunism with the principled activity of the Bolsheviks, who never lost sight their primary task, ie. that of raising the level of understanding of the masses in order, not to register protest votes, but to overthrow the whole system of capitalism.
To those in the ‘communist’ (ie. revisionist) movement still clinging to ‘auto-Labourism’, Galloway says firmly: “Is [the CPB’s John] Foster seriously suggesting that Britain’s communists should turn away from that track [Respect’s 14-point programme] and follow the clapped out engine of Blairism flying its flag of surrender to free-market capitalism and war?” (Morning Star, 12 January 2004), while to ‘left’ Labourites inside the party, he is reassuring: “I am not of the ilk of the old Militant group, or Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, who now pour bile on the Labour Party, even though they themselves were in it for a very long time … As someone thrown out of the party against my will, I am bound to say I am sad to be out … I am determined never to adopt a sectarian attitude to those who remain inside the Labour Party … If outside Labour a progressive, mass left burgeons and starts to score successes, that can only have the effect of strengthening the left inside the party.” (Weekly Worker, 11 December 2003)
The ‘reclaim Labour’ agenda is spelled out even more clearly in the pages of the Guardian of 30 October 2003: “Who knows, maybe the results will be cathartic within the Labour Party itself, and help to spark the long-heralded – and much to be hoped for – ‘reclaiming’ of the party by those with Labour’s best interests and traditions at heart”. Even from outside the party, Galloway refuses to take part in the really important and useful work of exposing the Labour Party – its imperialist history and role as the agent of bourgeois ideology in the working class movement. Quite the opposite – he is all admiration for those who remain inside this stinking corpse and reserves his wrath for Arthur Scargill, the only former Labour and trade union leader to have resolutely turned his back on social democracy and fully renounced all support for the imperialist Labour Party.
For the students and liberal readers of the Guardian (27 January 2004), however, Galloway cuts out the bothersome content altogether. A coalition is “emerging from the anti-war movement”, he tells readers, with scant regard for the truth. The anti-war movement involves many parties and organisations and of them all, only the SWP has so far joined this great “alliance”. And what’s the best thing about it? You guessed it, groovers: “we get to play Aretha Franklin all day long”! From this fatuous start, the article careers downhill at breakneck speed. Why is the coalition called Respect? Because “like Aretha, all of us are just looking for a little respect. When we come home, when we go out, when we make choices about how we want to live our lives …” Choices? Oh yes, like the choice of which member of the ruling class is going to misrepresent and repress us in parliament every four years? Or the choice of which run-down hospital or school to patronise with our business? Or which employer should exploit us if work is actually available? Or which street to beg on if it’s not? Or perhaps George is talking about the choice of which opportunists should get to make a nice living out of telling the rest of us about our ‘choices’.
And what is Respect about? Whatever you want it to be about of course! That is the sum total of the message of this patronising and frankly embarrassing article, filled with desperate, ‘down with the kids’ references to soul music and the times our George bunked off school to listen to records in his cousin’s bedroom. Gosh, how cool. Excuse me if I don’t rush to identify …
Opportunists defend the liberal coalition
George is infected with bourgeois prejudice. It permeates his soul and exudes from every pore … and he wants to spread a little our way. Without a class analysis all his talk of ‘choices’ and ‘respect’ are just so much liberal doublespeak and utopian dreaming; a desperate plea for the imperialist businessmen to please dish a little bit more of their ill-gotten gains our way. In case anyone’s not too sure about George’s views on this point, allow us to quote his words in the Morning Star of 1 November last year. Having explained that the most pressing task in front of the movement is the completion of the unfinished English revolution (no, it isn’t a joke, readers!), he goes on to state that: “exploitation will always exist and needs community action to correct it through active redistribution of power”. Well there’s an illuminating formulation – the bourgeoisie must be quaking in their boots with this guy out to get them. It’s no wonder the Green Party rejected an alliance on the basis that Respect’s ‘social justice’ agenda was exactly the same as their own! Why set up a coalition against us when we’ve been saying the same things for years, they said, and for once, logic is on their side.
But he’s popular, cry the opportunists of every description. We can use him to get an audience and then feed the audience with real socialist ideology. But George is popular precisely because he peddles illusions in bourgeois democracy, and no mention is ever made of how these spreaders of socialism intend to get onto Respect’s platform. After all, if they are open about their intentions, not only will they not be invited to speak, they will in all likelihood be speedily ejected, even from such a loose coalition as this one. And what if they are covert? Well, it’s true that by going along with the liberal agenda of Galloway and his cronies, the odd crafty socialist might get him or herself invited onto Respect’s platform once, but here’s the rub: either they would give a proper class analysis as planned, in which case that would be the last of the speaking invitations, or they would be quiet on all contentious issues in order that more invitations should be forthcoming. Either way, there will be no propagation of socialism.
It’s not a real party, therefore we can retain our organisational freedom and propagandise as we see fit, say others. Fine words are all very well, but what use are these friends making of their opportunity to expose Mr Galloway and his motley crew? Why, none at all, for how long do you think they would be suffered within the cosy coalition if they did so? The Leninist principle of freedom of propaganda within a coalition demands that the freedom exist not only in name but also in practice, comrades!
As Lenin once wrote: the road to hell is paved with good intentions; political activity has its logic quite apart from the consciousness of people who seek ‘unity’ with those preaching fashionable bourgeois liberalism, and the distance from well-meaning compromiser to shameless opportunist is all too easily traversed. Real unity of the left will only ever be established on the basis of the long term interests of the proletariat, that is, on the basis of the struggle of the working class against the whole system of wage slavery.
The truth is that the only person doing any using is Galloway himself. He aims to get himself elected in June and the more people that vote for Respect, the stronger his position will be when Labour hits the next crisis and needs to bring its prodigal son back home. But whether or not our George ‘does a Ken’ in a year or two, one thing he doesn’t want to do is get off the social democratic gravy train. (See, for example, his vociferous denunciation of the motion, put forward at the founding conference, that elected representatives should live on a worker’s wage – apparently George considers £150,000 the minimum annual income necessary for himself to operate politically!) After years of experience, he knows very well that the gravy is pretty scarce once you move away from the charmed circle of ‘left’ Labour, for social democracy – the Labour Party and its hangers on – is the agent of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement, the principal social prop of bourgeois rule. The gravy comes on the condition that these gentry are willing to work to harness workers’ anger and channel it into harmless avenues; to spread illusions about the role of the state, about the possibilities for democracy under capitalism and to generally divert as many people as possible from being a reserve of the proletariat to a reserve of the bourgeoisie.
Respect is the perfect example of this: disillusioned by the limitations of protesting against the privatisation and war? Try protest voting instead! If enough of us get together and vote for George in June, that’ll really show ‘em! Respect, like Galloway, talks about ‘democracy’ as if it were an abstract concept. It is not. Democracy, like justice or morality, has no ‘eternal’ state of existence. The ancient Greeks had a wonderful system of democracy, if you happened to be a slave owner and not a slave; democracy under capitalism is democracy for the capitalists, not for workers, it is bourgeois democracy. We will never get socialism by voting for it; and no ‘democratic’ ends will be served through parliament as far as the working class is concerned. When a proletarian party takes part in bourgeois elections, it does so with a view to exposing bourgeois parliamentarism and not as a means of embellishing it – elections under the rule of capital will never be more than a gauge of the maturity of the working class.
What the group is singularly silent over is the actual potential for stopping war and privatisation, as opposed to marching against them. That the working class has the practical power to stop the war tomorrow by refusing to co-operate with the war effort – this dangerous idea is not one you’ll see Respect putting forward any time soon. The only ‘power’ working people have in the eyes of these opportunists is the ‘power’ of the polling booths; the power to help a few of them into comfortable careers – a power that the workers themselves are already beginning to see as a hollow sham. Instead of raising the consciousness of the workers about the true nature of the bourgeois state and parliamentary democracy, Respect is working to drag it backwards, and this at a time when all and sundry are frustrated in our movement because of the general low level of understanding!
On building a party
Contrary to the fashionable preachings of the cowardly opportunists, circumstances do not call for communists to join a liberal coalition. Quite the reverse – the liberals of left social democracy are precisely the obstacle that needs to be removed if the working class wishes to build itself a really independent organisation. What benefit can be gained, then, from such class collaboration as Respect represents? The sad truth is that our ‘reasonable’ friends are simply looking for excuses to continue hanging on to the coat tails of social democracy; they want to hedge their bets and wait while others do the dirty work of building an independent working class party that works to undermine the stranglehold of bourgeois ideology as well as of the bourgeois state.
Respect is not going to become a Marxist party, as some aver; it is a distraction from the task of actually building such a party. Joining a liberal coalition will not bring us one iota closer to achieving a decent working class organisation with the power to weld together and direct the many struggles of working people into an integral and unstoppable whole.
Galloway himself is far too sensible to see Respect as anything other than a machine for getting himself elected. Aware of others’ futile dreaming, however, he is careful to leave the door open in his answers about the coalition’s prospects. If the coalition does so well in the European elections that Blair is deposed, then it probably won’t continue, he says. If it does well and Blair doesn’t fall, then it will probably “continue to the general election, as well as being involved in movements around war and peace, trade union action”. Further on in the same interview, however, he backtracks even from this mild possibility: “It would be premature to attempt to create an alternative ‘party of labour’ … when important figures on the left are still engaged in a significant struggle to reclaim the Labour Party.” (Weekly Worker, op cit).
Premature indeed – a mere 100 years of diverting the working class from the path of revolution and propping up imperialism while it drowns the world in blood! Well, what are 100 more between friends if George isn’t quite ready to get off the gravy train? Would it not be truer to say that the time for a decisive break with Labour and social democracy is long, long overdue? And wouldn’t it be fair to say that Mr Galloway has furnished us with ample proof that if we wait for him to make the move we will be waiting until the next millennium?
Like the Socialist Alliance before it, Respect is based on a fundamental lie: that the Labour Party is a party of, and for, the working class, which has been hijacked by the Blairites. According to this logic, all that needs to be done is to get rid of Blair and his cronies and reclaim Labour for the working class. The real need, however, is to take the truth to the working masses that Labour does not, never has and never will represent their interests; that it is a party of imperialism. Like its predecessor the Socialist Alliance, however, Galloway’s latest outfit is not prepared to do that. That being the case, Respect is as good as useless from a proletarian point of view.
In the final analysis, Galloway only really differs from Tony Blair on one important point. Like all liberals, he thinks the government is setting about its agenda the wrong way – treat the workers a bit better, make them believe you’re listening, drop in a few socialist phrases and they’ll be much happier; that’s the message of Respect, like the reformist SA before it. What these gentlemen refuse to understand is that imperialism is not a policy of this or that government but a stage – the final, monopolist stage – of capitalism. The British ruling class could no more stop their looting and warmongering than the earth could stop orbiting the sun, since looting and warmongering are an inevitable part of the monopoly capitalist system, along with economic crisis, polarisation of wealth and the continual worsening of living conditions for the mass of humanity. Our job as socialists is not to try to paper over the cracks of this parasitic system, but to use every opportunity to help the working class to see it for what it is, in all its rottenness and decay; to help them understand that the only way out of this downward spiral is socialist revolution and the only way to succeed in that is to have a disciplined, independent working class organisation to lead it.
Social democracy, like imperialism, is in crisis. The imperialist superprofits are drying up, which means less money for buying off a section of the workers and next to none for pacifying the workers as a whole. Two options are open to the leaders of social democracy: either ditch your allegiance to imperialism, mend your opportunist ways and join the revolutionary fight for socialism; or, like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, keep on with your talk about ‘democracy’ and ‘social justice’ and hope to save the system that has given you such comfortable careers. Galloway has chosen the latter.
In fact, the whole Respect platform could be summed up as follows:
1. In place of debate: demagogy;
2. In place of socialism: reformism;
3. In place of analysis and education: bourgeois prejudice and illusion mongering;
4. In place of unity against the bourgeoisie: class collaboration and conciliation.
In short, the subservience of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie.
Forget ‘Respect': have some self-respect and join the fight for a real working class party!
[Postscript: since this article was written George Monbiot has resigned from Respect in protest at the organisation’s intention to stand candidates against the Green Party.]