Britain - From the ballot box to the mosque - the SWP's quest for a not-so- left "alternative"

Nov/Dec 2003

For months a section of the British left has been embroiled in a polemic over the attitude that revolutionaries should have towards religious organisations - or to be more precise, towards Islamic organisations.

This issue was first raised during the run-up to the war in Iraq, when the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) elected to use its dominant influence within the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) to get representatives of Islamic organisations - such as the London Council of Mosques and the Muslim Parliament of Britain - co-opted onto its steering committee. Understandably, a number of left activists and groups involved in the STWC felt uncomfortable about this, especially when some of the SWP's new allies appeared on platforms making speeches verging on anti-Semitism or expressing support for the terrorist activities of Islamic fundamentalist groups. The discomfort of these activists was compounded when the STWC and CND chose to join forces with the Muslim Association of Britain, a respectable-looking but nonetheless fundamentalist organisation, in order to organise the large anti-war demonstrations preceding the war.

Subsequently the polemic went into higher gear following this year's local elections, when Michael Lavalette, an SWP member and the only councillor elected on a Socialist Alliance ticket, boasted that his election in a Preston ward was partly due to a local imam endorsing his candidacy during Friday prayers at the mosque. Not only did the SWP back Lavalette's advocacy of mosque electioneering in Preston, but it presented this as some kind of a way forward for socialists.

On closer examination, however, this "turn to the mosques", on the part of the SWP, is consistent with its old policy of building what it calls a "left alternative to New Labour". To be more precise, it is yet another by-product of this policy.

In and of itself, the choice of words in this phrase was not innocuous. By this, the SWP did not mean a revolutionary alternative to New Labour nor even a left alternative to the Labour Party's record of managing the interests of the capitalist class at the expense of the working class, as "Old Labour" did long before Blair. No, the SWP only aimed at building an electoral challenge to Blair, without too much concern for the basis on which this challenge was made.

It was already in the name of this policy that the SWP took the initiative of setting up the Socialist Alliance as an electoral front with a number of other revolutionary groups, four years ago. It was this policy which, again, determined the way in which the SWP threw its lot in with the anti-globalisation movement, and, more recently, its attitude towards the movement against the war in Iraq.

The problem with such a policy is that it has a logic of its own, which is bound to lead to all sorts of drifts away from the class interests that Marxist revolutionaries aim to represent. And a retracing of the twists and turns of the SWP's "left alternative to New Labour" policy over the past four years provides a clear illustration of these drifts.

The SWP and the Socialist Alliance

The Socialist Alliance (SA) was the first embodiment of the SWP's "left alternative to New Labour".

Set up four years ago, in the run-up to the first Greater London Assembly (GLA) election, the SA brought a number of smaller revolutionary groups together with the SWP under an umbrella, which was designed to appear as a "broad church", open to all left opponents to Blair's policies, whether revolutionaries or reformists. The Socialist Alliance was primarily an electoral front whose programme represented, as a recent issue of the SWP's quarterly, International Socialism Journal, puts it "the minimum acceptable to the revolutionaries and the maximum acceptable to former Labour Party members."

To all intents and purposes, this programme was indeed merely a set of demands formulated in "Old Labour" language, which could have been produced by many a Labour Party branch without any changes. Significantly it steered clear from referring to the day-to-day problems facing the working class - such as job cuts, casualisation of labour and the general degradation of working conditions - or to the need for a counter-offensive by the working class to regain the ground lost over the previous two decades. Was it because the SWP considered that such references would have been beyond the limits of what it considered as "the maximum acceptable to former Labour Party members."? Or was it because the SWP did not want to get up the nose of the trade union officials they were wooing, by treading on their territory? Probably a bit of both.

In any case, the consequence of the SWP's choice was that these ideas, although vital for the working class, were not even heard during the GLA election campaign. Only revolutionaries could have used this election to voice such ideas, thereby giving the expression of working class interests a platform. But the 25 or so revolutionary activists who stood on the Socialist Alliance ticket did not. Worse still, these activists' campaign was dominated by the SA's support for Ken Livingstone (with the "Vote Ken for mayor" slogan featuring in huge letters on all SA material), which only helped to fuel the illusion that, somehow, voting for this adventurer-come-demagogue was a way of taking revenge against Blair and his policies.

In setting up the Socialist Alliance along such lines, the SWP was pursuing several objectives. It hoped to attract former Labour Party members and disgruntled trade-union activists into the Socialist Alliance. At the same time, it was expected that, by capitalising on the discontent generated by Blair, the Socialist Alliance would be able to achieve significant scores and, maybe, win a seat on the GLA thanks to the element of proportional representation attached to the "top-up list" - much like the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) had managed to do in the Scottish Parliament election. Finally the SWP hoped that, on the strength of these scores, the Socialist Alliance would become credible enough to overcome the traditional scepticism among Labour and union activists for any "third party" to the left of Labour.

In hindsight , however, one can only say that the SWP failed on all counts. The expected flow of former Labour Party members into the Socialist Alliance did not materialise, neither in the run-up to the election nor in its aftermath. The Socialist Alliance's membership and audience remained more or less limited to that of the various revolutionary groups which constituted it, with the SWP membership making up the bulk of this milieu. The scores achieved by SA candidates, although respectable in a few areas, were much lower than expected. The SA's overall 2.7% in the constituency vote and 1.6% score in the top-up list vote, were still far from the theoretical 4 to 9% minimum necessary to win a seat on the top-up list. By the same token, these scores were hardly likely to convince Labour party members to come out into the cold and turn to the Socialist Alliance.

This led the SWP to try to broaden the Socialist Alliance's appeal by approaching the Green Party with the proposal of forming an electoral front. However this attempt to build what one could have described only as a "left alternative to the Lib-Dems" failed, when the Green Party's conference turned down the offer, thereby leaving the SWP looking for other potential allies.

By the time of the 2001 general election, the Socialist Alliance's manifesto had adopted a somewhat more radical language. For instance it included a demand to take "all companies threatening closure and redundancies into public ownership, managed by those who work in them." But it still stopped short of referring to the general fight back that would be necessary in order for the working class to put such demands onto the political agenda. Even more significantly, perhaps, while the SWP called voters to "put anger in the ballot box" in this election by voting for the 98 candidates put forward by the Socialist Alliance, it failed to warn the 80% of the electorate who could not vote for an SA candidate that, should they choose to vote Labour, Blair would use their votes against them. In other words, the SWP stopped short of taking a stand which might have been construed as a challenge to the Labour Party as such, thereby showing, once again, the narrow limits of its so-called "alternative".

As it turned out, the scores achieved by the Socialist Alliance in the general election were more or less in the same league as in the GLA election, with an average 1.6%. They were almost identical to the combined score achieved by all the candidates standing to the left of Labour in the 1997 general election, in the constituencies where such comparison was possible. These results were obviously a disappointment for the SWP leadership. However, given the general context of low politicisation and the fact that the Socialist Alliance was still a newcomer to the electoral field, these scores were far from negligible. In particular, they showed that there was a relatively stable, albeit small, section of the electorate who identified with the revolutionary left's opposition to Blair. And this, surely, was an encouraging fact. There was, therefore, no reason for disappointment - except if one took seriously the over-optimism repeatedly expressed by the SWP and its allies about the electoral potential of the Socialist Alliance.

In any case, the SWP and its partners could have concluded from what they considered a disappointing experience that there was no point in watering down their politics in elections and that they might just as well stand as revolutionaries and say what they had to say both in future elections and in-between elections, whether jointly within the Socialist Alliance's framework, or independently through their respective organisations. But there was no question of this and the Socialist Alliance has remained firmly based on the very same reformist orientation.

Anti-globalisation, another road to reformism

The development of the anti-globalisation current, starting with the protest against the Word Trade Organisation (WTO) summit in Seattle, in November 1999, was hailed by the SWP as the "greatest opening for the left since the 1960s." And the SWP immediately proceeded to set up its own front organisation, Globalise Resistance, in order to try to capitalise on this "opening".

But in what way was this such a big "opening for the left" in the SWP's view? Because it heralded the emergence of a new generation of youth who would be open to revolutionary ideas, like the 1960s? This was implicitly what the SWP argued when it claimed that this current was "already a movement against capitalism." But was it? In an article entitled "the anti-capitalist movement and the revolutionary left", the SWP's Alex Callinicos had to admit that this so-called "anti-capitalism" was still "a diffuse ideology defined primarily by what it is against - neo-liberal policies and multinational corporations" which needed to be developed "into a much more coherent socialist consciousness."

Even with this qualification, talking about an anti-capitalist movement was deliberately misleading. It was painting in red a current which was not even pink. What with the motley crowd of NGOs, religious groups, reformist trade-union leaders and outright nationalists, who made up the bulk of the anti-globalisation current, with only one common objective - that of getting the existing governments to clean up the act of the capitalist system - where was the "anti-capitalist" element? As to the anger expressed by the youth who joined the protests, it was directed against the most intolerable "excesses" of the capitalist system, and rightly so, but unfortunately not against the system itself, despite the SWP's claim.

Faced with this situation, which it was perfectly aware of, the SWP did not choose to expose the limitations of the current, its anti-political bias, its negation of class politics nor even the caricature of reformism on which it was based. Instead, the SWP chose the line of least resistance to avoid having to go against the stream. As its monthly Socialist Review put it, in June 2001, "we have a chance to force a real mass movement against the system and any attempt to boil the movement down to those with a particular ideological line amounts to throwing away that chance." So, for fear of alienating anyone, the SWP chose to keep their criticisms to themselves and.. to sweep the revolutionary programme under the carpet. Talking about a current, whose aim was merely to get the capitalist system to amend itself, as a "mass movement against the system" was merely a sleight of hand to justify the SWP's political renunciation to its own programme. It only showed that what really mattered for the SWP was to be seen as a constituent part of any "mass movement" regardless of its class content.

Of course, the SWP did try to reconcile its own political tradition with its crude tail-ending of the anti-globalisation current. But it did this by putting the revolutionary tradition on its head. So it hailed the "coming together of organised workers and anti-globalisation activists" in Seattle, arguing that ultimate success would be reached by turning this "coming together" into a "sustained movement." Except that the SWP failed to mention the fact that this "coming together" had taken place behind the US union leaders' demand for tariff barriers to protect US jobs and industries against foreign competition, particularly from Mexico - a reactionary demand, which has nothing to do with the interests of the working class.

In another attempt to give a "class edge" to its turn to anti-globalisation, an SWP pamphlet published in 2001 argued: "If we are really going to take on the IMF, World Bank, WTO and the multinationals that stand behind them, we have to move on from demonstrating to building a movement that links all the different struggles. Then the battle can be fought not only in the streets, but also in the communities, and in the very workplaces where we toil to create the wealth that keeps the system going."

In other words, the SWP argued for the working class to fight for the objectives of the "anti-globalisation" current. It argued for "a movement that links the different struggles", but without stating on which class basis. And since the objectives chosen were those of the "anti-globalisation" protesters, workers were effectively relegated to the role of foot soldiers of "anti-globalisation" and their class interests left in the lockers.

So for the sake of making itself acceptable to the anti-globalisation current and buying its way into a larger reformist "movement", the SWP was not only prepared to sweep its programme under the carpet but also to use whatever influence it had among workers to put the working class in the tow of the "anti-globalisation" current - in other words, of the petty bourgeoisie.

Internationalism turned on its head

Once again, however, the SWP was disappointed by the results of its orientation towards the anti-globalisation current. While its members indulged in political tourism abroad, no significant anti-globalisation current emerged in Britain, at least not on a scale remotely comparable to that in countries like Italy, France or the US, for instance. Globalise Resistance remained overwhelmingly dominated by the SWP's own membership so that it was quietly put into a semi-dormant state.

However, the SWP leadership soon discovered another major "opening for the left", this time in the shape of Bush's war drive against Afghanistan following the 11/09 terrorist attacks.

In November 2001, the SWP took part in the launching of a new ad-hoc organisation, the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), based on the most minimalist anti-US pacifist platform conceivable. Significantly, this platform made no references to the political motives behind the "war on terrorism" nor even to the role played by the Labour government. It was obviously designed to accommodate just about anyone. And indeed, particularly after the war drive against Iraq had started, the STWC turned literally into a broad church with, in addition to the revolutionary left, the Communist Party of Britain and Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, some anti-war Labour MPs, pacifists of all stripes, religious groups from various faiths, including Muslim associations such as the London Council of Mosques and the Muslim Parliament, Kurdish nationalists, a series of liberal groupings formed by lawyers, social workers and journalists, plus a host of national trade unions.

This was consistent with the policy outlined in the November 2001 issue of the SWP's Socialist Review. In a statement entitled "an attack on all fronts", the SWP said: "Revolutionary socialists have a very important responsibility in this situation. We have to build a mass anti-war movement on the basis of the widest possible unity." It went to spell out what this "widest possible unity" really implied: "This means unity on the basis of opposition to the war alone, without the addition of other planks (for example, condemnations of terrorism) that may exclude some important potential allies and imply that the main enemy is anyone but western imperialism."

Right from the start, therefore, the SWP made an explicit choice to ditch, among other things, its criticisms of Islamic fundamentalism - whether in Britain or abroad - for the sake of the "unity" of the anti-war movement against imperialism or, rather, for the sake of avoiding to "exclude some important potential allies", such as the Muslim organisations that the SWP wanted to attract into the anti-war movement,. Never mind the fact that in many Third World countries, Islamic fundamentalism was for a long time an instrument of the imperialist powers; that the Muslim Brotherhood was one of the weapons used by British imperialism against the Egyptian working class for decades; or that the Taliban regime was an ugly offshoot of the US great power games in Afghanistan! Never mind, also, the fact that the many varieties of Islamic fundamentalism which exist across the world share a common determination to crush any form of class organisation among the exploited masses and to impose on them some form of medieval dictatorship.

Through an ironical twist, therefore, the SWP chose to renounce its internationalist duty towards the working classes of the Third World - in particular towards the Iraqi working class, which is now physically confronted with a fundamentalist threat - under the pretext of carrying out.. its internationalist duty to fight imperialism, thereby leaving internationalism standing on its head!

When numbers come before class

The rationale behind the SWP's choices seems to be that, in its view, the only thing that really mattered in the anti-war movement was its ability to attract the largest possible numbers to its marches.

But surely the SWP cannot have fooled itself to the point of thinking that these marches could, in and of themselves, change the course of the war? As if imperialist governments had ever determined their policies according to the wishes of public opinion, whether expressed in marches or in opinion polls!

Of course, things might have been different had the profits of capital come under direct threat due to opposition to the war. But this would have required that the large battalions of the working class take the front stage in the anti-war movement. In fact, it would have required a very different kind of anti-war movement, one based on clear class lines, directed against the dictatorship of capital, whether abroad or at home. But then, of course, such an orientation would have undoubtedly repelled many of these "important potential allies" that the SWP was so keen to involve in the first place, from the petty-bourgeois liberals and anti-war Labour MPs to the religious associations.

Was it possible for such a class-based anti-war movement to emerge? Probably not. While a majority of workers were undoubtedly against the war, the general depoliticisation and lack of confidence of the working class in its collective strength, made this unlikely. In fact the emergence of such a movement would probably have required the existence of a revolutionary party, already steeled in class confrontations with the state and enjoying enough support and influence among the working class to be able to lead a significant section of its ranks into a fight against the war. Unfortunately, such a party remains to be built.

This being the case, the role of revolutionaries is not to make do with an unfavourable relationship of forces, let alone to use it as a justification for renouncing their programme. Their role, on the contrary, is to prepare for the future by upholding their programme as a means to educate the workers they influence and to strengthen their organisations - even if this means going against the stream.

The SWP's renunciations meant that it also turned its back on this vital task. Of course, it paid lip service to the potential role of the working class in opposing the war. It hailed the blacking of munitions trains by Scottish drivers - and quite rightly so. But it was already a hostage of its own policy: its unreserved endorsement of a petty-bourgeois pacifist anti-war movement, which recognised no role whatsoever for the working class, could only make the SWP's subsequent calls to follow the example of the Scottish drivers appear as mere tokenism.

In fact, the SWP was conscious of the limitations of the movement it had contributed to building, as it showed by asking, "where can you go after you have brought 2 million people onto the streets?", in the May 2003 issue of Socialist Review. However its answer to this question was merely that one had to go "to the 7 million people organised in trade unions. Each trade unionist has the power to organise greater numbers around them. They have access to funds, mailing lists and audiences that the unorganised lack." So, even after the failure of the huge anti-war marches to change the course of events, the SWP only thought about a possible role for the working class in terms of tapping the resources of the union machineries and relying on the willingness of the union bureaucracy to marshal workers into supporting the anti-war movement - but still not in terms of relying on the conscious mobilisation of the working class itself. Numbers were all important, but the possible opportunity of raising the level of consciousness of the working class remained secondary.

The paradox of the SWP's policy is that it cannot even make significant gains out of sweeping its programme under the carpet, except, maybe, by giving it up once and for all. Indeed the milieu which was put in motion by the anti-war movement will have no truck with revolutionary ideas. The size of the anti-war marches may have elated the SWP. But the fact is that these marches were dominated by a pacifist petty-bourgeoisie which displayed more illusions in the UN and other institutions of capital than real signs of anger and determination to fight. In such a pacifist flood, the revolutionary ideas of the SWP could only be drowned, all the more so as its insistence on making itself acceptable to its "important potential allies" made its ideas invisible.

Revolutionaries and religion

The SWP's wooing of British Muslim groups for the sake of "unity" - or numbers, whatever it maybe - raises even more serious questions than its silence about Islamic fundamentalism in general, because of the reactionary role that these groups play, not just in distant countries where the British left has no influence anyway, but among a section of the British working class.

When responding to criticisms over its attitude to these groups, the SWP has used a whole range of arguments, many of which amount to accusing its critics of "Islamophobia" - attack, as we all know, is said to be the best defence!

Going further down this road, the SWP's weekly Socialist Worker, argues that revolutionaries have a duty to defend the mosques: "The revolutionary left is secular and atheist. But it also defends the equally important principle of religious worship - especially for those who are under attack by the government and the right-wing" ( 2 August 2003, "The left after the war").

To claim, as Socialist Worker does implicitly, that the Muslim religion is "under attack by the government and the right wing" is simply preposterous. If Asian people have been under attack in the past period, it is not due to their religion, but due to the boost given to racism by the "war on terrorism" and by the Labour government's criminal demagogy in its attacks against immigrants. And, in fact, it is not just Asian people who have suffered, but all those who had the "wrong" skin colour or the "wrong" accent.

Of course, a few fundamentalist imams got themselves into trouble for making provocative speeches. But is it the role of revolutionaries to defend bigots who advocate murder? As to the Muslim religion and its institutions, they are quite prosperous, thank you. Over the past two decades, in fact, they have become more prosperous than ever before. And this development is partly due to a policy launched by Thatcher in the early 1980s in order to avoid a repetition of the inner-city riots of that period and pursued subsequently by every government. This policy aimed at getting so-called "community leaders" to police their own communities, with the financial help of the state. And, of course, the main beneficiaries of this policy were the most reactionary forces in each community, which were, in most cases, associated with religion. This was particular true in Asian working class areas, where there was a long atheist and even communist tradition, represented by organisations such as the Indian Workers' Association, among others. As a result religious organisations and Muslim institutions became recipients of direct and indirect state funds - although, admittedly, still much less so than the Anglican Church.

Under Blair, the state's support to religious institutions has actually increased. His plans for new "faith schools", which include a number of Muslim schools, have already made newspaper headlines. But this is only one aspect of Blair's plans, which aim at giving even more social weight to religious institutions, by transferring to them certain tasks which have been carried out so far by local or central government - tasks which were part of the remit of social services or community health, for instance. So to claim that the Muslim religion is under attack from government is just pure nonsense.

But the SWP's statement quoted above is astounding from another point of view. Indeed, since when have Marxists considered that the "principle of religious worship" was "equally important" to being "secular and atheist"?

Let us recall what Marx argued in a famous passage of his "Contribution to the critique of Hegel's philosophy of Right": "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."

In other words, the material basis for the survival of religion is the survival of oppression in society. Fighting for a society which is free of oppression is in effect, whether the SWP likes it or not, fighting religion. Revolutionaries are not atheists like some people are vegetarians, as a matter of individual preference. We are militant atheist, meaning that we fight religion as an ideology which is part and parcel of the set up of an oppressive world and which can be just as dangerous as racism, for instance, in terms of its social and political impact. The SWP seems to have forgotten this basic tenet of the revolutionary tradition!

By the same token, the SWP is also throwing out of the window its duty of solidarity towards the Asian working class activists who have not given up the fight against religious reaction in Britain and find themselves increasingly against the stream in their own milieus. The last thing that these activists need is to have, in addition to the social pressure of the mosques, English revolutionaries going round Asian youth and telling them that religion is ok!

Indeed, whether politically or socially, the SWP simply denies the fact that being religious (Muslim in this case, but the same ludicrous method could apply to any religion) matters.

So for instance, the article already quoted above argues: "It would be as stupid of the left to turn its back on the radicalised sections of the Muslim community, including the local and national leaders thrown up by the anti-war movement, as it would have been for socialists in the first half of the 20th century to ignore the Jewish community in the East End of London." One can only be bewildered by such crass ignorance (or distortion?) of history. The truth is that the East End Jewish activists of the beginning of the 20th century were atheist, unlike the SWP's newfound "radicalised" allies (radicalised by what? The tame anti-war marches? One can only wonder!). Moreover, these activists were socialists, anarchists or "Bundists", who had been active under the very difficult conditions of the Russian Czarist regime, one of the most vicious of its time, and had come to Britain to evade repression. They had built political parties and trade unions while operating underground. They had led strikes and mass movements. In fact, many of these activists were instrumental in building British socialist and communist organisations. And up to WWII, their children in the East End were politicised by this very same tradition which had been enriched, in the meantime, by the Russian revolution. If there is any stupidity here, it lies in the arrogant ignorance of such a parallel!

In the following issue of Socialist Worker, there appeared an article by Michael Lavalette, the Socialist Alliance councillor in Preston mentioned earlier, who is an old SWP hand. Answering to criticisms of his "mosque electioneering", Lavalette went even so far as to dress up the Muslim religion in anti-imperialist clothes, when he argued that "in Preston many women have adopted the veil as a symbol of their anti-imperialist identity." Well, maybe there is a micro-climate in Preston. But in the rest of Britain, and particularly in London, which has the largest Asian population in the country, there has been an alarming increase of the number of women of all ages wearing a scarf or a veil of some sort. And most of these women, particularly in the poorest areas, do not "adopt" it, as Lavalette put it. They simply have to wear it because of an increasing social pressure, or due to the diktat of their brothers, who are keen to show that they have as much authority over their sisters as their friends do, or under threat from the local gangs, who enjoy bullying women, when they do not indulge in worse mistreatment against them. And all this is done in the name of a "tradition" justified by religion, which relegates women to a despised rank in society, subjects them to male dictatorship and deprives them of any independence. For each one of those women that Lavalette claims to know, who "adopts" the veil, presumably because she is from an educated petty-bourgeois milieu in which women have indeed achieved a degree of freedom, how many more women wear it under duress in working class ghettos?

Given this situation, what should be the attitude of revolutionaries? Should they condone with complacency the use of the veil as a "symbol of anti-imperialism" among the minority of petty-bourgeois women who have the luxury of being able to choose, as Lavalette and the SWP do, or should they challenge such "symbolism", which only reinforces the reactionary role of religion and the part it plays in increasing oppression for a much larger number of working class women.

Besides, if Lavalette and the SWP are right and these women are really "radicalised", shouldn't revolutionaries be seriously worried about the fact that the only means these women find to express their radical "anti-imperialist identity" is to turn to religious symbols, that is to reaction? Wouldn't this be evidence of a dramatic failure on the part of the revolutionary movement itself?

For revolutionaries, there is no room for complacency in such matters, because complacency means not only abandoning our programme, but making us accomplices to women's oppression.

Channelling anti-war feelings into the ballot box

Of course, there was always a certain consistency in the SWP's approach. Its bouts of feverish activism against globalisation or against the war were ultimately designed to serve its old objective of building an electoral "left alternative to New Labour".

The war against Iraq had hardly been declared over by George Bush when Socialist Review came up with the following statement: "But the left too has responsibilities. The first is to appeal to many in the Muslim community who have worked alongside us in the coalition to help create a radical alternative to New Labour. Religious belief is certainly no barrier to being part of such a project." There was an obvious reason for it - the local elections which were coming up the following month. This was direct encouragement to the 160 Socialist Alliance candidates who stood on an anti-war platform to turn to Muslim voters for support.

It is difficult to gauge the real impact of this appeal to turn to mosque-goers. Not all Socialist Alliance members and candidates were willing to heed this appeal anyway. In any case the fact that these candidates only doubled their scores on average (but still remaining under the 5% mark), seems more likely to be the expression of a minority protest vote among the entire Labour electorate than the result of a massive shift among Muslim voters similar to what happened in Preston.

Nevertheless, the SWP immediately jumped on the "Preston model" as showing the way forward. And it opened the columns of its weekly to like-minded "allies". So, for instance, the Socialist Worker issue dated 14 June carried a long article by Asad Rehman, who sits on the steering committee of the STWC as representative of the Newham Monitoring group, which monitors racism issues in the east London borough. This article argued: "There are three groups we need to draw together - the Muslim community, the social movement and the trade unions. These could form into an electoral force to offer an alternative. (..) We don't just want a movement of the left. We don't need another revolutionary party. There is the Socialist Workers' Party already. We need an old Labour party with revolutionaries in it, like the Scottish Socialist Party. They went from one MSP to six because people want to punish Blair by going for a viable political alternative. If they can do it in Scotland, we can do it here. (..) There are groups like Muslims for Justice and Peace and the Newham Public Affairs Campaign that mobilise for demos but also involve people in wider political campaigns lobbying MPs, challenging Islamophobia and so on. (..) The anti-war movement was the chance to recapture the mosques. (..) This created space for a new working relation between what I call political Islam and the secular left to develop."

Having got bona fide "allies" such as Rehman to air these ideas and back the assumption that there was indeed a current in favour of a broader alliance involving Muslim groups, the SWP went on to elaborate its own ideas on the subject in August: "The task for the anti-war left is now to create from among the forces opposed to the war the largest possible alternative to New Labour. The Socialist Alliance represented the largest possible grouping of the left in the period before the war. But the war has greatly increased the potential reach of such a project. (..) In the Muslim community there is a palpable desire among those who supported the Stop the War Coalition to find a viable alternative to New Labour." The Socialist Alliance was, therefore, no longer adapted to the SWP's aims. It had to join forces with those anti-war elements, Muslim groups among others, who were willing to challenge Blair in the ballot box. The very concept of a "left" alternative was thereby put into doubt. In any case the political basis for the proposed electoral alliance was carefully left open. Moreover, in an attempt to pre-empt likely opposition within the Socialist Alliance (and as it turned out within the SWP as well), this article added: "It is now time for those who want a real political alternative to New Labour, at both a national and local level, to reject those who put sectarian purity before reshaping the political landscape around them. There are larger forces moving in society than any of the existing left organisations. We must either cut a channel that can allow these forces to rebuild a new left or we will, perhaps not so many years from now, be looking at a resurgent right arising from the ashes of the Blair administration." As if the proposed electoral alliance could keep the Tories out forever! Unless, of course, what the SWP is really proposing is to build a new bourgeois party of government which would enter the two-party system by taking over from Labour, while Blair's Labour takes over the role of the Tories. But what on earth would revolutionaries be doing in such a party? Taking care of the employment portfolio? In any case, behind this nonsense, there is also a crude sleight of hand for the benefit of Socialist Alliance members, as the Muslim "allies" targeted by the SWP can in no way be described as being to the left of Labour, whether "New" or "Old".

To be fair, it is not just the Muslim groups that the SWP is wooing in order to build its "alternative". The union machineries are also supposed to play a role in it. The Socialist Alliance has been lobbying them for a long time in the hope of getting access to their political funds. So far, however, all union leaders have resisted its approaches. Not for lack of being courted tirelessly by the SWP, though. So-called "left" union leaders such as the T&G's Tony Woodley and the CWU's Billy Hayes have been offered full pages to publicise themselves in Socialist Worker and the SWP's silence about the dodgy deals of these union leaders has been remarkable. Nevertheless these fellows still insist that Gordon Brown is the best alternative to Blair, thereby leaving the SWP complaining bitterly (but impotently) that building an alternative to Blair is "made much harder by the decision of most left trade union leaders to chant the mantra of reclaiming Labour'." In any case, despite its on-going courting of the union machineries, the SWP is unlikely to get very far. The union apparatuses are far too integrated into the structures of central and local government, most of which are Labour-controlled at the present time, to risk their cushy positions for the sake of an electoral challenge to Blair, the success of which is, to put it mildly, uncertain!

Nevertheless time is running out for the SWP to launch an electoral alternative before the discontent generated by the war in Iraq starts fading away. As an editorial of Socialist Worker points out, "Such an alternative must be in place well before next year's election super-day'. On 10 June there will be European Parliament elections across Britain, elections for the London mayor and the Greater London Assembly and council elections for Wales and important English areas." (18/10/2003)

This urgency probably explains the emergence of a new initiative to form an electoral coalition against Blair. This initiative was first proposed by Salma Yaqoob, the chair of Birmingham's STWC committee and a member of the town's central mosque. In the columns of the September issue of Socialist Review, she argued: "I am clear in my mind that the anti-war movement has laid the foundations for shifting the mainstream agenda back to where most people want it to be. It has drawn together a huge number of people representing all sections of society.(..) It is time for a genuine alternative that aims to integrate just economic, social and environmental policies at local, national and global levels, and which stresses cooperation not confrontation, and people not profits as its priorities." But, adds Yaqoob,"There is no short cut to building this alternative. Even though so many people are disillusioned there is no inevitability that they will necessarily act. (..) All the things we want - solidarity, equality, justice and peace - can only come about through active, committed and genuine engagement with people who are not the same as ourselves in every way but who share with us a desire for a better world. (..) By mobilising 2 million people onto the streets, we have proved that people are not happy with the present situation. Now the onus is on us to do something with those numbers. To make a real difference we need to challenge the present system and policies even more directly and have a belief in ourselves that we could do better than them. A comprehensive and detailed workable manifesto is therefore an urgent priority." In other words, what is being proposed is an electoral coalition around a platform of government, which would use anti-war feelings as a springboard to win elected positions.

Since then, Salma Yaqoob has joined forces with the ecologist Guardian columnist George Monbiot to launch a draft manifesto entitled "principles of unity", which implements Yaqoob proposal. This manifesto is designed to be nice to everyone, with a pinch in favour of workers' rights and another in favour of "individual creativity and entrepreneurship, a pinch against globalisation and another in favour of ecology, a pinch against privatisation and another in favour of a "caring" state, a pinch in favour of "non-violence and peace" and another in support of "international law", etc.. It contains no reference whatsoever to the imperialist looting of the world nor to the real reasons behind imperialist wars. It ignores the capitalist exploitation of the working class as well as class divisions. Such things do not exist in the petty-bourgeois liberal Yaqoob-Monbiot universe.

Is this manifesto designed to pull the rug from under the SWP's feet? This may be the case, but so far the SWP has not distanced itself from it in its press. Besides, its initiators are both close to the SWP: it was the SWP who sponsored Yaqoob to chair the Birmingham STWC and Monbiot was a fellow-traveller of the SWP in its anti-globalisation venture. In fact a joint public meeting entitled "British politics at the crossroads" was planned in London with the SWP, Yaqoob and Monbiot sharing the platform, among other speakers. In any case, whether the hand of the SWP was somewhat forced by the launch of this manifesto or not, the fact is that it is perfectly consistent with the policy pursued by the SWP.

As it turns out, the end result of this policy is at best a liberal electoral alternative to Blair.

The united front and the tasks of revolutionaries

Time and time again the SWP has resorted to a ritual invocation of the Bolsheviks' policy of the "united front" in order to justify its constant quest for political allies. In fact, according to the SWP the ad-hoc structures that it keeps setting up for its various campaigns are all "united fronts" in their own right - the Socialist Alliance, Globalise Resistance, the Stop the War Coalition and, no doubt, the structure that will undoubtedly emerge for the new election manifesto which is being prepared for next June's elections.

It must be said, however, that it is rather surrealistic to invoke a policy designed by the Communist International to help revolutionary parties which had a significant influence among the working class, to win over sections of workers who were influenced by reformism at a time when large-scale struggles were on the agenda for the working class. Indeed, the SWP cannot, by any stretch of imagination, consider itself as such a revolutionary party and there are no signs of the imminent possibility of large-scale working-class struggles. That is, unless the SWP considers that the anti-war marches were a reflection of such struggles despite their tame nature and the prominent absence of the working class!

Of course, one can always argue that what really matters is the method underpinning the "united front" policy and that it is method which the SWP is applying in very different circumstances. So it is worth investigating a bit further what this method really is.

In 1932, Leon Trotsky, who was, with Lenin, one of the artisans of the united front, gave the following definition of this policy in a pamphlet called "The only road" in which he discussed how the German working class could fight the threat of fascism: "The policy of the united front has as its task to separate those who want to fight from those who do not; to push forward those who vacillate; and finally to compromise the capitulationist leaders in the eyes of the workers, to consolidate the workers' fighting capacity."

Indeed, for the Bolsheviks, the united front was, first and foremost, a policy aimed at the working class as a whole. It was a policy, designed "to consolidate the workers' fighting capacity." It was meant to do this by strengthening their resolve through unity of action, but also by dissipating the illusions that workers had in their reformist leaders, as these leaders' willingness to fight was being tested and, therefore, by removing the "capitulationist leaders" who were obstacles to the full development of the fighting capacity of the working class. This implied, therefore, that the united front had to be focused on a clear and well-defined objective which was urgent enough for the working class for it to see the need for a fight; that all dealings between the revolutionary party and reformist leaders should be made public, so as to be scrutinised by the working class as a whole (there should be no behind-the-scenes deals at leadership level); and that the revolutionary party should keep subjecting its partners to its critique in full view of the working class, so as to allow workers to judge.

In concrete terms, in the context of Germany, Trotsky formulated these requirements as follows: "No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded with the devil himself, with his grandmother, and even with Noske and Grezesinsky [two leading Social Democrats particularly famous for their anti-working class record - CS]. On one condition, not to bind one's hands." Whatever happened, therefore, the revolutionary party needed to retain its political independence, in terms of what it did and said.

Such was the Bolsheviks' conception of the united front and its underlying method. But what does this method have to do with the policy of the SWP in its various campaigns?

Like the Bolsheviks, the SWP claims to stand for the political interests of the working class. But as we saw earlier, none of the campaigns described in this article was designed by the SWP with the working class in mind, as its main actor, in order to "consolidate the workers' fighting capacity." Each one of them was deprived of any class content, while being targeted at a particular milieu which, in some cases, may have included a small minority of the working class, but was always dominated by petty-bourgeois elements of some sort.

Nor were these campaigns aimed at dissipating illusions, not even within their target milieu. On the contrary, each time the SWP adapted to this milieu's illusions, by pushing Livingstone's boat in the London election, by painting the particular brand of reformism of the anti-globalisation current in red colours, by endorsing the bland pacifism of its partners in the STWC (which made the SWP sound even less radical than a reformist like the now expelled Labour MP George Galloway) while extending an uncritical hand to Muslim religious groups, and in the coming months, probably, by endorsing the wishy-washy liberalism of the Yaqoob-Monbiot "dream-ticket".

To cut a long story short, the united front has only served as a fig leaf for the SWP's opportunism. But each time, its opportunism, its constant quest for a shortcut which might help it to step up its profile in society - despite its continuing lack of influence in the working class, whose interest it claims to represent - has been pulling the SWP leadership further and further away from the class interests of the working class and from its own revolutionary programme.

Yet, no matter how difficult and obscure the task may be, all revolutionaries have an urgent job to do today, which they cannot abandon without forfeiting bit by bit everything they stand for. We have to prepare the working class for its future struggles. Our job, within the limits of our resources, is to help workers to see through the events which are taking place around them, to distinguish their true potential allies from those fake friends who are really on the other side of the fence, and to fight relentlessly against all the illusions and reactionary prejudices which are the by-products of a long period in which the working class has been under attack without being able to fight back. At the same time our job is to seize every opportunity to rebuild the workers' fighting capacity, their confidence in their collective strength and their sense of pride as a class. And to this end, we would all need to concentrate a large part of our efforts on activities which are largely obscure, maybe, but nevertheless vital, around the workplaces, to bring back class politics among workers, at the point of exploitation, as a weapon in their day-to-day existence and struggles.

Of all the revolutionary groups of this country, the SWP has by far the most militant resources. And this also means that it has even more responsibilities than any other group towards the future of the working class of this country. If, instead of tail-ending liberal or religious forces and tilting against fashionable windmills, it undertook a determined turn, back to class politics and to its revolutionary programme, this could result in a significant change in the politicisation and consciousness of the working class within a relatively short period of time, as well as in the SWP's own militant fabric which would be considerably enriched by this. If it does not make this turn, from drift to further drift, the SWP is in danger of squandering its revolutionary capital and losing its way for good.