As we have seen, the SWP rejects Trotsky’s advice on the need for transitional demands. Contrast this attitude with the approach of the Revolutionary Communist Party during and after the Second World War. Although conducting open work and calling for the building of the revolutionary party, the RCP took account of the illusions which the masses still retained in the labour and trade union leadership. While building an open party, they called for “Labour to Power on a socialist programme”. Their criticisms were always of a principled but friendly nature, which gave them the ear of the rank and file of the labour and trade union movement. Simple denunciation of the leadership would convince no thinking worker. On the contrary, it would simply drive these workers back into the arms of the labour and trade union leadership.
Our differences with the SWP are not limited to theoretical questions. They are fundamentally to do with method and approach. They adopt an empirical petit-bourgeois approach to politics, which is the hallmark of the sectarian, which always ends up in a contradictory mess.
Thus in relation to Northern Ireland, the SWP (or IS as it was called then) supported the sending in of 6,000 British troops into the province in August/September 1969.
“Where we stand… The Labour movement must demand the immediate recall of British troops from abroad as the first step towards ending colonial exploitation”, stated the Socialist Worker in June 1968. And this statement appeared in every issue until… 28 August 1969. Suddenly this demand disappeared in the issue of 28 August, 1969 and it continued to be left out in the 4 September and 11 September issues. In those three issues there was no call for the withdrawal of troops.
On 11 September 1969, the Socialist Worker editorial stated: “The breathing space provided by the presence of British troops is short but vital. Those who call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops before the men can defend themselves are inviting a pogrom which will hit first and hardest at socialists.”
On 18 September 1969, the Socialist Worker stated under the heading ‘The contradictory role of British troops gives Catholic workers time to arm against further Orange attacks’:
“… And British troops in the occupied area of Ireland, as anywhere else, are there in the interests of British imperialism and for no other reason.
“But [!] in the short run, their freezing role means that they stand between the barricades and the Orange lynch mobs. To identify the two is false. To demand ‘Disarm the B-Specials! Withdraw British troops!’ is to equate the two and to say that the presence or absence of British troops in the existing situation makes no difference to the struggle.
“To fail to take advantage of this temporary contradiction is extreme of stupidity… Those who conclude that raising the demand for withdrawal in the present situation must therefore follow, do not understand the differences between propaganda and agitation and between strategy and tactics… To say that the immediate enemy in Ulster is the British troops is incorrect…”
Then on 18 September 1969, three weeks after the dispatch of British troops to the North of Ireland, the Socialist Worker changed to: “Where we stand… Opposition to imperialism and support for all movements of national liberation.” In other words, when the concrete question was poised point blank, the SWP changed the line and capitulated to bourgeois public opinion. As we predicted at the time – and we opposed the sending of British troops to the north – the troops would be used against both Catholic and Protestant workers and would defend the interests of British imperialism.
In the 1970s, after casting aside all principles, the SWP set up a popular front-type organization, the Anti-Nazi League, to combat the dangers of fascism. Now, it is the duty of all socialists to combat fascism, but what we must not do is exaggerate the danger. The SWP, lacking any sense of proportion, did precisely this.
They forgot that in order to combat fascism, it is first necessary to understand it. That means we have to grasp what it is and how it arises historically. Nothing can be more harmful than to describe each and every reactionary movement as “fascist”. That is the way to confuse, so that when a real fascist threat arises, the movement is disorientated and disarmed.
The disillusionment with past and present Labour governments in Britain has led to the emergence of fascist grouplets, such as the National Front and the BNP. But it is wrong to constantly raise the false perspective of a massive growth of fascism throughout Europe.
It is true that today, there has been a growth of reactionary parties in Europe, such as Le Pen’s NF in France. However, this is not of the same character as the fascist reaction of the inter-war period, which had a genuinely mass base among the frenzied petit-bourgeois. Parties such as the French NF are of a weak pseudo-Bonapartist character.
Fascism is the mass movement of the petit bourgeoisie and lumpenproletariat, which seeks to destroy all the organisations of the working class and establish a totalitarian dictatorship. Where the bourgeoisie has turned to dictatorial methods it has been of a Bonapartist nature, in the form of a military police dictatorship. However, at the present moment in time, neither fascism nor Bonapartism is on the cards.
In the coming period we will see enormous shifts to the left, as we are witnessing already in Latin America. It is true that reaction is also preparing to intervene in the process to hold back the shift to the left, but the situation at the moment is heavily weighted in favour of the working class.
Furthermore, after the experience of Hitler and Mussolini, the bourgeoisie will not want to hand over power to the fascist madmen. When they decide to move towards reaction they prefer hand power to the army generals, over whom they feel they can exercise more control as they belong to the same class.
Today, the class balance of forces is weighted against the coming to power of reaction. However, the sects constantly shout about the dangers of fascism around the corner. The BNP, although a reactionary sect, cannot be compared as a threat to the working class in the same way as the Nazi Party of Hitler or even the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley.
The SWP set up the Anti-Nazi League in 1977 as a result of the NF gaining 119,000 votes in London. The propaganda of the ANL stated that, “the leaders, philosophy, and origins of the National Front and similar organisations follow directly from the Nazis in Germany.”
The ANL offered itself as a force to stop the NF. It then attached signatures of a number of artists, writers, trade unionists and MPs to proclaim: “We, the undersigned, appeal for the widest possible support for our efforts to alert the people of this country to the growing menace of the new Nazis.”
The ANL hold regular anti-Nazi carnivals and gigs, like the one in the North East. Julie Waterson, national organiser of the Anti Nazi League explained: “Today has been a brilliant day. It shows that the Nazis are the minority. We, the anti-Nazis, are the majority. We have to go to the areas where the Nazis are building. Their ultimate aim is an all-white Britain. We saw the result of racism this week with the murder of an Iranian asylum seeker in Sunderland. We are here today to say we can stop that – black and white, young and old. This is the start of a mass movement to drive the Nazis back into the sewers. They want to appear respectable, and to con people into voting for them at next May’s council elections. We need to organise. Today shows we have the power to crush the Nazis.”
While everyone had a fun time listening to free bands, free concerts in and of themselves are not going to stop fascism. The problem with the ANL is that rather than concentrate on organising the forces of the working class to combat fascism, it tries to involve all kinds of groups and parties in the broadest possible front who oppose fascism, including the Tories. In fact the Federation of Conservative Students issued a call for all Conservative Party members to join the ANL. The ANL does not see things in class terms but as a struggle between Nazis and anti-Nazis. They forget that history is full of examples where the “democratic” bourgeois parties have allowed power to fall into the hands of the fascists, as this suited their class interests. We cannot trust these in any serious struggle against fascism.
The same type of organisation – the ‘Anti-Fascist People’s Front’ ‑ was thrown up in the 1930s to “fight fascism”, established by the Communist Party, involving liberals, Tories, the Church, etc. This was the classic “popular front” involving the “broadest layers”. The question of socialism, however, was left off the agenda for fear of alienating the broad front. The struggle against fascism had to be contained within the framework of capitalism. The “popular” front was in fact dreamed up by the Stalinists and led to the derailing of the socialist revolution in France and Spain.
The original idea of the Communist International was not the popular front, but the United Front. This was not a broad front of all-sorts, but an agreement between mass organisations of the working class for joint action on specific issues. Trotsky raised the question of a United Front between the Communists and the Social Democrats in Germany to fight Hitler. Far from dropping the communist programme, the communist aim would be, within the united front, to give the masses the opportunity to compare the ideas and methods of the revolutionary party and those of the reformists. The popular front, by contrast, involves the acceptance of a common programme by all concerned, i.e., the defence of bourgeois democracy. The point is that the working class will fight fascism with its own organizations and methods and will fight to defend its democratic rights and organizations.
It is worth quoting Trotsky on this question to show how far the SWP are removed from genuine Marxism on this issue:
“From all the above flows, with sufficient clarity, the fact that I do not for a moment believe in the possibility and effectiveness of the international alliance of the ‘liberal groups’ in the fight against fascism. The experience of Italy, Germany, Austria, and other countries, proves that ‘liberal groups’ are completely impotent in the fight against fascism, which counterposes to them a demagogic social programme and dooms them to complete annihilation. One can fight fascism only on the basis of a real, serious revolutionary social programme capable of rallying not only the proletariat but the oppressed masses of the petit bourgeoisie. Insofar as ‘liberal groups’ are opponents of a revolutionary programme, they are capable only of paralysing the initiative of the masses and of pushing them into the camp of fascism. The formula ‘antifascism’ is very convenient for juggling by the honourable deputies, professors, journalists, and purely salon chatterboxes. The bare formula of ‘antifascism’ does not say anything concrete to the worker, unemployed, poor peasant, ruined farmer, or bankrupt petty merchant – in general, the overwhelming majority of the population. The uproar of all kinds of ‘antifascist’ parades, banquets, coalitions, etc, etc. is capable only of sowing illusions and facilitating the work of reaction. Only millions and tens of millions of the toiling oppressed and exploited are capable of wiping the Egyptian plague of fascism off the face of the earth.” (Writings 1936-37, p.410)
Of course, our task must be to help mobilise the labour movement against the fascist grouplets, such as the BNP. However, the electoral successes of the BNP where they have won a number of councillors do not imply the rise of fascism, as we have explained. The fact that the BNP has now a dozen councillors in Dagenham, for instance, does not mean there is a basis for fascism in this borough. In this case, the reason for the gains of the BNP is to do with the failure of the Labour council to solve the problems of the local population. The BNP were able to capitalise on this disappointment, but it does not mean a growth of support for fascism! However, it does constitute a warning to the labour movement. If we do not carry through the socialist revolution, the crisis of capitalism will at a certain stage force the ruling class to seek a Bonapartist solution to the crisis. But that is the music of the future. Today, the BNP is engaged in a ferocious faction flight of its own which threatens to split the organisation.
In their opportunism, the SWP have also attempted to win over Muslims by appealing to the so-called “progressive” features of Islamic fundamentalism. Chris Harman wrote an article called “The Prophet and the Proletariat” attempting to create a theoretical justification for their actions.
In reality, Islamic fundamentalism has played a reactionary role throughout the Middle East. Where they have come to power it has introduced black reaction with attacks on the organisations of the working class. In struggling for power, it attempts to win support from the oppressed masses by demagogic attacks against imperialism and the rich. However, once in power, it maintains capitalism and attempt to open a friendly dialogue with the imperialists. The left secular forces are regarded as its greatest enemy, whether in Iran, Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Gaza.
The SWP tries to take the middle of the road, blurring the distinctions between revolution and counter-revolution. “But it has not only been liberals who have been thrown into disarray by the rise of Islamism. So too has the left. It has not known how to react to what it sees as an obscurantist doctrine, backed by traditionally reactionary forces, enjoying success among some of the poorest groups in society”, writes Harman.
He argues that the left cannot simply regard these Islamic movements as ‘reaction incarnate’, but must seek out their ‘progressive’ sides. “Figures like Khomeini, the heads of the rival Mujahedin groups in Afghanistan or the leaders of the Algerian FIS may use traditional themes and appeals to the nostalgia of disappearing social groups, but they still appeal to radical currents produced as society is transformed by capitalism”, states Harman.
He lists some reactionary things done in the name of Islam, such as confining women to the home and forcing them to wear the veil, and then adds, “But regeneration (!!) can also mean challenging the state and elements of imperialism’s political domination.” He goes on to say that Ali Belhadj of the Algerian FIS plays a progressive role: “Every Friday Belhadj made war against the entire world, Jews and Christians, Zionists, communists and secularists, liberals and agnostics, governments of the East and West, Arab or Muslim, heads of state, Westernised party leaders and intellectuals, were the favourite targets of his weekly preaching.” And Harman’s conclusion? “Yet beneath this confusion of ideas there are real class interests at work” What class interests? He confuses demagogy with genuine intent. It is demagogy aimed at the down trodden and oppressed, but not to raise their class consciousness, but to tie them into the fundamentalist movement. To look for something progressive in this is to miss the point.
Bin Laden, who was a creature of US imperialism, today also preaches against “imperialism”, and is on the number one hit list of the CIA, but a victory for Al Qa’ida would be the victory not of anti-imperialism, but black reaction. Can there be any doubt about this? We cannot afford to mix up the banners of revolution and black reaction!
Harman explains that in Afghanistan, the rural population opposed the land reforms of the PDPA (Communist Party) government, which played into the hands of the Islamists. He later mentions that US imperialism financed and armed the counter-revolutionary mujahedin against the Soviet-backed government of Najibulla. He nevertheless fails to mention that the SWP also supported the mujahedin ‘freedom fighters’ in their fight against ‘Soviet imperialism’. In other words, they supported counter-revolution against revolution, which ended with Afghanistan being thrown back into the Dark Ages.
John Rees in his book, Imperialism and resistance, admits that “in the Indian sub-continent and in the Middle East some Islamic currents have been or are the declared and bitter enemies of the left”. In Egypt, with the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists were used by the ruling class as a battering ram against the communists and the left. “The right wing of the Wafd (bourgeois nationalist party) looked on the Brotherhood as a counter to communist influence among the workers and students”, admits Harman. Financed by Saudi oil money, that was and remains their role. This is not a peaceful debate amongst friendly forces, they murder secularists and left-wingers. Unfortunately, Harman cannot see this little distinction. He states that they are in fact “anti-imperialist” in their slogans and actions, as if this exhausts the question. Reactionary movements have periodically used “radical” or “anti-imperialist” demagogy to build their support amongst the mass. How else is this possible, especially in countries experiencing social and economic upheaval, without such demagogy? We should not be fooled by such things, but expose them for what they really are.
However, later on Harman admits that in Egypt, “the regime used the Islamists to deal with those it regarded, at the time, as its main enemies – the left: ‘The regime treated the reformist wing of the Islamist movements – grouped around the monthly magazine al-Dawa and on the university campuses by the Islamic Association – with benevolence, as the Islamicists purged the universities of anything that smelled of Nasserism or Communism.’” Later, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan, who broke from their imperialist masters, a most extreme wing of the Egyptian Islamists declared war on the “infidel state”. Naturally, the state then clamped down on them.
In regard to Algeria, Harman explains that “in the mid-1970s they (the Islamists) got support from sections of the regime to undermine the left in the colleges. ‘Between 1976 and 1980 the integrists succeeded, with the connivance of the regime, in reducing to nothing the influence of the Marxists’.” Again, this “reducing to nothing” was carried out in the most violent fashion. As in Egypt, the regime later turned against the Islamists, which were receiving financial support from Saudi Arabia. The FIS was an anti-labour organisation which intervened to break the strikes of the refuse collectors and civil servants.
Harman describes the radical Islamists who want to reconstruct society based on Mohammed in the 7th century as “utopians”. He concludes, “Socialists cannot regard petty bourgeois utopias as our prime enemies”, as they are not responsible for the carnage of capitalism. Therefore, we cannot, says Harman, support the state against the Islamists. But in his balancing act, he says we cannot support the Islamists either. However, and here is Harman’s main argument, radical Islamists, who are affected by contradictions, “can be influenced by socialists.” According to him, we must build bridges to them.
Harman sweepingly concludes: “Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, ‘with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never’.” In other words, where the Islamists are in opposition to the state, it is legitimate for revolutionaries to enter a bloc with them. This is a very dangerous position as many Islamic fundamentalist organisations are in opposition to the state, including Al Qa’ida and the Muslim Brotherhood. For revolutionaries to sow illusions in these organisations is to court black reaction, and to lay the basis for bloody defeat. In fact, if they are not defeated politically they create the conditions of a sectarian nightmare of religious and ethnic strife.
The erroneous approach of the SWP has led them to make opportunist overtures to the Islamic organisations, most notably the Moslem Association of Britain, which supposedly promotes the interests of Muslims. The point is that “Muslims” are not some classless mass. There are working class Muslims and there are Muslim capitalists. The SWP approach to the question has nothing in common with socialism.
They cover this approach with the need to combat “Islamophobia”, but in doing so they are opening a Pandora’s Box. In meetings of Respect Muslim prayers are held. Meetings are divided on the lines of sex. In the Stop the War Coalition, dominated by the SWP, religious leaders, including Muslim clerics are brought on to the platforms. Again, the rallies are interrupted for prayers!
This pandering to Islam and the so-called anti-imperialist stance of Islamic fundamentalism led the SWP to refuse to condemn the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001or the London bombings on 7/7, in which 50 people lost their lives. Despite their expression of “sorrow” for the bereaved, their stance makes them apologists for the fundamentalists and their criminal acts of individual terrorism.
In the same way, the SWP has given support to suicide bombings inside Israel. Despite the horrible plight of the Palestinians, methods like this, of indiscriminate individual terrorist simply play into the hands of the Zionists and strengthen the hand of the state of Israel. This is where the SWP’s position “with the state never, with the fundamentalists sometimes” leads them. They refuse to condemn the terrorist bombings as, according to them, this would line them up with the state!
It is true to say that layers workers and youth in Muslim countries, and Muslim communities in Britain and other countries of Europe, have been radicalised as a reaction against the brutal policies of imperialism in the Middle East, particularly in the war and occupation of Iraq and the role of the Blair government in it. Socialists certainly want to reach these layers and win them to a fully worked out anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist position. But the way to do that is not to make any political concessions to the “leaders” of the Muslim community, or to Islamic fundamentalists. These people are the political exploiters of the Muslim workers and youth, not their representatives.
An example of what can be achieved is the success of the Marxist tendency The Struggle in Pakistan, a Muslim country, where Islamic fundamentalists have been very active. By maintaining a policy of class independence and genuine opposition to capitalism and imperialism the comrades have been able to win support from important sections of workers and youth. For instance in Kashmir, an are where fundamentalists dominated the whole of the movement of the youth, the Marxist tendency has won the leadership of the main youth and student organisations in the last period, including the Jammu and Kashmir National Students Federation.
How has this been possible? Not by making any political concessions, hiding our ideas, or reaching alliances with Muslim business leaders. On the contrary, it has been on the basis of the campaigns against imperialist war (in Iraq and Afghanistan), against youth unemployment, and for national and social liberation through socialist revolution. At the same time, the comrades have exposed once and again (including on national TV programmes) the hypocrisy of Islamic fundamentalists and their so-called “anti-imperialism”, by pointing out how they were funded and finances by the US and the Pakistani secret services as a tool against the Afghan PDPA regime.
For genuine Marxists the situation is clear: we support all those actions which raise the confidence and consciousness of the working class, and oppose all those that lower this consciousness. It goes without saying that we oppose the state terrorism of Bush and the imperialists and demand the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Marxism is also opposed, and always has been, to individual terrorism, and to all other means of political adventurism.
In Britain, in their desperate attempt not to offend their “Moslem” allies in Respect, the SWP ended up supporting the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill- a direct attack on the democratic right to free speech, which, at the end of the day, will be used against the working class.
Furthermore, in their pandering to the Muslim vote, the SWP have come out in favour of faith schools. On faith schools, Kevin Ovenden argued in Socialist Review that “denying parents of minority groups equality with those of the established Church of England will be seen as lining up with an unjust status quo. It is only by making explicit the right of Muslim parents to have state-supported Muslim schools that it is possible to advocate not separation and the embrace of the government’s destructive proposals, but a common struggle for common comprehensive schools” (December 2005).
Socialists have always stood for secular education and the complete separation of church and state. We are in favour of children mixing together and not being segregated along religious lines by faith schools of any kind.
While Marxists will defend oppressed Muslims, we will do so in the context of the interests of the working class as a whole. We will fight against all forms of discrimination, including against Muslims, but again we will do this while forging the unity of the working class and putting forward a socialist programme as the only solution to the problems of society.
Sectarianism offers no way forward for the workers’ movement in Britain or internationally. The sects, in the words of Hegel, “come from nothing, through nothing, to nothing.” An analysis of some of the errors of the British SWP can serve as a guide of how not to approach questions. We must reject opportunism and ultra-leftism. This means adopting a class approach to questions and not to be sidetracked with ‘easy’ solutions to the problem of building the forces of genuine Marxism. Such a road can only end in failure.
If we are to succeed in constructing a mass Marxist tendency in Britain and internationally, we must follow in the footsteps of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Only by standing on the principles of Marxism and the solid foundations of Marxist theory can a tendency be built in the storms that lie ahead. In doing so, we must reject petit-bourgeois radicalism upon which the sectarian groups are based. Only by steeling Marxist cadres and orientating them to the mass organisations will we succeed in building the necessary forces for the socialist revolution in Britain and elsewhere.