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Belfast Socialists discuss Organisation Ė Interview with the International Socialists - Ireland
On 25th April Joe Craig from Socialist Democracy interviewed Jon Anderson and Dave Jackson, ex-members of the Socialist Workers Party who have set up their own organisation, the International Socialists - Ireland. To provide these comrades with a platform and to encourage the open debate that is necessary to create a new revolutionary left we will from now on be providing these comrades with at least two pages in our publication to advance their views.
Joe Craig (JC): Why did you join the Socialist Workers Party?
Jon Anderson (JA): In my case I was looking for class politics, socialist revolutionary politics and I had read some of the SWPís literature. After the collapse of Stalinism they hadnít been demoralised. When I came across them they seemed to be a lively and confident and reasonably sensible group. I joined the SWP in 1994 although I had come across them a few years before.
Dave Jackson (DJ): I joined the SWP because I was angry at the things I saw in society. I wasnít particularly socialist and didnít have a history of being left wing, although I was coming to left wing conclusions and was becoming interested in the theories of Marx. I thought the SWP could give me information on that. I went to a few meetings and was surprised they were such an active group and this appealed to my feeling that I wanted to do something. I realised I wasnít on my own.
JC: What was your experience in the SWP?
JA: I found them for a long time to be a group that were very serious about their politics but at the same time were not just interested in talking about them but interested in doing something practical about them. There were plenty of weaknesses but we had quite a decent record of organising around a number of class issues.
DJ: My initial experience was very favourable. They mobilised around a wide range of issues I hadnít thought could be addressed. That appealed to me very much and I got involved in all the different activities and issues. This was married to the idea that we were building a party. That creates a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm as you see new people coming in and this was your initial experience, that it was possible to build in that way. Later on I began to see problems with the way that activity was presented to people.
JC: Why did you leave the SWP?
JA: I eventually left in 2000. I had been increasingly unhappy for a couple of years about the way we organised, the fact that it was unaccountable. At the time I was more or less in agreement with what we should do, I just thought we could do it much better, but the organisation seemed much more geared to what was convenient for the leadership rather than what was right for the organisation as a whole.
DJ: I had joined the party in 1993. I eventually left in 2000. I left because of similar reasons to John. The organisation was dominated by new turns in perspective, they would come out with a new line every six months which didnít appear to have any continuity and because of these turns I became increasingly frustrated. They didnít come from the ordinary membership, from debate. They were just sprung on us from the central leadership, from Dublin and partly from a London dictated line and Belfast was expected to simply fall into line. Unfortunately thatís exactly what happened and there was no discussion about where we should go, using the initiative and experience up here. There was a lack of democracy, not on paper but in reality. The political line and ideas were not coming from the membership which is what a political party should do, these things should come out of debate on the ground.
JC: Having now been out of it for a couple of years how would you politically evaluate the SWP?
JA: The first thing is, the SWP has a lot of great people in it who are sincere revolutionaries, which can sway your judgement when you are still in it. I came to the conclusion it wasnít just a matter of us being ineffective in implementing the perspectives but a lot of the perspectives themselves were actually wrong. The two sides of having a democratic organisation and having a correct perspective go together. If the members canít challenge the leadership then the leadership isnít going to correct itself except in a serious crisis. So I suppose what I concluded was the need to be a critical thinker and not to take what was handed down on a plate. As Trotsky used to say, any revolutionary who takes somebody elseís word for it is a hopeless idiot.
JC: You have set up a new organisation, the International Socialists Ė Ireland. What is the purpose and what are the perspectives of this organisation?
DJ: We are setting up a small group of people who are disappointed with the SWPís general practice over the last few years - towards an opportunistic style of politics, politics which does not educate its own members. It doesnít encourage independent thought. Thatís the main problem with the SWP, that it doesnít encourage its members to think critically about things and have their own ideas.
What I see the International Socialists group doing is taking time to debate and work out our position on things which is not necessarily going to get the ears of huge numbers of people although Marxist ideas can be made accessible to people without being dogmatic. The SWP as far as I can see has long left that behind. Unfortunately there arenít any sizable groups doing this so it means doing this in a small way. Eventually it means building a strong group but strength isnít just about numbers.
JA: We arenít going to rush out and declare a new vanguard party. We have seen enough of that and there really arenít any parties worth the name on the Irish left. There are only small propaganda groups. Some of them just arenít as small as others. What we aim to be is a current of ideas within the broader socialist movement and to make a contribution to building a revolutionary socialist party without kidding ourselves we are a party.
I think the aim is to revive the tradition founded by Tony Cliff. Whatever you think of Cliffís theories of themselves the merit of Cliff was that he could think critically about Trotsky, he could be imaginative and creative in his approach to Trotsky and he could ditch some of Trotskyís less useful ideas without ditching Trotsky or his revolutionary standing. So I would say we should take the same approach to Cliff. If you are going to recognise what his contribution is and the contribution of other thinkers in that tradition then you have to be prepared to criticise them ruthlessly without overthrowing the basic ideas of revolution from below and self emancipation of the working class which is at the core of the tradition.
JC: What do you think are the major issues facing socialists today in Ireland?
JA: I think the main thing is to get away from the politics of Ďgas and waterí socialism and to look at what the strategic tasks of the working class are. The main task in the North is obviously to oppose the Agreement and the Assembly as institutionalising the sectarian politics of the North. The key issue in the South has to be opposition to social partnership. I think probably the other main issue is the issue of abortion which is a really explosive issue which unites the North and the South. So I think these are the three key areas.
DJ: I think the major task for socialists in Northern Ireland is to have a decent left. The way to go about that is by tackling sectarianism, it is vital you address the divide that is here and explain that the Assembly is institutionalising sectarianism. If it is needed anywhere it is here that you need clear and uncompromising ideas about what the problem is about Ė the Northern state. Sectarianism is just as bad as it ever was in the last twenty years. Thatís the main task facing socialists.
Because there is a lack of what you could call normal liberal democratic politics here the job of socialists is more marked out - to oppose the state. That is where non-sectarian politics is going to come from. It is going to come from this big demand, out in the open, making the connection to peoples ordinary lives. This is the biggest sticking point in the divide between Protestants and Catholics. This is why abortion is such an important issue.
JA: I think in the international sphere the most important issue is the new turn in imperialism, the increased confidence in the US ruling class to make unilateral interventions in different parts of the world. What has just happened in Venezuela is a rare example of them so far being defeated. The two things that are needed are firstly principled socialist politics. If you are going to have an anti-imperialist movement in Ireland you canít look to the republicans because they are only interested in opposing one imperialism. They arenít about to stand up to US imperialism in Colombia so they certainly wonít stand up to it in the Middle East. Thatís one requirement.
The other requirement is international co-operation between socialists. If we are going to build an opposition to Bushís war drive it has to be built internationally and this has to involve American socialists especially. In the Middle East the best thing that could happen is the growth of a revolutionary left. Socialists in Europe have to encourage whatever small revolutionary groups exist.
JC: What do you think are the prospects for socialist unity in Ireland?
JA: I think there is a healthy impulse towards socialist unity after the in-fighting of the past but we have to keep raising the question, unity for what? We see it with issues like Palestinian solidarity where you need really hard politics. Where in the past you used to have different sections of the left at each othersí throats, now you have the idea that if you say anything critical you are accused of being a sectarian wrecker. That in some ways is even worse. I think what you need is to be open and to be honest about the divisions that do exist. Some are secondary; some are serious principled differences that have come into existence for a reason. The left needs to unite for concrete goals if is going to unite at all. The different socialist tendencies should co-operate where they agree and where they disagree they should be prepared to argue with each other in the open. Over the next number of years there is probably going to be a recomposition of the Irish left. Itís not going to look the same as it has done. I think itís going to look radically different in a few years from now.
So the question isnít really are we going to have socialist unity but what sort of socialist movement are we going to have and what role can we play in shaping it.
DJ: I agree with Jon that there should be a move towards socialist unity and I think that reflects a certain mood in society, although I think we should do more than simply reflect that. Some organisations are picking up on peoplesí anger but are just cheer-leading it. The culture in the left is that if there is unity there canít be criticism and that is disastrous.