Can the SWP be reformed?

Dave Craig of the RDG questions RWT tactics

FOLLOWING my letter (Weekly Worker 106) I want to examine what seems to be the main argument of the Republican Worker Tendency for not supporting the joint open letter for communist unity and democratic centralism, which the CPGB and the Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP) sent to the Socialist Workers Party (see Weekly Worker 101). This is the ‘unreformability’ of the SWP.

The first problem is what is meant by ‘reformable’ or ‘not reformable’. Are some reforms achievable and not others? We cannot really assess the meaning of the RWT position until it is more specific.

Many years ago I would have predicted that there was no chance of the CPGB being reformed into a Leninist organisation. Yet after all the Eurocommunist and Stalinist bath water has drained away, a Leninist faction has been left holding the baby. There was a sense in which the original prediction was true and a sense in which it was wrong.

Fortunately that prediction was never made into a tactical dogma, which ruled out debate, criticism, open letters or unity in action for progressive ends.

The SWP will change. That is certain. But whether it will survive, grow, wither away or split into two or ten pieces cannot be predicted. Why choose one of these possible outcomes and place all our tactical eggs in that basket?

Reformability does not determine our attitude to Marxist organisations. In any case ‘reformability’ is not the basis for communications or calls for joint discussions or joint actions between organisations. Is Militant Labour ‘reformable’ or Workers Power or the CPGB? Does the RWT have a list of ‘reformable’ and ‘non-reformable’ organisations? Such a list would be an artificial barrier, a sectarian barrier to doing what was necessary for our movement.

Neither the CPGB nor the RDG makes the reformability of the SWP the basis of our attitude to it. The RDG says that the Central Committee of the SWP is the main barrier in the Marxist movement to communist unity and democratic centralism. So the key question is - how to fight it - the RWT has no proposals for that. Non-reform-ability is a smokescreen for a refusal to join the fight. The RWT is waving a white flag.

As we have always argued, the SWP is the main representative of economism and spontaneity within British Marxism today. It is a British form of menshevism. Can the British Mensheviks be reformed into the British Bolsheviks? We know that Lenin and the Bolsheviks fought the Mensheviks tooth and nail. Does anybody seriously think it was because Lenin thought the Mensheviks were ‘reformable’. They were fought because they were a political barrier to a revolutionary working class. In fact the Bolsheviks began as an anti-Menshevik faction for many years in the same party.

The fourth congress of the Communist International (1922) thesis on the united front says, “Bolshevism never ceased to wage a tireless fight against reformism or, to use another name, Menshevism. Nevertheless, during these 15 years [1903-1917] the Russian Bolsheviks often made agreements with the Mensheviks.” Separation between 1905 and 1912 gave way to unifications and semi-unifications in 1906-7 and also in 1910. Lenin also sought a temporary alliance with pro-party Mensheviks.

Only an ultra-left would fail to understand the apparent contra-diction between waging a tireless fight against menshevism and uniting with it. Surely if they are the enemy we should have absolutely nothing to do with them?

There is no contradiction once you put this in the context of the class struggle. The struggle for communist unity and the united front does not mean giving up ideological struggle against the reformists, centrists and ultra-lefts in our movement. On the contrary, it is the best way of advancing that struggle. When Bolsheviks achieved greater unity with the Mensheviks in 1910 it was not because they suddenly had new illusions in the reformability of the Mensheviks.

Ultra-leftism is moralistic, propagandist and abstentionist. In Left wing communism, an infantile disorder Lenin exposes the mistakes of the ultra-lefts. The ultra-lefts begin with a correct proposition - the bankruptcy of parliament and the trade unions (and the SWP). From this they draw an incorrect conclusion - the best tactics for opposing these bankrupt organisations is pure propaganda plus abstention or boycott of the struggle.

They borrow the moralistic political methods of the anarchists. They say, ‘Parliament, the trade unions and the SWP are rotten. We will wash our hands of the whole thing. We are purists. We will be morally corrupted by any involvement with these institutions. Any participation on our part will only give parliament, trade unions or the SWP some credibility in the eyes of the masses.’

The mistake of the ultra-lefts lies in not acknowledging the gap between what we know and what the broader masses understand. We may have come to correct conclusions about the corrupt nature of parliament, the trade unions or the SWP. But there are a lot of people who have not yet come to that conclusion. Our task is not simply to lecture them on the truth, but to help them come to the same conclusions by their own experience.

Brian Higgins of the RWT tells us he understands the SWP because of the miners’ strike and Ireland. True enough. But he forgets that there are hundreds of young workers attracted to the SWP who do not know that history. And they do not automatic-ally believe Brian or the RWT just because he says it. Why should they trust a tiny little group like the RWT any more than the central committee, which seems to have a significant organisation to offer? Especially when the CC or its hacks suggest that the RWT are just sectarian splitters, who cannot stand the discipline of a party.

The SWP is the main barrier to communist unity and democratic centralism. We cannot ignore this or simply wait for it to fade away. We have to wage a constant ideological struggle against all erroneous aspects of its politics. The RDG has done this to the maximum of our means. However the SWP is not the main enemy of the working class. This is the British state, the Tory government and ‘new Labour’.

We have to fight British menshevism in the context of the totality of the class struggle. This means the adoption of the united front tactic. We are for a united front of Labour lefts, Marxists and anarchists prepared to fight the Tories and ‘new Labour’. This is not simply a theory, for such a united front has emerged around single-issue struggles such as the miners’ strike, the poll tax and anti-fascism. Of course the SWP should be part of that united front.

At the same time, we must stand for communist unity as part of that united front. We must fight to unite the Marxist movement into a single communist party on the basis of genuine democratic centralism. We want the whole of the Marxist movement to take up this question in a serious way. This includes the SWP and Militant Labour.

These policies reflect the objective needs of the working class movement. But we cannot expect that the SWP will be anything but a barrier to be fought if we are to advance these policies. The SWP is in a position to play a leading role by dint of its organisational weight. We demand that it does what is necessary or gets out of the way. This is why the open letter tactic is absolutely correct. We are not having a sectarian dog fight with the SWP; we are fighting it in the interests of the working class and communist movement.

Without a united front of the CPGB, RDG, RWT, ISG and revolutionary members of the SWP, there is very little chance of defeating the sectarian policies of its central committee. We will certainly have no chance if every attempt to engage it in political struggle is weakened and undermined by ultra-left moralism, purism and sectarian abstentionism.