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SWP in crisis: what went wrong?

The biggest left group in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, suffered a serious setback when its Respect project split in November. Simon Hardy explains the political roots of its crisis

The Respect project has split in two with the overwhelming majority of non-Socialist Workers Party members going with Respect Renewal. Respect now has only a tiny number of non-SWP members, which reduces it to an electoral front for the SWP. Thus the entire perspective and practice of the SWP over the last four years lies in ruins. Despite this, the SWP leadership maintains a line of “official optimism” that things are going great and very few mistakes have been made. Many members have started to question this line openly.

The entire history of the SWP and its predecessors has been one of dramatic zigzags. Each one saw them lose members, declared to be ‘out of touch’ with the new line. What marks all of them is a thoroughgoing adaptation to what the SWP leaders judged at the time to be the limits of the political consciousness of workers in Britain. This has always been key to what they advanced in its day-to-day agitation. In the 1970s it was militant rank-and-file trade unionism, in 1999-2003 it was the left reformism of the Socialist Alliance, from 2003-2007 it was the populism of Respect. In Stop the War it was something nearly identical to the Popular Front of Stalinism, with the Liberals leadership and so-called progressive Tories (Michael Ancrim) invited along to demonstrations and Peoples Assemblies.

Instead of outlining the policies necessary not only to win the struggles of today but also to open the road to the struggle for workers power- the socialist revolution, the SWP has always presented two faces. One is an abstract revolutionary message for its members in their open forums and at Marxism. The other is a much ‘softer’ reformist message for workers in struggle. This method is called tailism, and it is a classic hallmark of a centrist organisation, one that swings between revolutionary propaganda and reformist practice, that cannot guide its activities with revolutionary principles.

However recent changes in the practice of the SWP has been even more dramatic than usual. The process began around 2000 with their return to electoral work after over twenty years of resolute abstention. Only twelve years ago they were writing:

“In words it is possible to talk about combining serious intervention in the elections with struggle outside the Commons. In practice, the two pull in opposite directions. The search for votes pushes a party towards a softening of its message, towards a search for accommodation with the union leaders’ in order to secure backing and finance. The alternative is to centre on struggle and to recognise that in any situation short of an insurrection revolutionary socialists will appeal to only a minority of the class”.

At the time Workers Power replied that this showed a complete lack of faith in their own capacity to resist temptation. We argued that, providing they were armed with a clear revolutionary programme it was possible to use the electoral tribune to put these ideas across to working class people at election times. The ‘secret’ was simply that revolutionaries used election to win workers to revolutionary ideas. The votes they got measured this. The reformist approach was to “win” votes, win seats, and eventually win office in local councils or in parliament. In order to achieve this it is vital to adopt exclusively such policies as would maximise the votes. Because the “power” won by these means was not even the power to substantially improve working class peoples daily lives within capitalist society let alone to overthrow capitalism such an approach was unprincipled and self-defeating for revolutionaries.

We predicted that if the SWP actually turned to electioneering they would verify their own prediction and indeed “soften their message” in the “search for votes”. We have been proved totally right. But this has nothing to do with the inherent nature of electoral work, after all the Bolsheviks carried it out in the Russian Duma. It is because if you approach electoral work in a reformist vote catching manner – the end goal of winning seats becomes the most important objective.

As soon as the SWP started to engage in any kind of election work they lurched rapidly to the right, first standing on a left reformist basis in the Socialist Alliance, then moving further to the right with Respect, creating a party which was explicitly “non-socialist”. This was indeed a “softening of the message”.

As soon as this opportunist model of building non-revolutionary parties to the left of Labour took hold and became theorised, it signalled a massive shift in direction for the SWP, towards increasing accommodation to non-revolutionary forces. An example of this was their position on immigration controls; they correctly argued for “no borders” in the Socialist Alliance, but then dropped it for Respect, saying that it was ‘unrealistic’ to call for it now. The smash up of the whole Respect bandwagon has thrown this whole approach into crisis. Voices questioning what the SWP leadership is doing are getting louder and louder.

Internal discontent

In November a think piece by long-term SWP member Mark Steel was leaked – it was a document that he had written to the SWP pre-conference internal bulletin. In it he points to the decline of the SWP in terms of membership and influence, since the late 90s. And indeed there is little doubt that this is the case. The steadily declining size of Marxism over the last few years testifies to this.

The SWP’s own membership has undoubtedly dropped over the last decade. In an article by John Rees in May 2003 Socialist Review he claimed the SWP had 10,000 members. By the 2004 conference the SWP central committee claimed 4,240 registered members, and despite the call by John Rees for “every SWP member to become a Respect expert” (i.e. to join Respect) after Galloway was elected in 2005, Respect’s membership before the recent split was only around 2,500. A real sign of the strength of the SWP came when they launched a petition against the autumn political attacks by George Galloway. Even after being online for over 3 weeks only 1,100 people signed it – it can be assumed that this figure is much closer to the real size of the SWP. Widespread reports suggest hundreds of SWP members are dropping out in disillusionment.

Mark Steel sees the root of the problem in the objective problems of the past four or five years, pointing to the failure of the anti war movement, despite its size and scope, to stop the war. He castigates the SWP leaders failure to accept such setbacks, their “official optimism” and he calls for a more democratic culture of internal debate and discussion.

In the pre conference bulletin he writes, “the gap between the rhetoric and the reality has left countless comrades feeling it must be them that’s failing. If only they were more organised, or understood the perspective better, they’d be enjoying successes such as those they’re being told about. And so we arrive at the remarkable outcome in which the party designed to embolden socialists, to make them feel stronger and more capable of intervening in daily conflicts, makes them feel helpless and demoralised.”

Of course as Workers Power pointed out at the time the failure to stop the war, the failure to mount more than the token mass demonstration was a real setback. However we also pointed out that these defeats were not simply objective events but subjective failures, indeed betrayals by the leaders of the working class. The period from the autumn of 2002 and the autumn of 2003 – of the preparations for war, of the mobilisation of over a million people, of a major political crisis, posed the real possibility of turning mass protest into mass direct action.

But this could not have been done except by putting the “left” trade union leaders on the spot, by demands on them to call for strike action to stop the attack on Iraq, by open mass agitation to mobilise the rank and file to direct action. The SWP would not do this. Whilst supporting the isolated actions, like the Motherwell train drivers strike action against a munitions shipment in 2003, it shielded the union leaders and the left MPs from any criticism for their inaction. In short, true to its historic method it tailed behind what it thought was the maximum that the existing consciousness of the workers would stretch to. Unsurprisingly this turned out to be just what the left trade union leaders would go along with – Sunday demonstrations, a Peoples Assembly that was limited to being a talking shop, debates in Parliament with lobbies in parliament square.

It is no surprise that the SWP leadership does not allow any real internal discussion, any real drawing of a balance sheet of their manoeuvres; rejecting the very idea of their party possessing a coherent political programme in favour of simply “relating to the struggles” and building compartmentalised “united fronts” with forces well to their right the party acting as the organising and propaganda core of each of them. Since the death of SWP founder Tony Cliff at the turn of the century, the new leadership – especially John Rees, Lindsey German and Alex Callinicos – even downgraded the calls to “build the revolutionary party” which had characterised the SWPs work in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact the previous “build the party” policy saw the SWP become very isolated during the historic class struggles of the 1980s, which the SWP laughably described as the period of the downturn.

The SWP theorised this relegation of the party by claiming that they were now operating the “united front of a special type”, effectively long term single issue campaigns with star platform speakers – MPs, union leaders, authors – focused on big rallies, mass demonstrations and, in the case of the Socialist Alliance and Respect, election campaigns. The political spectrum of the “united front of a special type” was limited to what was acceptable to the celebrities. There was no question either of the SWP leaders themselves exceeding these limits, let alone making any criticism of their partners, whatever they said or did or failed to do.

The united front

The fact that sooner or later the SWP falls out violently with their erstwhile partners – George Monbiot in Globalise Resistance, Liz Davies and Mike Marqusee in the Socialist Alliance and now George Galloway, Salma Yaqoob and Nick Wrack in Respect- is directly related to this entirely dishonest relationship, whereby the SWP uses them to attract the audiences and to conceal to a degree the SWP’s organisational grip. Of course when these figures recognize that they are regarded as “useful tools” and break loose, the SWP discovers all its principled differences with them and their supposed crimes – often things the SWP had ferociously defended them over until the break.

This is in glaring contrast with the revolutionary communist tactic of the united front, which is based on unity in action (strikes, mass demonstrations, etc.) with reformist-led mass trade unions and parties. But there must be complete freedom of criticism, otherwise the revolutionary strategy and, indeed, the revolutionary organisation will be hidden from view, and workers will be unable to see an alternative leadership when the reformists betray.

This same opportunist approach was applied to the SWP’s union work (see pages 20-21), forcing them to cover for the betrayals and sell-outs of the left union leaders, in the same way that they used to cover for George Galloway’s right wing politics before the autumn of 2007.

Even if the SWP were to swing back to the left, to the the 1990s emphasis on building the revolutionary party, this would be unlikely to halt their decline. Indeed it would in all probability speed it up. Firstly even if at its peak – in the early 1990s – it really had 10,000 members, the SWP was not a real party, a significant fraction of the working class vanguard, able to challenge the reformist for leadership in the mass struggles. It was a propaganda society, an organisation that spread the basic ideas of ideas of Marxism and working class history, as they understood them. In addition it mobilised support for ongoing struggles.

To go beyond this, to even approach the stage of being a real party of the working class vanguard, the SWP would have to develop a revolutionary programme which explains the overall strategy for working class power, one which shows how to move towards this goal from every battlefield of the class struggle. Secondly it would have had to use genuine united front tactics to force the trade union leaders and the left reformists onto the terrain of mass struggle. Here during militant united mass action, the influence of revolutionaries – due to their tactical clarity and fighting skills- could spread like wildfire to the rank and file.

The reformist leaders would expose themselves for the cowardly, unreliable and treacherous elements they really are. But the SWP has never been able to hold to such a course. Either it engages in gross opportunist adaptation to the leaders, whilst trying to keep a tight grip on the organisation, or it spins off into sectarian self-promotion, obstructing the necessary unity in action that the class struggle constantly demands. That is why the SWP is a centrist organisation that cannot and will not build a revolutionary party in Britain or internationally.

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