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Democracy revolt inside the Socialist Workers Party

Phil Sharpe examines the implications of the struggle for democracy now raging inside the Socialist Workers Party, and the emergence of three groupings inside the organisation’s leadership.

A major crisis has developed in the Socialist Workers Party which has resulted in the formation of three factions. The first group is the leadership faction around Alex Callinicos, who has a majority on the Central Committee, the second faction is being organised by the deposed leader, John Rees. The third and most significant force represents a rank-and-file revolt that is being effectively organised by Neil Davidson, the author of books on Scottish history.

What has immediately caused the crisis is the failure of the SWP to make gains from the formation of Respect. The SWP was the major force in the Respect coalition and had a perspective that it would become the fourth most important party in British politics. This perspective has been a miserable failure, and increasing tensions between the SWP and the Respect leadership led to a split, which had the result that some prominent members of the SWP remained with Respect led by the MP George Galloway.

The SWP has had an influential role in the Stop the War Coalition, which was formed in order to oppose the invasion of Iraq. It was assumed that action combined with effective organisation would result in a large increase in the membership of the SWP. This did not happen, and if anything, the SWP numerically declined. The result was the Respect debacle, which represented the desperate attempt to overcome the increasing crisis in the SWP.
The failure of past tactics has resulted in the discrediting of Rees, the person most associated with those tactics, and as a result, differences have developed in the leadership. It has not been possible to maintain what had previously been the constant unity of the Central Committee of the SWP.

The SWP has based its politics on the perspective of the united front. It argued that the Stop the War Coalition was a united front between a revolutionary organisation and the forces of a diverse and mass movement against the war. The role of the revolutionary organisation was to argue and uphold principled and broad politics for what was considered to be a mass anti-imperialist movement.

However, it could be convincingly argued that the leadership of the SWP actually adapted to the illusions of the mass movement, and as a result did not establish a principled united front, which would have meant agreement over defined forms of action between different political forces. Instead the SWP merged itself into the mass movement, and as a result adapted to the most reactionary forms of political expression. The SWP became notorious for its support for demonstrations, in lieu of any other forms of political opposition.

In particular, the SWP would not support the call to oppose the domination of New Labour; nor would it would call for the overthrow of the government because of its fetishisation of what constituted unity. Hence, the leadership of the SWP actually represented an opportunist accommodation to the standpoint of a liberal democracy and the connected separation of protest from the perspective of revolutionary politics. Dissent led to people leaving the SWP rather than developing any kind of effective opposition.

The turn to Respect was an indication that the SWP had learnt nothing from the limitations of the Stop the War Coalition. Instead, these limitations were accentuated through the development of a new organisation on the basis of a populist (broad, popular and demagogic) opposition to capitalism. All the various programmatic statements of Respect supported a perspective of reform of society in terms of state regulation of the economy, and opposed the necessity for working people to organise their own emancipation through conscious self-activity.

The SWP component of Respect was the most numerically strong and could have argued for support for a revolutionary programme. But such a possibility was rejected in order to build an alliance with George Galloway and the forces of Asian businessmen. Consequently, Respect was a classical Popular Front alliance, which meant the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism was consciously rejected in order to build an alliance around limited aims.

In this context, the main aim was to establish Respect as an effective electoral force. However, the failure to become viable in electoral terms led to tensions within Respect, and ultimately the SWP and Respect split. But it is important to understand that the SWP did not carry out any principled struggle with its erstwhile allies, contenting itself with the formal assertion that the SWP was revolutionary whilst its allies were reactionary.

Most importantly, the SWP did not reflect on this debacle, and instead in the most arrogant manner tried to convince the membership that new gains would be possible in the future. This was an empty boast because the turn of the SWP towards the approach of the “united front” had only led to the above problems and a shrinking membership, and as a result the credibility of the leadership would have been at an all time low.

It is at this point that the contradictions and tensions within the SWP began to surface. But what was most important was that the dissatisfaction with the politics and organisational regime began to assume the form of an open rank and file revolt. Prominent members like Davidson began to criticise Popular Frontism, and most crucially he called for the development of democracy in order to promote a political culture that could honestly and openly attempt to resolve the problems of the SWP.

This is a crucially important development because what has characterised the SWP has been the connection of its opportunist politics to the lack of democracy. However, if democracy was to be developed within the structures of the SWP it is possible that the organisational conditions could be established that would promote the capacity for the membership to resolve its contradictions in a principled manner.

The initial and most difficult precondition of the realisation of democracy has been developed in the form of a rank-and-file revolt. This type of development is unique in the history of the SWP. In the early 1970s organised factions within the SWP represented some form of opposition to its leadership. They were essentially isolated from the membership and so could be easily expelled. The result was the bureaucratic consolidation of the SWP.
This process of bureaucratisation of the SWP has never been challenged because of the effective prestige of the long-term leadership of Tony Cliff, and the failure to develop rank and file opposition to opportunism. Cliff’s death a few years ago left a relatively new and untested leadership, and recent events led to the formation of rank-and-file opposition to the politics of the SWP.

It would be a mistake to argue that what is occurring is merely one more split on the left, and as a result be indifferent to its possible effects. Instead, it is necessary to understand that the bureaucratisation and opportunism of the SWP has never been challenged so effectively as in the present. All previous oppositions to the role of the leadership of the SWP have lacked a mass and popular basis. The result was that these revolts have been defeated. But the present revolt represents the combination of experienced leadership with mass support, and it could succeed and bring about the democratic transformation of the SWP in terms of the realisation of open and extensive discussion of politics and the right to organise around different viewpoints.

Of course, it is entirely possible that the existing majority leadership will be able to manoeuvre in order to limit and neutralise the emerging struggle for democracy. Indeed, to this end, the leadership on the Central Committee is proposing a democracy commission. The result of this could be to undermine the real and genuine struggle for democracy. There is nothing to suggest that the two factions of the leadership have any principled and popular content. The most reactionary and opportunist faction is that of Rees, who is most identified with the politics of the Respect turn.

The faction led by Callinicos is a centre grouping that has come out in opposition to the right-wing politics of Rees, and yet is unable to consistently support the democratic tendency. The question as to who within this grouping can be supported by the democratic forces can only be decided concretely in terms of the merits of the individuals concerned. But, in general, it should be the aim of the third and most principled democratic grouping to replace the leadership of the centre. This is because the politics of the centre will be to maintain the approach of bureaucratisation and opportunism in a diluted form. Only the victory of the Davidson group can ensure the success of the struggle of the rank and file to realise democracy within the SWP.

Surely, the task of those of us outside the SWP is to support the potential for the transformation of the SWP into being a more effective instrument of revolution. The alternative is to passively accept what appears to be the inherent role of the SWP as an agency of opportunism. This sectarian approach can contribute nothing to making the forces of democracy and transformation stronger within the SWP.

That said, it is true that the SWP (formerly the International Socialist tendency) was developed in opposition to all that was principled within the Fourth International, which was created in 1938 as a revolutionary opposition to Stalinism. The origins of the IS/SWP were in a nationalist demarcation of itself from the Fourth International.

Support for the theory of state capitalism, in relation to understanding the class character of the Soviet Union, was utilised in a nationalist and pragmatic manner in order to reject the necessity of principled political struggle in order to develop a Fourth International that was opposed to opportunism. The IS/SWP tradition became famous for revising the theory of imperialism, economic crisis and permanent revolution, in order to deny the importance of contradiction and class struggle.

This meant the appeal of the IS/SWP was on the basis of rejecting the necessity of a revolutionary programme, and instead adapted to the various illusions promoted by the spontaneity of militant class struggle. The IS/SWP was distinctive because of its denial of the historical importance of the Fourth International and instead called for the formation of national parties, and the related emphasis on the “national” significance of the class struggle.

However, the world view of the SWP began to collapse in the 1990's. Firstly, the demise of Stalinism, and the related restoration of capitalism within the former Soviet bloc, challenged the coherence of the conception of state capitalism. Why should the USSR go from state capitalism to private capitalism? The SWP struggled for an explanation that would provide historical meaning to this development, and they were unable to outline why the apparent higher form of capitalism would regress to what was considered to be a lower form of capitalism.

Secondly, the SWP was unable to explain globalisation in terms of the theory of imperialism that they had constructed from their understanding of state capitalism. How was it possible for the imperialist USA to win the cold war and cause the downfall of the “imperialist” USSR? Primarily, the SWP could not recognise that globalisation was creating the conditions for a new and higher form of international class struggle. Instead of developing a programme appropriate for the era of globalisation, the SWP clung to adherence to nationalist perspectives that tried to ignore the increasing international and interdependent character of economics and politics.

The dichotomy between the SWP's understanding of reality and reality itself created the theoretical and political conditions for the emergence of their organisation as one characterised by crisis. Stop the War and Respect was meant to represent tactical turns that would resolve this crisis, instead the crisis was intensified. The SWP had become an organisation that was characterised by crisis at the level of world view, strategy and tactics. In particular, as Gerry Gold of A World to Win, has indicated, the theoreticians of the SWP have been unable to provide any profound understanding of the economic crisis.
This malaise is an expression of this increasing inability to understand the world in a coherent manner. The very politics of the SWP represents theory at the level of misleading appearances of the world, and so expresses the inability to explain the relationship of these appearances to underlying realities. Such an organisation can only stagger from one crisis to another.

This situation meant that the central question became one of when, and not if, the theoretical crisis of the SWP would become manifested in practical terms. The answer to this question has now been provided in the development of a deep crisis at the level of party organisation. What has resulted has been the development of a progressive trend that is calling for democracy. If considerable progress is made in the democratic transformation of the SWP, then the conditions for resolving the theoretical impasse and malaise of the SWP will have been advanced. We should welcome this process, and act to further its possibilities. Failure to act in this manner will represent conservative thinking that can only facilitate inertia and stagnation rather than the advance of Marxism and the class struggle.

Charles says:

I read this article with some dismay, as perhaps my greatest worry is the disunity in leftwing, including revolutionary socialist, organisations at a time when there has never been a greater need for solidarity. I don't know enough about the top people in the SWP to judge their leadership qualities, but from articles and books I have read written by party members it seems quite wrong to attack them as Sharpe does, and it is depressing how much he resorts to jargon. Certainly to label them reactionary, putting them in the same camp as Blair, Mandelson and sadly, I am afraid, Brown, seems completely unjustified and I don't think "opportunist" gets us very far either. Just to take one example, an article I read yesterday in Socialist Worker Online on the unofficial strikes at construction sites and refineries was excellent and certainly not nationalistic, contradicting Sharpe's claim about that.

And just one comment about George Galloway He has certainly done some foolish things, but I shall never forget how he berated that US committee, or whatever it was, when they tried to criminalise him. It was heartening for any socialist.

I hope we can get some commentary from AWTW about the SWP and other socialist organisations that is more reasoned and costructive than this piece.


Robbie says:

Charles raises some issues on “unity” which deserve an answer. Unity is paramount when socialist or working class organisations are under attack, say by the state or fascists. Or if the state is organising a war. But under most other circumstances a false unity only serves to obscure very real differences. For example, the SWP’s politics is largely pressure reformism of the “Tell Gordon…xyz” variety. Until very recently they supported (or at least had a link on their homepage to) The People Before Profit Charter, a spectacular list of inadequate demands, which have as their basis the expectation of the continuance of capitalism – more tax on corporations and a measly increase in wages, at the very time that capitalism is collapsing and needs to be finished off urgently. What basis would be a “unity” of this charter, with the one launched by A World to Win, which is calling for the transfer of wealth and power away from the capitalist class and its government.

If you read Phil’s article more carefully, you will see that he is NOT calling the SWP reactionary. He says “the SWP … adapted to the most reactionary forms of political expression” and shows that the SWP itself was “contenting itself with the formal assertion that the SWP was revolutionary whilst its allies [in Respect]were reactionary”. One of the results of the SWP’s “unity” with their erstwhile reactionary comrades in Respect was that they described Gay and Women’s rights as “shibboleths”.

We do not write very much about other organisations of the left, but when the SWP is clearly tearing itself apart, it is worth looking at their politics to see what the basis is of this rift, and Phil does a good job of providing a succinct history of their political development.


Phil Walden says:

Good article by Sharpe. But if nationalism and autarky has characterised the IS/SWP then how can we explain that they have been the largest group on the far left in Britain for decades? And what is genuine working class internationalism today? And how is this linked to permanent factions?


Dylan says:

In response to Charles regarding George Galloway. He's a great speaker and a strong personality easily feared, probably good in the pub with a pint.

In the end though, he's just a big ego, not a real leader. We can find him presenting on commercial talk radio and obscure English speaking TV channels that I saw him on in Azerbaijan! Is that socialist?


Dylan says:

I read the popular left - wing comedian Mark Steel's latest book 'What's Going On' a few months ago. He was a member of The SWP for a couple of decades at least and he explains in some detail why he had to leave their membership recently with quite a heavy heart.

If I remémber rightly, his local meetings where once they would be packed out in the 70s & 80s, were now empty and then George Galloway seemed to tear the party apart creating school boy in - fighting with the leadership, plus the youth at large ignored them and chose to support NGOs causes instead.

I have never fully understood why capitalism & the corporations can be so organised and efficient, but the left can never get its act together. We better had in these months and years to come.


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