As a general rule, I don’t think it’s that useful to spend too much time talking about the various small Leninist groups, because I think they’re pretty much irrelevant: they definitely don’t have any real answers to the problems we face, and most of the time they’re too small and ineffective to be a problem in their own right. But it seems like the Socialist Workers’ Party are officially newsworthy right now: this week, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun have all featured prominent stories about the shocking “news” that an obvious SWP front is in fact an SWP front, with the Sun proclaiming the SWP their villains of the week. As Chris Grayling’s weird fantasist claims about the SWP hacking into his emails come only a few weeks after Michael Gove blamed “Trots” for opposition to academies, it seems that Trotskyists are becoming the scapegoat of choice for the government and media.
So, what to make of all this? The most obvious result is that the SWP must be delighted, since they’ve always believed there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Equating opposition to workfare with the SWP might be an attempt to discredit the policy’s critics, but it also serves as free advertising for the SWP – after all, being part of the group that, according to the Telegraph, has brought the government’s policy “to its knees” must sound tempting to a lot of people. At one time, I’d have been pleased to see a self-proclaimed anti-capitalist group getting so much publicity, but extensive experience of trying to work with the SWP has cured me of any affection for them. I think the mood of public outrage over workfare offers a genuine organising opportunity, and if that discontent gets channelled into the SWP or one of its front groups then I can’t see it leading anywhere useful. As I’ve argued before, what’s needed right now is the emergence of a genuinely independent claimants’ movement, run by people on benefits for people on benefits, and Right to Work can never be that movement, since it’ll always be run by the SWP full-timers who decide its policies*.
To explain why the SWP gaining control over the revolt against workfare would be so disastrous, it’s necessary to look at what happened the last time they managed to properly capture a public mood: the movement against war in Iraq. Having set up the Stop the War Coalition and gained leadership over the movement, they refused to even consider direct action, and so the rebellious mood that had seen things like mass school walkouts slowly drained away as the anti-war movement’s SWP leadership just called a series of increasingly pointless and ineffective marches. Alongside this, their other major strategy was to try and forge an alliance with “the Muslim community” through Respect, a political party headed up by Stalinist egomaniac George Galloway. Since Trotskyists, Islamists and ego-mad minor celebrities don’t actually agree on all that much, the organisation the SWP had put so much energy into building quickly collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, which led to a damaging internal split in the party itself. Amusingly, this split seemed to be based entirely on personal quarrels and have no actual politics involved whatsoever, so now the SWP and their identical twin Counterfire (seriously, see if you can spot the difference between the way the SWP and Counterfire describe themselves) are left running two front groups with exactly the same politics. And, along the way, they’ve managed to draw in a lot of good people who get politicised by issues such as the Iraq War, decide that they’re revolutionary socialists, and then end up concluding that being a revolutionary mostly consists of being ordered around by a bunch of bozos and give up on the whole thing as a bad job. There’s a bit of symmetry going on here: by making the SWP look like a tory’s worst nightmare, the mainstream media help to promote them, and by making revolutionary activism look like an alienated, alienating chore, the SWP end up serving as an advert for capitalism.
Other than Stop the War, Respect and Right to Work, their other big priority in recent years has been Unite Against Fascism. I’ve written before about the emptiness and contradictions of UAF-style pro-establishment anti-fascism, so for now it’s enough to just say that their politics are so utterly incoherent that they still boast David Cameron as a founding member, and they seem to be blocking attempts to remove him.
In contrast to Stop the War, the student/youth movement that broke out at the end of 2010 gives an example of what a spontaneous revolt can look like when no single group gains control over it. It wasn’t perfect – it didn’t manage to beat the fee rise or save EMA, and it died away very quickly when it failed to achieve these aims – but with no clear leadership holding it back, the movement’s militancy far outstripped anything else seen in this country for a long time, and large numbers of young people gained experience of taking action alongside their friends. It’ll be a long time before we can fully judge what the long-term effects of so many people coming into conflict with the state for the first time will be.
So, what can any claimants drawn to Right to Work by their campaigning over this issue expect? Their ideas about the group’s direction won’t be asked for or welcomed, because the correct line has already been laid down by the central leadership, and it’s likely that the organisation they join will just become defunct for months at a time when the parent body is distracted by another issue, like getting people to stand around in a police kettle a few miles away from an EDL demonstration. Since Right to Work isn’t run by claimants, they’ll find that a lot of the time unemployed issues are put on the back burner and they’ll just be expected to act as footsoldiers for a general strategy based around trying to appeal to the most left-talking union bureaucrats, going from one set-piece Big Day – preferably a march through London – to another without any consistent local organising work in between. In terms of tactics, the SWP and its fronts are a little less hostile to direct action than they used to be, but they’re still only willing to put up with a bit of it in order to establish their radical credentials, and as soon as they feel they’re in control they’ll revert to their favoured tactics of passive demonstrations and top-down rallies with endless lefty bureaucrat speakers and no opportunity for the audience to actively participate. And, I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating just how utterly awful “the right to work” is as a general slogan anyway – see here for a perfect example of just how well it fits into right-wing Tory thinking. The tory scumbag who wants businesses to fight for the right to work isn’t misusing that slogan, he’s just expressing the logical conclusion of any argument that starts off by defending and glorifying the shit work people have to do in this society.
So, what’s the alternative? Setting up independent claimants’ groups isn’t easy and it’s not a quick fix, but it needs to be done. Solidarity between different sections of the population is vital, but ultimately fights about welfare need to be led by claimants themselves. If groups are run directly by people on benefits, then it means that they’ll carry on focusing on claimants’ issues in the long-term, instead of ditching the unemployed when another issue becomes trendy. Groups like Welfare Action Hackney and Edinburgh Claimants consistently fight on day-to-day issues as well as the big headline-grabbing stories. For anyone who’s really interested in the subject, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Poor Peoples’ Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail has an extensive discussion of how the unemployed can use disruptive action in order to win concessions, as well as how lefty leaderships can actually undermine this power when attempting to build organisation. For more up-to-date news, the Void is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in welfare issues, and Ipswich Unemployed Action is worth a look as well. Boycott Workfare are a genuinely independent grassroots group who’ve been campaigning around this issue since before it was cool, and the Void has a list of some other claimant-led groups here. The Benefit Claimants Fight Back blog is also a decent source of information on this stuff, and has a pretty extensive links section.
Closing notes: workers at the Serious Materials factory in Chicago have gone into occupation for the second time in four years (it was called Republic Windows and Doors the first time they did it, if you’re wondering why the name doesn’t sound familiar), and it sounds like they’ve already won a partial victory. And considering how well the far-right have been doing lately, it’s good to hear that they were utterly humiliated once again when they tried to show their faces in Glasgow this weekend.
* for the benefit of anyone who’s unfamiliar with this stuff: I usually say “claimants” rather than “unemployed” because I think unity between the unemployed, the disabled and anyone else on benefits, such as pensioners, or full-time parents who might not see themselves as unemployed, is important. At the same time, I probably will say “unemployed” sometimes, just because it tends to look a bit weird if you use one word too much.