For the Record – Flawed Methods, Unnecessary Divisions

OCTOBER 9, 2013 – Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos (2013) have written a defence of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a party wracked by crisis since late 2012. This crisis was precipitated by the response, on the part of the SWP leadership, to allegations of rape and sexual assault. However, Kimber/Callinicos assert that “all those involved … have agreed that the case itself should be treated as ‘closed’” and therefore barely address issues of sexual violence, sexism, women’s oppression – the substantive issues that have generated the current crisis.

Others will, no doubt, respond to Kimber/Callinicos on these points. This contribution concerns one specific aspect of their text. To illustrate one point in their article, the authors cite a passage from a 2001 Callinicos pamphlet, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left (2001), a pamphlet which was to circulate quite widely in the years which followed, prominently featured on the SWP website until late 2009 (SWP 2009). This is a very questionable text, in 2013, to be used as an authoritative source.

The first 6,000-word portion of Anti-Capitalist Movement is relatively straightforward. It paints a picture of the political terrain at the turn of the century, the birth of a new left, and a reflection on what Callinicos sees as a parallel period – the radicalization of the 1960s. The concluding 6,000-word portion is completely different. The year of the pamphlet’s publication, 2001, was the year that the SWP argued for and won the expulsion of the U.S.-based International Socialist Organization (ISO) from the International Socialist Tendency (IST). The final 6,000 words of Anti-Capitalist Movement are entirely devoted to justifying this expulsion.

It is a justification based upon three very flawed methods: inflated rhetoric, careless use of historical analogies, and a misleading political economy. Many of us – who at the time were convinced to support the SWP leadership’s drive to expel the ISO –with the benefit of hindsight know now that we were quite wrong. Two years ago, for self-clarification, this author drafted, but did not publish, a critique of Anti-Capitalist Movement. With this 2001 pamphlet now resurfacing as a part of current debates, perhaps these notes – slightly revised – will be of interest to others. So, for the record …


The political environment at the turn of the century was shaped by anti-corporate activism. In 1999, a coalition of young anti-globalization activists and veterans of the trade union movement disrupted the annual meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held that year in Seattle, Washington (Bakan 2000a; Bakan 2000b). Ralph Nader called this Seattle moment a “fork in the road” (1999) – a watershed pointing towards new waves of struggle against corporate globalization. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands challenged the symbols of corporate capitalism – in Genoa, Quebec City, Prague and elsewhere.

The first section of Anti-Capitalist Movement documents the emergence of the anti-globalization wave of protests. Callinicos argues that “there has crystallized in the advanced capitalist countries a politically active minority that sees global capitalism as the source of the world’s ills”. He lists the key moments in the “new cycle of protest” which had emerged since the Seattle events, including demonstrations in “Washington (16 April 2000), Millau (30 June 2000), Melbourne (11 September 2000), Prague (26 September 2000), Seoul (10 October 2000), Nice (6-7 December 2000), and Washington again (20 January 2001)”. Even larger protests were to occur in the months following the publication of Anti-Capitalist Movement – the huge 300,000 strong mobilization in Genoa and the 80,000 who challenged the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City (George 2001; Ritsema 2011). For those of us who participated in various of these protests against corporate capitalism, reading through the history outlined in Anti-Capitalist Movement is a useful reminder of their importance. For others, it might provide a good summary and history of an historic movement.

With the benefit of hindsight of course, some of the analysis needs to be modified. Twelve years ago, many of us, including Callinicos, saw Seattle as the central fact in the new movement. But Seattle did not emerge in a vacuum. Its organizers had been deeply influenced by Global South mass movements against neoliberalism and imperialism, movements which – from January 1, 1994 – exploded onto the world scene with the anti-neoliberal uprisings in Chiapas, Mexico. Seattle needs to be seen as one link in a bigger chain – in part, being an echo of the mobilizations against neoliberal globalization and imperialism that emerged out of Latin America in the 1990s, going back to the Zapatistas and beyond. Even after the events of 9/11, this radicalization continued, with the 2002 mobilization against the attempted coup in Venezuela and the massive uprisings associated with the gas wars in Bolivia in 2003 and 2004. Both of these events served as part of the immediate background to the election of Evo Morales in 2005.

Another aspect of the analysis in Anti-Capitalist Movement needs to be re-examined. In a comparative evaluation of the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the Seattle protests, Anti-Capitalist Movement asserts that the Intifada “is driven by the Palestinians’ burning resentment of the oppression they suffer at the hands of the Zionist state … but the system itself is not at the centre of their consciousness”. This implies that the Seattle-inspired movements were at a higher level, being directed against the system as a whole. But the Al-Aqsa Intifada was a key spark for the radicalization in the region, not least in Egypt, a radicalization which exploded in 2011 in the Arab Spring. For many in the Arab Spring revolutions, both Palestine and “the system itself” were very much at the centre of their consciousness (Barghouti 2011). It does not seem credible, more than a decade later, to see the post-Seattle anti-globalization protests as existing at a higher level than the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The Global North protests in Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Washington and elsewhere were significant. But looking back from the second decade of the 21st century, it is clear that the main streams of mass movements and radical change since the 1990s have flown through the Global South – Chiapas, Caracas and Cochabamba; Palestine, Egypt and Tunisia. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and this contribution by Callinicos is a worthwhile part of an ongoing discussion.

Inflated Rhetoric

In the second half of the pamphlet – announced with the headline “An American Tragedy: the International Socialist Organization” – Anti-Capitalist Movement takes a quite different turn. Prominent throughout the next several thousand words are examples of what Leo Panitch has called “inflated rhetoric” (1987) – the exaggeration of differences to the point of caricature through the use of highly-charged language. The SWP and the ISO disagreed as to the significance of the Seattle protest. Anti-Capitalist Movement elevates this disagreement far above a mere question of tactics. According to Anti-Capitalist Movement, the Seattle events revealed “the ISO’s metastasis into a sect”. The ISO had “become so ossified that they are unable to relate to the revival of the left for which they have waited for decades”. It argues that there had been a long history of “sectarian degeneration” in the ISO, that there was, in various of the writings of the ISO, “evidence of a deep-rooted sectarian mentality”, and that even when there were moments of health, there was a recurring tendency of “retreating into the sectarian bunker”. Already, during the Balkan Wars, “we can see the ISO displaying the attitude that by which Marx defined a sect”.

Anti-Capitalist Movement does not hesitate to amplify, arguing that the “ISO leadership’s urge to differentiate … is reminiscent of some of the worst sectarian aberrations of the 1960s, for example, the refusal of the orthodox Trotskyist followers of Gerry Healy and Pierre Lambert to participate in the student and anti-war movements”. Raising the ghost of the late Gerry Healy is a strong clue signalling where the argument is headed. Perhaps no left group more captured the essence of sectarianism than Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL) and its successor the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP). These were formations on the British far left, known among other things for their adulation of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and for the scandal of sexual abuse which ultimately shattered both Healy’s reputation and the current which he had led.[1] Phrases such as “sectarian bunker” have a known content in the socialist movement, clearly intended to identify a group which has turned in on itself and retreated from the reality of day-to-day life and struggle – hence the reference to Healy.

This use of inflated rhetoric was characteristic of the whole debate. An earlier letter to the ISO (drafted by Callinicos and Tony Cliff), argued that the ISO had “failed the test of the 1999 Balkan war” (cited in Birchall 2011, 548). This accusation – “failing the test of war” – also has a known content. The phrase emerges from debates triggered by the First World War. The socialist left was a mass, united movement in the first years of the 20th century. August 1914, this unity was shattered, when the world’s largest socialist party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), voted for war credits and gave its blessing to the horrors of patriotic war. The German SPD, and most other member organizations of the Second International “failed the test of war”. This led to profound isolation for internationalists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, forcing on this minority the necessity to, from scratch, begin again the project of constructing an international socialist movement. Taking this known term from the World War One era, and applying it to tactical differences over the war in Kosovo, is an extreme case of inflating the rhetoric.

The invective had the effect of sharply polarizing the discussion along apparently irreconcilable lines. The engaged realistic activist was counter-posed to the sectarian. The anti-war socialist was counter-posed to those who had supposedly capitulated to patriotism. But was such rhetoric and extreme polarization actually necessary? It is really very difficult to discover any meaningful political differences, at the turn of the century, between the ISO and the SWP. In his biography of the late Tony Cliff, leading SWP intellectual Ian Birchall argues that “[i]n principle the different assessments of the anti-capitalist movement could have been contained within the international tendency” (2011, 549). The ISO, like the SWP, participated in the Seattle protests, and many of the other anti-globalization mobilizations. The ISO, like the SWP, took a clear position against NATO’s bombing of Kosovo. There were differences, not over matters of principle, but rather over matters of expectation, nuance and tactics. What are the prospects of this new movement? This is about expectations. Should the movements be characterized as anti-capitalist or anti-globalization? This is a nuance. How do you combine opposition to NATO’s bombing campaigns with criticism of Serbia’s attacks on Kosovo? This is a tactic. All are appropriate subjects for reasoned discussion and debate. When they become wrapped in distortion and extreme invective, that discussion and debate becomes difficult, and the value of diverse views becomes lost in an urge to silence disagreement.

The SWP leadership, however, insisted on the limitations of the ISO, and the urgency of isolating and then expelling the organization from the IST. At a 2001 meeting of the IST, held in London U.K., the ISO was formally expelled.[2]

Careless Use of Historical Analogies

It would be fairly straightforward if this use of inflated rhetoric could be ascribed solely to problems of etiquette. Bad manners can be addressed and corrected fairly easily. However, the inflated rhetoric was, at least in part, a linguistic expression of a second problematic method. Argument by way of careless historical analogy – drawing too straight a line between the Russian Revolutionary era and our own – is a central method employed by Anti-Capitalist Movement.

Callinicos argues that the new movements in the wake of Seattle demanded the adoption of new modes of work, and the abandonment of old ones from a different era. To make this point, he quotes Trotsky. “[I]f in the preceding period too many elements of inertia have accumulated in the leading organs of the party, then the party will prove itself unable to fulfill its leadership at that supreme and critical moment for which it has been preparing itself in the course of decades. The party is ravaged by a crisis, and the movement passes the party by – and heads toward defeat”.

The quotation is from Trotsky’s work, The Lessons of October, an analysis of the challenges which confronted the European left in the context of revolutionary upheaval in 1917 and 1918. Callinicos says that it represents Trotsky “reflecting on the experience of the Bolsheviks”. That is not entirely accurate. In the paragraph from which the selection has been culled, Trotsky contextualizes his analysis. “On the basis of our experience – even taking only one year, from February 1917 to February 1918 – and on the basis of the supplementary experience in Finland, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, and Germany, we can posit as almost an unalterable law that a party crisis is inevitable in the transition from preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power” (1937, 4). These words are absent from Anti-Capitalist Movement.

Surely we should be careful about the applicability to our times of any analysis thinking through the challenges faced by socialists “in the transition from preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power”. Further, look at the parties Trotsky was analyzing, – parties based in Finland, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany and Russia. Unlike the small organizations which comprise the IST, the key parties on this list were real, mass parties. According to Tony Cliff, the Bulgarian socialist group which “voted to affiliate to the Comintern” in 1919” was a mass party with 35,478 members in 1920” (1979, 10–11). In Germany, the communists numbered some 50,000 until December 1920, when they were joined by the left-wing of the Independent Social Democrats to create a party of 350,000 (1979, 11). The Hungarian Party was significant enough to be at the centre of a 133-day “Soviet” republic in 1919 (1979, 12). When the Italian Socialist Party voted to affiliate to the Comintern it had 300,000 members (1979, 10). As for the Bolsheviks, they were formed in 1903 and two years later were confronted by a revolution involving the birth of workers’ councils. Years of defeat and reaction followed, then the horrors of world war, then the two revolutions of 1917 and the working class seizure of power. In those tumultuous years, the Bolsheviks were variously a group of dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands(1975, 98–138; 168–182; 235–252; 352–366). It is a rich and complex story. But from the standpoint of the 21st century, it is little more than just that … a story. Anti-Capitalist Movement tells this story selectively. It insists that lessons appropriate to mass organizations in conditions of autocracy, confronted with the transition to state power, are directly applicable to the experience of small left formations confronted with demonstrations and movements in the context of liberal democracies.

Britain and North America in the 21st century have no mass socialist organizations. There are no workers’ soviets (self-governing popular councils). We do not at the moment have a Tsarist-like reaction forcing the left and organizers underground. Russia between 1903 and 1917 could not really be more different than Britain and North America between 1989 and 2001, or, for that matter, 2013. It is not at all clear how lessons from the one period could be applied to the other, except in the most general manner. To offer real lessons from the Russian Revolution, demands paying careful attention to specific contexts and precise differences. A method based on selective out-of-context quotation is the mark of internalized factionalism. It does nothing to contribute to clarity.

Anti-Capitalist Movement reduces the key lesson from this complex story to Lenin’s leadership method of “bending the stick”; “of focusing on the key tasks in the current situation to the exclusion of all secondary factors and indeed to the point of exaggeration … the price of failing to develop this approach is sectarianism”. The argument is crystal clear. The ISO did not “bend the stick” towards the Seattle movement, and hence became sectarian.

Contemporary research is calling into question this whole take on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Lars T. Lih has argued that Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, where the “bend the stick” thesis is advanced, took one moment in Lenin’s life quite out of context (Cliff 1975; Lih 2006, 22–27). Further, even were we to agree that Lenin frequently did exaggerate to make his point, what exactly does this imply for the very different circumstances we confront in the 21st century? Until 1917, Lenin was almost always in exile. Trade union and party organizers inside Russia operated underground. Activists faced frequent arrests, jail, exile and deportation. The Russian state was a repressive, Tsarist nightmare. The Bolshevik movement in 1905, and then again from 1912 until 1917, was a mass movement, with deep roots and real influence in the working class. Navigating this situation must have been extremely difficult. There would be a premium on tacking and turning, avoiding traps and obstacles, looking for the key next step. Perhaps we might label this tacking and turning, “bending the stick”.

But for small left currents and individuals in the context of advanced capitalism and liberal democracy in the 21st century, it is not at all clear how this has relevance. When groups are on the margins, have little influence, can at best participate in struggles, but rarely lead them, then to invoke “bending the stick” is unlikely to mean much in practice, unlikely to be a factor in changing the direction of the mass movement. In the absence of being able to “bend the stick” in action, there is only one choice left. The stick bending is done in words. The invective and the inflated rhetoric take flight. At best, it is just pretentious. At worst, it becomes a justification for yelling and verbal abuse.[3]

Misleading political economy

The third flawed method underpinning the analysis of Anti-Capitalist Movement is an extremely misleading political economy. Callinicos defends the practice, current in the IST since the early 1990s, of using – in the U.K., North America and elsewhere – the decade of the 1930s as an analogy for the decade of the 1990s (albeit in “slow motion”) (Callinicos 1994; Cliff 2000, 81–82). In 2012 and 2013, for Greece and some of the other countries in Southern Europe, the 1930’s decade has certainly returned as a point of reference. However, the situation in Greece in 2012 and 2013 is one thing and the situation in North America and Britain in the 1990s is quite another. The ISO leadership challenged the 1930s in slow motion framework, Callinicos acknowledges, pointing “to the American boom of the 1990s as a decisive counter-example to the ‘1930s in slow motion’ analysis”.

Surely the ISO leadership had a point. Let’s try to get a picture of the 1930s, and then contrast it with the 1990s. The most basic measure of economic health is the value of GDP (output) per capita, adjusted for inflation. When that figure is rising, then the economy is growing. When that figure is shrinking, so is the economy. The first chart here takes the output per capita for the U.S. in 1929 as 100, and then shows the trajectory of output per capita in the years which followed, from 1930 until 1940. It is an extraordinary picture of decline. By 1933, output per person was almost 30 percent below what it had been in 1929. It was this kind of economic collapse which led to mass unemployment, soup kitchens and bread lines. By the end of the 1930s, output per person was slowly increasing, inching back to where it had been in 1929. But we now know that output per person was finally able to surpass the 1929 figure, and the economy could return to growth, only because of manufacturing gearing up for World War II.

If that is the profile of the 1930s, how does it compare to the 1990s? The second chart applies the method of the first to the decade of the 1990s, and includes three countries, the U.S., the U.K. and Russia. 1990 is used as a baseline, output per capita that year expressed as “100”. For one of the three countries, the 1930’s analogy clearly has some relevance. The chart documents the catastrophic decline of the Russian economy in the 1990s. By 1998, output per capita was barely half what it had been in 1990. The end of Stalinism in Russia and the transition to the market were very big stories in that decade. But Russia’s experience was qualitatively different from that of the U.S. and the U.K. There was decline in 1991 for the U.S., and for 1991 and 1992 in the U.K. But from that point on, the story is the opposite of the 1930s, output per capita rising in both countries. By 2001, output per person, in both countries, was 25 per cent greater than it had been in 1990. Clearly, for those two countries at least, any analogies with the Great Depression of the 1930s would have to be treated with some suspicion. If a fourth country had been added to the picture, the entire analogy would have collapsed. The spectacular economic take-off in China was well underway in the 1990s. In 2001, output per capita in China was an extraordinary 162 per cent greater than it had been in 1990.

Anti-Capitalist Movement insists that, in using the analogy with the 1930s, they were “very careful to stress the differences between the 1930s and the 1990s”. The truth is, once the 1930s analogy had been put on the table, being “careful” was going to be difficult. The problem with invoking the 1930s, even with many qualifications, is that, for millions of people, the phrase has real, and instant meaning. It is not ambiguous. “The 1930s” is a headline signifying social and economic collapse. The decade of the 1930s was one of catastrophic economic decline, catastrophic levels of unemployment, catastrophic collapse of living standards, the rise of fascism, the occupation of the factories in the United States, civil war in Spain, horrendous war and social collapse in China – and ultimately the beginning of the Second World War. It was a decade of wars and revolutions, of socialism or barbarism. In that context, Trotsky argued that the objective basis for capitalist crisis was clear for all to see, the objective material for socialism was at hand, but what was lacking was subjective – the organized, experienced cadre in the leadership of mass socialist organizations. “The crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership” (Trotsky 1981, 2). This was a desperate formulation from a desperate decade, misleading but perhaps understandable given the horrors of fascism and the stark failure of the Stalinist parties. That was then. When the analogy with the 1930s was (quite wrongly) applied to the 1990s in the U.K. and the U.S., in such a way as to imply that the only barrier between the 1990’s generation in those two countries and the move towards socialism was a subjective one – in other words, when the bar was raised so high that success was absolutely impossible – then the finger-pointing and divisions soon followed. It became a political economy justification for the inflated rhetoric, invective, factionalism and splits, which proved to be very damaging.

It is also not hard to see the way in which a viewpoint fixated on the lessons of the 1930s might also lead to unrealistic expectations. Anti-Capitalist Movement argues that, “in the second half of the 1990s the long downturn in class struggle drew to an end”. This would be a logical expectation flowing from a focus on the 1930s – a decade which opened in North America with a deep downturn in working class struggle, a downturn which finally came to an end, in both the United States and Canada, through an explosive wave of strikes and factory occupations (Preis 1972; Dobbs 1972; Palmer 1992, 214–267; Jamieson 1968, 214–275). But while there have been important moments of struggle in Britain and North America, a sober assessment of the state of the workers’ movements in both places would indicate that Callinicos’ assessment was rather inaccurate. This would certainly be the case for the first few years of the 21st century in the United States, where strike levels remained at historic lows, and where most years the rate of unionization was lower than the year before.

The final chart accompanying this article is not the last word on this issue, but it needs to be seriously examined as part of the discussion. By a very basic measure of working class combativity – days not worked because of strikes and lockouts – a clear picture emerges for the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. There is considerable combativity through the 1970s, underpinning the deep radicalization of that decade. But this slowly declines in the 1980s, then falls precipitously in the 1990s, remaining at very low levels into the 21st century. There is an interesting and important spike in 2000 in the U.S., the year after Seattle. But it is not sustained, and it certainly does not provide – at least as it concerns these three countries – confirmation for the assertion that “the long downturn in class struggle drew to an end”.


Twelve years ago, just before the expulsion of the ISO, this author (at the time a member of the IST) and Paul D’Amato (a leading member of the ISO, and managing editor of the International Socialist Review) both travelled to Jakarta, Indonesia, to participate in a small anti-globalization conference. The conference was physically attacked by an armed group of right-wingers, aided and abetted by the armed forces of the Indonesian state. Paul and myself, along with some 30 other activists – after a long ride through the crowded streets of Jakarta, crammed onto the back of an army truck – ended up spending a night on the floor of a Jakarta police station, our passports seized and under threat of arrest (Wearmouth et al. 2001). Following a weekend of protests both inside and outside Indonesia, we got our passports back, and the threat subsided.

But at the time, in the face of the overwhelming Global South challenges confronting the poor and the working class in Indonesia, the Global North differences between the IST and the ISO receded into the background. In fact it was impossible to even begin to explain the nature of the division to the activists in Jakarta. They participated with us in conference discussions, formal and informal, worked with us shoulder to shoulder against the repression of the Indonesian state, and drew the quite correct conclusion that our politics were, for all intents and purposes, identical. If there is one single lesson from the last twelve years, that experience in Jakarta probably frames it best.

Sometimes there are meaningful political differences. But to sort out the meaningful from the meaningless, we need to reject methods which serve to artificially inflame and exaggerate. In other words, we have to reject the methods employed in Anti-Capitalist Movement.

In 2006, three Palestinian rights’ activists, leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)  movement, outlined a helpful alternative approach. “The roots of sectarianism” they said “lie in fetishizing minor programmatic differences and organizational forms ahead of the interests of the movement as a whole”. As an alternative, “[w]e need to change the way we relate to each other, realizing that building unity in practice is our most powerful weapon. … [T]he best political line is something developed through a common political practice – not bequeathed to the movement from historical texts” (Hanieh, Jamjoum, and Ziadah 2006).

© 2013 Paul Kellogg


[1] Those who wish to understand just how sectarian Healy was, should examine the little pamphlet, Politics as Religion (Hallas 1974) written by the late Duncan Hallas, a key article from which “Building the Leadership”, is now available online (Hallas 2008).

[2] There was another key issue involved late in the dispute, an allegation that the ISO was involved in a split in the Greek section of the IST (Birchall 2011, 549), an allegation which pushed many to vote with the SWP CC. In 2012, I had the privilege of attending an ISO public meeting addressed by Antonis Davanellos (2012), leading member of one of the groups in question, the International Workers Left (DEA). This connection with the DEA was invaluable in providing material for an article on the crisis wracking the Southern Mediterranean (Kellogg 2012). It also made it quite clear that, in 2001, we were all operating with very partial information. In any case, the bulk of the polemic in 2001 was focused on the issues discussed here, Seattle and anti-war work.

[3] This analysis relies on research developed by Abigail Bakan (2009).


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———. 2000b. “From Seattle to Washington: The Making of a Movement.” International Socialism II 87 (Summer): 85–94.

———. 2009. “Party, Movement, Class: Gramscian Reconsiderations and the Case of the BDS Movement.” Conference Paper, Seventh International Conference, Rethinking Marxism: New Marxian Times. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Barghouti, Omar. 2011. “BDS: The Global Struggle For Palestinian Rights.” Socialism 2011. Chicago:

Birchall, Ian. 2011. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks.

Callinicos, Alex. 1994. “Crisis and Class Struggle in Europe Today.” International Socialism II 63 (Summer): 3–47.

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———. 2008. “Building the Leadership (October 1969).” Marxists Internet Archive. February 24.

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———. 1981. The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International [1938]. New York: Labor Publications.

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Reflections on the Crisis in the SWP

JANUARY 13, 2013 – 1. Richard Seymour is author of the widely read blog, “Lenin’s Tomb,” and a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group left of the Labour Party in Britain. In an article written in the days following the January 4-6 annual conference of the SWP, Seymour made public a controversy inside the party, a controversy so serious he says: “the future of the party is at stake”. Speaking of the party’s Central Committee he said: “they are on the wrong side of that fight”. Speaking to fellow members of the party, he wrote: “You, as members, have to fight for your political existence. Don’t simply drift away, don’t simply bury your face in your palms … You must fight now” (Seymour, 2013a).

2. China Miéville is a prolific author (Miéville, 2006, 2010, 2012) and another prominent member of the SWP. Like Seymour, he has publicly expressed concern about recent developments inside the party. There is, he says: “a terrible problem of democracy, accountability and internal culture that such a situation can occur, as is the fact that those arguing against the official line in a fashion deemed unacceptable to those in charge could be expelled for ‘secret factionalism’” (Cited in Penny, 2013).

3. The SWP has a student group on various campuses called SWSS (Socialist Workers’ Student Society). The SWSS group based at Leeds University released a public statement after the SWP conference, where it “condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the recent handling of very serious accusations against a leading member of the SWP Central Committee”. The Leeds SWSS group argues that: “an atmosphere of intimidation has been allowed to develop in which young members are viewed with suspicion and treated as such” and that there exists “a culture where members feel unable to raise disagreements” a culture which is the “opposite of the kind which should exist within a healthy revolutionary organization” (Leeds University SWSS, 2013).

4. In the days after these same events at the SWP conference, a full-time journalist working for Socialist Worker, the party’s weekly paper, announced his resignation from both his job and from the SWP. He described his reaction to the conference discussion that triggered his resignation as: “one of simple, visceral disgust. I was shaking. I still am. I did not know what to do. I walked out of the building in a daze” (Walker, 2013).

5. The SWP is the largest and most prominent organization in the International Socialist Tendency (IST). In the wake of the SWP conference, there was a public announcement by the IST organization in Serbia that it no longer wished to be part of the tendency. They pointed to what they saw as “a stifling party culture and regime” inside the SWP, and stated that four pre-conference expulsions represented “conduct that reflects bourgeois management techniques” (SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST, 2013).

I begin with these five points to indicate only one thing – there is a very serious crisis inside the SWP. What is the background to this crisis? The references that accompany this article, provide copious detail. Below is a short summary.

1. Two years ago at the SWP conference, there was a report to conference, concerning a personal relationship between a Central Committee member (a man) and a woman member of the party. It seemed, at the time, that what was involved was “an affair that was badly ended, with the accused merely hassling the person long beyond the point of propriety” (Seymour, 2013b). The situation, serious in itself, had apparently been resolved.

2. It was not. In 2012, the issue returned, this time with the Central Committee member charged with sexual assault. A committee of the SWP (Disputes Committee) adjudicated the matter, concluding that the charges were not proven.

3. Among the criticisms made of the process by which this decision was reached, was the very serious one, that at least some of the committee members were personally acquainted with the man accused.

4. While all this was ongoing, a second woman came forward with a complaint of sexual harassment, directed against the same member of the Central Committee.

5. In the run up to the SWP conference in January 2013, four SWP members, apparently all themselves former full-time employees of the party, were discussing, on a Facebook group, how to respond to this situation. For this, they were expelled from the party, as this, apparently, amounted to “secret factionalism”.

6. This then resulted in the formation of two formal factions, which garnered considerable support at the SWP conference. The positions of the factions – calling for a reversal of the expulsions and a review of the Dispute Committee’s decision – were voted down by the majority of the conference delegates. One of the votes, however, was by a quite narrow margin.

7. At the end of the conference, these factions were instructed to disband, as organizing “across branches” on these matters is only allowed in the SWP in the three months before conference. To continue to meet and discuss these matters is a breach of discipline, making members subject to expulsion.

8. However, the issue has not gone away. The Central Committee member involved, while now not a member of that body, is still apparently engaged in high profile party work. The controversy has now become the object of speculation and discussion in the mainstream press (Penny, 2013; Taylor, 2013).

What is at stake? There are two issues, one to do with women’s oppression, the other to do with left organizing. In terms of women’s oppression:

1. The charge of sexual assault is extremely serious. It is completely inappropriate to adjudicate such a matter by a committee some of whose members know the accused well. This puts the woman bringing the charges in a very painful, impossible position. It is an approach that will be repulsive to many in the movements.

2. The current radicalization – in Occupy, during the student strike in Quebec in 2012, in Idle No More, in the Arab Spring, in the extraordinary upsurge in India against rape – is leading to a welcome revival of feminism. A new generation of young people is rejecting the anti-feminism that was perpetrated by the right-wing during the years of the backlash, and reconnecting with and extending the traditions of women’s liberation from the 1960s and 1970s.

3. However, in the current crisis in the SWP, according to Tom Walker, “‘feminism’ is used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters” (Walker, 2013). Seymour says that “old polemics against ‘feminism’ from the 1980s, always somewhat dogmatic, are dusted off and used as a stick to beat dissenters with” (Seymour, 2013a). These old polemics were based on a stark counterposition of Marxism and feminism. Tony Cliff in 1984, for instance, wrote: “Two different movements have sought to achieve women’s liberation over the past hundred or more years, Marxism and feminism … There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some ‘socialist feminists’ have in recent years tried to bridge the gap between them” (Birchall, 2011, p. 467; Cliff, 1984, p. 7). This quite sectarian orientation in theory is being helpfully challenged from within the Marxist tradition (Bakan, 2012; Ferguson, 1999, 2008; Smith, 2012).

In terms of left organizing:

1. The expulsion of four members for discussions in a Facebook group is absurd on its face. This is particularly so in the era of the Arab Spring. Facebook has become a tool of resistance, used to help the social movements bring down authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. For Facebook conversations, in this same era, to be seen as a threat by leading left-wingers, is risible. In addition, the very thought of trying to monitor Facebook, as well as being impossible, implies a culture of surveillance which is antithetical to effective left politics.

2. The Facebook expulsions were justified with reference to the Bolshevik tradition and democratic centralism. This is based on a complete misunderstanding of both. One example will suffice. As the Bolshevik Party was preparing an insurrection towards the end of 1917, two leading party members, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, openly expressed their opposition to the insurrection in a non-party paper. Vladimir Lenin was furious, called them strike-breakers, and argued for their expulsion from the party (Lenin, 1917). He failed. The editors of the paper, in which his call for the expulsions was printed, responded by saying that: “the sharp tone of comrade Lenin’s article does not change the fact that, fundamentally, we remain of one mind” (Bone, 1974, p. 120). Zinoviev and Kamenev went on to play prominent roles in the Russian movement, as leading members of the Bolshevik and its successor, the Communist Party. This is worth underlining. The strike-breakers Zinoviev and Kamenev were not expelled in the context of the Russian revolutionary upsurge of 1917. The Russian Revolutionary tradition cannot be used as a pretext, therefore, to expel four individuals for comments on Facebook in the rather less revolutionary conditions of Britain, 2012.

3. This austere (and incorrect) interpretation of the Bolshevik tradition is compounded by the rigid prohibition on cross-branch discussion about party matters after the conference. This rigidity, combined with a sectarian habit of counterposing Marxism to feminism, can create an unhealthy internal dynamic leading to more and more punitive actions by the leadership.

These reflections are written by someone who is not a member of the SWP, and who does not live in Britain. However, the current crisis of the SWP has implications beyond the ranks of the SWP and outside the borders of Britain. As an important part of the English-speaking left, the SWP over the years has influenced many individuals and groups. Without correction, the actions by the current leadership, along with the errors regarding women’s oppression and left organizing, risk damaging the project of building a new left for the 21st century.

© 2013 Paul Kellogg


Bakan, A. (2012) ‘Marxism, Feminism, and Epistemological Dissonance’, Socialist Studies / Études socialistes, 8(2), 60–84.

Birchall, I. (2011) Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks.

Bone, A. (trans.) (1974) The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks) August 1917-February 1918. London: Pluto Press.

Cliff, T. (1984) Class struggle and women’s liberation, 1640 to today. London: Bookmarks.

Ferguson, S. (1999) ‘Building on the Strengths of the Socialist Feminist Tradition’, Critical Sociology, 25(1), 1–15.

Ferguson, S. (2008) ‘Canadian Contributions to Social Reproduction Feminism, Race and Embodied Labor’, Race, Gender & Class, 15(1/2), 42–57.

Leeds University SWSS (2013, January 12) Leeds University SWSS Statement [online]. Swiss Leeds Uni.  [Accessed12 January 2013 ]

Lenin, V. (1917, October 18) ‘Letter To Bolshevik Party Members’ [online], Pravda.

Miéville, C. (2006) Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Miéville, C. (2010) Kraken. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Miéville, C. (2012) Railsea. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.

Penny, L. (2013, January 11) ‘What does the SWP’s way of dealing with sex assault allegations tell us about the left?’ [online], New Statesman.

Seymour, R. (2013a, January 11) ‘Crisis in the SWP’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Seymour, R. (2013b, January 12) ‘A reply to the Central Committee’ [online], Lenin’s Tomb.

Smith, S. (2012) Marxism and Women’s Liberation [online].

SWP’s Serbian Section Splits From IST’ [online], (2013, January 11) [online], Grumpy Old Trot.

Taylor, J. (2013, January 13) ‘Ranks of the Socialist Workers Party are split over handling of rape allegation’ [online], The Independent.

Walker, T. (2013, January 10) ‘Why I am resigning’ [online], Facts For Working People.

The challenge of George Galloway’s ‘Bradford Spring’

APRIL 4, 2012 – In the end, it wasn’t even close. Britain’s most prominent anti-war politician, George Galloway, is back as a Member of Parliament for his Respect Party, after receiving support so overwhelming that he had, in the words of a reporter for The Guardian, “annihilated the Labour vote”. As impressive as was his 10,000 vote majority in the by-election in his new constituency of Bradford West, even more so was the social movement feel which accompanied his campaign, replete with “first-time voters shimmying up trees to hang Respect banners” and “taxi drivers competing to see who could cancel their Labour party membership first” (Phidd 2012). Invoking the great mass movements in the Middle East from last year, Galloway called it the “Bradford Spring”. He will now, again, have an internationally recognized public forum from which to be tribune of the anti-war movement, and support the long struggle of the people of Palestine. Responding to him will be a real challenge for the pro-war Con-Dem Coalition, and the New Labour “opposition”. His victory also highlights challenges facing social movements in Britain and elsewhere.

For Con-Dem (the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats) and New Labour, these challenges are obvious. All three major parties are deeply implicated in the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Galloway has been by far their most prominent opponent. He was suspended from the Labour Party in 2003, and ultimately expelled for saying that the U.S. and Britain had invaded Iraq “like wolves” and “urging British soldiers to disobey ‘illegal orders’” (Hall 2003).

Given the carnage which has happened in the years since, his position of 2003 looks prophetic. British casualties in Iraq, from 2003 until 2009, totaled 5,970 including 179 dead. In Afghanistan, the toll has been even higher. From 2008 through 2011, there were annually, on average, more than 2,400 British casualties. In total since 2001, 404 British troops have died (Casualty Monitor 2009; Casualty Monitor 2012). We have no idea about the civilian toll in the two countries – the U.S., Britain, Canada and the other coalition forces have shown no interest in keeping track. A very conservative figure puts civilian deaths in Afghanistan at 8,813 and the Iraq total at 100,000. Other figures go far higher – by one estimate 864,531 civilians killed in Iraq, part of 1,556,156 total casualties as of August, 2010 (Iraq Body Count (IBC) 2012; Unkown News 2010).

New Labour and the Tories both, of course, have this blood on their hands. New Labour was in office for the launch of both the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. It was only able to enter the one in Iraq when massive backing from the Tories fended off the anti-war votes from 122 Labour MP (Blitz 2003). The Liberal Democrats have played a more equivocal role. They made a name for themselves as “the mainstream anti-war voice” by coming out against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But they supported going to war in Afghanistan in 2001, a war which has proven to be just as futile as the war in Iraq, and far more costly in terms of British lives lost (Russell, Cutts, and Fieldhouse 2007, 194). And now, of course, they sit side by side with the Tories, propping up the Tory-led, Con-Dem, pro-war coalition.

Galloway has consistently linked these wars to the ongoing occupation of Palestine. It was for his support of Palestine, and his criticism of what he called “the most extreme Israeli government in history” that Canada’s Tories banned him from Canada (a ban which Galloway and the anti-war movement in Canada fought and successfully overturned). Throughout the entire period of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, Galloway explained how both wars were linked to the occupation of Palestine. “The price of peace” he argued “is justice for the Palestinians” (Galloway 2010).

The price of war and occupation has been horrendous. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 “resulted in at least 1,109 Lebanese deaths, the vast majority of whom were civilians, 4,399 injured and an estimated 1 million displaced” (Human Rights Watch 2007, 4). During Israel’s assault on Gaza between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009, “the magnitude of the harm to the local population was unprecedented: 1,389 Palestinians were killed, 759 of whom did not take part in the hostilities. Of these, 318 were minors under age 18” (B’Tselem 2010).

In domestic politics, the most important issues facing Britain are the aftershocks from the Great Recession of 2008-2009. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Britain’s recovery from that slump has been short-lived, the economy having slipped back into recession (Inman 2012). But the domestic economic problems are in fact intimately linked to the three key foreign policy issues outlined here – Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. In Britain and elsewhere, the foreign wars and occupations in the Middle East and Central Asia, have served the domestic purpose of distracting the population at home by dividing people along racist lines. Islamophobia has become an ugly scar, cutting through community after community in Britain, even allowing the extreme right wing to begin to regain a foothold in British Politics. As Galloway was celebrating his Bradford Spring, the neo-Nazi English Defence League (EDL) was attempting to organize with similar groups from continental Europe in a racist “Stop the Islamification of Europe” event in Denmark (Norman 2012). This kind of racist Islamophobia cannot be challenged without simultaneously challenging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing occupation of Palestine.

For clearly staking out his position against war, occupation and Islamophobia, Galloway has become the target for some pretty awful abuse at the hands of the pro-war media. Much of this involves hurling insults to avoid responding to Galloway’s cogent arguments. The late Christopher Hitchens – who had by the 21st century wandered far from his left-wing youth, ending up in the pro-Iraqi war camp – railed against Galloway, calling him a “hysterically extremist political thug” (Hitchens 2007). Others have simply short-circuited discussion by labeling him the “Saddam-supporting British MP” (Raphael 2004). Sometimes the insults took a racialized turn. The Business in 2003 attacked Galloway and one of his supporters saying both “look like well-fed sheikhs” (The Business 2003). Some of the most vociferous attacks came from figures associated with the British left. Nick Cohen, writing in the New Statesman, said that “Respect, the alliance between the Muslim Association of Britain and the Socialist Workers Party [SWP], shows how ugly the far left in Britain has become” (Cohen 2004, 26). When Galloway was elected to Parliament as a Respect member in 2005, Cohen called it the “worst result” of election night because “an alliance between the intellectually bankrupt Marxist-Leninists of the Socialist Workers Party and Islamic fundamentalists” had been behind the victory. “Let’s not mince words. George Galloway’s defeat of [the Labour Party’s] Oona King is a disaster for the democratic left. As the campaign was fought on communalist lines, it is a disaster for multiracial London” (Cohen 2005, 11).

In politics, the term communalism has different meanings. In certain analyses, it is used to express the “democratic and potentially practicable dimension of the libertarian goal” (Bookchin 2001). Cohen was invoking the much more common use of the term, one often deployed in the Indian sub-continent. “Communalism is a political trend dating from the late 19th century that takes India’s religious groups (or ‘communities’) as the natural components of political life. Communalists thus seek political mobilization along religious lines, with high-caste Hindus and wealthy Muslims as the ‘natural’ leaders–and members of other religious groups as the ‘natural’ antagonists” (Vanaik and Lal 2004). In a careful analysis in 1992, Achin Vanaik said that the communalist movements “harden the divisions between different religious communities and increase tensions between them” (1992, 47 and 50). Bipan Chandra deploys the term with effect to analyze the ideology of the Hindu nationalist, anti-Muslim RSS (National Patriotic Organization) in India. Chandra is very blunt in his analysis. “Communalism in India is a form of fascism” (Chandra 1990, 42). The label of “communalism” then, is not one to be lightly thrown around. When directed at Respect – a party campaigning in Britain against war, against imperialism and against Islamophobia – its use is completely out of context and clearly absurd.

But in spite of this barrage of near hysterical criticism, a massive anti-war movement was built, with “Respect: The Unity Coalition” as its political face. Galloway has been, along with Salma Yaqoob, the most visible public figure associated with Respect and the anti-war movement – Galloway as the one Respect candidate to win a seat in the House of Commons, Yaqoob, the massively respected woman from an Islamic background, who has become an internationally-known symbol of the fight against war, imperialism and Islamophobia, and who from 2006 until stepping down for health reasons in 2011, was an elected Birmingham City Councillor (Gibbons 2011). The coming together of Yaqoob and Galloway, along with most of the key organizations and individuals of the British “left of Labour”, was an accomplishment which achieved international recognition, and from which many of us drew inspiration.

Between Galloway’s 2005 election win in Bethnal Green and this year’s win in Bradford West, Respect had to navigate a severe internal crisis. In 2007, the SWP, linked so closely to Galloway by Cohen in 2005, suddenly became his harshest critic. Prior to 2007, SWP publications had very effectively challenged the “communalist” charge, used in such a perverse way by Cohen in 2005 (Middleton 2006). But by late 2007, things had changed. Respect leaders such as Yaqoob had to defend Respect from the communalist charge (Yaqoob 2007), this time being levelled by leading members of the SWP itself (Harman 2008, 35–36). The divide between the SWP and Galloway was portrayed as a “left-right” split, the right being Galloway and his supporters (Socialist Worker 2007). Three very prominent SWP members who refused to part company with Galloway, were expelled from the party. To outside observers, the dispute was almost incomprehensible, particularly when it became framed in the context of obscure stories about century-old disputes in the European left, including a divide in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 (Socialist Worker 2007), and a divide between two rival groups at the founding of the Second International in 1889 (Harman 2008, 25).

Fortunately, Respect survived the crisis. Far from being on the right, leading Respect members such as George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and Kevin Ovenden have played a prominent role as leaders of the Palestine solidarity movement in Britain. All three participated in the Summer University of Palestine in 2011 (Viva Palestina 2011a). Viva Palestina, which sponsored that university, has organized numerous aid convoys to Gaza, with Galloway playing a leading role. Ovenden, one of the three expelled from the SWP, was aboard the Mavi Marmara when it was attacked by the Israeli military in May 2010, leading to the deaths of nine Turkish citizens (Viva Palestina 2011b). And fortunately, the disputes of 2007 are no longer visible in 2012. There are now two organizations associated with those who led the SWP in 2007, and both of them warmly welcomed Galloway’s victory in Bradford West (Counterfire 2012; Bhattacharyya 2012).

Galloway is a complicated figure. He caused considerable embarrassment to the anti-war movement, with his strange 2006 appearance on the television show “Big Brother” (The Economist 2006). He is unapologetic in his support for the Soviet Union, calling the disappearance of that Stalinist state “the biggest catastrophe of my life” (Hattenstone 2002). More substantially, his position is very conservative and on the wrong side of history, when he argues that “abortion is morally and ethically wrong” (Cohen 2004).

But he doesn’t do international speaking tours about choice on abortion, or to be nostalgic about Stalinism. He does speaking tours to condemn the occupation of Palestine, to challenge politicians like Harper, Cameron, Blair, Bush and Obama who again and again and again, in the pursuit of state power and corporate profits, show themselves willing to sacrifice young people from their own country by the hundreds, and people of all ages from the Global South by the tens of thousands.

Galloway has demonstrated, over the last ten years, that principled anti-imperialism can be combined with an open challenge to rightward moving social democracy, and that opposition can move from the margins to the mainstream, finding an opening in electoral politics. Clearly this is of interest to the social movements in Britain. For those of us in Canada, faced with a rightward moving NDP under its new ex-Liberal leader Thomas Mulcair, those lessons are just as important. Stephen Harper, for one, is aware of the reality of this challenge. That is why he tried to ban Galloway from Canada.

Galloway, together with the anti-war movement in Canada, broke that ban, and November 25, 2010, I was one of an audience of hundreds in a packed auditorium at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he gave a magnificent presentation on war and empire. For one and a half hours, without notes, Galloway took the crowd on a tour through the Middle East and Central Asia, analyzed the dynamics of imperialism and national oppression, made the case for justice for the Palestinians and for an end to the war in Afghanistan – relating all of this to his own conflict with the current Tory administration in Ottawa. In his sum-up, he looked the audience in the eyes and said there were three words to take away from his presentation in the current period – “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” the three key words of the movement to build support for the people of Palestine (Palestinian BDS National Committee 2012).

Part of a marathon 10-city tour organized by a coalition of organizations – including the Halifax Peace Coalition, the Canadian Arab Federation, Toronto Coalition to Stop the War, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and Independent Jewish Voices (Defend Free Speech 2010) – the Edmonton meeting was a magnificent example of how to convincingly present unpopular ideas to a mass audience. Galloway is an asset in the fight against war and imperialism.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This article has been published as Britain: The challenge of George Galloway’s ‘Bradford Spring’,” Links, 4 April; “Britain: The challenge of George Galloway’s ‘Bradford Spring’,” JK Alternative Viewpoint, 16 April.


B’Tselem. 2010. “Operation Cast Lead, 27 Dec. ’08 to 18 Jan. ’09.” B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, September 27.

Bhattacharyya, Anindya. 2012. “George Galloway Storms to Victory in Bradford West By-election.” Socialist Worker, March 31, online edition.

Blitz, James. 2003. “Blair Wins Iraq Vote but More MPs Rebel.” Financial Times, March 19.

Bookchin, Murray. 2001. “What Is Communalism? The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism.” Anarchy Archives.

Casualty Monitor. 2009. “British Casualties: Iraq.” Casualty Monitor.

———. 2012. “British Casualties: Afghanistan.” Casualty Monitor.

Chandra, Bipan. 1990. “Communalism and the State: Some Issues in India.” Social Scientist 18 (8/9): 38–47.

Cohen, Nick. 2004. “Saddam’s Very Own Party.” New Statesman, June 7.

———. 2005. “Weird – but Not in a Good Way.” New Statesman, May 9.

Counterfire. 2012. “Galloway Victory: a Landslide Against War and Austerity.” Counterfire.

Defend Free Speech. 2010. “George Galloway Announces 10-city Speaking Tour of Canada.”

Galloway. 2010. “As I Was About to Say …; … Before I Was so Rudely Interrupted by Jason Kenney.” The Ottawa Citizen, November 24.

Gibbons, Brett. 2011. “Respect Leader Salma Yaqoob to Stand down as Birmingham Councillor.” Birmingham Post, July 7.

Hall, Ben. 2003. “Expelled Galloway Could Exact Revenge on Labour at the Polls.” Financial Times, October 24.

Harman, Chris. 2008. “The Crisis in Respect.” International Socialism (117) (January): 25–48.

Hattenstone, Simon. 2002. “Saddam and Me.” The Guardian, September 16, sec. World news.

Hitchens, Christopher. 2007. “The Disgrace of George Galloway.” National Post, July 25.

Human Rights Watch. 2007. “Why They Died.” Human Rights Watch 19 (5(E)) (September): 1–247.

Inman, Phillip. 2012. “UK Is Back in Recession, OECD Says.” The Guardian, March 29, sec. Business.

Iraq Body Count (IBC). 2012. “Iraq Body Count.”

Middleton, Jacob. 2006. “Respect and the ‘Muslim Vote’.” Socialist Review, June.

Norman, Peter. 2012. “The English Defence League in Aarhus, 31 March 2012.” Searchlight Magazine, March 30.

Palestinian BDS National Committee. 2012. “BDS Movement: Freedom, Justice, Equality.”

Phidd, Helen. 2012. “George Galloway Hails ‘Bradford Spring’ as Labour Licks Its Wounds.” The Guardian, March 30, sec. Politics.

Raphael, Therese. 2004. “Saddam’s Global Payroll.” Wall Street Journal, February 9.

Russell, Andrew, David Cutts, and Ed Fieldhouse. 2007. “National–Regional–Local: The Electoral and Political Health of the Liberal Democrats in Britain.” British Politics 2 (2) (July): 191–214

Socialist Worker. 2007. “Editorial – Political Reasons for Division in Respect.” Socialist Worker, November 10, 2076 edition.

The Business. 2003. “Galloway’s Front Man in Iraq ; Fawaz Zureikat, the Jordanian Mr Fixit Who Had a Hot Line to the Regime in Baghdad.” The Business, April 27.

The Economist. 2006. “Britain: Big Blatherer; George Galloway.” The Economist, January 14.

Unkown News. 2010. “Casualties in Afghanistan & Iraq.” Unknown News.

Vanaik, Achin. 1992. “Reflections on Communalism and Nationalism in India.” New Left Review I 196 (November-December): 43–63.

Vanaik, Achin, and Ganesh Lal. 2004. “A Conversation with Achin Vanaik: The Politics of Neoliberalism in India.” International Socialist Review 33 (January-February).

Viva Palestina. 2011a. “Summer University of Palestine 2011: Booking Form.” Viva Palestina Arabia.

———. 2011b. “Viva Palestina – a Lifeline from Britain to Gaza.”

Yaqoob, Salma. 2007. “Challenges for Respect.” What Next?

Canada’s Liberals train Britain’s Tories – Look out for ‘days of action’

This was drafted in August, 2009, before the 2010 defeat of Britain’s Labour government and the election of the “ConDems.” Given events since, it has some facts that are still relevant in 2011. (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”)” • Two former leading Liberal government figures from Canada – former top bureaucrat Jocelyne Bourgon and former cabinet minister Marcel Massé – earlier this summer met with leading British Tories including Philip Hammond, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.[1] If Britain’s Tories intend to follow in the footsteps of Canada’s Liberals, then there is trouble ahead for workers and the poor in Britain.

The Canadian Liberals took office in 1993, reducing the Tories to just two seats. The Tories had earned the justifiable anger of the electorate by presiding over an early 1990’s recession that pushed unemployment into double digits. The recession had sent budget deficits to record levels – $40 billion for the federal government, more than $60 billion if the provincial government deficits were added in.[2] The Liberals announced that this had to end, and they ruthlessly set about to do so.

Then finance minister Paul Martin – working with the same Bourgon and Massé who are now advising Britain’s Tories – began a process of cutbacks that devastated health education and social assistance across the country. In a very short time, federal government spending had been slashed by 20 per cent. Close to 50,000 public sector workers, employed by Ottawa, were let go.[3]

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. The principle mechanism used by the Liberals to slash spending was to change the rules by which tax money was shipped out to the provinces. The effect was to reduce by billions of dollars the amount of money given to the provinces – and this was critical, because it is the provinces in Canada that fund health care, education and social assistance.

The Liberal cuts created an environment that brought the most vicious right-wing Tories to the forefront. In Ontario, Canada’s biggest province, a hard right-wing Tory named Mike Harris took office in 1995. He was only too happy to see money from Ottawa drying up. He was a real Thatcherite – and was eager to cut as deeply as he could. He wasted little time.

  • Social assistance was cut by over 20 per cent with one blow – suddenly, Canada’s largest city, Toronto, was a place where visible panhandling became the order of the day and where food bank use soared;
  • Education budgets were slashed, leading to crowded classrooms and fewer education assistants – high school students eventually saw one year of schooling eliminated entirely;
  • Health care budgets were slashed, leading to horror stories of crowded emergency rooms, lack of beds, and patients stashed in hospital corridors;
  • All of this took place in an atmosphere of racism and scapegoating, culminating in the 1997 shooting death, by police, of young First Nations’ activist, Dudley George.[4]

The labour movement leaders had no idea how to respond. The recession in Ontario had been presided over by a government led by Canada’s labour party – the New Democratic Party (NDP) – that had paved the way for the Harris cuts. The tightening of social assistance, cuts to education and cuts to health care – all of these had started under the NDP. Union leaders closely tied to the NDP were frozen, uncertain how to respond.

But a response did come. A series of small community coalitions sprang up, hounding the Tories at every turn. September 27, 1995 – the opening day of the fall session – between 5,000 and 10,000 marched on Queen’s Park, in a demonstration organized by the Labour Council of Metro Toronto and York Region and the Embarrass Harris Campaign. The crowd included 17 busloads of protesters from Ottawa, Peterborough, Sudbury and St. Catharines and members of the Canadian Autoworkers, United Food and Commercial Works, United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Union of Postal workers, Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union – as well as hundreds marching with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.[5]

The environment of resistance was reflected a few weeks later, when the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) met in session. The 2,000 delegates – much closer to the anger of the rank and file than the deflated and demoralized central union leadership – voted to launch a series of one-day, one-city general strikes to oppose the Liberal/Tory cuts.[6]

These “Days of Action” were magnificent. The first, in December 1995, shut down the industrial city of London, Ontario in the middle of winter. Workers by the thousands illegally walked off the job, some of them carrying signs “London, Paris,” inspired by the great wave of strikes breaking out in France that year. The February, 1996 strike in Hamilton Ontario saw a massive crowd of 100,000 take to the streets. Without a doubt, the high point was the magnificent Toronto strike. October 25, 1996. That day, one million people stayed away from work. The next day, 350,000 marched past the frightened Tories, separated from the massive crowd by hundreds of police outside the city’s convention centre.[7]

Tragically the union leadership threw away this anger from below. Again and again, they used the days of action as safety valves, letting workers blow off steam, but refusing to mobilize effective action. In the fall of 1997 the best chance to take such action occurred, when tens of thousands of Ontario teachers walked out in a two-week illegal strike. Had the call gone out for a sympathy general strike, the Tories could have been stopped. It didn’t happen, and the Days of Action petered to an end.

The lessons for Britain’s workers are clear. If the Tories (or Labour) copy Canada’s Liberals and Tories, then deep cuts are in order. If Britain’s union leaders copy Canada’s union leaders, the fight against these cuts will be stymied.

But if movements can be built which focus the rage and anger that ordinary folk will feel faced with the devastation of social services, if the anger in communities can be linked up with the anger in the workplace, then there is a chance that Britain’s workers will copy the best part of Canada in the mid-1990s – the militant tradition of rank and file opposition which opposed the cuts even when union leaders refused to fight.

© 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] Jonathan Oliver, “Whitehall lines up ‘doomsday’ cutbacks,” TimesOnline, July 5, 2009; and Michael White, “Taking an axe to public spending the Canadian way,”, July 8, 2009.
[2] Statistics Canada, “Table 45: Actual, cyclically adjusted and primary-cyclically adjusted budget balances (millions of dollars), National Economic and Financial Accounts,” accessed August 7, 2009.
[3] Oliver and White.
[4] For an overview, see Robert MacDermid and Greg Albo, “Divided Province, Growing Protests: Ontario Moves Right,” in Keith Brownsey and Michael Howlett, eds. The Provincial State in Canada: Politics in the Provinces and Territories (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001), pp. 163-202.
[5] Laurie Monsrebraaten. “Protesters, police clash at Queen’s Park,” Toronto Star, Sept. 28, 1995, p. A.16; Paul Kellogg, “Ontario – strike action can stop the Tories,” October 30, 1995; and “Solidarity can stop the cuts,” October 2, 1995 in PolEconJournal II, 1995-1998 (Toronto: author’s collection).
[6] James Rusk, “Ontario unions target London for shutdown,” The Globe and Mail, Nov. 14, 1995, p. A.3; Kellogg, “Dec. 11 – Shut London Down,” PolEconJournal II, 1995-1998, December 4, 1995.
[7] Kellogg, “The face of the new year,” January 8, 1996; “Hamilton Days of Action,” March 4, 1996; “Toronto general strike: A taste of our power,” October 30, 1996; in PolEconJournal II, 1995-1998.

Anti-Tory Then and Anti-Tory Now: ‘Power in the Darkness’

MAY 11, 2010 – So David Cameron is Britain’s new prime minister. His accession to 10 Downing Street is reminiscent of another May election when the smug elite organized in the Conservative Party outpolled the Labour Party. May 3, 1979, Margaret Thatcher defeated James Callaghan. She would in the 1980s, partner up with her U.S. equivalent – former B-movie Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan – the two becoming symbolic of what we now call the neo-liberal revolution. Britain in the 1970s, however, did not just give the world neo-liberalism. It also produced cultures of resistance. And as the election results rolled in May 6 and 7, the tunes from one part of that resistance kept coming to mind. Power in the Darkness, the Tom Robinson Band’s breakthrough 1978 album, contained song after song which became anthems of resistance for young activists in the Thatcher/Reagan years. There are some parallels between 2010 and 1979, some important differences, and a new relevance for a thirty-two year old album.

Both 1979 and 2010 marked the end of distinct eras for the Labour Party. In 1997, 13 years before Brown’s humiliation, “New Labour” led by Tony Blair had thrown out the hated Tories, getting the support of more than 13.5 million voters in the U.K. Thirteen years later, Gordon Brown’s vote total came in almost five million votes below that figure.[1] Thirteen years of Blairism and almost a decade of war in Central Asia and the Middle East had seen a massive haemorrhaging of Labour Party support.

In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, we can see some similarities. Harold Wilson had captured office in 1964 with just over 12 million votes, increasing that to 13 million in 1966. Labour did not rule without interruption in the coming years – there was the Ted Heath interregnum from 1970 to 1974 – but Labour was the dominant party during that 15-year period. When Labour lost to Thatcher in 1979, 1.5 million of those 1966 votes had melted away. By 1983, in Labour’s second loss to Thatcher, support for the party had disastrously collapsed to under 8.5 million – 3.5 million fewer than the 1966 peak. That terrible performance in the 1983 election was called a crisis for British social democracy. The sobering news for Labour supporters in 2010, is that Gordon Brown’s 8.6 million votes sit only marginally above the disastrous showing in 1983. It is in fact, a much worse showing, as there are 10 million more voters in Britain in 2010 than there were in the mid-1960s.

But if there has been a loss of millions from the base of the Labour Party, all is not well with its chief rival – the Tories. From Thatcher’s first election in 1979, until John Major’s victory in 1992, the Tories were always able to muster more than 13 million votes at the polls – in the 1992 election, the figure actually topped 14 million. David Cameron’s Tories, by comparison, did very poorly. In spite of the steep decline of Labour, they failed to win a majority, polling just over 10.5 million, well down from Thatcher-era Tory support. We gave that earlier era the nickname “Thatcherism.” As of this writing, David Cameron has a ways to go before he gets his name attached to the current political era in the U.K.

The combination of deep demoralization with Labour and an ideological assertion of free-market dogma made the 1980s a grim era for politics in Britain. But, while there are similarities, you cannot draw direct parallels with 2010. Labour’s policies have created demoralization, but the disaffection with New Labour’s pro-market policies and the long shadow of the Great Recession make a strong re-assertion of free-market dogmatism difficult indeed. The post-election landscape is much more nuanced. Among the elements of this landscape are an increased fragmentation, a marginal increase in interest in the “third party” (the actually very old Liberal-Democrats, who in spite of all the hype only received 900,000 more votes than in 2005), and a withdrawal by thousands from engagement with the electoral process. In every election from 1966 until 1997, turnout at the polls in British general elections was always above 70 per cent, topping out at above 78 percent in the first election of 1974 (there were two in that turbulent year). Such figures now are a distant memory. The 1997 election was a harbinger of this, with turnout coming in at just 71 percent “the lowest for 62 years.”[2] In 2001, participation fell to just 59 percent, recovering only slightly in 2005 (61 per cent) and 2010 (65 per cent). The reaction by millions to having their 1997 anti-Tory hopes dashed, has been to stay away from the polls altogether.

Another important element in the landscape is something that did not happen in the Thatcher era – the emergence in the 21st century of serious left electoral alternatives to Labour. Not surprisingly, this has been a difficult project. For millions of working people, supporting Labour has for generations been the only realistic means of challenging the party of the bosses. To indicate that another such alternative exists, and not just as a token, was always going to be a challenge. However mixed the record, it marks an important advance on the 1970s and 1980s.

In Scotland, it was the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) which first gathered international attention. In 2001 it was a factor in all 72 constituencies in Scotland, averaging over 1,000 votes in each. In 2005 it did less well, but still could poll 43,514 votes in 58 constituencies – an average of 750 per candidate.

In the U.K. as a whole, the 2001 election saw the emergence of the Socialist Alliance. It stood candidates in 98 constituencies in 2001, and garnered 57,553 votes, an average of 587 per constituency. In 2005, the place of the Alliance was taken by Respect, a party deeply rooted in the mass anti-war movement of 2003 and 2004. George Galloway – exiled from New Labour because of his opposition to the war in Iraq – became the standard-bearer for the new party, and his 2005 election as a Respect candidate in the London constituency Bethnal Green and Bow was a defining moment. His 15,800 votes gave him a narrow victory over Labour – and gave the anti-war movement a voice in the House of Commons. This left-wing anti-war vote was not simply a vote for one prominent individual. Salma Yaqoob came second in her Birmingham constituency with over 10,000 votes. In total, in 26 constituencies, Respect received 68,094 votes, or an average of 2,619 per constituency.

Lost in the coverage of the 2010 election is the fact that the electoral response to these left-of-Labour forces – though fragmented into different components – was comparable to the response in 2005. The best result was achieved by Caroline Lucas, a left-wing member of the Green Party, who became that party’s first sitting MP gathering over 16,000 votes in the constituency of Brighton Pavilion. Respect was able to stand candidates in eleven constituencies winning 33,251 votes in total, averaging 3,023 votes per candidate. Galloway came third with over 8,000 votes in the London constituency of Poplar and Limehouse; Abol Miah also polled above 8,000 coming third in Galloway’s old constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow; and Yaqoob actually won 2,000 votes more than in 2005, coming in second in Birmingham Hall Green. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) stood candidates in 42 constituencies, winning 12,275 votes – an average of 292 per constituency. The SSP, while much reduced from years past, still managed to field 10 candidates, each receiving an average of 316 votes.

The attempt to build a left-of-Labour alternative takes on heightened importance when we shift our gaze to the right of the political spectrum. There is a far-right section of the British political landscape that has been steadily and stealthily making headway in the shape of the British National Party – this decade’s organizational hiding place for the racist right in the U.K.

It is true that the BNP failed to make the breakthrough for which its more naive supporters had hoped. In the London seat of Barking, BNP leader Nick Griffin received a humiliating 18,000 fewer votes than victorious Labour Party candidate Margaret Hodge. Hodge claimed to “have not just beaten” Nick Griffin but to “have smashed the extreme right.”[3] Excellent as it is that Hodge humiliated Griffin, her analysis has to be challenged.

The BNP cannot be smashed solely through an accumulation of votes for a party which ruled in the manner Blair/Brown New Labour. As a cabinet minister in both Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s cabinets, Hodge was complicit in the Blairist New Labour project. She was reported to have distanced herself from Blair’s war on Iraq in 2006, but instead of embracing that criticism and making herself part of the anti-Blair left, she insisted she had been misquoted.[4] It is impossible to “smash” the BNP while refusing to break openly from the wars which have fuelled Islamophobia – the anti-Arab racism that has made all forms of racism – and with it the BNP – a more legitimate factor in British politics.

What Hodge has to confront is that even though the BNP did not make its hoped for breakthrough, it was a visible presence across the country, winning more than half a million votes – an average of more than 2,000 per candidate – and representing by far the highest vote total achieved by the racist right in Britain in modern history. The BNP’s 2010 results are considerably up from its 192,745 votes in 2005 and 47,129 in 2001 – and higher than anything the noxious National Front (the 1970s version of the BNP) was able to achieve, the NF’s greatest success coming in 1979 when it captured 191,719 votes. Labour Party supporters need to soberly assess the fact that the high water mark for both of these far-right parties came after years of rule by Labour. The mass demoralization and fragmentation that arises from social-democratic attacks on its own base is the seed bed on which such politics can grow.

The last and most important issue in the comparison between the two eras is inherently the most difficult properly to assess – the level of class struggle. Whereas electoral politics can be mapped through the ebbs and flows of voting results and electoral turnouts, class struggle has no such precise indicators. There is a complex relationship between ideas, organization, confidence and economic conditions which go into what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels called the motor force of history – the struggle between classes.

Without question there has been mass struggle. We have seen huge political mobilizations in Britain and around the world in the 21st century. In Britain, the most impressive of these were the mobilizations of the movement against the war in Iraq. The millions who again and again took to the streets in London, made “Hyde Park” into a verb in some quarters. To “Hyde Park” meant to oppose the war in the heart of imperialism itself.

But a demonstration is not a strike – and the beating heart of resistance to the system, which ultimately sustains all other forms of resistance, is the willingness of workers through their own organizations, to directly challenge their employers and the state. An imperfect, but indispensable, measure of this willingness, comes from the statistics on strikes and lockouts that are produced by governments everywhere. We know in North America that strike levels in the 21st century are much reduced from any of the last three decades in the 20th century. A similar situation exists in Britain.

Tom Robinson anticipated something when – in 1978 – he came out with his song “Winter of ’79.” In terms of workers involved in workplace actions or strikes, the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent resulted in 1979 being the peak of the 1970’s strike wave, with some four and a half million workers during the year being involved in some kind of workplace action.[5] In the years which preceded that confrontational winter, it was a regular occurrence for there to be one million or more workers involved in strike action during any 12 month period. Those levels of activity sustained themselves through the bitter first half of the 1980s, which culminated in the great miners’ strike of 1984-1985. But from the mid-1980s through the entirety of the 1990s, strike activity was much lower than in the preceding generation.

Charts accompanying this analysis can be found at the end of the article. The contrast captured in the first chart is striking. This century, there has been a return in some years to strike levels of the late 1980s – but nowhere near the peaks achieved in the 1970s. Throughout the entirety of the decade of the 1990s and the first eight years of the 21st century, there has not been one year where one million workers have been involved in strike activity. In many years the figure has been below 300,000; in 1998 and 2005 the figure fell below 100,000. A generation of trade unionists has grown up with much less experience on the picket line than the generation which came before.

When measured as “Days not Worked” because of workplace action (as does the second chart), the picture is even more clear. Through the 1970s and into the months of the miners’ strike, three great waves puncture the graph – with more than 20 million, and then twice between 25 and 30 million, days not worked in the course of a year because of workplace actions. However, the impact of the defeat of the miners’ strike is plain to see in the years since. Through the 1990s and into the 21st century, the number of days not worked due to workplace actions has fallen to extremely low levels when compared with the 1970s and 1980s.

The big mobilizations against the war have to be seen in this context. They were part of a magnificent political upturn by thousands who were willing to take action against traditional social democracy. But here, the analysis sketched out by the late Tony Cliff describing an earlier period, has to be taken extremely seriously. In a 1996 interview he analyzed the movement associated with Tony Benn and the Labour Party Left in the early 1980s.

The problem was, people flocked to Benn in 1981 as a political solution when the industrial struggle was going down – but you cannot have a political upturn indefinitely at a time of industrial downturn. This expressed itself in interesting ways but the long term outcome was passivity. There was struggle in the 1980s. It was not like the 1970s but there were big struggles. The Labour left never organised centrally around them. It remained basically electoral, and that meant it was passive. If you are passive, you disintegrate. That’s why today there is demoralisation and passivity.[6]

Cliff uses the language of an earlier generation – subsuming all workplace actions under the term “industrial” – but his analysis remains otherwise, strikingly relevant. We have seen, in Britain and elsewhere in the Global North, big political upturns associated with movements against war and against corporate globalization. But these movements have yet to find a sustained echo in the struggle between capital and labour, at least as reflected in strike statistics. If the struggle between capital and labour is the central struggle of the capitalist system, then when that level is at a low ebb, it is going to have an impact on every other form of resistance. If this is true, the decline of the anti-war movement from its heights in 2003 should not be seen as the failure of that movement, but rather understood as a reflection of the very low level of workplace struggle in society as a whole.

Understanding the class struggle context in which we are operating is important. Until it turns upwards, it will be difficult to sustain a big breakthrough to the left. We have seen recurring upswells in radicalization – in particular, against corporate globalization at the turn of the century and against war in the years that followed. But until such radicalizations gain traction and find a reflection in the economic struggle against capital, they will inevitably be prone to fragmentation and decline.

This is not an excuse to therefore do nothing. “If you are passive you disintegrate.” The situation in Britain will be no different in this regard, to the situation in other countries. The future left alternative to social democracy everywhere will be built from the local struggles against racism, against the cuts, against global warming, against war and imperialism – even if these struggles are happening at a lower ebb, with fewer numbers, with less generalization, and at a slower pace than we had hoped. It is in these local struggles that a new generation of anti-capitalists is finding its voice and developing capacity.

There is a final reason for taking seriously the level of class struggle. If we know that the reason we are having difficulties is not because of the personal failings of this or that individual, this or that organization, but because of the complicated circumstances in which we operate – then we will develop the patience to minimize differences and maximize unity. That unity is not an optional extra. In Britain, the wreckage left behind by 13 years of Labour in office makes plain, again, that social democracy is no alternative to capitalism. The danger of disunity is starkly revealed by the insidious presence of forces like the BNP.

TRB looked out at the landscape of the late 1970s – at the racism of the NF, at the betrayals of Labour, at the threat of the Tories, at bigotry, sexism and anti-gay politics – and sang out “We ain’t gonna take it.” It’s not a full program of resistance. It wasn’t meant to be. But it was a pretty good song, a pretty good place to start in that era, and a timely reminder of what we face today.

Prejudice poison
Polluting this land
I’m a middle-class kiddie
But I know where I stand
We got brothers in Brixton
Backs to the wall
Bigots on the backlash
Divided we fall

Women with children
Have to carry the can
Till they lose them in divorce courts
To some pig of a man
We got Benyon and Whitehouse
Trying to get us stitched
Cos abortion and a gay scene
Only meant for the rich

Sisters and brothers
What have we done
We’re fighting each other
Instead of the Front
Better get it together
Big trouble to come
And the odds are against us
About twenty to one

But we ain’t gonna take it
Ain’t gonna take it
They’re keeping us under
But we ain’t gonna take it no more

Ain’t Gonna Take it

Glad to be Gay

Don’t Take No for an Answer

Up Against the Wall

Grey Cortina

2 4 6 8 Motorway

Charts referenced in the article

© 2010 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article was published as Anti-Tory then and Anti-Tory now.” The Bullet, 14 May


[1] Voting, participation and other election statistics cited in this article are compiled from: “Election 2010: National Results”; The Electoral Commission, “Election 2005: constituencies, candidates and results,” March 2006 and “Election 2001: The Official Results,” (London: Politico’s Publishing, 2001): “1997 General Election Result,” “General Election, 9th April 1992,” “General Election, 11th June 1987,” “General election, 9th June 1983,” and “General Election Results 1885-1979,” www.
[2] “The 1997 General Election,”
[3] Cited in Matthew Taylor, “BNP setbacks put Nick Griffin under pressure,”, May 7, 2010
[4] “Minister ‘attacks Iraq mistake,”, Nov. 17, 2006
[5] Labour dispute statistics taken from International Labour Organization, “LABORSTA Labour Statistics Database,”; and Office for National Statistics, “Labour Market Statistics: Labour Disputes: Summary,”
[6] Tony Cliff, “Labour’s crisis and the revolutionary alternative,” Socialist Review 202, November 1996
[7] Tom Robinson Band, “Ain’t Gonna Take It,” Power In The Darkness, 1978