Notes (by Martin Thomas) from an AWL London forum on the SWP and the “IS tradition”, Thursday 9 June 2005.
The speakers were Steve Freeman of the Revolutionary Democratic Group and Sean Matgamna of AWL, both ex-members of IS/SWP.
Steve Freeman: Today we need to unite the non-Respect left and rebuild the Socialist Alliance. In 1950 the largest Marxist group in Britain was the CPGB, with tens of thousands of members. One of the smallest was the Socialist Review group of Tony Cliff with 30 members. Today, the CPGB is in splinters. SWP/IS maybe 1500, anyway the biggest group on the left.
In the General Election the SWP had a triumph with getting George Galloway elected, and Lindsey German got a large vote.
I was a member of the SWP from 1972 to 1982/3. For me there were three defining ideas: state capitalism, permanent arms economy, Labourism/ syndicalism. The last means “vote Labour without illusions” or whatever, linked with “build the rank and file movement” - or “vote Labour and go on strike”.
Four important ideas of orthodox Trotskyism: USSR as degenerated workers’ state; permanent revolution; Transitional Programme; Fourth International. In 1950 Cliff broke with the degenerated workers’ state idea, and the other three ideas just fell away without a clear critique.
Cliff said that the USSR was state-capitalist, meaning that the workers there were exploited as they are in factories in Britain. Hence “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism” - a Third Camp slogan - and support for popular revolts in Eastern Europe, e.g. 1953, 1956, 1968, 1980, etc. Part of the explanation for the decline of the CPGB was the impact of those revolts.
The “neither, nor, but international socialism” seems ultra-left. It misses out the national revolutions. It is like what Lenin called “imperialist economism”. And SWP has never talked specifically about what the British revolution will be like.
SR/ IS/ SWP believed that the permanent arms economy underpinned a new period of reformism, so they pushed the revolution off far into the future. They joined the Labour Party. In 1961 it had a paper called Industrial Worker, later changed to Labour Worker.
In 1965/6 IS left the Labour Party because they foresaw strikes against the Wilson government. Then 1968 was a year of national revolution - Vietnam, France, Czechoslovakia, and the civil rights movement in Ireland. IS membership shot up. IS turned to “Leninism”, and within 10 years they declared the SWP.
They were always syndicalist - saw revolution as a big strike, and rank and file movement necessary in order to combat the bureaucracy in that strike. Between 1972 and 1982 the IS/ SWP tried to build a rank and file movement, and had a lot of rank and file papers. In 1973 for a short time they had a few factory branches.
By 1982 that strategy had been seen to fail. The remaining rank and file groups were shut down.
Four points of critique. 1. Class struggle. The SWP was economistic. It tended to equate the class struggle with the economic struggle. This contrasts with the Bolshevik emphasis on an independent political struggle.
2. Programmatic anarchy. The SWP had rejected the Transitional Programme and put nothing in its place.
3. Lack of strategy. The SWP dumped permanent revolution and put nothing in its place.
4. Tactics reduced to manoeuvres, made up as they went along.
In 1982 they went for a “downturn” orientation - very sectarian. Disabled them in the miners’ strike and the poll tax movement. In Scotland at one point they pulled out of the poll tax movement because they thought it was bound to fail.
1990s: the world had changed, with collapse of the USSR. The old key IS/SWP ideas no longer relevant, or not evidently relevant. In the 1991 Gulf War the SWP line was basically just anti-US, rather than “neither Washington nor Baghdad”. The SWP had dumped the old approach of the type “neither Washington nor Moscow”.
“Vote Labour without illusions” also decayed. By 1999-2000 the SWP came to the Socialist Alliance. But they saw it as a substitute for the Labour Left.
With the anti-war movement of 2002-3 they changed again. The SWP decided to relaunch the Socialist Alliance as a Labourite Socialist Alliance with a Labour MP, i.e. Respect. The SWP has not broken with Labourism. Today it has no rudder. It is going wherever it thinks it can make gains.
Now it has told all its members they must put everything into Respect. So the need is to regroup the forces to the left of Respect.
Sean Matgamna: I’m writing a big pamphlet about the history of the SWP, so I’ve gone through the archives. Also I was a member of the IS/ SWP National Committee in the formative period of 1968-71.
The SWP is one of the biggest “revolutionary” and “Trotskyist” groups around. But I think they have gone mad.
Five years ago, the SWP supported Serbian imperialism in the Kosova war. They supported the Belgrade regime at the time when it was engaged in a would-be genocidal attack on the people of Kosova. That was a big shift. But worse since then.
Today they have allied with political Islam. In Muslim communities they have allied not with the youth, the secularists, the women, but with the community leaders.
They have allied with George Galloway, who openly admits taking money for his political activity from Saudi Arabia, and was openly friendly to the Saddam regime in 1994-2003. The SR/ IS/ SWP used to say that the orthodox Trotskyists were too soft on Stalinism, but now they are allied with an open friend of a Stalinist-type regime.
The SWP has embraced a totally negativist attitude to the world around them. Marxists have a negative critique of the world as it is, but we also have a positive programme, based on elements of that same world around us.
Stalinism annexed the “anti-capitalist” elements of the Marxist programme, but jettisoned the positive socialist and democratic elements of it and substituted a different, Stalinist, programme. The SWP has done something similar.
The SWP opposes “imperialism” in a way which means opposing advanced capitalism and implicitly favouring backward capitalism. They do not understand that e.g. political Islam is worse than liberal capitalism. They have fallen into something like what Marx in the Communist Manifesto called “reactionary socialism”.
The SWP’s account of their own history is heavily myth-ridden. It’s like the mythology in which the Fabians claimed to have been the founders of the Labour Party when in fact they had supported “permeation” of the Liberals.
The SWP myth says that the orthodox Trotskyists became satellites of Stalinism after the failure of Trotsky’s predictions of the overthrow of Stalinism, and Cliff saved the day with his theory of state capitalism. The SWP’s virtues were that it rejected Stalinism and looked to working-class self-emancipation. That stance put it on a unique course of healthy development.
That is all myth. In the first place there were many theories of state capitalism. The Titoites were state capitalist. The official international trade union centre held to a state capitalist view of the USSR. What was unique to Cliff was a peculiar idea of the “capitalist” mechanisms in the USSR.
The IS didn’t leave the Labour Party in 1965/6. It drifted out piecemeal in 1968/70. In the Labour Party it had been sectarian, eschewing the task of organising the left on a broad basis. It made abstract propaganda in the early 1950s. Then in the mid-1950s that approach fell apart, and they flipped over into an ultra-“broad” approach. A key text of theirs was Cliff’s pamphlet on Rosa Luxemburg, 1959/60, where the idea was that socialists should remain in the Labour Party until the workers were on the streets in revolution.
State capitalism has the merit of not being workers’-state-ism. But SR/IS in the 1950s was no good at understanding what was going on. In the post-Stalin thaw they kept on predicting a new Stalin. Right up to the mid 1950s they said World War Three was inevitable because of Russia’s drive to war in order to seize areas to loot.
In the early 1960s they then developed a perspective that Russia would develop into “welfare state capitalism”. That was just before the Brezhnev period!
The SWP myth says that they had a realistic picture of post-1945 capitalism, unlike the Healyites, the Mandelites, etc., because of their “permanent arms economy” theory. In fact, they did not develop that theory. The US Shachtmanites did. And e.g. Healy also developed the thesis that the war economy was the only way for capitalism to avert slumps. What Cliff added in his 1957 article on the “permanent arms economy” was the idea that the stabilisation was long term.
What most differentiates the Cliffites among “state capitalists” and “bureaucratic collectivists” is that they drew no political conclusions from their analysis of the USSR. They did refuse to take sides in Korea. But then they changed their line. In December 1952 they adopted the line, “All foreign troops out of Korea”, which meant in practice victory for the North Korean army.
From then on they paralleled the orthodox Trotskyists at every point. E.g. they advocated handing the people of Hong Kong over to Mao’s China.
The SWP evolved into an organisation that separated politics from organisation. From about 1965 the idea of “building an organisation”, politics secondary, becomes their central answer. They say whatever they think will bring them members.
Cliff said openly in 1971 (with Europe in mind): “Tactics contradict theory”.
Thus e.g. in 2001 they can end up “explaining” (away) the Taliban’s treatment of women. They have fallen into “Apparatus Marxism”.
The SWP’s anti-Zionism? The SWP is in fact a force for anti-semitism. They are not racists. But they spread an Arab-chauvinist account of 20th century Jewish history. And they have been able to build on existing “left anti-semitic” traditions, for example developed by the CP, e.g. around the show trials in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1940s. Also by the SLL/ WRP in the 1970s, especially after they sold themselves to Iraq and Libya. The core fact is that you cannot be root-and-branch hostile to the Israeli Jews without also being hostile to the big majority of Jews worldwide who instinctively identify with Israel.
The SWP didn’t say much about that until the 1980s. But since then they have picked that up in a big way, e.g. targeting Jewish students and telling them to denounce Zionism or be condemned as racists.
SWP members today are depoliticised. In 1968-71 there was a much higher level of politics than now among the top layers of the IS/ SWP, but even then there was a lot of deference to Cliff’s “nose”, e.g. over Europe in 1971. The central value is “build the organisation”, and you’re told that you have to play smart and canny in order to do it. It’s a slightly crazed caricature of Second International Marxism.