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.
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.
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.
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.
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History