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The SWP - a history of left reformism

Phil Sharpe shows the relationship between the history of the Socialist Workers Party and the politics it advocates within the Socialist Alliance. It demonstrates that the necessity to oppose the SWP is an integral part of demarcating revolutionary politics from reformism.

The SWP essentially conceives of state capitalism as more than a theory about the Soviet Union. What this 'theory' also says is that a nationalised economy dominated by Stalinists or Social Democrats is able to develop the productive forces better than private capital.

This viewpoint becomes the premise for justifying the welfare state as being a more efficient basis for economic development than anarchic private capitalism.

Thus the stance by the late Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP, on the Korean war is an adaptation to the role of the Labour government in constructing the welfare state in the period of the post-war boom.

The historical antecedents of Cliff's standpoint are located within right-wing reformism. This holds that capitalism is still capable of a historically progressive role in developing the productive forces. The primary political role of the working class, therefore, is to facilitate the progress of bourgeois democracy rather than strive for proletarian revolution.

We also have to wait for the unfolding of the historical process of class struggle between the bourgeoisie and working class in more distant and favourable conditions.

Hence Cliff's theory of deflected permanent revolution expresses the view that the working class in the 20th century lacked the capacity and cohesion to replace the capitalist class as ruling class in the oppressed and underdeveloped nations.

So the proletarian revolution in Russia became to be a transitory prelude towards the triumph of a state capitalist class. In China the success of a state capitalist class was the historically most progressive outcome given the low level of development of the productive forces.

Furthermore, in the advanced capitalist countries the post-war boom indicated the capacity of the state to facilitate the advance of the productive forces. Consequently the minimum programme of reforms becomes politically conceived as a maximum programme. They do not require a process of revolutionary transformation for their success.

To Cliff, the post-war boom is an abstracted (demarcated from the political) and inherently necessary process of the potential for state capitalism to replace private capital and organise the development of the productive forces. The boom is not primarily located in the political and counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism and reformism in defeating the prospect of international proletarian revolution.

Therefore to the Cliffites, Gerry Healy and the International Committee of the Fourth International had an ultra-left and subjective emphasis on the need to develop revolutionary class consciousness in an era of omnipotent economic changes within capitalism. Instead, it was principled to accommodate to spontaneity and trade union militancy, because the primary political task was to improve and develop the welfare state through reforms.

The economic and political starting point for Cliff's approach in the post-war period of the 20th century is that the Trotskyist prediction of international revolution was not realised. Instead. what occurred was the expansion of capitalism and a new era for reformism.

"However, post-war world capitalism was not trapped in general stagnation and decay. Indeed, Western capitalism enjoyed a massive expansion and alongside this came a flourishing of reformism." (Tony Cliff, Trotskyism after Trotsky. Bookmarks, London 1999, p10)

The boom is not primarily connected to the defeat of the working class in class struggle, and reformism is not defined as a counter- revolutionary agency of capitalism that is based upon mass working class organisations. Reformism is conceived as the policy of the welfare state, the establishment of the NHS, and full employment.

This idealist view is the theoretical origin of the SWP perspective of reformism, and that it is possible to refound the welfare state in state capitalist terms. The conjunctural significance of the post-war boom as the material basis for reformism is glossed over, because in economic terms this period of sustained reformism and cannot be repeated.

Instead Cliff tentatively suggests a policy of "socialism in one country", because just as austerity and rationing was part of the original and isolated welfare state, it might also be necessary and possible to carry out a new national programme of reforms.

In other words the Labour government of 1945-51 is to be emulated rather than critically evaluated as the alternative to proletarian revolution, which is considered to be an unrealistic abstraction and dogma of the post-war Fourth International.

Hence an uncritical adaptation to what is, or worship of the accomplished fact, becomes the basis of what could be achieved through a programme of reforms. Formally Cliff is against minimalist reformism, as shown by his criticism of John Strachey's 1940 programme, but his approach is essentially also reformist.

So it is of no surprise that the Socialist Alliance has adopted a programme very similar to Strachey's. Cliff writes:

"In 1940 Strachey published a new book, A Programme for Progress. This argued that, while in the long run socialism was the only remedy for the breakdown of capitalism, in the short run what was needed was an interim programme for reforming capitalism similar to that of Roosevelt's New Deal. His programme included six main points: the extension of public enterprise, low interest rates on loan capital, increased social services, monetary allowances to individuals, and redistributive taxation. There would also be a state controlled banking system and strict public control over the balance of payments."(p50)

The specific economic analysis that upholds this reformist perspective is the theory of the permanent arms economy. Cliff utilised the Keynesian view that slump is the result of a lack of effective demand for commodities, and so increased arms expenditure leads to greater employment and a rise in income that enhances demand for goods and thereby leads to a boom:

"The increased purchasing power of the people, together with the new state demand for arms, army clothing, barracks, etc., gives greater openings for sale and staves off crises of overproduction."(p56)

So whilst Cliff ultimately agrees that the permanent arms economy facilitates stagnation, and diverts capital from investment in productive forms, the premises of reformism are still consolidated.

For the view is reinforced that the state can encourage investment in order to modify the anarchic laws of capitalist economic activity, and therefore the state can develop the productive forces. This creates the conditions of full employment and maintains the welfare state.

This perspective is projected by the SWP from the period of 1945-51 and applied to the present in a timeless manner in order to justify its state capitalist standpoint.

To present his theory of state capitalism in radical terms Cliff contends that it is Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, and Ernst Mandel who elaborate the conception of the capacity of the Soviet economy to develop the productive forces:

"The perception of the Stalinist regime as socialist, or even a 'degenerated workers state' - that is, a transitional stage between capitalism and socialism - assumed that it was more progressive than capitalism. For a Marxist this signified first of all that it was able to develop the productive forces more effectively than capitalism."(p42)

Instead of his previous emphasis upon the dynamic ability of the state capitalist Soviet economy to develop the productive forces, he now indicates that the Soviet economy had crises of low quality production, waste and bureaucratic inefficiency.

But the conclusion of his approach is the same as Deutscher's, in that the Soviet state can develop the productive forces, even though Cliff labels the economy as state capitalist. Cliff's stance is that through the policies of collectivisation and industrialisation capital accumulation and rapid production of the means of production occurred.

Only in the 1970s-1980s did the state capitalist system become an absolute fetter hindering the development of the productive forces.(p43) Stalinism as a dynamic system is presented as being able to expand, build an empire, and repress the possibility for proletarian revolution for an historical period.(p70-77)

So state capitalism is considered to have had a progressive role for a whole historical period in developing the productive forces of the USSR. This potential is then projected onto the possibilities for redeveloping the welfare state in the more "favourable" conditions of contemporary bourgeois democracy.

The bourgeois state is also considered to have a dynamic economic and political role in the Third World. Cliff says: "Therefore the processes of overcoming internally backward socio-economic relations and achieving national liberation from imperialism were spearheaded by a variety of forces mostly drawn from the intelligentsia, or the state, playing the part ascribed to the working class in Trotsky's permanent revolution theory. Although the political results in Africa, Asia and Latin America varied, state capitalism was, to a greater or lesser extent, the prevailing result."(p65)

Thus the state in the Third World can develop the productive forces and facilitate capital accumulation through industrialisation.(p68) This standpoint suggests that the USSR and the Third World represent a new era or stage of capitalist development. Thus capitalism is considered to be still historically progressive and is not yet regressive despite inter-imperialist rivalry and war.

The unifying aspect in this analysis of the post-war boom, USSR state capitalism and the deflected permanent revolution in the Third World, is that there is no prospect of either international proletarian revolution or the sustaining of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

All that is historically possible is the hegemony of private capital or state capital. So even though state capitalism is described as reformist in the West, or totalitarian in the USSR and Third World, it is still envisaged as an historical alternative to private capital.

Thus the political role of the working class is to put forward a "realistic" perspective of critical support for state capitalism, especially in the West where state capitalism is based upon bourgeois democracy and the possibility of independent trade union struggle.

Formally Cliff has a perspective of the necessity of the revolutionary overthrow of the bureaucratic state elite's in the USSR and Third World, but he has no actual expectation of working class revolution. This is why in the period of the crisis of Stalinism, bourgeois democracy is considered as the only historical possibility for resolving the economic and political crisis.

Effectively the Cliffite project in the USSR and Eastern Europe is for the reform of private capital on a state capitalist and bourgeois democratic basis. In the Third World, the approach suggests that despite the significance of globalisation, the state capitalist elite's can still nationally develop the productive forces. The SWP does not need to develop a viable strategy of proletarian revolution because it is still considered objectively and historically premature.

Cliff's call for world working class revolutionary struggle is essentially a moral imperative directed against capitalism and is not objectively established within the economic and political situation of contemporary capitalism.( p69)

Cliff formally rejects an elitist and statist conception of socialism. "The idea that state ownership of industry and economic planning, even without workers' democracy, is equal to socialism, is still alive."(p80) But his conception of reforms by state capitalism constituting a step towards socialism is essentially an accommodation to this elitist conception of socialism. This is expressed by the SWP's present emphasis upon state nationalisation without the necessity and importance of workers' control.

The SWP have a theoretical contradiction between the conception of state capitalism as historically dynamic and the view that the contemporary requirements of the productive forces shows the necessity for socialism.

"Today the Stalinist regime in Russia and Eastern Europe is no more. World capitalism is not propelled forward by the permanent arms economy. The state capitalist road to economic growth in the Third World has been abandoned as closer global economic integration narrows the room for manoeuvre of local ruling classes or groups aspiring to play that role."(p79)

It would seem that the global objective conditions have finally ripened for successful revolutionary struggle and the transition to socialism, and yet the SWP still continues to advocate its reformist state capitalist programme.

This theoretical and political contradiction is an expression of the history of the SWP as a reformist and opportunist organisation. It only has a formal revolutionary response to the crisis of capitalism.

The immediate and "realistic" standpoint of the SWP is to continue to accommodate to bourgeois ideology and demand a "reform" of the capitalist system. They do this even though they now finally acknowledge that capitalism is economically stagnant and represents the historical necessity for socialism.

Essentially Cliff had an alienated conception of the bourgeois state as an entity that could historically and progressively resolve economic and political problems. This view is similar to the Hegelian idealist standpoint that the state represents universal interests that can transcend particular class antagonisms.

This idealist perspective is present in the SWP and Socialist Alliance minimal platform calling for the rebuilding of the welfare state, a stance which is connected to actual opposition to the struggle for proletarian revolution.

In his autobiography, (A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary, Bookmarks, 2000) Cliff develops more directly the political consequences of his political approach. He argues that the permanent arms economy theory led to a different political perspective to that of Gerry Healy and the Socialist Labour League. He claims they had an ultra-left stance of economic catastrophe, imminent revolution and the necessity of the transitional approach.

Instead it was necessary to adapt to the existing consciousness of the working class because the welfare state represented the reality of the workers. "The Permanent arms economy theory suggested that there were no short cuts like transitional programmes or calls for the general strikes. Instead work would have to be adapted to the actual level of the struggle on both the ideological and industrial planes."(p47)

Thus the political effect of the boom was to strengthen the political significance and hegemony of reformism within the working class, and to Cliff this situation was basically unalterable. So it was not possible to ideologically challenge reformism for a significant period of time. This is why the SLL is characterised as ultra-left and subjective because it attempted intransigently to develop revolutionary consciousness within the working class.

Cliff, therefore, emphasised the importance of spontaneity in relation to the question of what constituted the necessary theoretical and political struggle to develop revolutionary class consciousness. This was because the working class had objectively and materially benefited from the boom, and so was considered to be generally unready and unwilling to grasp revolutionary ideas.

Instead, strikes and similar struggles would mechanically start to recreate the conditions for the growth of the Cliffite group. The necessity for conscious political struggle to challenge the domination of bourgeois ideology within the working class was rejected. This is why the SWP's emphasis on the self-activity of the working class became the formula for rejecting the importance of theoretical struggle and political polemic.

Cliff writes: "In the conditions of the 1950s the particular form that substitutionism took was the belief, common to all sects, that if it has the right position the problem is solved."(p61-62) This mistrust of theoretical clarity and the struggle to uphold political principles was an aspect of his adaptation to spontaneity.

Cliff is essentially denying that an important part of the explanatory role of theory should be the ability to reply to criticism. In any case, this is considered a superfluous task and essentially irrelevant to the problem of how to win the working class to support a minimal and pro-state capitalist platform.

Principled practice to Cliff is represented by working class militancy, and therefore ideas are essentially about supporting these struggles, which means ideas do not require theoretical justification beyond the orthodoxy of state capitalism. Hence it is sectarian to argue that ideas may require substantiation in a process of dialogue and comparison with those of other groups, because this type of effort is wasteful in relation to the needs of class struggle as defined by the spontaneity of working class militancy.

"One rule I have always followed is not to read sectarian literature. I have never read Healy's newspaper, not that of the International Marxist Group. Once I met Gerry Healy after his paper had carried a long series of articles attacking our tendency and me personally, and asked him: 'Why do you spend so much time criticising me? I am not a commander of US troops in Vietnam; I am not at the head of the CBI.' "(p62)

Cliff argues that the politics of the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP) contrasted with the alleged sectarianism of the SLL towards mass movements, such as the anti-war mass movement at the time of the Vietnam war.(p88-89)

But Cliff actually shows that the IS approach did not have the principled strategic approach of proletarian revolution but was instead a form of left-wing accommodation to capitalism. Thus his emphasis upon the necessity to create rank-and-file strike committees in the French general strike makes no mention of what their political role should be.

He implies that mass working class militancy had the potential to extract more concessions from the ruling class than were actually obtained.(p99)

Indeed, the qualitative process of revolution (the transformation of dominant class power) is actually equated with the quantitative development of generalising strikes. Cliff writes:

"Workers look for the path of least resistance. So long as the path of reform is open the path of revolution is closed. It is only when tinkering will not work any more that people will go the extreme. Ultimately this is a revolution, which is not a tea party. It is a fantastic risk and sacrifice, and the masses will only do it when there is no other way. So long as fragmented struggles gained results workers did not generalise. But when faced with crisis the employers would no long give concessions, and workers had to raise the level of struggle. Thus they changed to broader class struggle from sectional struggle and this changed the workers themselves."(p112)

With this blurring of the distinction between reform and revolution it is not surprising that the history of the IS/SWP is one of putting forward demands to extend strikes but do not connect these demands to the strategic struggle for working class state power. Instead, the call to generalise strikes is actually a call to modify and improve welfare state capitalism. It is also an expression of the view that militant struggles for reforms are essentially and inherently revolutionary because revolution is defined and limited to the premises of state capitalism.

Hence, it is significant that Cliff mentions the victory of the dockers and miners between 1972-74, but he makes no comment about what perspective was necessary in order to try to transform these struggles into a revolutionary potential that challenged capitalism. The struggle and sectional victory is considered as sufficient in itself because this success maintained the position of the working class within welfare state capitalism.(p124)

The politics of the IS/SWP were based upon the balance of class forces, and this was the alternative to opportunism or ultra-leftism.

"We would have drifted either into right-wing opportunism (thinking that revolution would never come and that tiny reforms were all that could be achieved) or ultra-leftism (believing that socialism could be won immediately)."(p131)

But the actual perspective of the SWP is that of reform as revolution, and state capitalism as the welfare state is the social reality that has to be maintained and consolidated. This means adapting to trade union militancy and refusing to relate these to the question of workers' control and state power.

In its place, there is an emphasis upon the independence of the shop stewards' movement as a goal in itself. Hence dynamic revolutionary leadership becomes defined as sectarian because it inherently aspires to develop the political consciousness of the working class, and principled practice is considered to be an adaptation to the consciousness of the working class and the related avoidance of self-imposed isolation.

"The more isolated revolutionaries are from the working class, the less their positions can be corrected by workers in struggle, and the greater the attraction of extreme, hollow sloganising. Only practice reaffirms one's ideas, one's theory."(p131-132)

The struggle, therefore, becomes an end in itself because this is how the IS/SWP consider their ideas will acquire practical relevance. But as the spontaneous goal of the workers is to arrive at a negotiated settlement this means the political task of the IS/SWP is to argue on the basis of what is possible under capitalism and to reject as impractical the task of revolutionary struggle.

Cliff admits that the SWP went into crisis with the downturn in strike activity in the period of the 1974-79 Labour government.(p134-136) This downturn conception is not inherently incorrect. But it is used in an opportunist manner to justify an adaptation to capitalism at the very moment that the working class was starting to enter into struggle with the Labour government, such as the 1979 winter of discontent, which is hardly mentioned by Cliff.

An empirical decrease in the level of strike activity is defined as the downturn and becomes the theoretical rationalisation of the subjective expression of demoralisation within the SWP that was then projected onto objective reality. In turn, this subjectivism facilitates the dogmatic view that there was no revolutionary basis for a way out of the downturn.

The conception of the downturn was not related to understanding the intensification of the contradictions of capitalism but was instead about trying to keep up the morale of the SWP in a situation where the collaboration between the Labour government and trade union bureaucracy made the question of developing strikes more complex and problematic. As strikes had become a be-all-and-end-all for the SWP, as a means for putting pressure on the Labour government, then their decline meant reformism was in crisis. But the SWP had no effective political perspective for resolving this situation.

Rather, the whole essence of the SWP as a left-reformist organisation was being seriously questioned in this period of complex changes in the forms of class struggle in the period of the end of the post-war boom. It was the boom and the era of trade union militancy that had been the objective basis for the reformism of the SWP. They subjectively realised that the objective basis for their politics was being undermined, and the downturn theory tried to rationalise this position.

But to the SWP, the alternative in this changing objective situation was not to elaborate a revolutionary perspective because this was defined as abstract propaganda. The perspectives was about how to redevelop strikes in a period of downturn, as Cliff writes:

"We could put forward abstract socialist propaganda about the benefits of socialism over capitalism but that was the path to a sectarian dead end, a path trodden many times by the British left, right back to the days of the Social Democratic Federation in the 1900s. We had to relate our propaganda to the experience of the workers involved in struggle, even if they made up only a minority, even a small minority."(p143-144)

For Cliff, the 1984-85 miners' strike was an isolated episode in a period of downturn. This meant that he did not comprehend that whilst the 1980s had fewer strikes than the 1970's this later period also expressed an increasingly bitter polarisation and dialectical dynamic.

Ironically this meant that the SWP's political adaptation to spontaneity actually represented a lagging behind the spontaneous consciousness of workers in struggle during the 1980s. Cliff's initial premise is that the downturn of struggle was occurring because from the mid-1970s fewer people went to hear him speak, and there was also a decline in SWP membership in the factories:

"The downturn, the retreat of the working class in face of the bosses and the government, had a very contradictory impact on the working of the IS/SWP. It massively damaged our intervention in industry and the unions, cut recruitment to the organisation, and hit sales of Socialist Worker." (p158)

The schema that strikes lead to constant improvements in the conditions of the working class seemed to be undermined by the experience of the 1974-79 Labour government. Indeed, this Labour government could no longer be projected by the SWP as an extension of the 1945-51 Atlee administration because its main aim was to undermine the conditions of the working class. This 'new' situation represented a challenge to the reformist and state capitalist perspective of the SWP.

Consequently the SWP had no coherent political response to the period of class polarisation represented by the onset of the Tory government. It is significant that Cliff makes no mention of the political significance of the Malvinas/Falklands conflict, which was an expression of the need for authoritarian and populist government in order to ideologically prepare for isolating and marginalising working class militancy. So when the 1984-85 miners' strike developed the SWP were unprepared, confused, and lagged behind events, and this meant they were not even at the level of spontaneous consciousness of the miners.

Instead the downturn theory rationalised the schema of inevitable defeat, and so the SWP rejected the revolutionary perspective of the necessity of general strike.

"In 1984 a miners' strike broke out and they fought bravely for a whole year. Alas, the long period of the downturn, of declining militancy, led to the final defeat of the strike. Unlike the 1972 and 1974 strikes, in which there was not one miner scabbing, and hence no need for picketing any pit, now the situation was completely different." (p191)

So at its best the SWP adapted to the high level of trade union militancy and called for mass pickets. When this proved ineffective they rejected the need to focus on propaganda for a revolutionary strategy to develop support for a general strike. Instead the SWP justified being foot soldiers rather than aspiring to be the conscious political vanguard of the working class, as Cliff admits:

"The lack of success of the miners' strike after months of struggle had an effect on party members. During the first months there was a hope that, even though the strike was not solid, nonetheless victory over Thatcher was not too distant. At this time our members were very active with the miners in the obvious political task of building support for organising mass pickets. But after eight or so months and no victory in sight, the clarity of the way forward became blurred. The question of plain survival for the miners families - in the main through food - was beginning to raise its head."(p193)

Thus in a situation which posed the possibility of power the SWP's reformist perspective was undermined, and this led to political confusion and a lack of morale within the SWP. They started from what is possible and not what is objectively necessary in order to develop revolutionary class consciousness.

The attempt at an answer to this political crisis was represented by the SWP effectively renouncing the significance of political leadership and to conceive of the miners' strike as a moral necessity, which was to be kept going through charity. This meant they rejected a conception of the strike in terms of its objective significance and potential, and which showed the crucial importance of revolutionary leadership.

The period after the miners' strike, with the anti-poll tax campaign (which the SWP adapted to and were not in the leadership) and the 1992 renewal of miners' protests against redundancy, was considered to be transitional to a new upturn in class struggle.

This standpoint is not objectively established in terms of the balance of class forces that still express the ruling class offensive against the working class. Instead, subjective criteria is justified in terms of the growth of the SWP. The SWP has "managed to increase our influence in the working class" and become the "best fighters for reform".(p199) In other words, the SWP project of left reformism has once again established its "viability" in the new political situation.

In a situation of the marginalisation of revolutionary ideas and the lack of bitter class struggles, the SWP can reassert its state capitalist and reformist perspective. This is clearly demonstrated in its opportunist leadership of the Socialist Alliance. The necessity to build a revolutionary alternative to the SWP is more crucial than ever before.

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