National Sections of the L5I:

Introduction

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The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group on the British left, began the 1990s in an optimistic mood. With the fall of Thatcher heralding a new period of instability in British politics, the party decided it was time to "go for growth".

Such optimism is to be welcomed. But what many newer recruits to the SWP will not know is that only a few years ago the party was in the grip of a self-defeating pessimism. The SWP’s politics, for most of the 1980s, was dominated by the perspective of the “downturn”.

The move towards the current optimism and away from the preceding mood of doom and gloom represents a dramatic shift in the perspectives and orientation of the SWP. Such shifts are characteristic of its entire history and of its forerunner, the International Socialists (IS). The leader of the SWP, Tony Cliff, likes to justify such 180 degree turns as "bending the stick" in the face of new developments. This is a far cry from the truth.

The zig-zags of the SWP are not tactical responses to changed circumstances in the class struggle on the basis of a consistent Marxist strategy. They are a series of ill conceived political gyrations, inevitable for a group that lacks the ballast of a revolutionary programme. The situation in the real world is made to fit the SWP leadership’s latest schema for the growth or preservation of the party.

These lurches by the SWP, first one way and then another, have bred a form of opportunism known to Marxists as “economism”. That is, the SWP accommodate their politics and arguments to the the ideas prevalent within the working class and the existing level of struggle, failing to mount a practical political challenge to the leaders of that struggle and to give it a revolutionary direction. Occasionally, however, it has led the party to present a “left” face and indulge in sectarian binges. In both variants the remarkable thing is that the SWP never advocate anything other than a set of minimalist, if militant, demands and tactics--most of which are already being fought for by the workers in any case.

In the 1970s the IS cut with the grain of working class militancy but refused to challenge the reformist political limitations of such militancy or the political prejudices of many workers on issues such as racism, sexism and lesbian and gay rights. After the election of a Labour government in 1974 the party attempted to hold the ground it had made by consciously "steering left". Systematic work in the unions was increasingly subordinated to building party fronts like the Right to Work Campaign. Instead of challenging the reformist leaders the SWP set its supporters off on marches around the country and lobbies of TUC congresses, which ended up with them kicking the shins of the bureaucrats rather than challenging their misleadership politically.

On other issues too, the SWP veered wildly. From militant anti-fascism, culminating in the Battle of Lewisham in 1977, the party retreated in the face of media hostility into a popular frontist campaign, the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), which organised rock concerts instead of physically confronting the fascists. From disregarding the importance of the fight for women’s liberation the SWP became prominent activists in the thoroughly feminist and objectively reactionary (i.e. pro-censorship) anti-pornography campaign, "Reclaim the Night". After declaring "the party" in 1976 and standing against Labour in the period before 1979, they became Labour’s undemanding supporters at the election. Their mass party perspective was quietly shelved.

In the course of all of these sharp turns the IS/SWP preferred to rid itself of internal opponents bureaucratically rather than honestly account for the problems with their politics and perspectives. Hundreds of people--including the Left Faction, the forerunner of Workers Power--were expelled simply for raising differences. This process went on and on, and was particularly intense in the period between 1973 and 1979, until the party was thoroughly purged of many of its leading cadre. The Central Committee was, by these means, guaranteed that its past mistakes would not be called to account and that its future policy swerves were unlikely to generate any opposition.

Then came the justification for the SWP’s failure to become the mass party in the 1970s, and its excuse for not trying to become it in the 1980s--the “downturn”. This perspective was a perfect alibi for Cliff and the other SWP leaders. It begins in 1975, the year when the SWP’s period of growth from a tiny propaganda group into an organisation 4,000 strong with roots in the working class came to an end.

Now, they claim, it is beginning to give way to a "new mood" of confidence inside the working class, just at the point when the SWP are recording their best rates of growth for many years. How convenient that the entire class struggle can be understood and categorised according to how well or badly an organisation is growing, especially one which, by the SWP’s own admission, is still not a major factor in the class struggle.

From all of this we can see that the SWP’s view of perspectives has little in common with Marxism. Their perspectives are framed for the benefit of the party, not the class. They are designed to justify the latest turn of the leadership, not equip the members with practical revolutionary answers to take into the class struggle.

What holds the SWP together through all of these chops and changes is its adherence to state capitalism. This theory, which claims that the USSR and Eastern European states were capitalist and that the Stalinist bureaucracy is a collective capitalist class owning and controlling the entire economy, is the fundamental basis of the SWP’s politics. It was over this issue that Cliff split from the Fourth International at the end of the 1940s. It remains the distinctive and unifying theory of the party. Whatever the tactical twists and turns it engages in, all members can still agree on this theory.

State capitalism explains how the SWP has been able to establish international links with other left groups with whom, at many other levels, it has profound disagreements. Its international co-thinkers all agree that the USSR was a capitalist country and are content to unite with the SWP on that basis. The SWP is a profoundly national centred organisation. Its internationalism does not consist of a serious attempt to refound a revolutionary International on the basis of a common world programme. It is scornful of such efforts and has repeatedy argued that until there are mass parties in a number of countries any efforts directed towards constructing a revolutionary International are doomed.

This lack of active internationalism means that it has no problem uniting with other groups despite major differences. The SWP itself reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the British labour movement. Its syndicalism and economism are the manifestations of an adaptation to Britain’s traditions of trade unionist politics. Its fraternal organisations reflect different national pressures and often pursue very different tactics to those the SWP would endorse.

Indeed throughout the history of its international work the SWP has coquetted with groups with a Maoist and even guerillaist orientation (the PRP-BR during the Portugese revolution, and more recently the pro-Albanian Communist Party of New Zealand). So long as they all agree that the USSR was state capitalist these differences are relegated to secondary issues by the SWP. Each national group gets on with its own work and democratic centralism at an international level is not even considered.

The SWP’s attitudes to perspectives, party building and the construction of an International demonstrate their inability to advance a consistent and coherent Marxist strategy. The twists and the turns flow directly from their refusal to develop such a strategy, to anchor their politics in a revolutionary programme.

Marxism has a word for such a method – centrism. The SWP are a centrist organisation. In this pamphlet we demonstrate the different ways in which, at different times, the SWP’s centrism has revealed itself. We appeal to all those members of the SWP who read the pamphlet to discuss its contents with us; we appeal to all those who agree with us to join us.

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