The Struggle for Socialism
A reply to the politics of the
Socialist Workers Party
Correspondence between the
Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party
To the Socialist Party: 1
As you know the local elections are going ahead
next year. The Socialist Workers Party plans to contest these elections
in a small number of constituencies.
We believe it would not be in the best interests of the Left for both
the Socialist Party and the SWP to be running against each other in the
It seems to us that it would make sense if we were to divide our
constituencies between the two parties ahead of these elections.
We would like to propose a meeting between representatives of our two
organisations to explore whether we can reach an agreement on this
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Socialist Workers Party [Ireland]
To the Socialist Workers Party:
11th December 1998
We were surprised to receive
your letter of 1st December. We recognise by your action in
standing in the General Election of last year that you have effected a
fundamental change in your policy on revolutionaries standing for
election to bourgeois institutions.
This however has not stopped
the Socialist Workers Party from continuing to denounce the Socialist
Party for being "reformist," for adopting a
"parliamentary road," and on a number of occasions attempting
to link us to the not only reformist, but Stalinist, Workers Party. All
this is done on the basis that we stand in elections. It seems that it
is ok for revolutionaries to stand in elections as long as they are not
very successful in doing so.
You are entitled to criticise
the Socialist Party in any way you wish but you cannot have your cake
and eat it. You cannot denounce us for standing in elections, (which we
believe revolutionaries should do, as in any other field where we are
taking on our class enemies, as seriously and as effectively as we can),
and at the same time seek an election agreement with us. We would like
an honest clarification from you in relation to this.
The Socialist Party favours the
maximum co-operation between anti-capitalist and socialist forces. The
Socialist Party fought the General Election of 1997, not only under our
own banner, but as part of an alliance which included the Federation of
Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaigns, Cork Householders Against Service
Charges, and the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Group. We did so in an
attempt to give working people an alternative in that election on as
wide a basis as was possible.
That alliance recorded over
20,000 votes, won a Dail seat (through the Socialist Party) in Dublin,
and narrowly failed to win a second one in Tipperary. The only response
you made at the time or since has been to attempt to deride the
Socialist Party for having, according to you, some sort of obsession
with parliamentary politics. This dishonest assertion flies in the face
of reality, that this alliance emerged from one of the most significant
non-parliamentary struggles of working people ever seen in this country
You made no attempt to
seriously analyse these developments, to look at the class base of the
forces involved, their programmes, etc. In fact, the SWP stood against
one of the candidates of the alliance in Dublin South Central.
We believe co-operation on the
left or in struggles of working people is only possible when there is
agreement on a principled basis. This has to firstly include an honest
approach to questions of political differences.
The other key principle must be
to maximise forces to have a greater impact in the class struggle, to
help take such struggle forward, or to have a greater impact in
workers’ organisations such as the trade unions, to combat
bureaucratism and to argue for a militant programme.
Such co-operation can raise the
standing of socialist organisations and the ideas of socialism in the
eyes of workers, and achieve real successes for the left.
We have, however, never
experienced any desire to engage in such principled co-operations in any
sphere of activity from the Socialist Workers Party. This was the case
in relation to the anti water charges campaign, it is the case in
relation to the movement against racism and deportations, and it is
particularly the case in the trade unions.
We wish to raise the question
of two unions in particular, SIPTU and the CPSU. In both of these
unions, there is an opportunity to develop a strong rank-and-file
opposition to the right-wing bureaucracy. This was demonstrated by the
43% vote in SIPTU against P2000 and followed by the excellent vote of
Carol Anne Duggan in the elections of the National Officers.
The Socialist Party welcomed
the initiative of standing in those elections, and did what we could to
gain the highest possible vote. However, we were seriously hampered in
doing that, as were other left activists, by your approach. You refused
to have a broad campaign. As a result, a great opportunity to build an
organised opposition has been seriously lost.
In the CPSU, there is an
opportunity to build a rank-and-file opposition which can take that
union out of the hands of the right-wing. This is seen as a major threat
by ICTU. Yet, you persist in attempting to form an alternative grouping
to that which already exists. In plain English, attempting for sectarian
reasons to split the left and the ranks when they are involved in a
Despite our differences over
these issues, the Socialist Party would be open to discussing the issue
of co-operation, but only over the range of issues raised in this
letter, in addition to the question of next year’s elections. In
relation to the elections, we would also want to have a discussion on
the question of programme. As you are aware, there are serious
differences between our parties on a range of issues, but particularly
on the national question. Up to quite recently, you supported the
"armed struggle" of the [Irish] Republican movement. We would
like clarification on what your position is now on this issue.
If we could arrive at a
position where there was an honest approach to political differences, a
real co-operation in the interests of the workers and socialist movement
in general, while leaving organisations free to defend their own
programmes and attempt to build their own forces, and creating the basis
for some mutual respect and trust, then a discussion may have some
Socialist Party [Ireland]
To the Socialist Party: 11th
We wrote a very brief letter to
you in December requesting a meeting to discuss possible areas of
co-operation regarding the forthcoming local elections. We wished to
avoid a situation where candidates from both organisations stood against
each other in particular constituencies, as occurred at the last
We were puzzled, to say the
least, to receive from you a letter which, instead of addressing the
issue, contained a serious of denunciations of the SWP.
The SWP, you claim, makes
‘dishonest assertions’: we have never shown any desire to engage in
‘principled co-operation;’ etc, etc. (The latter we find quite
bizarre given that both our organisations sponsored a recent Asylum
Rights March and are currently engaged in working with wider forces to
You state that the reason for
outlining this series of denunciations is that there has to be
‘firstly…an honest approach to questions of political difference.’
Our political differences are
long standing and well-known. We think it is unusual, to say he least,
to make discussing these differences a pre-condition to other
organisations — or is this approach reserved for an open revolutionary
We would prefer you to state
clearly whether you are prepared to co-operate with us over the local
elections and whether and if, so to arrange a meeting to discuss the
nature of this co-operation.
Just to repeat, our position is
that despite long standing and serious differences between our two
organisations on a whole range of political questions it would be to the
advantage of the Left if we could arrange some degree of co-operation in
the forthcoming local elections. That is still our position.
However, as you insist on the
‘honest account’ of political differences first, let us spell out
what we consider these differences to be and then return to the
substantial issue. It may, after all, clarify matters beyond the issues
of the elections.
We consider that the most
important differences between the SWP and the SP can be found in the
following main areas.
The nature of the Stalinist
regimes of the former USSR and Eastern Europe:
The SWP took the view that the
countries of Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba were state capitalist
societies where a bureaucratic class collectively organised the
exploitation of workers through the state’s control of the forces of
These societies were not
socialist as their Stalinist defenders claimed. Neither were they
"post-capitalist" or "transitional." They were state
capitalist. Unlike most of the Left, we saw nothing progressive in these
regimes and we did not defend them as better than the ‘forces of
capitalism in the West.’
We never accepted the argument
that the ‘planned nature’ of their economies meant that they could
escape the contradictions of capitalist crisis. We saw the collapse of
these regimes not as a setback for socialists, but as an opportunity to
begin the fight for real socialism in those countries. Far from the 1989
revolts opening a period of defeat for socialists, we saw it as the
first aspect of a wider crisis which would engulf the global system.
The Socialist Party’s
predecessors, the Militant Tendency in the Labour Party and then
Militant Labour, took a very different view. While denouncing Stalinism
and claiming adherence to the letter of the Trotskyist tradition, you
nevertheless regarded these regimes as "deformed" or
"degenerated workers states."
The mistaken characterisation
arose, in our view, from a confusion that equates nationalised property
relations and the existence of a ‘planned economy’ with the
existence of some sort of workers state.
For the SWP, as for Marx, the
decisive criterion is social relations of production — which class
controls industry and society. The key question is whether the working
class is really in control and is the real ruling class.
For those with eyes to see it
was obvious that workers not only did not control industry but were
systematically deprived of basic democratic rights. To describe such a
society as a "workers’ state," as the Socialist Party and
its predecessors did, is to make words lose all meaning.
This was more than a dispute
about words. Marx argued that the emancipation of the working class must
be accomplished by the working class.
For genuine socialists the
working class must take control of society in a revolution from below.
The regimes that came to power in Eastern Europe at the end of the
Second World War were installed not by workers’ revolutions but by
If you believed they were
workers’ states, "post capitalist societies," etc, then you
believed there was a way to liberate society that did not involve
Workers’ revolution then
became an optional extra and the self-emancipation of the working class
merely one option among many possible roads to socialism.
In characterising these
societies as state capitalist we understood that the regimes were
instruments for the oppression and exploitation of the working class.
We therefore had no difficulty
in putting ourselves in the same camp as the workers opposing these
regimes and seeking democratic rights, whatever illusions in Western
democracy. We were therefore not at all depressed when these intensely
unpopular and oppressive regimes were overthrown or collapsed in the
This was in sharp contrast to
those, like yourselves, who saw these societies as workers’ states,
etc. They saw the collapse of Stalinism as the "restoration of
In reality, the ruling classes
in Russia and Eastern Europe sought to liquidate the crisis by re-organising
themselves around state capitalism based on state monopolies and instead
sought to introduce a greater reliance on market mechanisms.
The belief that the collapse of
the Soviet Union represented some form of ‘defeat’ for socialist
forces is entirely wrong. Tragically, it has led many on the left to
retreat from an open revolutionary approach.
Parliament and elections:
The SWP believes, along with
Lenin in his famous pamphlet The State and Revolution, that the
existing state is organised to suit the interests of big business. Its
structures cannot be adapted by workers for their use. Instead it must
be smashed and replaced by workers’ councils — directly elected
deputies from the workplaces, etc.
Parliament cannot be used as
the means by which socialism in inaugurated because real power lies
elsewhere — in the boardrooms of big business.
In any revolutionary upheaval
in the industrialised countries a key question will soon emerge: shall
power in society be exercised either through the old parliament,
representing the capitalist class, or through workers’ councils?
As this question will only be
settled by the contending forces of the rival classes, it is vital that
socialists are clear on the issue.
In our view, your organisation
is ambiguous. Formally you may distance yourself from the parliamentary
road to socialism but you also hold open the possibility that socialism
can be achieved by a mass movement ‘backing up’ its parliamentary
In present conditions this can
lead to a danger of focussing workers’ struggle on the need to win
support in parliament rather than relying on their own strength to
In the longer term, your
ambiguity on the question of parliament can prove disastrous. In a
revolutionary situation every reactionary element will rally around the
cry to defend the ‘institutions of parliamentary democracy.’
The sharpest expression of your
ambiguity on this issue has been the recent developments in your
international tendency. Your Scottish equivalents, for example, have
renounced the project of constructing an exclusively revolutionary party
but have explicitly embraced the notion that "at this stage,"
the Socialist Party needs to unify reformists and revolutionaries within
the one organisation. We believe that these issues will also emerge for
you in the future.
All of this has some
consequence for how our organisations approach the question of elections
— but not the way you caricature it in your letter.
The SWP has never taken the
view that revolutionaries on principle should not stand for elections.
We stand in the tradition of the Bolsheviks who argued explicitly
against the "ultra lefts" who abstained from elections. Your
claim that we ‘denounce’ you or anybody else for standing in
elections is therefore wrong.
Equally, the claim that we have
seen the light and come around to your viewpoint may be comforting for
you but is pure fantasy.
For the SWP, elections can
provide a platform for revolutionary propaganda. Clearly we aim to
receive as high a vote as possible but we do so on a clearly
The SWP is a very active party
conducting agitation and propaganda on an ongoing basis. Electoral work
is subordinate to the overall work of the party. We do not therefore see
preparation for elections as the dominant focus for our party’s work.
We take seriously Lenin’s
motto that ‘an ounce of struggle is worth a ton of votes.’
While this means that we
approach the question of parliament and elections from different
standpoints, we nevertheless believe there is a scope for co-operations.
The nature of that co-operation needs, of course, to be discussed.
Socialists have been divided
between the two main strategies for the unions. Some have argued a
"Broad Left" strategy. What is necessary is to simply replace
the current trade union leaders by others who claim to be more militant
and left wing.
The SWP believes the problem
runs deeper and requires a rank-and-file strategy.
The SWP believes that the union
bureaucracy does not just sell out because it has terrible politics
(which it has) — but also because it functions as a privileged layer
within the labour movement with explicit material interests to defend by
maintaining the ‘orderly’ process of industrial relations.
Splits develop within the
bureaucracy between the Left and the Right — but these splits are
secondary to the difference of interests between the rank-and-file and
The recent attack by the left
bureaucrat, Peter Bunting, in the NRBU on the rank-and-file organisation,
Busworkers Action Group, confirms this analysis.
For this reason, the SWP has
long advocated the formation of rank-and-file organisations that are not
simply electoral machines to enable left wingers to enter the
bureaucracy but aim to build a base at workplace level through militant
struggle and become capable of taking action that is independent of the
In our view, the SP takes a
different approach. On a number of occasions you have failed to
challenge the left bureaucracy of the unions.
The most prominent recent case
was the events leading up to the closure of Packard Electric where you
accepted the argument about ‘globalisation’ advanced by the ATGWU
bureaucracy and failed to argue for occupation of the plant.
During the last campaign
against Partnership 2000 you fought very hard to put left bureaucrats PJ
Madden, the INO general secretary, on the campaign platform even though
rank-and-file members of his union were furious with his sell-out
We believe that these mistakes
arise from a notion that capturing bureaucratic positions can change
unions — even if they are not linked to a wider rank-and-file movement
that is able to exercise its industrial muscle at workplace level.
You mention two unions
specifically. In SIPTU, an SWP member Carolann Duggan defied the
dominant pessimism of the left in that union and ran on a clear
rank-and-file ticket with open socialist politics. Her campaign was a
broad campaign that was open to anyone who agreed with her policies.
Your slur that the SWP refused
to have a ‘broad campaign’ is silly. One of your members attended
campaign meetings and of course the size of the vote is a tribute to the
fact that scores of SIPTU members worked in this campaign.
The case of the CPSU brings out
more clearly the differences in our approaches. The reality is that the
union had a ‘broad left’ dominated executive but unfortunately it
failed to advance militant policies and so lost out considerably the
following year. In response, supporters of the SWP launched a new
bulletin which advocated a rank-and-file strategy. None of this
precludes co-operation with the Broad Left as was demonstrated in the
recent vote on Partnership 2000.
Oppression and Northern
The SWP takes seriously
Lenin’s injunction that socialists are not simply trade union branch
secretaries but work as tribunes of the people openly opposing
This is vital in Ireland where
although there have been gains for the middle class, the Catholic
population in Northern Ireland still face the sectarianism of the
Northern Ireland state and suffer harassment from its police force.
The SWP calls for the smashing
of the North’s sectarian state and the formation of an Irish
workers’ republic. We openly oppose the practice of Orange marches
going through Catholic areas and have joined resistance to these
We never accepted the argument
that the IRA were the main cause of the violence in the North. The
IRA’s violence was a tragic response to the sectarianism of the
Northern Ireland state and could not simply be equated with that of
(The claim that we supported
the tactic of armed struggle is wrong and most probably designed to win
the cheap support from forces to the right of both the SWP and SP — we
have consistently attacked the armed struggle as counterproductive and
helped to initiate labour movement sponsored demonstrations which opened
the way for peace).
We openly opposed sectarian
oppression while at the same time clearly attacking Republican politics,
in particular for their dismissal of Protestant workers.
For us, the main divide in
Northern Ireland is the class divide. Precisely because of this we are
determined to raise all the necessary issues in all sections of the
working class. We categorically reject the patronising approach that
issues to do with the sectarianism of the state and oppression cannot be
discussed in areas such as East Belfast.
The Socialist Party has a very
different record. While you formally acknowledge the state is sectarian,
you have never taken part in any campaign to call for the removal of
You refused even to support the
demand for political status during the H Block struggle.
In the siege of Drumcree by
Orange bigots and their demand to be allowed to strut through and
intimidate the Catholic Garvaghy Road, you claim this is a "clash
Unlike the SWP, you have not
clearly opposed the so-called "right to march" of bigoted
Orangemen through Catholic areas in cases like this. Once again, a key
difference between us is your tendency to make formally
"correct" abstract propaganda while failing to grasp the
central issue of the need to oppose oppression.
Most recently, we believe your
politics have taken a further shift. You now seem to argue that there
are ‘two minorities’ in Ireland and entertain the possibility of a
separate socialist state in Northern Ireland alongside a socialist state
in the South.
Logically, this can only lead
to a form of Green and Orange socialism that would make permanent the
divisions in the working class.
Our view is that both
Republicanism and loyalism have to be decisively challenged by fighting
for a socialist united Ireland.
Both or our organisations stand
outside either the Stalinist or Social Democratic traditions. But our
differences as discussed above are serious. This explains why our
parties are separate.
We could go on to discuss these
differences further and undoubtedly you will not find our reply
satisfactory from your point of view. However, to repeat: it was not our
intention to start out with a long discussion of the differences — you
insisted that these differences first be discussed.
To return therefore to the
substantive issue at hand. If you are interested in co-operating in the
electoral field we would suggest a meeting to discuss the nature of this
(If you are not interested, for
whatever reason, please let us know so we can terminate futile
discussions and prevent any posturing on the issue.)
For our part, we wish to be
absolutely explicit from the word go about our intentions. To facilitate
discussion we would make a number of limited proposals.
Firstly, we believe that both
parties — on the basis of their general positions outlined in their
respective papers — should call for a vote for each other’s
candidates. As has been made clear this does not amount to an
endorsement of everything each party has said but it is a basic
recognition that a vote for SWP or SP is preferable to a vote for the
right wing or reformist parties. Do you share this view?
Second, we believe there needs
to be a ‘non-aggression pact’ where we do not run candidates against
each other. In an even moderately positive atmosphere we could come to
agreement on this.
Third, and more difficult,
might be a short platform where we outline areas of agreement. This
however, as you say, should still leave organisations free to defend
their own specific programmes.
As each of our organisations
has expressed in a sharp fashion the nature of their differences, we
suggest we now focus on the issues of elections. We request you to
respond to the three suggested areas of co-operation outlined above
either in written form or at a meeting to be arranged at a mutually
We look forward to your early
Socialist Workers Party
To the Socialist Workers Party:
28 January 1998
Further to my phone
conversation with Richard, I am writing to confirm our attitude to your
proposal for a meeting in the short term. We intend writing a longer
reply to the questions of political differences and other points in your
letter of 11 January.
We are disappointed with your
response to the issues we raised in our letter. We feel that you have
avoided the issues raised in relation to co-operation on the left, and
particular in relation to the points we raised on work in the unions.
These are for us important
issues. We would like to resolve them in the interest of creating better
opportunities to build a fighting opposition in this key area. They have
not been raised as an excuse for avoiding co-operation in other areas.
Given your response, we feel
there would be little benefit in a meeting at this stage. We intend
publishing your reply, along with our first letter and a reply to your
most recent letter, and we hope that from a discussion on these and
other questions which might come up that a better understanding of the
politics and approaches of both parties may emerge.
To the Socialist Party
It is time the left grew up. We
originally wrote to you with a simple request for a meeting to discuss
co-operation in the forthcoming elections.
However we have now found
ourselves engaged in an elaborate sectarian charade where you have not
only refused to have a meeting with us but then, ironically, you tell us
that the issues you want discussed "have not been raised as an
excuse to avoid co-operation in other areas."
If this double talk were taken
in isolation it might have the black humour of a Monty Python sketch.
However, the situation facing working-class people is far too serious
for these petty games.
As I am sure you are aware,
this correspondence takes place against the background of a major crisis
facing Fianna Fail. The revelations about Haughey’s lifestyle and the
corruption that accompanies conventional politics has given working
people a glimpse of how the bourgeoisie really works.
This makes it all the more
astounding that you refuse to even meet to discuss the possibility of
calling for a vote for each other’s candidates; to avoid standing
candidates against each other and to draw up a limited joint manifesto.
We now challenge you to state
publicly which other left wing parties do you call for a vote beside
yourself? Your own paper suggests that you will be fielding less than
twenty candidates in the forthcoming local elections. Are you seriously
suggesting that if there is no Socialist Party candidate in a
constituency that workers should not vote for any other candidate?
Finally, we suggest that if you
wish to publish this correspondence as a debate that you publish all the
correspondence and that you accord equal space to both parties in the
debate. If you wish to write us another long political letter we would
be more than willing to supply you a reply for publication.
However, to repeat, our primary
concern is the need for both our parties to show some degree of unity in
the coming elections. We urge you to have a re-think.
Socialist Workers Party