The SWP and the "IS tradition"

Submitted by AWL on 10 April, 2007 - 8:18

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.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/06/2005 - 21:12

a most bizzare series of speeches- full of complete falsehoods and as usual taken out of context, The charge of anti semitism is utterly disgraceful- given that Cliff lost a significant part of his extended family in the holocaust the idea that he was some sort of anti semite is grotesque. What he did do was argue for defense of the palestinians and the fact that Jewish people and Arabs are able to live together. This allied to the fact that Israel is a puppet regime who generally act in the interests of US imperialism. The fact that the AWL deny this just shows your complete capitulation to imperialism.
I do remember Socialist Organiser (Your forerunner) used to argue for a secular state in the middle east and against Zionism. Now I understand that Mr Magammna has declared himself a Zionist butthe socialist and revolutionary traditions are not part of this movement of zionism.
Of course you also deny the right of land to aborigines and native americans - a consequence of your change over israel. Also now you want to re draw the border in Ireland- autonomy for the loyalists. The pessimism of the AWL about Working class unity is staggering and all along the while you give ground to the right.
Whilst the AWL was defending stalinsim the SWP for many years identified its class nature.the thoery of state capitalism was proved correct in practice. The SWP has not cliamed to have got everything right but compared to the AWL it has been significantly more consistent in standing with the oppressed. Unlike the AWL with its anti muslim paranoia.

Submitted by Janine on Sat, 11/06/2005 - 10:02

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

1. Please list the alleged 'falsehoods' in these speech notes, and I am sure we will gladly correct them.

2. If being Jewish exempts you from the possibility of pursuing anti-semitic politics, then is Margaret Thatcher also exempted from any responsibility for sexist politics?

3. Read the paragraph about anti-semitism again. Sean explicitly states that he is not accusing SWP individuals of being racist anti-semites - in fact, he says that SWP members are *not* racists. What he argues is that your *politics* encourage anti-semitism. He's right. How else do you explain that the Israeli Jews are the *only* nation in the world to whom you deny national rights?

4. Please tell me your source for the statement about the AWL's policy on aboriginal and native american land rights.

5. The AWL does not want to re-draw the border in Northern Ireland. We have consistently argued that the Northern Ireland statelet is an unviable unit and that simply adjusting the border will not solve that. We argue for a united Ireland. For that to be a policy that both Catholic-nationalist and Protestant-unionist workers will support, then it needs to be a united Ireland in which each community can have confidence that it will have its rights protected. ie. a federal united Ireland. That is not a "redrawn border" unless you also think that the border between Hackney and Islington has the same status as a national border.

6. It is not the AWL that is pessimistic about working-class unity. Quite the opposite. We recognise that where there are distinct communities or nations in a particular area, then working-class unity can only be built with a democratic policy and recognises the rights of both.

7. By contrast, the SWP's "optimism" is not for working-class unity, but for non-working class 'solutions'. For the working class, it is not optimistic but utopian, as it relies on the idea that one of the two communities would willingly sacrifice its rights.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/06/2005 - 22:50

In reply to by Janine

do you think palestinians driven from their homes at gunpoint have the right to return to their villages and towns?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 19/06/2005 - 21:13

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

"do you think palestinians driven from their homes at gunpoint have the right to return to their villages and towns?"

Yes, of course.

I also believe they should have the right to go and live in New York or Amsterdam or Bognor Regis or anywhere else they might so choose, because that's what freedom of movement of peoples between states means.

I also believe that Palestinian refugees who don't want to move back to Israel or a future Palestinian state should be allowed to claim compensation.

I don't believe that the way the "right of return" demand is used by the left sums any of these sentiments up.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 27/06/2005 - 01:15

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

the issue of bognor frankly is a red herring because they were driven off their land in what is now Israel. So I am glad that the AWL does stand by the right of Palestinians to re claim their land and homes from those who have taken them over regardless of the fact that it was 50- yrs ago. This is a step forward. I heard from a member of the AWL that you were not for the right of return and was shocked by this but this does not seem to be true.
It therefore seems wrong for the AWL to give the right to Israel to kill those opposing their occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I am interested in the logic by which you think Israel has the right to murder leading Hamas members.

Submitted by Janine on Mon, 27/06/2005 - 08:51

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Can you clarify what you mean by the Palestinians reclaiming their homes "from those who have taken them over ..."?

I would think that, except for maybe a handful of cases, those houses will not be inhabited by the people who physically drove out the Palestinians, but by ordinary Israeli citizens.

Are you advocating that they be physcially evicted from their homes to make way for returning Palestinians?

If so, are you not answering one injustice with another?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 20/06/2005 - 17:16

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Can you give a specific example of "anti-Muslim paranoia" on the part of the AWL?

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