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Facing reality – after the crisis in the SWP

John Palmer looks at some of the roots of the party's problems, and asks where the left can go from here

January 22, 2013
10 min read

John Palmer was a long standing member of Socialist Review (SR) and the International Socialists (IS), the forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party. He left after a major split in the IS in mid 1970s which led to the creation of the SWP.

An explosive row over allegations of rape made against a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party has triggered bitter divisions in the largest of the far left parties in Britain and speculation about a potential split. Whatever criticisms others on the left have about the SWP, its interventions and its organisational methods, no one can take pleasure in the prospect of further fragmentation of the radical left when so many yearn for a coherent and effective socialist alternative to a discredited economic and political establishment.

The issue of sexual violence and how the matter has been handled by the SWP leadership – serious as it is – has in turn ignited far wider discontent among party members. What started as a purely internal dispute has now gone public and viral. It has exposed serious questions about the internal life of the party; its system of ‘democratic centralism’, the unrealistic hype which infuses much of the SWP’s propaganda, its sectarianism and resentment among many members about being treated as voiceless and ultimately dispensable foot soldiers.

The problems which beset the SWP are by no means unique on the far left. The recent story of the ‘Leninist’ far left, not only in Britain but internationally, has become too often a sad litany of millenarian expectations, followed by disillusionment, the exhaustion of activists, internal splits and political impotence. The largest left political grouping in Britain is today made up of former members of the SWP and similar organisations.

That said, some of the finest socialists and militants are still to be found among members of parties like the SWP and the Socialist Party (SP). Without them, opposition to the vicious onslaught on the living standards and rights of working people unleashed as a result of the present economic crisis would have been even weaker and less effective than it has been.

The real issue is whether political organisations of the kind which emerged from the revolutionary currents generated by the Russian revolution, a century ago, have any future in their present form. We live in a period when the left has to fight back against the rampant right wing offensive and at the same time seek to understand the profound changes which have taken place in society and come to terms with what they mean for the theory and the practice of the left.

One obvious question is whether the era of proletarian socialism which began about 150 years ago, generated by the industrial revolution, is passing. Not only has the organised labour movement shrunk in size and influence, the Labour Party seems to have become utterly disconnected from its original base. But the era of the revolutionary socialist currents, inspired by the Bolshevik tradition, has also passed.

Democratic centralism

A key issue for those in the SWP opposed to the leadership and seeking a wholesale reform of the party is the leadership’s insistence on an ultra-centralist form of ‘democratic centralism’. This, critics believe, has reinforced a self-perpetuating clique in control of the SWP apparatus and increasingly out of touch with the outside world.

Although Lenin’s name is regularly invoked in support of democratic centralism, it meant many very different things at stages in the history of the Bolsheviks. Arguably essential to the Bolsheviks very survival in the run up to the Russian revolution, under Stalin it became the rubric for dictatorship and the destruction of the party’s revolutionary base.

Democratic centralism has most often been justified as being necessary to lead the working class to the conquest of state power and/or to survive in conditions of illegality and repression. Neither of these conditions remotely applies in this country today and has not done so for a very long time. Little wonder so many rank and file party SWP members feel stifled by the curbs on dissent imposed by a self serving ‘leadership’.

The late Tony Cliff – the charismatic leader of SR, the IS and the SWP – adopted one of Lenin’s different views on democratic centralism, having originally advocated the libertarian model favoured by the great German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. He stressed the danger of ‘substitutionism’ described by Luxemburg: the tendency for the party to substitute itself for the class, the leadership for the party and finally an individual for the leadership.

The IS was better able to relate to the social upheavals in the late 1960s and early 1970s precisely because it had earlier dumped a great deal of the catechism of the so-called ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists and had a better understanding both of the seeming stability of western capitalism and the class realities of the ‘actually existing socialism’ of the Stalinist dictatorships.

The limited but important base that the IS established among militant workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s also acted as a brake on the more frenetic ‘stick bending’ (political exaggeration) by over ambitious IS leaders seeking to short cut the long hard road to mass influence.

This may be why Cliff eventually instigated a purge in the mid-1970s which saw and expulsion and departure of so many IS shop stewards and other militants. His task was facilitated by an already centralising tendency of the system of democratic centralism which had been introduced into IS during the heightened political atmosphere triggered by the revolutionary development in France in 1968.

Class consciousness

Of course class still exists. Indeed class inequality, exploitation and injustice have become more not less grotesque in recent years. But class consciousness – what Marx described as ‘a class FOR itself not just a class IN itself’ – has declined dramatically. This has led to the virtual disappearance of much of the popular collectivist and co-operative self help culture expressed in a myriad of working class educational, cultural and other organisations built over 100 years of struggle.

The industrial working class is still growing in parts of Asia and Latin America but it is now a marginal force in the older capitalist economies in Europe and North America. Of course our trade unions still exist – mainly in an increasingly besieged public sector – and play a vital role in resisting the ever more aggressive demands of a deeply reactionary Tory government. But nonetheless the world has changed dramatically in the past 40 years and in ways that require new responses from the left.

Perhaps the least significant of these changes has been to render some of the distinguishing ideas of the original Socialist Review and International Socialists as no longer relevant. The concept of the ‘Permanent Arms Economy’ (PAE) was not originated in IS but was much developed by Cliff and Michael Kidron, the Marxist economist and first editor of International Socialism magazine.

Kidron later said that while the theory contained important ‘insights’ it did not succeed fully in explaining development in post war capitalism. The theory of State Capitalism – which analysed the dynamic driving the economies of the Stalinist states – was eventually rendered obsolete by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite economies.

These ideas initially helped give socialists confidence to resist the pressure from the Communist Party and some ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ to see defensible features of a ‘workers’ state’ in the Soviet system – including, for some, even the Russian H-bomb! The PAE was also an antidote to the tendency by some on the far left to see capitalist collapse constantly around the corner.

Doctrinal mummification

The IS had some impressive intellectual resources which could have been harnessed to develop the organisation’s understanding of the developments in global capitalism which exploded. But the original analyses got doctrinally mummified by the SWP as timelessly valid and this attitude became a break on the development of new ‘revisionist’ ideas of the kind which had initially inspired SR and the early IS.

I have always regretted the collective reluctance of the far left (not just the SWP) to explore the potential of what in the 1970s were described as ‘workers’ plans for alternative production’ which were developed by some rank and file workplace-based militants. They would not by themselves have defeated the Thatcherite onslaught on the organised trade union movement and the wholesale destruction of jobs and communities but they would have helped the labour movement build more powerful alliances with civil society and community organisations.

These were also years when feminism began to exercise a growing influence on socialists and the left’s lack of awareness of the specific problems of patriarchy and gender discrimination. This added to the internal ferment inside IS and led to the departure of a large number of the socialist feminist cadres.

It has to be faced that the left has more questions to ask at present than it has ready made answers to give. But the picture is by no means uniformly bleak. The economic crisis has undermined the political self-confidence of the ruling class. The right is fissured by a growing challenge from the populist far right. Some of the traditional social distinctions which divided working people (such as between white collar and blue collar workers) are disappearing. With the dramatic fall in the living standards of even skilled and professional workers, new forms of collective class awareness may now be emerging.

New forms of civil society activism are emerging. Many are marked by a strong, innate, internationalism. New forms of cooperative, not-for-profit associations and enterprises are emerging. Important gains for human rights have been codified in law although still widely ignored by state powers with ambitions for global hegemony. The green movement has injected the essential concept of sustainability into the debate about the economy which gives important leverage for those advocating a change in the capitalist system itself.

There is a remarkable awareness among young people that democracy needs to take more accountable and tangible forms than mere parliamentarism, as instanced by the Occupy movement. Interestingly a new YouGov poll shows a 64 per cent to 35 per cent majority among 18 to 34 year olds for remaining in the EU and fighting for a trans-national democracy to help shape global solutions for global problems.

Above all we can also learn from the struggle taking place now in the teeth of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s about how new, pluralist forms of democratic organisation are emerging on the radical left. One obvious example is Syriza in Greece. Whatever the outcome of the internal struggle in the SWP, there is every reason for trying to build such a pluralist radical socialist left here.

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