Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty are Trotskyist. But we have argued that “orthodox Trotskyism” from the 1940s became warped by traits and syndromes alien to the spirit, though sometimes not to the letter, of the ideas of Trotsky and the Bolshevik rearguard.
More light and instruction can be found in the tradition of the “Third Camp” Trotskyists such as Max Shachtman and Hal Draper.
To describe the SWP (IS, SR) as “orthodox Trotskyist with quirks” seems puzzling. The core idea of “orthodox Trotskyism” was that the USSR, despite become the world’s second big power, remained a “degenerated workers’ state”, and the Stalinist states from Poland to North Korea were “deformed workers’ states”. The SWP (IS, SR) called them “state capitalists”.
Two things explain the puzzle. The most characteristic quirk of the SWP (IS, SR) has been its readiness to sideline theory of any sort in favour of hunches, improvisations, and borrowings from elsewhere. So, for example, for most of the 1960s IS sidelined the idea of a combative, centralised party in favour of borrowings from the ILP.
Second, Cliff’s distinctive version of “state capitalism” (there are and have been many others) was one which presented Russian state capitalism as the most extremely advanced species of capitalism — “the highest stage which capitalism can ever reach... speed of the development of the productive forces... far outstripping what youthful capitalism experienced, and the very opposite of what capitalism in decay and stagnation experiences”.
The difference is not great between that and seeing the Stalinist states as a “most backward” form of workers’ state (as in the particular strand of “orthodox” Trotskyism in which Cliff was formed, the RCP majority of Ted Grant). In any case, despite the difference of label, the SWP (IS, SR) attitude to the Stalinist states has often been little different from that of some strands of “orthodox” Trotskyism. The main body of this supplement discusses the case of China and Korea. In his book Trotskyism Alex Callinicos retrospectively aligns the SWP with Cannon and the “orthodox”, not with Shachtman and Draper, in the split of 1940 over Russia and Finland.
In the introduction to the book The Fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 1, I sketched the characteristics of “orthodox” Trotskyism in four points. All four apply to the SWP (IS, SR) with small modifications.
“1) Marx and Engels made socialism “scientific” by converting it from a moral scheme, counterposed to capitalism, into a logical, although revolutionary, dialectical development from material preconditions created by capitalism. In neo-Trotskyism (that is, mainstream revolutionary socialism, for a whole era) a pre-Marxist sectarian rejection of capitalism on a world scale, and an identification with Stalinist states as a progressive alternative (because they were anti-capitalist), had replaced this idea of the relationship of capitalism to socialism.
“The idea that capitalism (and even on some levels imperialism) is progressive was excised from Marxism. So was the idea that to reject and negate the progressive work of capitalism (technology, bourgeois civilisation, the creation of the working class) is sectarian and backward-looking. Marxists reverted to the spirit of those who in the mid-nineteenth century wanted to go backwards from industrialism and of those against whom Lenin polemicised for their “petty-bourgeois” desire to unscramble imperialist concentrations of industry back to an earlier stage of capitalism...
“Even reactionary alternatives to capitalism, and not Stalinist ones alone, were seen as progressive, even though they destroyed the fruits of world civilisation since the Renaissance. World history was seen teleologically as a process with an outcome — world socialism — mechanically fixed in advance, irrespective of what living women and men did or failed to do”.
“2) The patently false notion that capitalism had reached its historic end was used in the spirit of utopian socialists who felt they had discovered ‘the last word’...”
[According to SWP myth, IS distinguished itself by more realism about capitalist stabilisation than the “orthodox” Trotskyists. In the 1940s the RCP majority, though “orthodox”, was somewhat more realistic about economic prospects than the rest of the “orthodox”; no special credit accrues to Cliff for going with the majority. Pretty much all Trotskyists recognised the facts of capitalist stabilisation in the 1950s and 60s. SR depicted World War Three as imminent and almost-inevitable for longer than the others. IS shines only by contrast with one particular “orthodox” Trotskyist group, the Healyite SLL, which in the 60s, spiralling off into sectarian ruin, went in for manic crisis-mongering. And it does not shine bright. IS’s alternative was not sober and accurate, but a claim that capitalism had become stable for a long time to come, made most confidently just on the eve of the break-up of the high days of the 1950s and 60s. Since the early 1970s, SWP has been dedicated to permanent crisis talk.]
“3) The idea that the proletarian revolution is made by the proletariat and cannot be made for them had been displaced by the idea of a locum acting to create, if not socialism, then the first decisive step towards socialism — the creation of a ‘workers’ state’... Democracy was a desirable extra. It could be done without in the “workers’ revolution”, at least in the first and immediate stage. The idea of socialist revolution was detached from Marx’s notion of the organised, self-aware working class as the force that could make it, and reduced to millenarianism, the hope for a superhuman agent of liberation. Marxists became millenarians scanning the horizon for the revolutionary agency.
[With the SWP (IS, SR) this trait has come to the fore only recently, with their adoption of political Islam as the force which will make the first (“anti-imperialist”) stage of the revolution. The SWP praise the resultant states, like Iran, as better than the common run of states; that they abstain from naming them “deformed workers’ states” is only small relief].
“4) Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto saw the development of the organised, conscious communist political party as integrally interlinked with the self-development of the whole working class. The communists would ‘represent the future of the movement in the movement of the present’. This was replaced by the notion of a ‘party’ self-defined by the possession of an esoteric doctrine and revelation...
“Having once discovered that truth, their job was primarily to gain enough forces, anyhow, to present themselves as ‘the leadership’ to the elemental working-class revolt guaranteed by the decay of capitalism...”