Whatever happened to the upturn?

Members of the Socialist Workers Party gather in London to debate and question

It would be a very brave and patient revolutionary indeed who attempted to trace every twist and turn of the Socialist Workers Party, given as it is to regular- and abrupt - ‘line’ changes.

Naturally, in the best IS tradition, there is no discussion inside the party’s various bodies beforehand. Explanation is hardly ever offered and the long suffering SWP rank and file member is expected just to meekly accept the latest edict from the gods and do his or her duty. If you are lucky, some fairly miserable apologia is issued eventually, which becomes the ‘official’ party view - and god help any comrade who has the cheek to ask some awkward questions...

Yet, we all know that it is impossible to suppress dissident and ‘heretical’ ideas on a permanent basis. Comrades start thinking for themselves, are no longer content to parrot whatever happens to be in the latest issue of the paper. The cloud of political amnesia starts to lift and people begin to remember.

With this perspective, we recommend that comrade Alex Callinicos undergoes some immediate ‘memory’ treatment - if the latest issue of Socialist Review (July/August) is anything to go by, that is. In his article, ‘On top of the world?’, comrade Callinicos rehashes all manner of SWP myths and half-truths, none of which convince. It is worthwhile delving into the ‘never-never’ land of SWP official history, as served up by the comrade, as it reveals the deeply flawed methodology which lies at the Cliffite heart of the SWP.

In Socialist Review, comrade Callinicos boasts about how in the 1990s the SWP

“suddenly found our ideas have a real ideological cutting edge ... The period of mass mobilisations in Britain, from the pit closures in 1992 to the massive demonstrations against the Nazis and the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994 and 1995, allowed the SWP to grow rapidly.”

To the uninformed, these remarks no doubt sound perfectly innocent - but they conceal a great deal. To be exact, sectarianism lurks behind comrade Callinicos’s boast.

During the pit closure ‘scandal’ in 1992, which culminated in a 200,000-strong demonstration on October 21 in London, members of the SWP were seen scampering around the streets of London, demanding, “General strike now!”. Of course, the SWP did nothing itself to build a general strike “now”. Actually, the SWP in reality passed the buck to the TUC and ducked its real revolutionary responsibilities. Why? Simple: the SWP saw the October ‘92 upsurge purely as an opportunity to increase its membership, not to give a lead to the millions upon millions who were filled with class hatred for the Tories and wanted to see them toppled.

More recent recruits to the organisation might be unaware that during the 1984-85 Great Miners’ Strike, the SWP refused to even raise the slogan for a general strike - although they were witnessing the most protracted and bitter mass strike in European history, and the most significant strike in Britain for nearly 60 years.

Worse still, the SWP ‘tops’ dismissed the Great Miners’ Strike out of hand. Tony Cliff, quite surreally, labelled the Great Strike as “an extreme form of the downturn”. Comrade Callinicos also alludes to this in a distinctly underhand manner, when he explains how the workers “suffered such a battering during the downturn of the 1980s”.

What exactly is this mysterious disease which afflicted the workers’ movement as it reached the zenith of its militancy? At heart it is an opportunist concoction, which aims to provide the SWP with a theoretical justification for its thoroughly non-Marxist orientation.

‘Downturnism’ was formulated during the late 1970s, when workers’ struggles became more and more defensive. This came as quite a shock to the SWP and it drew appropriately gloomy and pessimistic conclusions. In short the SWP became quickly demoralised.

Hardly surprising in some ways. The SWP - or International Socialists, as it was known then - became flushed with success during the early 1970s, as it was propelled forward by the wave of industrial militancy that had been flourishing since the late 1960s. Comrade Callinicos identifies the period, 1968-1976, as the “golden years” of the SWP, when it grew exponentially. As the workers went on the offensive, the SWP channelled these militant activists into its ranks.

‘What’s so wrong with that?’ you might say, not entirely unreasonably. ‘Who wants to be small?’ Communists criticise the SWP of this period, not for the fact that it increased its membership, but for the manner in which it grew.

The SWP did not take this new influx of militants - excellent raw material, no doubt - and transform them into revolutionaries - ie, communists. Quite the opposite. It played to their existing illusions - in essence, left reformist ones - and even added a few of its own. At no time did it bring revolutionary consciousness to these militant, but inexperienced workers. By adopting this method, it may have enabled the SWP to expand its size, or become, as it grandiosely proclaimed, “the smallest mass party in history”, but in terms of becoming a genuinely revolutionary organisation - which can lead the working class to revolution, and then onwards to communism - absolutely useless.

Inevitably, when ‘normal’ trade union politics and struggle went into decline in the late 70s, the SWP fell into a depression as well. This is the logical result of bowing to the spontaneous activism of the working class, rather than confronting it. In this context Lenin talked about a burning need to initiate “a fierce struggle against spontaneity” (Collected Works Vol 5, p385).

If you understand this, then you can realise that the SWP grew in the 1970s precisely because it played to the existing, mainly trade union, consciousness of the working class, not because the working class was moving towards communist consciousness.

Therefore you arrive at a relatively easy definition of the downturn and the upturn - a deeply sectarian definition unfortunately. If the SWP is growing, there is an upturn. If it is not, then it must be a downturn. As to the long-term interests of the whole working class, so what?

This can lead easily to wildly subjectivist declarations. During the 1994 signalworkers’ strike, the SWP excitedly declared that this was the first sign of - wait for it, yes - the upturn. In contrast to the “extreme downturn” of the Great Miners’ Strike, remember. Abjectly bowing before spontaneity, the SWP clearly scented new recruits. Therefore its language became more and more radical.

But, when that strike turned out to be something of a damp squid, the story had to change. Enter comrade Callinicos, who unembarrassedly writes, “More specifically, the 1990s have not seen a generalised upturn in class struggle comparable to the period, ’68-’76. Since the beginning of 1996 the struggle has been largely becalmed.”

No wonder the SWP leadership does not believe in being tied down to a programme, thus freeing itself to veer from the downturn to the upturn, from ultra-leftism to syndicalism and reformism. The policy and politics of the SWP is decided in the first and last analysis by the immediate situation - ie, what can benefit the SWP at that time, at that place. It responds purely empirically to developments, destined never to understand or lead them.

We appeal to all militant and revolutionary comrades in the SWP to fight openly for a programme, which the leadership can be held accountable to, and which can be held up to open scrutiny and criticism.

Without such a programme, the members of the SWP will remain ideological cannon fodder for the Cliffite regime, to be sent into battle and disposed of at the arbitrary whim of their leaders.

You deserve better.

Eddie Ford