Chris Harman

The SWP replies to Hilary Wainsright’s Open Letter

Ducking the issues

(January 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.105, January 1988, pp.33-34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman is a member of the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party

IT MUST be nice to live In the cosy world of Hilary Wainwright and regard the Chesterfield conference as a great success marred only by “sectarian” behaviour from Socialist Workers Party members.

But things were not really like that. Many people with politics very different to those of the SWP left Chesterfield feeling dissatisfied.

There was a very simple reason for the disappointment. If the aim, as Hilary put it correctly, is to “begin organising, campaigning and educating as an independent force”, the left has first to come to terms with the defeats it has suffered and to debate seriously options as to the way forward.

You cannot do so unless you point fingers at the right wing and “soft left” Labour leaders who have helped organise It. But this Hilary does not seem to see as important. Why else does Hilary speak contemptuously of Eric Heffer “accusing Kinnock of betrayal”?

Heffer is at least pointing to the central problem facing socialists today. We do have a right wing Tory government which the Kinnock leadership in the Labour Party is determined not to fight seriously, and an employers’ offensive In industry which the new realist union leaders will not resist.

Unfortunately Hilary and the other organisers of Chesterfield were not prepared to recognise this betrayal. They were careful not to name names and to avoid open discussion on contentious questions. Hilary may now say that Eric Heffer’s approach is radically mistaken. But she certainly did not open her mouth to say so at Chesterfield – even though she spoke after Heffer in the final plenary session.

Are the readers of Socialist Worker Review somehow privileged to hear things that must not be said in front of the Labour Party activists in case It upsets them?

The very way the conference was structured hindered reasoned debate. The plenary sessions were dominated by platform speakers: there was no discussion from the floor in the first opening plenary session and only about half an hour in the closing one; in the “theme conferences” up to 75 percent of the time was taken up by platform speakers; and even in the working groups It was normal for the platform speakers to take up more than an hour of the two hours allowed for discussion. This might not have mattered if there had been open debate between platform speakers which the floor delegates could then join in. But this occurred very rarely indeed.

Even when debate did begin to take place, there was no attempt by the chairs to encourage it.

Debates from the floor were often simply sat upon. For example, right at the beginning of the conference the organisers (presumably including Hilary) put an official Russian government delegation on the platform and disallowed a challenge to the chair from the floor, refusing the normal conference right of delegates (at least a third) who supported the workers’ oppositions in the Eastern bloc.

Similarly the chair of one of the “theme conferences” allowed former Labour candidate Peter Tatchell to expound at great length on how correct was the Greens’ opposition to economic growth, and then cut off Lindsey German in full flood as she made a very well received defence of miners’ and steel workers’ jobs against such reactionary garbage. Apparently to raise such real issues of debate was, as Hilary puts it, to be guilty of “arrogance”, of “know-all hectoring” (the very words used by the media and Marxism Today to attack Arthur Scargill).

Hilary and her friends like “new thought” – providing it does not lead to disagreements over important issues with people whom they regard as important.

Hilary justified her denunciation of those who did raise arguments at Chesterfield by claiming “the Labour Party socialists” who gathered there “were significantly different from the Labour lefts of the past” because they were prepared to disregard the electoral timetables that normally dominate inside the Party.

Hilary should know better, given her recent book. The Labour left has launched many such ventures before. Ralph Miliband mentioned one in introducing the Chesterfield conference – the famous Leeds convention of June 1917, held in defiance of the Labour NEC even though Ramsay MacDonald moved its key note resolution. In the 1930s there was the break of the ILP with the Labour Party and, six years later, the expulsion of the leaden of the Socialist League, Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan, for advocating unity with the Communist Party to campaign for a popular front.

In the early 1950s there were the Tribune brains trusts and, after the 1959 election, the attempt to launch Victory for Socialism as an independent campaigning force.

Yet none of these efforts led the dominating figures on the Labour left to break with the fundamental tenet of Labourism – the belief that socialism is delivered from above to people by MPs, councillors and national trade union officials. “New ways” of organising were never more than a temporary aberration, quickly abandoned as the left moved back towards the mainstream of the party.

Even while the lunge took place, many of the old Labourites’ assumptions continued to prevail – above all the assumption that the rank and file were there to consume speeches from MPs, councillors, union officials and the occasional sympathetic academic. This was true of the Leeds convention, of the Socialist League, of Victory for Socialism ... and, unfortunately, of Chesterfield.

At one stage in the preparation for the conference it seemed that things might be different. There was talk of an organising committee which would not be dominated by the MPs, and the SWP was even invited last July to sponsor the conference and to be represented on such a committee. But nothing more was heard of this, our name mysteriously failed to appear on the list of sponsors and, on the day, the old notion prevailed that the initials MP or, even these days, MEP after your name give you a pre-ordained right to dominate any proceedings. Hilary chose to go along with this approach and so it is hardly surprising she is so bitter against those of us who tried to challenge it.

But her bitterness does not justify the dishonesty of her arguments. For instance, she now claims that the attitude of our members at Chesterfield was very different from that in Newcastle in the late 1970s when, she asserts, “I was impressed by the SWP”. Apparently we used to be nice, open socialists and have now degenerated into a hardened sect.

This wasn’t her view in the book she co-authored in the late 1970s, called Beyond the Fragments. It was a long diatribe against all the organisations of the revolutionary left, attacking us in the most bitter, personal terms, using the language one normally only finds in the internal bulletins of the smaller left groups, for being ... “sectarian”. Hilary’s contribution showed no sign of being “impressed” by the SWP. So when she claims otherwise, either her memory is faulty or she is distorting the truth in order to win a cheap debating point.

So why does she attack us so forcefully? Is it because SWP members sit on the sidelines and ignore Labour Party members who get involved in struggles?

Our role in support of strikes and in campaigns like that against the Alton Bill is too obvious for her to claim this (although she is not above insinuating that we held back from campaigning in support of the miners until late in the day, whereas we were pushing resolutions and collections and putting up pickets right from the beginning).

What is true is that when we work alongside Labour Party members we do not refrain from arguing in a fraternal manner with them over points of disagreement. Such arguments are particularly important at present, when Labour Party members in every locality are bitterly at odds with each other over the direction Kinnock is taking, over the vicious cuts made by former hard left councillors, over the near-Tory stance of local education committees to teachers, over the abandonment of unilateralism by those who used to grace CND platforms, over the attempt to duck the fight against the poll tax in Scotland.

Hilary could have provided real assistance to the whole left if she had fought at Chesterfield to have these issues discussed and, with them, the most fundamental question of all – whether there is a parliamentary road to socialism. She failed to do so, and reduced to a minimum the opportunities available to those of us who wanted such debate.

Of course our attempts to do so in the odd five minute slots allowed by the organisers did lead to the occasional “strident”, “hectoring” tone. But it ill becomes those who refused to argue at all to raise accusations on that score.

The sad result is that Chesterfield is likely to be as fruitless as the Beyond the Fragments and the Socialist Society conferences. So forget the mote in our eyes, Hilary, and worry about the plank in your own.

Chris Harman

Last updated on 15 April 2010