The SWP: where did it all go wrong?

Submitted by martin on 5 February, 2013 - 6:28

On 3 February the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) National Committee met and voted to authorise the smaller Central Committee to expel members of the opposition which has developed within the SWP since the run-up to its 4-6 January conference. Former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker has already quit and published a long analysis of the SWP. We print extracts. Full text:

The first charge levelled at any opposition is that they are "outside the tradition", either because they have consciously abandoned it or because they never understood it in the first place. But let us go back a little into the history of the International Socialism (IS) tradition, and examine exactly what is and isn't part of it.

The SWP traces its roots back to the IS of the 1960s and 70s, and from there to the 1950s Socialist Review group. This then-tiny tendency, led by Tony Cliff and expelled from the Revolutionary Communist Party, was born out of the crisis of post-war Trotskyism. The failure of the second world war to end in revolution had seen the Trotskyists' perspectives systematically falsified. They were attempting to deny this in various ways, and collapsing into placing their hopes in Stalinist regimes of one sort or another.

Against the orthodoxy of 'official' Trotskyism, Cliff's group was deeply heterodox. Realising the mess it was in, its members devoted themselves to rethinking and debating. They developed new theory as they attempted to find a way out of the rut...

[This] from then-member Jim Higgins' More Years for the Locust... give[s] a feel for the spirit of the group: "In these days of harsh 'Leninist' orthodoxy, it is hard to recall the atmosphere at the cusp of the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialism Group. The regime was relaxed and activity was directed by persuasion and moral pressure rather than the threat of sanctions..."

Yet Cliff, who had seen the predictions of imminent revolution for what they were just two decades previously, was taken aback by the scale of the events of 1968. He attributed the failure of the French May to end in revolution to the lack of a disciplined revolutionary organisation... The loose, undisciplined IS group looked to him ill-suited to the task of challenging for state power.

Cliff began... to push for more Leninist discipline in the group. In doing so he provoked a bitter faction fight that ended with many of the IS's most prominent members walking out. It was after their departure that, in 1977, Cliff declared the transformation of the IS into the Socialist Workers Party – a party designed for revolutionary possibilities that by then were receding. It emerged into an era of defeats, which Cliff later called the 'downturn'.

Shorn of its more libertarian elements, the SWP had a newfound rigidity. It became unable to change course, and had difficulty relating even to a struggle on the scale of the 1984-5 Miners' Strike. Then the defeat of that great strike turned the "downturn" from a reverse to a rout. The party went further in locking itself down...

By the turn of the century, when the leadership recognised the new political radicalisation of the anticapitalist movement and attempted to look outwards once more, the party was deeply scarred by its years of insularity. It came out of the bunker, but could not break with the bunker mentality. The result has been protracted crisis...

Nevertheless, the real IS tradition is surely to be found in the iconoclastic spirit of those years [1950s]...

Luxemburg was no spontaneist opponent of centralism – in fact she was a defender of her own conception of centralism against Lenin's. But equally she understood the importance of apparently spontaneous action and what it can teach us, and believed no one had an organisational model that would be correct for all situations...

Luxemburg is, in my view, the best place to start in further reading if you want to understand the problems of the SWP... Start with her relatively short 1904 work, Organisational Questions, then from there – and especially if you think 1917 invalidated her earlier criticisms – read The Russian Revolution, written in 1918 and posing some hard questions about the Bolsheviks' theory and practice...


The real history of SWP

By Martin Thomas

Tom Walker's picture of SWP history is askew on important points.

Tony Cliff wrote his text on state capitalism in Russia in 1948. Many Trotskyists proposed varied ideas on the USSR in the 1940s, and drew conclusions. Cliff remained in the majority of the Revolutionary Communist Party (the British Trotskyist group of the time), without differentiation on immediate political issues.

Cliff and others were not expelled from the RCP, but from the Trotskyist group created within the Labour Party after the collapse of the RCP. The immediate issue was the refusal of Cliff's co-thinkers to back North Korea in the Korean war. The stance of the Trotskyist majority led by Gerry Healy can surely be criticised; but it is exaggeration to accuse the majority Trotskyists of "placing their hopes in Stalinist regime". Moreover, in December 1952 Cliff's Socialist Review group switched to a line on Korea, emphasising the call for US and allied troops to get out, which was in practice not much different from the majority's.

SR was, in all but Cliff's theory on Russia, a variant "orthodox Trotskyist" group. In 1958-60 it switched to call itself "Luxemburgist". It conceded that Healy's SLL were the real "Trotskyists" and "Leninists", but deplored that "Leninism".

Rosa Luxemburg wrote a polemic in 1904 against Lenin's pamphlet on the 1903 congress of the Russian Marxists and the subsequent unilateral annulling by the Mensheviks of the congress's decision on the editorial board of their paper Iskra. Lenin replied, rightly I think: "I must point out that Rosa Luxemburg's... article does not acquaint the reader with my book, but with something else":

By June 1906 Luxemburg was, and remained, clearly on the side of the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks: It is not true that she and Lenin had rival "theories of the party": subsequent "Luxemburgism" was concocted in the 1930s from snippets of her writings:,

In 1968 Cliff proposed that the group (now called IS) switch back to having a committee elected by its conference, rather than a federal structure where each branch sent a representative to a committee. The initial argument was more about the impracticality of federal structure, now the group was larger, than about any theory, let alone about "challenging for state power": Bit by bit, without ever saying it had been wrong in the "Luxemburgist" period, the group took to calling itself "Leninist" and "Trotskyist".

Lenin's focus was on the means to fight for political clarity; the IS-SWP "Leninism" was administrative centralism. It turned nasty as soon as political battles spilled beyond the old family discussion circle mode. In December 1971 IS expelled the Trotskyist Tendency (forerunner of AWL), essentially for being a "permanent faction"; in 1973, another group, for having excessive differences with majority politics; in 1974, yet another, for refusing to dissolve as a faction after annual conference.

The alleged libertarian Jim Higgins was, as chair of the IS Executive and then National Secretary, central in imposing the new regime. He then fell foul of it himself. He and co-thinkers were expelled in 1975 after a row not about regime but about a push by Cliff for "steering left", towards "raw youth who wanted to chop the head off capitalism", and away from patience in trade-union work.

IS (SWP, from 1977) did not become "unable to change course". More's the pity. It veered from "steering left" to declaring an all-stifling industrial "downturn"; etc.

It dropped its 1979-88 "downturn" orientation not at the turn of the century, but at the end of the 1980s. By the early 1990s it was claiming that vast revolutionary recruitment was possible with an effort. In 1992 it called for a general strike (after insisting during the 1984-5 miners' strike that it was fantasy); soon it had banners saying: "Paris 1968, London 1994".

In the meantime, it had shifted its world orientation away from those elements of "Third Camp" politics it once had. From 1980 it opposed the Iran-Iraq war on both sides; in 1987 it shifted, with thin excuses and no accounting, to backing Iran.

That shift set the framework for subsequent turns, including the Respect fiasco and the shift from April 2002 to explicit alliance with political Islam continued these days with its call for votes for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

When SWP became "Leninist"

In the 1960s, a central SWP (IS) text was a pamphlet by Tony Cliff on Rosa Luxemburg. In 1968 the pamphlet was reprinted, with its argument unchanged - but a crucial concluding paragraph reversed! This comment is from an article on The Politics of IS, written by Sean Matgamna, and published by the Trotskyist Tendency, forerunner of AWL, at Easter 1969.

In Luxemburg, edition '68, Cliff is a changed man! Nowhere is the result more startling than in the final paragraph of the chapter on Luxemburg and Lenin.

1959 edition: "For Marxists in advanced industrial countries, Lenin's original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg's, notwithstanding her overstatements on the question of spontaneity."

1968 edition: "However, whatever the historical circumstances moulding Rosa's thoughts regarding organisation, these thoughts showed a great weakness in the German revolution of 1918-19."

Of course people change their minds. When Marxists do so it would be good to know why and how... In this case there is a mystery: one and the same exposition (without supplement) leads to opposite conclusions. Why? How does Comrade Cliff reach his conclusions?...

The IS attitude to the question of the Leninist Party has been... contempt for the idea of organising a small propaganda group as a fighting propaganda group.

The current change - motivated allegedly on the May [1968] events in France but seemingly owing as much if not more to the happy coincidence that the Group had just too many members to make federalism comfortable: after all, what conclusions were drawn from the Belgian General Strike in 1961? - has resembled not so much a rectification of theory and practice by serious communists, as an exercise in the medieval art of palimpsestry.

The leadership does not have a clear conception of the party that needs to be built. "Whether the IS group will by simple arithmetic progression grow into a revolutionary party, or whether the party will grow from a yet unformed group is not important for us" (Political Committee document, October 1968). On the contrary, it is vital.

If the strategy is one which expects any big changes from the shift to come in the already organised labour movement (all experience in the past suggests that this is the likely way a real mass revolutionary movement will develop in a country like Britain) rather than by arithmetical accretion, then this decrees the need for us to build a cadre movement to be able to intervene. The lack of a clear strategy on the relationship of IS to the class and the organised labour movement is obvious.

Consequently IS is being built as a loose, all-in type of group. Lacking a strategy the leadership looks always for short cuts.

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