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The Crisis of the SWP, Leninism and the Left.

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To defend press freedom the 19th century French liberal Benjamin Constant used analogy. * He imagined a society before the invention of language. Suddenly people could speak. When it undermined order figures in authority began to regret this state of affairs. Gradually the innovation was accepted. Nobody any longer had the idea of forbidding talking on the grounds that it could be used to spread rumours, lies or fantasies.

Perhaps the Socialist Workers Party will consider Constant’s argument when they next stick on their internal documents, “Under No Circumstances Should This Text be Posted on the Internet, For SWP members Only.”

* Cited Page 227. Les Gauches Françaises. Jacques Julliard. 2012.

The Crisis of the SWP, Leninism  and the Left.

“…the fact remains that as long as the dialogue between reform and revolution continues, Trotskyism will claim its own place as the continuation of the classical Marxist tradition with its orientation on working-class self-emancipation from below.”

Alex Callinicos. Trotsky. 1990.

What does the “dialogue” about “reform and revolution” mean today? The Socialist Workers Party’s present crisis came about when members challenged the role of its Disputes Committee in ‘judging’ accusations of rape. But this has rapidly developed into charges about a “serious deficit in party democracy” (Democratic Renewal Platform). The issues at stake have broadened out, to feminism, and the nature of the SWP’s form of the Leninist ‘revolutionary party’. Alex Callinicos has now upped the stakes. He asks, “Do revolutionary parties, like the Socialist Workers Party, that draw on the method of organising developed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks still fit in the twenty first century?” (Is Leninism Finished? Socialist Review. January 2013).

Far from burying his critics with a ‘Zionviest’ appeal to loyalty to Bolshevism Callinicos could have begun a serious debate. It might avoid what he calls the “dark side of the Internet” – people circulating “salacious gossip.” How far indeed do the SWP’s claims to be part of the ‘classical Marxist tradition’ in the working class’s fight for “self-emancipation from below” stand up to scrutiny? What sense does this goal have in the 21st century? Is the SWP’s crisis a symptom of how this version of revolutionary Marxism, based on the (disputed) appropriation of Trotskyism, is fundamentally awry? Are there other theories and vehicles, reformist or not, that could advance a socialist project?

There are many critics of the SWP, Leninists, or from other Marxist, socialist and different left currents, including ‘reformists’ (a wide category for present-day ‘revolutionaries’). They start from asking whether the SWP has it been able “to bring together all the forces of the oppressed in a common struggle against capitalism, under the leadership of the proletariat”? (John Molyneau. Marxism and the Party 1999) The SWP, on the evidence, has since it launch in 1977, remained far from helping fulfil this objective. It remains politically marginal. Many have suggested that the SWP party-form is one of the reasons why it has remained the “smallest mass party in the world” since its foundation in 1977, and looks like getting even smaller.

Nobody ignores the host of other reasons for this impasse, not least the shadow left by Official Communism and its break up. But we have to ask whether the SWP is trapped in what Callinicos himself has called, following the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, “conventionalist stratagems”, designed to protect the hard core from the persistent refutation of its auxiliary hypotheses.” (Trotsky. 1990) At present the Central Committee looks at if it is acting to protect its own organisational ‘hard core’ whose ‘auxiliary’ actions (its string of ‘united fronts’) have not been successful for some time. Can the SWP look, as Ian Birchall announced in his history of the International Socialists and the SWP (1951 – 1981), “with confidence at the struggles ahead”? Nothing is less sure.

Democracy in Question.

There is a lot of evidence, ranging from the anecdotal (that cannot all be dismissed as title-tattle) to detailed accounts of the SWP internal life, that have been mustered to argue that that the group’s ‘party form’ is flawed. They centre on the widely shared experience of the party as a would-be directing force. It is run by a powerful – many say overweening – Central Committee (CC) through the National Executive (NE), the Centre and regional organisers. To critics this means that the CC commands the membership. It goes its own way, decides on “tactical flexibility”, and only accepts a minimum of dissent. In this political environment it is not surprising that stories about obnoxious or simply out-of-touch party ‘cadres’ – following a ‘line’ decided by the top, emerge.

The Weekly Worker, through a variety of by-lines, calls the SWP internal regime “bureaucratic centralism”. ‘Jack Conrad’ has also traced its faults down to a lack of thought-out programme (Weekly Worker. 72.13) ‘Soviet Goon Boy’ states that the SWP is “not fit for purpose” with an “interventionist leadership” that acts without restraint, appoints Centre workers and organisers by patronage, and a “disciplinary set-up based on in-groups and out-groups.”Martin Thomas argues that the fault lies primarily in the SWP’s “commandist” workings. “The SWP’s version of “democratic centralism” lacks both the best bits of “centralism” and the special sort of democracy needed by revolutionary socialists. (Workers Liberty. 30.1.13)

Are there ways of fixing these problems? The SWP Democratic Renewal Platform thinks so. They “support any project that aims to promote a genuinely democratic, tolerant culture in the party.” They are in very context, like the those opposed to the British Communist Party’s turns in the 1940s fictionalised in Edward Upward’s The Rotten Elements (1969) who seek a return to ‘tradition’, in this case the ‘IS Tradition’. This is known largely for a version of the theory of ‘state capitalism’ in the Soviet Union and the ‘permanent arms economy’s’ role in the post-war boom. For the opposition it is also said to be extremely democratic.

From outside many think this will not win out. Paul le Blanc prefers the broad alliances of genuine United Fronts, which the SWP, he observes, avoid. Louis Proyect considers that “Leninism is finished”, and observes that the American Trotskyist James P. Canon (1890 – 1974) left his stamp on a “monolithic” model of democratic centralism that resembles the British SWP’s. (1) Against this Proyect advocates – like many – “multi-tendency” left parties. The Weekly Worker and Martin Thomas’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) advocate their own open – disciplined – democratic structures. A few, like Pham Binh, have recommended Occupy Wall Street, as an alternative model for the left.

Are there other alternatives? On the British left, Owen Jones calls for left ‘networks’ centred on the Labour Party and the labour movement, extending to the Greens, independents leftists and all those opposed to austerity. It structure, he argues, could be unite “on key principles” a range of different lines against the Liberal-Conservative Coalition. Its fabric would, apparently, be able to avoid becoming a “battleground for the ultra left”. How it would withstand any such fights, known on the left as “sectarian bear pits”, is not clear. Where the SWP would fit? That is if they wished to engage with what Callinicos calls Owen’s “conservative position” of lining up with Labour and trade union leaders. At the moment the well-meant idea has not had many supporters.

A telling argument for scepticism about a “new networked movement” can be found in Sheila Rowbotham’s Promise of a Dream (2000). She noted that every so often the British left gets together for a ‘unity’ conference, starting with the initiative of the May Day Manifesto of 1968 and the Left Convention of 1969. Sheila observes, “Every ten years or so there seems to be a similar venture to the Left Convention.”(Page 226) Indeed. From meetings inspired by Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright and Lynne Segal’s Beyond the Fragments (1979), to the late 1980s, and the Chesterfield Socialist Conferences, that gave birth to the Socialist Movement, an inter-left “hybrid political organisation” that strongly resembles Owen’s proposal, and foundered, to the more recent – now what was it called? – none of these initiatives has created more than a space for discussion. This has often been important, in trying to pool together independent socialist and feminist ideas, or attempting to re-define the left as the Labour Party moved towards what it would become Tony Blair and the Third Way. But it is hard to see their lasting effect. On the evidence, the British left is too diverse, too dominated by its own structures and priorities, to be woven together into a common fabric.

The present dispute centres on the SWP itself, not on the left as a whole. Criticisms of the Party’s ‘democracy’ are, as the leadership is well aware, not new. In the 1970s they had already extended to the wider Trotskyist version of Leninism. Some of the most trenchant attacks were in Beyond the Fragments. Rowbotham’s account of how IS developed after it adopted Democratic Centralism in 1968, concludes with a description of the party considering themselves the “chosen elect.” In place of this culture, Rowbotham looked to “the growth of new forms of organising within the women’s movement as part of such a larger recovery of a libertarian socialist tradition.” In Beyond the Fragments Hilary Wainwright called for a “federal structure which provides a framework for united actions “(the word ‘network’ was not fashionable then) of the left. This would be open to discussion of the “limits of traditional principles of revolutionary and social democratic organizations, in the light of the advances and insights made by recent movements, starting with the women’s liberation movement.”

At this time wide section of the left considered that the party form of the British revolutionary left was a problem. Big Flame’s Paul Thompson and Guy Lewis, in 1977, attacked those groups that had a narrow conception of the working class. Big Flame defended a version of the Italian operaismo theory of groups like Avanguardia Operario. This was a picture of the “mass worker” that included all those struggling against capital. This was a minority interest. But when they accused the SWP in particular of “using united fronts and autonomous movements to cynically recruit, when they feel these forums have power and numbers” many agreed. (The Revolution Unfinished. A Critique of Trotskyism. 1977)

The SWP’s 1970s ‘party building’, and notably the loss of leading figures, led to some particular insights into the organisation. One of those who left, Jim Higgins later remarked, “Long ago the SWP established a policy of minimum debate that is now so firmly embedded as to be part of the tradition. Dissent is stamped on and the norms of revolution­ary justice ignored. The Central Committee is uniquely qualified to pronounce on anything and everything…” He stated, “A leading committee with this kind of suzerainty over all it surveys is unlikely to fall apart from within its own ranks, because dissent from one or two members can be stifled by the rest. Nor will it succumb to a non-existent democratic pres­sure from the party. It will, however, be most unstable if its lead­ing figure is removed.” (More Years for the Locust. 1997)

Higgins, despite his seriousness and wit, is sometimes more colourful than accurate (certainly the post-Cliff crisis has been a long time coming). But during the same period the dryer Martin Shaw made an even heavier charge. He compared the SWP to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CP), “Politically, there is a similarity in the way the SWP works in wider movements-its participation in united campaigns ranging from full participation, through nominal and grudging involvement, to sectarian withdrawal, according to the gains to be made-and its own fronts, where control varies from the very tight to the minimal according to the balance of forces.

“…it is in organisational terms that the similarities-with the CP today rather than in its classically Stalinist days-are the most striking. Central political control, affecting the decisive areas of work, is firmly entrenched in the hands of the small Central Committee. But greater licence is being allowed to members working in less ‘central’ fields-to the women, and now to the intellectuals-although the amount of freedom allowed can naturally be curtailed.”

He continued,

“This particular combination of organisational hardness and flexibility, together with the political flexibility which is now the SWP’s hallmark, seem now to be enabling the organisation to consolidate again its small minority position on the left.” (The Making of a Party? The International Socialists 1965-1 976. Socialist Register 1979)

In reply Ian Birchall argued that the IS/SWP had shown a lot more –successful – flexibility than hardness. Responding to charges of central “control” he stated that for revolutionaries “internal democracy is not an end in itself, but a means whereby the party is able to effectively evaluate situations and critically assess its own intervention”. Debates, decisions and splits have to be grasped in terms of the “real issues that lay behind them.” (The Premature Burial: A Reply to Martin Shaw. Socialist Register. 1979)

Is the right to free discussion only necessary because it helps us “evaluate” and “assess” our interventions? Who defines what the “real issues” are? This pragmatism which makes the point of a debate dependent on its political “cash value” is hopelessly muddled. When this is the case internal democracy is one of the “instruments” to “move forward” the Party (these terms in quotes are from William James’ Pragmatism. 1907, and are not accidental). Shaw’s point was, and remains, that the SWP, and parties with a similar structure, do not just demand that people agree with its general principles. They reserve the right to lay down what they consider to be the “ends” and, by extension the beginnings, of debate. In Birchall’s view there is more. As the bearer of the widest “experience” the Central Committee is also the arbiter of what “practical consequences” result. It can legitimately steamroller any discussion to make it fit these terms. It defines the limits of free speech.

In 1994 ex-SWP members wrote a more general critique of the SWP’s ‘Bureaucratic centralism’ as a “bureaucratic distortion of Leninism”. They stated, ” short, Cliff’s reading of Lenin has disastrous consequences for the reality of democracy within the revolutionary party, despite the richness of the IS tradition which he was instrumental in building. His ground-breaking work on the theory of state capitalism saved the revolutionary Marxist tradition from the twin spectres of Stalinism and orthodox Trotskyism. His theory of the party – and more importantly, its implementation in the SWP – threatens to alienate the working class from that tradition.”

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Ian Birchall now recognises (by backing the SWP opposition) that SWP inner party democracy is a problem, perhaps because it has now reached the point where it is hampering their interventions to the degree that the party is finding it harder and harder to work at all.

Leninism and Building the Party. 

The SWP was not then, and is not now, a Stalinist Party. It has no reference to any ‘socialist homeland’. It has no ‘actually existing’ model. Its template is the early 20th century Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP), or rather the current that laid claim to the name led by Lenin, that became the Bolshevik Party, as headed by Lenin, in the early years of the Soviet Union.

Much of the left has now assimilated an understanding of Lenin advanced by Lars Lih (for example, in Lenin and Kautsky. 2009 Lenin 2011.) He wished to make the Russian Socialist party, the RSDLP, a “party of a class” an “army” that fused an understanding socialism with the working masses by a multitude of “threads”. Key in this process of building socialism was the role of the activists (praktiki). We can see here that there was ‘division of labour’ in this party: it was designed (in theory) was a ‘functional’ rather than horizontal, absolute, democracy.

For many critics of the SWP Lih’s account implies a party that met with and ‘organised’ through its practical-workers, the proletariat, rather than intervened from the ‘outside’. For them this at odds with the SWP; that Callinicos’ party tries to be exactly the ‘monolith’ that Lenin’s own organisation never was.

The SWP would disagree, and have taken on board the ‘fusion’ model of mass politics that Lih proposes, although some of them have criticised placing Lenin’s debt to Kautsky at the heart of his politics. The late Chris Harman notably laid down what he saw as the difference. Lenin, “saw the party not merely as a teacher, but above all as an instrument for engaging in revolutionary action” (Lenin Rediscovered? Historical Materialism. 18.3. 2010).

The SWP works with what is, in effect, an elaboration of this general idea of Leninism. Without going far into the subject, and at the risk of offending the many left-wing “walking encyclopedias” brimming with knowledge on Lenin, we will cite two contributions. They centre on the SWP’s view of Lenin’s party relevant to today’s debate,

In Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (1973) Tony Cliff stated,

“A revolutionary party cannot intervene effectively in working-class struggle unless it is centralised and acts as a disciplined body. It cannot be sensitive to the needs of the advanced workers unless it is consistently democratic. Between the revolutionary party and the class, between centralism and democracy, there is a dialectical relationship. If one position is pushed to an extreme, it is possible to fall from the despotism of the common man to the impotence of the phrasemonger. Lenin was always ready to strengthen the central bodies, but without forgetting that the initiative, in the final analysis, lies with the masses, and the task of the party is not to stifle but to raise it.” Cliff then added, “Lenin knew that organisation had to be subordinated to politics.”

We have seen that the SWP democracy is based on a need to develop ‘sensitivity’ to the “advanced workers”. Is it linked to ‘masses’? Is the Central Committee an adequate, pragmatic, ‘instrument’ that subordinates the party? Critics now allege it is a bureaucracy in its own right. How could that, within the terms of Leninist theory, come about?

It is often said that all political parties have a tendency to bureaucratisation/ John Molyneux has considered the best known form of this argument for the “inevitability of oligarchy’ (On Party Democracy. International Socialism. 124. 2009). This was the thesis of Robert Michels that this is a “universally applicable law” based on the “division of labour” (Political Parties. 1915). Michels worked with the legitimate observation that social democratic parties reproduce a division of the leaders and led (influenced we would note by the impact of the bureaucratic paradigm of the state).

For Molyneux Leninist parties (of the right ‘revolutionary’ kind) were immune from this ‘law’. This was because “a) those who placed the overall interests of the working class above any sectional interest (ie were internationalist, anti-racist, anti-sexist and non-sectionalist), (b) militant activists working under the discipline of party organisations. Such a membership, though necessarily a minority of the class, would not be “incompetent” and would be able to democratically control its leadership”. In other words, it would counteract the ‘divison of labour’ that, we have seen, is at the heart of the Leninist claim to ‘lead’….the led.

Molyneux now considers whether oligarchical tendencies may extend to revolutionary organisations like the SWP. Above all the Party’s leadership remained stable (unchanged) during more than a decade. Why was this?

“Unfortunately the times we have lived through have not, a few exceptional moments apart, been a revolutionary period and the revolution has been “actual” only in the most abstract sense. It has therefore not been possible to restrict party membership to “a group of single-minded revolutionaries, prepared to make any sacrifice”, or even to people prepared to be consistently active in party organisations.”

More activism and movment, in a “revolutionary period”, combined with absolute dedication, would apparently have blown the oligarchical cobwebs away.

Molyneux continues – this was unavoidable,

“To have restricted the membership of the SWP to the criteria of commitment required by the Bolsheviks would, in our non-Bolshevik conditions, have reduced the party to the low hundreds at best and would anyway have been false “toy bolshevism”, since such fanatical “revolutionaries” would have lost the other key pillar of Leninism: the ability to “maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people” Consequently circumstances obliged us to operate with a substantial proportion of members who were not sufficiently engaged to exercise democratic control over the party.”

Let us leave aside the claim that the SWP has ever had the degree of “close contact” with the popular masses asserted here. The conclusion is to be blame circumstances, the “downturn”, and not ideal party structures.

Molyneux remains committed to the Leninist model,

“No other form of organisation compares with the Leninist party in terms of its ability to equip its members with the political education that enables them to assess the overall political situation and their own party’s work. No other form of organisation practises a comparable level of intervention in such a variety of issues, campaigns and struggles, thus potentially training its members as political generalists able to hold its leaders to account.”


“the element of party discipline inherent in democratic centralism—the notion of unity in action in implementing party policy—far from undermining or infringing democracy, is an essential democratic provision. Without it the party could engage in the most democratic process of debate and decision making only to see those decisions come to nothing when they were ignored or flouted by the party leadership, as was routinely the case with old Labour. This element in a revolutionary party is particularly important at decisive moments in the class struggle, especially that of insurrection, when the political and psychological pressures on party leaders are most intense.

Molyneux begins with hostility to “permanent factions” (he cites the IMG as an awful warning). He now toys with the idea of permitting factions on the model of the French Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA), but reaches no firm conclusions (wisely Callinicos now says this is one of the causes of the NPA’s present woes). In sweeping terms the article ends with this,

“The principle of the need to struggle to realise and improve democracy in the revolutionary party is permanent but the precise means of achieving it vary over time. In general what is needed is, in Gramsci’s words, organic centralism, not bureaucratic centralism: “democratic centralism that is ‘centralism’ in movement, so to speak, that is, a continuous adjustment of the organisation to the real movement.”

To summarise, the SWP is strongly marked by a pragmatic conception of revolutionary organisation. That is, ‘what works’ is right. “Organic centralism” in “movement” is a clumsy coupling, the one implying a long-term growth and solidity, the other fluidity and permanent change. But they are unable to admit that their party-form has not ‘worked’. The ‘actuality’ of the revolution has ebbed away. Cliff’s own call during the last European conjuncture that seemed to offer this possibility, Portugal mid-70s, for a “revolutionary leadership’ based on workers’ councils fell on stony ground (Portugal at the Crossroads. International Socialism, September 1975). In the decades that followed the SWP has not established a serious presence on the left. A few thousand members is not a ‘small’ mass party, it is not a mass party at all. And, as we have seen at length, there are many of its members who consider that it is bureaucratically centralised. Molyneux disgrees. He sees their last Conference as a lively confirmation of its democracy. The leadership is no doubt pleased.

Critics of Leninism.

To Barry Biddulph there is one thing that one can be certain about Lenin’s politics: he was always the leader of a faction.

“Lenin conducted a ruthless factional war using savage verbal abuse against those who would not accept his views, even on tactical issues. The word liquidator was used very loosely outside of Lenin’s followers. Then there were Lenin’s critics inside the Bolshevik faction labelled deviators, recallists, ultimatists, god builders, and generally described as ultra left rascals of one kind or another.” (The Party as a Faction: the Origins of Bolshevism. The Commune. 20.5 2012) Biddulph has now developed this theme with a thorough-going critique of democratic centralism as such, the “opposite” of democracy and the SWP’s approach to ‘party and class’.

We follow Louis Althusser’s insight that Lenin never offered a full theoretical account of his political actions or political practice in general. His texts were for “direct political use.” (For Marx. Louis Althusser. 1971) Whether we accept this view or not to extract a manual of contemporary revolutionary practice from what Lih calls Lenin’s ‘heroic scenario’ – a Russian worker-led revolution, in which the “proletariat as the vozhd (leader) of the people” – is no easy task. To that extent the SWP is orthodox. It is not rigid. It draws on Lenin’s map of political experience, its ‘organisational principles’ and is only dogmatic about the central place of what Callinicos considers to be the leading role of the working class and a Leninist and Marxist party in bringing about socialism.

But anything said about Leninism is overshadowed by how Lenin’s revolutionary drama was performed. The SWP had long justified Lenin’s dictatorial political practice in the early Soviet period against left-wing supporters of “bourgeois democracy”, or as we would call it democracy tout court. John Rees once concluded an explanation of this turn by “force of circumstances” with this rousing appeal, “The October revolution is our past. It is also our future.” (John Rees. In Defence of October. International Socialism. 52. 1991)

Not everybody on the left finds this a consoling thought. Lenin’s political practice is, to say the least, essentially contested. Lih has commented, “? Lih muses that Lenin was “only a part of Bolshevism, which in turn is only a part of the Russian revolution, which is in turn is only a part of the whole period of social upheaval from 1914 to 1921…”(Page 199. Lenin. 2011). In considering this, many would be tempted to look at Kautsky’s virulent attack on Soviet Power in The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1919) as well as well as the better known replies by Lenin and Kautsky. In this (and subsequent works) did Kautsky really break from the Marxism that that inspired Lenin? Can we explore the context in the way that Lih looked at Lenin in the RSDLP? Lih himself suggests that Lenin’s practice in the Soviet Union was not beyond reproach, In this respect there is a vast critical literature on the early years of the Soviet Union. We might begin with Bertrand Russell’s The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920), and, notably Victor Serge’s writings.

This statement by Moscow Print workers to the British Labour Party delegation to the country in 1920 (attributed to Mark Kefali, but probably by the Menshevik Fedor Ll’ch Dan) is a good starting point. The printers said that the Bolshevik regime had left them “with no right to vote, no right to assemble, no right to print”. The comrade described two ways of arriving at socialism,

“One way is the way of democracy of working men; the way of raising the level of production; of voluntary self-reliant activity, self-discipline of the masses. This is, in our opinion, the only way that can lead –and will inevitably lead – to the triumph of socialism; while the other ruinous way is the way of the deprivation of the working masses themselves of every right and liberty, the way of transforming the working class into a scattered human herd, submitting to benevolent dictators, benevolent specialists of socialism who drive men in this paradise by means of a stick.” (cited Page 201. Patrick Wright. Iron Curtain. 2007)

Emma Goldman painted this picture of the Bolsheviks in 1922.

“Obsessed by the infallibility of their creed, giving of themselves to the fullest, they could be both heroic and despicable at the same time. They could work twenty hours a day, live on herring and tea, and order the slaughter of innocent men and women. Occasionally they sought to mask their killing by pretending a ‘misunderstanding’ for doesn’t the end justify all means. They could employ torture and deny the inquisition they could lie and defame, and call themselves idealists. In short, they could make themselves and others believe that everything was legitimate and right from the revolutionary viewpoint; any other policy was weak, sentimental, or a betrayal of the Revolution.” (My Two Years in Russia. An American Anarchist’s Disillusionment and the Betrayal of the Russian Revolution by Lenin’s Soviet Union. Emma Goldman.1922)

It is hard to reconcile this with the description of the ‘carnival’ of 1917, or even the creativity Rees manages to see in the years that followed. It is a much easier to place it within the hysterical pages of Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism (1920) and its paean to the “militarisation of labour”, and the “abolition of the fiction of the freedom of labour” and a lot, a lot worse.

In considering the Russian experience that the SWP lays claim to, we might consider this assessment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ by Norman Geras, “If its claims to go beyond bourgeois democracy are good, the norms of socialist democracy must allow, in unambiguous terms, for organisational pluralism. Under capitalism this means that no socialist tendency should pretend to any organisational monopoly. Hen the bourgeois state is overthrown it means that there must be room for any organisation that will respect a properly constituted democratic and socialist legality.” (Classical Marxism and Proletarian Representation. New Left Review 1/ 125. 1981.)

We would go further, a lot further (as Geras himself has done, though not, arguably, in a socialist direction). Any socialist organisation has to begin with a fundamental respect for human rights and political pluralism, including the rights of ‘class enemies’. There are no exceptions.

Anti-Globalisation and the SWP.

Our principal object here is not, however, the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, but the SWP. With this in mind, it is time to look at organisation’s interventions. Could the crisis in the SWP be settled by an injection of through-going democracy? Is a replacement of bureaucratic centralism by ‘true’ Leninist norms the way forward? A strategy of “breaking the grip of reformists” through “united fronts” that enables a small Leninist group to offer “an alternative to the dominant forces inside the British workers’ movement” has yet to show any striking results. It might be that the absence of “workers’ struggles” has contributed to the SWP confinement to the sidelines. But thirty years of standing there must have more profound causes.

The SWP, then, like the rest of the British left, is politically marginal, even if it has a small place with the trade union movement and some successes in helping to organise protest movements, most recently….in the 2003 Stop the War Demonstration. It has had less success in working more directly with other political groups, in the Socialist Alliance and Respect, both of which it left/abandoned (in 2003 and 2010 respectively) leaving a legacy of ill-feeling amongst its former allies. It is often said that the SWP ‘bends the stick’ (as its founder Tony Cliff liked to call it). That is its united fronts (alliances with other small parties or pressure groups), are subject to abrupt reversals as conditions (in their view) rapidly change. In the case of Respect it was – apparently – tensions between ‘revolutionaries’ and the “reformist” George Galloway that precipitated the split. (Alex Callinicos. Where is the radical left going? International Socialism. 120. 2008)

But the SWP has also engaged in a much longer-term and more consistent political strategy. The party has attempted for over a decade to relate to the ‘anti-capitalist movement’ (their preferred term for what is also called the diverse ‘anti/other-globalisation’ or ‘alter-mondialisation’ movements).This is an opportunity to see whether the oparty is The Seattle protests of 1999, for Alex Callinicos, created the “conditions in which a new left can emerge.” (Against the Third Way. 2001). John Rees (as a SWP member) asserted that, “The anti-capitalist movement and the anti-war movement have recreated an activist, oppositional mass culture.” (Socialism in the 21st Century. International Socialism. No 100. 2003) The multi-hued anticapitalist upsurge that emerged, Callinicos lost little time in asserting, “bears the real promise of modernity by promoting a genuinely universal emancipation that will make the fate of the planet and those on it a collective and democratic project” (An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto. 2003).

What was the role of the Revolutionary Party in such a movement? The former SWP leader and theoretician Chris Harman argued that it was crucial. But it was no heavy-handed. Genuine revolutionary groups, he argued, did not intend to use anti-capitalism as a “transmission belt” for their leaderships (Spontaneity, Strategy and Politics. International Socialism 104. 2004.)

Such a party,

“celebrates and engages with every more or less spontaneous upsurge of struggle. But it also recognises divisions will emerge between those struggling with the way forward. Some will opt for an apparently easy path of conciliation. Others will want to push the struggle as far as they can and to connect with other struggles. The revolutionary party attempts to give cohesion to this second group.”

Nevertheless, “a visible revolutionary organisation is a necessity, not an optional extra. Its members need to take part in the wider struggles and operate through party groups in localities and workplaces. They have to organise people around them through regular paper sales and draw them to meetings. And the discussion cannot just be about immediate tactics, but has to raise the question of transforming society in its totality, of revolution, not reform”

Callinicos’s analysis of the 2008 financial crash continued to make calls for the SWP to play a role in the “development of a different kind of power, one based on the self-organisation of workers and other poor people that develops out of their struggles against capital.”(The Bonfire of Illusions. 2010)

The SWP’s statement have to be set aside contrasting voices within this movement, often deeply hostile to political parties of any stripe. This is the approach of John Holloway. He made the call (a ‘scream’) for a worldwide resolution to “Serve No More”. Standing aside from all political parties that aim to take power (which necessarily reproduce the ‘form’ of the state), he urged the “struggle against totality as such”. (Crack Capitalism. 2010)

Others create “temporary autonomous zones” on demonstrations – the aim of the ‘Black Bloc’- to define their own politics. Toni Negri has said that socialism was “another model for managing capital, another figure for being bosses” and celebrated the “hybrid multitude” ((Goodbye Mr Socialism. 2006). This is “composed potentially of all the diverse figures of social production”, a social actor without any need for political ‘representation’ (Multitude 2004).

In some respects the differences are not so dramatic. James Turley has argued that for SWP theorists like Harman and Rees, capitalism can be “likened to a stick of Brighton rock: wherever you break it, the same message is written on the cross-section.” (The Antinomies of Georg Lukács. Weekly Worker. 24.1.13) Holloway, we have noted, makes this point more starkly. In these conditions, of permanent ‘dialectical’ contradiction, “it does not matter how rightwing the politics you put over actually are, but only that they get people excited” to fight back. So “a struggle over a lunch break can present an obstacle to commodification.” One does not expect, even so, that the SWP ‘pragmatically’ follows Holloway in believing that “friends who form a choir because they like to sing, the nurse who really tries to help her patients the car worker who spends as much time as possible on his allotment” are part of the grand anti-capitalist refusal of the system. (Crack Capitalism)

The ‘anti-capitalist movement’ reached its (publicly visible) zenith in Occupy Wall Street (OWS). It popularised vigorous criticism of financial capitalism, and displayed solidarity with wider social struggles. It claimed to show something more than ritual demonstrations, to become a challenge that would not go home after a march. It could be said to be an “autonomous space”. OWS echoed the ‘dialectical’ call to challenge capitalist contradictions without the mediation of political parties. It denied the right to be represented. But the ‘movement’ did not, and very likely could not, with its permanent militancy and ‘life-style’ politics distant from how most people live, become a mass social or political force.

It is in the nature of excitement not to last. Callinicos now observes that Occupy, “emerged very rapidly as a worldwide symbol of anti-capitalist resistance – and then equally rapidly dissipated.” He comments unfavourably on the movement’s “horizontalist” structures. Repeating observations made by critical activists some time back, he says they are “unworkable (and ultimately undemocratic) methods of decision-making based on consensus.” (Is Leninism Finished?) It became far from autonomous, culturally or politically. Thomas Frank has criticised the result. OWS was marked by navel-gazing, unintelligible jargon, the (predictable) rise of self-serving careerists in its ranks, and, its negligible political impact. What role did it play in last year’s US presidential campaign? Very little. What happened to its British imitators? Few know, or care.

What is the balance sheet of the SWP’s involvement in the anti-capitalist movement? There has been no real linkage with organised labour, or the trade unions. A TUC backed demonstration on Climate Change, and participation in what Callinicos himself calls Social Forum ‘Jamborees’ is not serious involvement. Nor has the broad anti-capitalist mouvance shown much enthusiasm for SWP help in co-coordinating or ‘leading’ their struggles. There are no signs of any new political subject emerging, anywhere, that comes directly from this source (with the very specific exception of the truly mass ‘idignados’ protests in Spain). This looks like a pretty solid process of “refutation” along Lakatos’s lines.

Origins of the Present Crisis.

Marxism is founded on a picture of how class and politics operate. An orthodox Marxist approach is that the working class should – and will – fight for socialism because no other class has the equivalent interest in this form of society (raising their own power amongst general equality, ‘the abolition of every class’), or the potential social leverage (‘combination’ – trade unions).

Robin Blackburn summarises the bedrock view, “Marx had always seen the modern industrial working class as the first exploited class that – because of the social and political rights it had, or would, conquer, and because it was schooled and organised by capitalism itself, could take its destiny into its own hands, The agent here was the ‘collective worker’ all those who contributed to social labour.”(Page 57 An Unfinished Revolution. Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. 2011)

Friedrich Engels gave this a geographical and industrial location, “Only the proletariat created by modern large-scale industry, liberated from an inherited fetters including whose which chained it to the land, and herded together in the big cities, is in a position to accomplish the great social transformation which put an end to all class exploitation and class rule” (The Housing Question, 1872. Cited by Tristram Hunt, Introduction, The Condition of the Working Class in England. 1845. 2009)

There has always been a gap between these claims and the further belief, that in this process the working class will become more than just a “class in itself’, a statistical total of wage-earners, given flesh in industry and cities. It has to develop into a “class for itself”, that is taking a political shape. What form this will take, or what direction it can be encouraged to have, are the basis for rival ideas about class–based socialist politics, that continue to divide the left.

It is within this context that we can make sense of Alex Callinicos’ statement that, ““Marx’s political legacy – the necessity of working class organisation to overthrow capital – is less secure.” (In Defence of Leninism.) This ‘political legacy’ has therefore had to face more challenges than the faults of the SWP as a ‘Leninist’ party prone to constant tactical re-alignments.

This, fundamental, aspect of ‘Marx’s political legacy’ has indeed faced challenges since the 1970s. In 1977 Barry Hindess (the author of The Decline of Working Class Politics, which showed how Labour’s mass membership and workers’ involvement was ebbing away) argued that the “simple identification of classes and class fractions cannot in itself provide the foundation for any serious socialist strategy”. (The Concept of Class in Marxist Theory and Marxist Politics) Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau in the influential Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) attacked, on a very high level of theoretical abstraction, the view that the working class was a “privileged agent” of socialist change. In its place they talked of articulating (giving voice to, joining together) a range of radical democratic movements, in which class plays a role, amongst other forces.

Marxism Today produced a series of articles on what became called New Times in the 1980s. This began with Eric Hobsbawm’s claim that there had been, particularly since the 1960s, an absolute decline in the numbers of British manual workers, the erosion of a common working class culture, and the rise of white-collar and ‘intellectual’ work. Hobsbawm’s added to this attacks on workers’ ‘sectionalism and “economist militancy”. He concluded by saying that the “great illusion of the 1970s, that militant unionism is enough” should be ditched to face up to the challenges offered by the in-coming Conservative government. (The Forward March of Labour halted? Eric Hobsbawm and others. Verso 1981)

In place of the industrial proletariat, and in opposition to Thatcher’s ‘authoritarian populism’, Marxism Today contributors celebrated a vast number of movements in “civil society” (women’s, green, gay, and local protests) as socialist vehicles. Their importance was bolstered and constrained by the “post-Fordist” rise of information-based production. Underlying this was a portrait of the break up of both “large-scale industry” and the cultures of the working class in “big cities” that had served as the trampoline for socialist politics. Some extended this to “post-modernism.” Insofar as it had any political meaning this referred to an – alleged – decline in belief in “grand narratives”, and socialism in particular. For Marxism Today writer, Ernesto Laclau, “Socialism is no longer a blueprint for society, and comes to be part of the radical democratisation of social organisation.” (New Reflections on the Revolution of our Time. 1990)

When Official Communism collapsed a small part of this movement radicalised its criticism of the left. For Laclau the Marxist conception of the leading role of the working class was the pillar of an “Eschatological” vision of the Proletariat as the Saviour of Humanity. (Marxism Today. Final Issue. December 1991) Others, like Hobsbawm’s himself, more modestly devoted themselves to the cause of Constitutional Reform and Tactical Voting that they had already taken up under the banner of Charter 88.

Most of this brouhaha has retreated back to its academic origins, Charter 88 remains, in a pressure group for ‘new politics’ without any political influence. Their critics, who argued that class politics remain important, or central, populate most of the leadership of the British left, including the SWP.

Class Politics Today.

But there are more serious-minded people who have continued to analyse the changes in the working class, and its position as a potential basis for socialist politics. In the latest New Left Review, Göran Therborn asserts that the “time when the working class was seen as the future of social development may feel as close as yesterday, but it is unlikely to return.” (Class in the 21st Century. New Left Review. (2) No 78. 2012.)

For Therborn, capitalist globalisation, shuddering from crisis to crisis, continues to undermine the social foundations of the left. The forward march of labour has indeed halted. “Privatisation and marketisation have replaced nationalisation and regulation”. Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘conservative white collar labour aristocracy’ has now coalesced into the dynamic consumerist ‘middle class’, politically central, and sometimes capable of facing up to authoritarian anti-democratic rule. New sources of oppositional agency are there: industrial class struggles in East Asia capable of new “social compromises”, and, in South America, “plebeian strata” that have backed radical left governments. But there remains only a shrunken Western working class.

In these conditions, “Eurocentric industrial socialism” is dead. As a result “The party form – both the mass parties of German Social Democracy and Italian Communism and the smaller Leninist vanguard – has lost much of its appeal.” Therborn has kinder words for the Occupy movement than many people have. He ignores their dogmatism about ‘leaderless’ organisations. Criticisms of the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’, an unwieldy word for a process that begins with an insistence on consensus, and ends up by producing unelected leaders responsible to nobody, is not to be dismissed lightly. He does, however, make the more widely shared judgement that such new “starfish” organisations, including the Tea Party and (even) Al Qaeda, involve degrees of “rejectionism” – blanket opposition to the ‘enemy’. Is there anything to face this? Therborn asserts that the “ideas and programmes, principles of organisation and models of change” of the left no longer offer a “global perceptive for emancipation, development and justice.”

Leading party member Chris Harman largely ignores any of this. In the “last quarter of the 20th century was not the extinction of the working class” “but the fruits of its massive expansion – an expansion which simultaneously gave it more power to shape society than ever before…”From the struggles of this class we will see, he predicted, “new attempts to remould society around the values of solidarity, mutual support egalitarianism, collective cooperation and a democratically planned use of resources.” (Pages 617 and 620. A People’s History of the World 2008)

This does not counter the arguments of those like Therborn who point to the more obvious fact that foundations of European industrial socialism are fading away. Every day one hears news of industrial plant in Europe shutting (much of Britain’s no longer exists to close).

But what of the claim that we are witnessing the birth of a new era: novel relationships of class and nation, of ideology, identity and mobilisation, and of global left-wing politics are taking shape.” ON a global scale the working class is expanding. But what values are developing in the “struggles of this class”. How are concrete working classes evolving politically?

There are many obstacles to the triumph of the values of “solidarity, mutual support and egalitarianism.” Owen Jones, while emphasising the importance of class, equally shows workers are divided amongst themselves through campaigns against the ‘undeserving poor’, the ‘chavs’ (Chavs. 2011)

For Tomas Frank the US ‘middle class’ (a convenient slight of hand that has assigned many workers to the better off) has been mobilised against the thriftless poor, ““the only populism available in the land was an uprising against government and taxes and federal directives – in other words it was now a movement in favour of the very conditions that had allowed Wall Street to loot the world.”(Page 42 Pity the Billionaire. The Unlikely Comeback of the American Right.2012.) Both Jones and Frank identify ways in which the ‘nation’ is mobilised against a group, the ‘underclass’

Ideological wars against the left, those male inroads into popular audience, including the working class, are not new. But there is a large non-working population – up to 3 million unemployed in the UK alone – that ‘working class politics’ has to take account of. It is not only campaigns that stigmatise them. People on ‘benefits’ are subjected to a degree of control, claims of the ‘rights’ of the state over them. The process of surveillance, and punishment, has been sub-contracted to private companies. Can ‘movements’ like the anti-capitalists, deal with this? If the state has made the decision it is hard to say any other way of changing this than through the public power.

But here we reach another ‘novel relationship’. The state, the object of “reform” (mass social democratic parties) or “revolution” (Leninist and Trotskyist parties and groups) has been transformed. In art to deal with this. What remains of social democracy’s one-time commitment to public ownership, welfare and equality? What do revolutionaries mean by ‘smashing’ the state and replacing it with new bodies when its legal unity covers multiple agencies and ‘outsourced’ companies? Those who long ago dropped the centrality of class politics face this dilemma. Radical democratic theory, such as Chantal Mouffe’s “agonistic democracy” appears to have little purchase on reality when political decisions are tailored to, or inspired by, these commercial bodies. (The Political 2005) What political leverage can any agency use to transform the public sphere when its core is so devoted to capitalism that many call it the Market State?

In these conditions, which appear to block immediate change, there are signs that some are inclined to call for the refoundation of the left by re-examining the ultimate sources of these values, in the 18th century encounter, as Jacques Julliard describes it, between “l’idée de progrès” and “l’idée de Justice.”(Les Gauches en France. 2012). This is exactly what the French Parti Socialiste has done, to little effect. Others (perhaps Alain Badiou and his admirers) may be said to have ingested a dose of “communist pessimism”, which rejects, like Pierre Naville and Walter Benjamin, the principle of progress itself.

Less drastically, and in our view realistically, there are those who think, without pre-guessing what form this could take, that a “Broad alliance of “discontented, the alienated, the deprived and the dispossessed” may be built to offer just such a ‘global perspective’ (David Harvey.The Enigma of Capital. 2010). That most of the European forms of political representation that have given voice to such aspirations are blocs above all the Greek Syriza, but also the nominally ‘party’, Die Linke, the Front de gauche, Izquirda Unida, Bloco de Esquerda,  or a radical left socialist party, the Dutch  Socialistische Partij,   suggests that the Leninist party whether SWP or not, is on the way out, and that these alliances (not excluding the more overtly ‘green’ Nordic lefts)  are the only possible way forward for the present.

Conclusion: Alone Against the World.

“The reproach of sectarianism carries with it no odium for us. Truth must ever be sectarian: error alone can afford to be catholic.”

Henry Mayers Hyndman. The Record of an Adventurous Life. 1911.

Austerity has raised great challenges for the left. In countries like Spain, where the indignados represented a much broader dissatisfaction with the political system and parties, and where mass unemployment means many people have nowhere else to go, a degree of mass ‘refusal’ has shown signs of continuing. Where it is going is far from clear, and the left Izquirada Unida has only partially re-awakened. In even more socially damaged Greece, the rise of the left bloc SYRIZA (‘reformists’ according to the SWP), there have been serious challenges to neoliberal economics.

In Britain the Coalition of Resistance has not spoken for public anger with the same force. The overall numbers attending demonstrations have declined. UK Uncut’s protests have highlighted tax evasion, but do not pretend to offer ‘the’ alternative to government cuts and privatisation. The last thing that shows signs of emerging is a new ‘subject-object’ of history, an awakened politically conscious mass working class movement.

It is to be doubted that the SWP’s own ‘Unite the Resistance’ – a very special kind of ‘united front’ – will play a positive role in the anti-austerity movement. Their latest tack is to attack trade unions for ‘holding back’ strikes. The SWP is determined to follow Hyndman’s advice and stand alone. ‘How to end a split’ is it major preoccupation. Seul contre tous…

(1) This citation is perhaps relevant. “The struggle for power organised and led by the revolutionary party is the most ruthless and irreconcilable struggle in all history. A loosely-knit, heterogeneous, undisciplined, untrained organisation is utterly incapable of accomplishing such world-historical tasks as the proletariat and the revolutionary party are confronted with in the present era.”James P. Cannon. The Struggle for a Proletarian Party.


10 Responses

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  1. `The SWP was not then, and is not now, a Stalinist Party. It has no reference to any ‘socialist homeland’. It has no ‘actually existing’ model. Its template is the early 20th century Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP), or rather the current that laid claim to the name led by Lenin, that became the Bolshevik Party, as headed by Lenin, in the early years of the Soviet Union.’

    But it did find theoretical justification for its vile internal regime and its opportunist/sectarian, depending on the needs of the self-serving CC, external relations in Gramscian Stalinism. Hegemony building long replaced principled united front work and consequently you’d have to search far and wide for any programmatic offerings that party members could even form a faction in opposition to or support of. Nobody can challenge the leadership because there is nothing to challenge them about.

    David Ellis

    February 13, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    • My central argument is that the SWP leadership’s political practice is dominated by pragmatism, in the strong – philosophical – sense.

      It is what ‘works’ that counts.

      I do not mean that they are conscious followers of William James, though one former leading member (one-time editor of International Socialism, 2nd Series)- http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/index.html, Peter Binns, saw in Marx’s early writings on the relation of theory to practice elements of philosophical pragamisism.

      In terms of more abstract philosophy James Turley (in the Weekly Worker) makes a convincing case for the influence of Georg Lukács on the waymany, but not all, the SWP looks at the world – the ‘expressive totality’.

      But I’m sure you’re right that they put Gramsci in somewhere.

      Andrew Coates

      February 13, 2013 at 6:11 pm

  2. Certainly worth re-posting and it looks as if you’ve put a few days’ work into this Andrew…I scanned it just now (almost 11pm here) but will read it properly in the morning. You don’t mention anarchism anywhere in your article, but, with the exception of the Black Bloc (who are actually part of the Far Right in terms of their tactics), anarchism is certainly part of the Left.

    Paul Grenville

    February 13, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    • I mention libertarian socialism, and I’d have thought Emma Goldman has some connection with anarchism!

      Seriously, it’s a big enough post as it is: anarchism (from say, ‘Platformist’ to the Eco-anarchism) is a very large topic.

      A more obvious gap I’d have thought, and open to some serious criticism, is that I don’t discuss the IMG and the USFI Mandel tradition.

      I was after all an IMG member.

      Andrew Coates

      February 14, 2013 at 5:21 pm

  3. The issue is very important and as it is being treated by the SWP leadership is harming not only one of the main left parties in the UK, but it is damaging the socialist alternative to the capitalist world. If we are not able to deal fairly with a case of rape within our ranks, how could we built a socialist alternative to the bourgeois society? I offer to the debate an article written by Cecilia Toledo, a Brazilian militant of the PSTU, section of the International Workers League, the main trotskskist party in Brazil. We have experienced several issues related to women and oppression and we are produ of dealing with them properly.


    Waldo Mermelstein

    February 27, 2013 at 1:01 am

  4. Sorry, it was supposed to be written proud and not “produ”

    Waldo Mermelstein

    February 27, 2013 at 1:02 am

    • Thank you Waldo for this link – very useful and important, particularly given the significance of the Brazilian left.

      Andrew Coates

      February 27, 2013 at 11:50 am

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