SWP's fantasy world

Exchanges between the Socialist Workers Party and the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire cast light on the weaknesses of both organisations. Mike Macnair looks at the SWP's latest contribution

In the usual way in which these things happen, a recent letter from Alex Callinicos, for the Socialist Workers Party central committee, to a group of leaders of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France has found its way into general electronic circulation. The letter offers some sound points of criticism of the policy of the Fourth International (FI), to which the LCR is affiliated, and of the LCR itself. It also offers important insights into the fantasy world of the SWP leadership.

The letter begins with mutual congratulation and self-congratulation. The SWP and the LCR are “facing the same way” in the global anti-capitalist and anti-war movement; convergence between the FI (which Callinicos seems mistakenly to assume is merely a network dependent on the LCR) and the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency (which is a network dependent on the SWP) could “have an impact well beyond our ranks”.

“But - alas that there is a but - ” the FI’s English affiliate, the International Socialist Group, turned down an invitation to join the SWP, and the LCR has delayed, until September coming, a decision on whether to integrate the SWP’s French co-thinkers, Socialisme Par En Bas (SPEB). Why? According to Callinicos, the LCR leaders have raised three basic political issues separating the two tendencies: (1) The SWP’s political practice “fails to respect the autonomy of mass movements”; (2) its concept of the party “does not integrate the possibility of an organised pluralism” - ie, does not permit genuine factions and faction-fights; and (3) the “strongly verticalist” - ie, hierarchical - character of the SWP’s party and its relationship with the “unitary movements” contradicts the SWP’s proclaimed adherence to ‘socialism from below’.

These criticisms are, of course, the LCR leaders’ diplomatic version of a perception of the SWP operations which is very widespread among the British left and particularly intense among ex-SWP members. Removing the diplomatic language, this perception is (1) that the SWP operates through fronts (Anti-Nazi League, Globalise Resistance, ‘rank and file’ groups in the unions, and so on), which, once the SWP has obtained administrative control, are turned on and off like taps from the SWP centre, so that they never achieve any permanent organisation of militants at the base; (2) that the SWP’s internal regime is worse than that of the old Stalinised Communist Party - a view particularly strongly held by ex-CP militants who passed through the SWP at some stage in their political lives. The LCR’s (3) is merely the assertion that these practices of the SWP are flatly in contradiction with the SWP’s proclaimed political ideology.

Callinicos responds to the LCR criticisms for the SWP CC with a combination of injured innocence, an assertion of ‘Leninist fundamentals’ in the SWP’s usual rather dogmatic form, and a counter-critique of the practice of the LCR. To disentangle the arguments it is best to start with the asserted fundamentals and the counter-critique before coming back to the injured innocence.

Reform and revolution

The last part of Callinicos’s letter consists of a re-assertion of the basis for supposing that the divide between reform and revolution remains fundamental to orienting the left. On this point Callinicos has some strong points to make against the FI’s, and hence LCR’s, diplomatic concessions to projects like those of the Parti Communiste Français/Gauche Plurielle and of the autonomi followers of Hardt and Negri’s Empire. These projects evade the question of state power and hence wind up as loyal left critics of the “social-liberal” governments imprisoned in the logic of neoliberalism. Any serious movement for reform, Callinicos argues, “will face the most intense resistance from the bourgeoisie - resistance that can only be overcome by organised mass mobilisations that, among other things, seek to break the state’s monopoly of the means of coercion.”

This is entirely true. So, too, are the concrete critiques drawn from it. The first is that the FI’s diplomatic equivocations lead to accommodation in practice to trends like that led by Bernard Gassen in the French Attac - Gassen argues for building up the European capitalist states’ military as a ‘counterweight’ to the USA. There is a slight ‘people who live in glass houses’ problem here: Callinicos himself includes Attac’s major proposal, the Tobin tax, in his own ‘action programme’ for the anti-capitalist movement (see Kit Robinson’s review of his An anti-capitalist manifesto in Weekly Worker July 10), but this is precisely a proposal for a return from globalisation to national capitalism - which leads perfectly naturally to Gassen’s conclusions. The second and more striking critique is the decision of the FI’s Brazilian affiliate, Democracia Socialista, to accept a ministerial portfolio in the Lula government and its consequent implication in this government’s continued neoliberal attacks on the working class (see Weekly Worker July 3).

The problem is that the question of ‘reform or revolution’ remains for the SWP a highly abstract reference point. Callinicos’s critique of the LCR on the general issues is here almost as obscure as the LCR’s (habitual) use of Left-Bank Parisian theoretical language to preserve diplomatic obscurity; in the SWP’s public life ‘revolution’ takes the form of the empty slogan, ‘One solution - revolution’, applied to mugs and t-shirts, and a sentimental attachment to the forms and figures of 1917 Russia. Concrete issues of a politics which radically opposes the real existing state - like republicanism in Britain - are evaded or marginalised.

The underlying cause of the FI’s and LCR’s equivocations on this issue is that in the late 1960s and 1970s the FI majority attempted to concretise a strategy for workers’ power: the “strategy of dual power”. This strategy strikingly failed to have any purchase on the course of events in Portugal in 1974-76 and in several crises in Latin America in the 1970s. Since the mid-1980s the FI has been attempting to come to terms with this failure, but the conclusions it has drawn are those of Kautsky’s ‘Two-and-a-Half International’ in the 1920s and the ‘London Bureau of Socialist Parties’ in the 1930s (both projects notoriously failed).

Callinicos admits to the LCR: “Of course, there is plenty of scope for discussion about the forms in which such a confrontation with the capitalist state could unfold - the working class of today is very different from the one that drove the last upturn of struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s, let alone the proletariat at the heart of the great revolutionary experiences of the early 20th century - though, as you imply, more than anything else we need new experiences to give our speculations concrete shape.” This is as much as to say that the SWP also has no clear idea of a strategy for power.

The truth is that the old International Socialists, the SWP’s forerunner, like the FI, had a strategic conception - this time drawn (as Callinicos says, their ideas still are) from Rosa Luxemburg’s 1906 pamphlet The mass strike, coupled in the 1960s and 70s with a liberal use of the spontaneists’ critique of Leninism. The core of the strategy was to abstain from the left-right struggle in the official trade unions and instead focus on building ‘rank and file movements’, which would independently express the spontaneous dynamic of the strike struggle. This strategy also failed in the 1970s, with the collapse of the large Italian semi-spontaneist left organisations like Lotta Continua, with which the IS was at the time collaborating, and in Britain with the derailment by the 1974 Labour government of the offensive led by the shop stewards’ movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s (in reality it had already been disproved by the course of events in Germany and Italy in 1918-1920).

IS guru Tony Cliff’s balance sheet of this failure was not a thorough critique of The mass strike and rank-and-filist strategy, but to superimpose on it the idea of the need for “the revolutionary party” - understood through the frame of Zinoviev’s 1922 History of the Bolshevik Party and the cult of the personality of Lenin. The resulting ‘Bolshevisation’ splintered the IS and led to the creation of Workers Fight (today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty), Workers Power, the Revolutionary Communist Group (later Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism and the Revolutionary Communist Party) and some more ephemeral groups like the Workers League and the International Socialist Association. The remaining IS core converted itself into the Socialist Workers Party and embarked on a ‘party-building’ offensive aimed at bypassing its ‘sectarian’ opponents by recruiting newly radicalising youth. In reality this turn meant that revolutionary strategy was reduced to the need for the revolutionary party.

The party

Callinicos explains the need for the party thus: “The classical case for the revolutionary party is that it generalises the experiences of particular struggles, on the basis of this generalisation formulates a programme and strategy for taking the movement forward, and intervenes in an organised manner to translate these broad conceptions into reality. When things go well - and they have gone better for us in the anti-war movement than anything has for many years - a mutually enriching process takes place in which revolutionaries learn from the movement but also help to strengthen it and give it direction.”

This is a radically incomplete conception of the nature of a party programme. The elementary ideas of the socialist programme that socialism is possible and necessary, and that the only road to socialism is through the rule of the working class (dictatorship of the proletariat) depend not only on the generalised “experiences of particular struggles”, but also on scientific analysis of anthropology, history before the development of the particular class struggles between workers and capitalists, political economy, the dynamics of the capitalist states, etc. The basic understanding of the Marx-Engels polemics against Lassalle and apolitical trade unionism, and of Plekhanov and Lenin’s polemics against the economists, is that the working class has to begin to take the lead in society as a whole, which means taking up issues which do not immediately generate “particular struggles” - like, for example, the question of agriculture in Britain.

This anti-scientific concept of the programme as “generalis[ing] the experiences of particular struggles” is the continuing reflection of the SWP’s original Luxemburgist spontaneism. It naturally has the result that the programme has no definite content which is ever capable of being tested, criticised and improved, but that whatever ideas are thrown up by “struggles” - like the Tobin tax - can be adopted, while ideas which are not immediately popular with the SWP’s preferred audience - like women’s and gay rights in relation to the mosques - can be dumped as “shibboleths”.

Conversely, in Callinicos’s account the task of the party is not to persuade the broad workers’ vanguard (the activists of the trade unions, workers’ parties, etc) and the working masses to fight for the elements of the party’s programme, but to “intervene[s] in an organised manner to translate these broad conceptions into reality”. A little later Callinicos states: “Daniel Bensaid puts [it] very well when he writes that, for Lenin, the party ‘becomes a strategic operator, a sort of gearbox and points-man of the class struggle’.” These slippery expressions can all too easily mean that the task of the party is to manipulate the mass movement through trickery of one sort or another and bureaucratic manipulations into unconsciously doing the party’s will. In this context it is unsurprising that Callinicos says that “a revolutionary party does not aim to represent the working class in its entirety”.

The following sentence appears to qualify this statement: “Rather, it seeks to organise those who are more or less fully committed to a revolutionary socialist programme in order to intervene in the struggles and movements of the day and draw wider layers of the working class and other oppressed sections of society towards that programme.” But there is a permanent separation built into the account between party and class. The project is deeply unambitious: it does not seek (to give a British example) to replace Labourism with Marxist class politics as the dominant politics of the working class, but to organise a permanent minority.

Even the discussions of this permanent minority are poisoned by the idea of ‘generalising the experiences’. There are two results of this concept. The first is that issues which are not about “experiences” are not open to party discussion, but are taught from the top down by the leaders. The second is that dissent can all too easily be explained as reflecting the partial experiences of the ranks: only the leaders have sufficient access to information really to generalise ... What is involved is a watered-down Hegelianism in which the party takes the place given by Hegel to the state.

Party and movement

Callinicos remarks: “... we were struck by the fact that the LCR central committee, when it resolved to defer a decision on SPEB’s integration, reaffirmed, as a ‘position of principle’: ‘the choice of the LCR to refuse to impose “party discipline” on its militants within mass organisations (trade unions, associations) must be clearly understood as a will to respect the autonomy of the social movements, according to their own frameworks and their own rhythms of elaboration and decision’.

“This seems to us a bizarre position. Of course, if by ‘party discipline’ you mean subjecting members to the will of the organisation by instructions and the threat of expulsion, then resort to such mechanical procedures is, at best, an admission of failure - though not something that can therefore be ruled out a priori: trade-union activity, for example, is full of temptations that occasionally can only be dealt with by disciplinary measures. But for us much more important is political discussion involving the leadership and the comrades directly concerned to hammer out what the party should be pushing for in the union or movement in question. The alternative is a dispersion of forces, and at worst, a situation in which members of the same party are openly pressing for divergent positions.”

The bulk of this criticism is plainly correct. The error of the LCR here flows from a general error of the FI, adopted in its response to Stalinism in the 1985 ‘Resolution on socialist democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat’. Though less transparently so than the SWP’s, the FI’s conception of democratic centralism is in fact bureaucratic centralist, attempting to keep the party’s internal differences hidden in a secret internal bulletin. Since a mass workers’ party which worked in this way would manipulate and substitute for, rather than lead, the political discussion in trade unions in which it worked, the FI asserts that democratic centralism has no place in the trade unions; the LCR extends this doctrine to the “movements”; the result is a mere dispersion of forces.

The sting is in the tail of Callinicos’s argument - “at worst, a situation in which members of the same party are openly pressing for divergent positions”. Far from being the worst outcome, this was actually the practice of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and the Bolsheviks. It is through the open struggle of views that the class and its broad vanguard learn and are able to choose effectively between divergent views. Party unity is required in relation to concrete actions - strikes, elections, and such like - not in relation to ‘positions’ more broadly. The common error of the LCR and SWP on the nature of democratic centralism here leads the LCR to reject it; the SWP to embrace a policy of secrets and lies.

Party and faction

After a good deal of discussion of how the LCR and SWP agree on the principle that democratic discussion is essential, and some discussion of the concrete history of the Bolshevik Party between September-October 1917 and 1921, Callinicos concludes that “... revolutionary organisations necessarily involve plurality; moreover, democratic debate is the indispensable mechanism through which perspectives and circumstances are calibrated and crises are overcome. In our view, however, the kind of principled distinction that you draw between party and faction and the right of members to form permanent tendencies that you infer from this distinction are an obstacle to internal discussion playing this role.

“If comrades identify themselves as members of factions that have a continuous identity, they are likely to approach concrete issues and debates through the prism of the faction’s general perspective. Issues are unlikely to be discussed on their merits, but approached rather from the point of view of their impact on the internal balance of factional forces. Daniel [Bensaid]’s ‘organised plurality’ then risks degenerating into something like the pluralism that American political scientists claim for their society - pragmatic competition and bargaining between interest groups.” He goes on to identify the prolonged faction-fight in the FI between 1968 and 1979 as an example of this problem.

There is a curious paradox here. Callinicos’s critique of Bensaid’s “organised plurality” as effectively a variant on the liberal conception of pluralism is broadly correct. The LCR’s ‘pluralism’ - and the same is true of the tradition of the British supporters of the FI over the last 30 years - contains the parliamentarist hidden secret that ‘whoever you vote for, the government (ie, the party apparatus) will get in’. Moreover, the LCR’s ‘government’ is strikingly more tender of pluralism to its right, than of pluralism to its left.

A good illustration is what happened in 1991-3, when opposition in the LCR’s youth group, the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, broke the bounds of the diplomatic dance between the tendencies in the LCR. The JCR leaders were abruptly expelled from the LCR on factitious charges of indiscipline and a new competing youth organisation set up by the LCR majority. Like liberalism, the LCR’s ‘pluralism’ thus contains the ‘state of emergency’.

On the other hand, Callinicos’s example proves the opposite of his claim. The period of the great - public - faction fight in the FI between 1968 and 1979 was the period when this organisation grew most strongly, attained the most political influence and was most effective in educating cadre. The open faction fight was itself a dynamic element which strengthened the organisation.

Before the theme of ‘party and faction’ emerged in the later 1970s, the FI majority had a better understanding of the question. This was that the party apparatus is a permanent faction within the party, which has interests distinct from the interests of the members (this view is merely the application to the apparatus of workers’ organisations of Marx’s critique of Hegel’s theory of the state). As a result, the adoption of party rules banning factions - like the Bolsheviks in 1921 - does not abolish factions: it merely gives the apparatus faction a formal monopoly, an instrument to consolidate its dictatorship over the members, and forces factions into the form of cliques and court intrigues like those of the renaissance monarchies.

The same is true of rules banning ‘permanent’ factions. This was transparent in the old US SWP, which invented this form of apparatus control, and has been apparent in the British SWP since the 1970s. Banning ‘permanent’ factions allows the leadership to decide how long a political discussion will go on and to begin and end it at times convenient to the apparatus. It is the equivalent of the British prime minister’s power to fix the dates of elections for his own advantage.

Injured innocence

The theme of injured innocence, or simple denial that the real SWP is in any way similar to the image of the SWP criticised by the LCR leaders, is a thread which runs through the whole letter, though it is most strongly present in the discussions of ‘Party and movement’ and ‘The revolutionary party today’ - ie, party and faction. Of course the SWP doesn’t manipulate fronts, insists Callinicos: the Stop the War Coalition and the ANL are “mass united fronts”, Globalise Resistance “a united front that brings together members of the SWP with activists with other political perspectives - for example, progressive muslims and comrades influenced by the disobbedienti”. The SWP’s approach to party and faction does not lead to splits: “The last, and much the most serious, split in the history of the SWP took place in 1975.” And “Though you accuse us of having a ‘verticalist’ method of organising, the number of times that individuals have been expelled from the SWP over the past 25 years because of political disagreements as opposed to personal misconduct has been extremely small.”

These last two points can be rapidly disposed of. In relation to splits, the very same point Callinicos makes (the organisation has lasted a long time without major splits) could have been made by the American SWP before the early 1980s, by Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party before that organisation’s implosion in the mid-1980s, and by the Militant Tendency before their 1991-92 split. The explanation is that once ‘permanent factions’ are prohibited, before any serious faction-fight can develop individual dissidents will wind up being expelled for “personal misconduct” - either for the crime of “factionalism” or for other factitious charges of indiscipline. Thus no major splits can develop. But the effect is ... dispersal of forces - once members begin to think seriously for themselves, they come into conflict with the apparatus and wind up as hostile ‘independents’.


When it comes to the relations of party and movement, the contradiction between the SWP’s proclaimed ideals and its actual practice is a little more complex.

The first question is the dynamics of “movements”. Single-issue campaigning groups have been an institutional feature of British bourgeois politics since the 18th century (early examples focussed on prison reform and slavery). Such groups are a useful means of conducting an agitation. Marx and Engels had no difficulty with the participation of the embryo workers’ movement in such groups, but insisted on maintaining an independent class line. The errors which the SWP share with the FI on this front are twofold. First, they confuse single-issue campaigns with the policy of the workers’ united front advocated by the Third Congress of the Comintern. This policy is about class unity in the aftermath of the split in the Second International, not about single-issue initiatives in agitation.

Second, on the basis of this bastard version of the ‘theory of the united front’, the participation of some element of the official lefts is indispensable to make the campaign a ‘united front’. The SWP and FI are therefore strongly inclined within the single-issue campaign to tone down their own differences with their collaborators to their right, and thereby act as foot-soldiers and gatekeepers for the Labour bureaucracy and the Stalinists. This was evident as early as the early Anti-Nazi League: in the name of unity this organisation excluded any consideration of the state racism that provides the fertiliser feeding the far right.

The temptation in this direction is simple. The official lefts in both the trade unions and the Labour Party are happy to lend their names to campaigns and to speak on platforms, provided they do not have to provide the foot-soldiers (organising at the base would be against their principles) and can be assured that they are not lending their names to promote Marxist politics. Conciliating them therefore produces larger numbers on demonstrations, etc. Marxists who fall into this trap fall prey to the idea that they have ‘entered the big time’: in reality they have merely become part of the dynamics of the official lefts. To preserve the alliance with the official lefts they must, as far as possible, marginalise left critics. They enter the dialectic of secrets and lies demanded by this policy, and do the official lefts’ work of bureaucratic exclusion and manipulation.

Dynamics of SWP

The second element is the dynamics of the SWP. Since the ‘party turn’ of the mid-1970s, the SWP has conceived a party as “an organisation which initiates action” (Tony Cliff Why we need a socialist workers party January 1977). This is a clearer version of Callinicos’s party which “intervene[s] in an organised manner to translate these broad conceptions into reality”. Cliff’s examples? “That is the meaning of the Right to Work Campaign, the Campaign against Racialism and so on” (ibid). The party is conceived as such in relation to its single-issue campaigns, not its work in the trade unions or the mass movement in the localities. The fundamental task of this party is to recruit: “If, when the revolutionary crisis comes to Britain, we have 40,000 members, there is no question that we can grow to 400,000 or perhaps half a million. If, on the other hand, the revolutionary organisation has only a few thousand members, it is even possible that the party appears as irrelevant and does not grow at all. A certain size is necessary for take-off. Recruitment is the first task we have to carry through” (ibid).

This project has had two results. The first is that since the SWP seeks to “initiate action” in the form of single-issue campaigns, SWP commitment of forces to these campaigns will be intense while they are successful, but will only be maintained as long as they have some agitational purchase. The SWP can therefore have no stable long-term perspective as a party either in the localities or the trade unions.

The second is that ‘open recruitment’ means that the SWP has roughly four categories of member. The first category is the central leadership, the apparatus and sections of experienced members not directly employed by the party who are fully committed to the ‘party project’ and/or integrated into an apparatus clientage chain. This is the core of the SWP. At the opposite extreme stands the second group - pure paper members, in substance merely sympathisers of the party (if that), who have been persuaded to take party cards but never brought effectively into party activity.

The third group is a largish class of militants who hold SWP membership and sell the press, but are deeply rooted in trade union, local or other sectoral work and cannot routinely be mobilised for the latest ‘initiative in action’. Apart from their formal party affiliation these militants are hardly distinguishable from the LCR and ISG “coalitions of activists involved in specific movements” criticised by Callinicos in his 2002 text Regroupment, realignment and the revolutionary left (p12). (It should be said that the Bolshevik membership in the low periods of the class struggle between 1905 and 1917 had a very similar character ...)

The fourth group is the key to the SWP’s size and ability to mobilise. It consists of recent SWP recruits from among newly radicalising students and youth. These militants have rarely met any of the other tendencies of the far left. They are attracted by the SWP’s dynamism as a party which “initiates action”, but have as yet acquired only a superficial grasp of the SWP’s ideas. Their inexperience makes it hard for them to think critically, but they are enthusiastic and readily mobilisable. They will retain this character for a year or two between joining and then either dropping out, becoming part of the apparatus group or gradually passing into the ‘rooted activist’ group. In the meantime, they are the SWP’s real foot-soldiers, the element on which the apparatus group relies to enable it to “initiate actions”.

But the organisation therefore moves more or less constantly from one campaign to another, and does so by moving substantial numbers of rootless and inexperienced young members who can be trusted to vote the party line. The result is, first, that the SWP acquires organisational control of the ‘movements’ it is involved with as opposed to political leadership; and, second, that this organisational control will inevitably be used to shut the movement down temporarily when the SWP’s perspectives shift, and revive it as a vehicle for “initiating action” when the issue comes back into prominence. Whatever the motivations, the result is that the ‘movements’ are converted into SWP fronts. It quacks like a duck ...

Fantasy land

A comrade recently argued on the Socialist Alliance e-discussion list that what we see in the SWP is merely the cynical exploitation of the new members for the benefit of the jet-set life style of the leadership. This is not serious. Callinicos, for example, is a senior academic, professor of politics at York University, and could have a jet-setting lifestyle of conferences, visiting professorships and so on without being a leader of the SWP (no doubt if he had abandoned Marxism he would be even more eminent in his profession). Other long-standing SWP leaders, too, could have found more comfortable niches in life by breaking with their political commitments.

The problem is not cynicism, but self-deception. The SWP embarked in the mid-1970s on the path of the declaration of an organisation of a couple of thousand as a party which “initiates actions” and the adoption of a Zinovievist internal regime. This is a path which leads nowhere. It has remained about the same size ever since, never making the hoped-for ‘breakthrough’. Even if its major competitors have collapsed, it remains in the same league as the small groups relative to the trade unions and the Labour lefts - as is visible in the comparable electoral results of the SWP-controlled Socialist Alliance and the (much smaller) Socialist Party. The SWP’s ‘united front’ policy and its concept of the party actually act as obstacles to initiatives which could undermine Labourism or develop an alternative pole. But its leaders continue to con themselves that all is well.

The alternative would be a deep-going self-criticism of their policy over the last 30 years. We may guess that those among their leadership who have a glimmering of appreciation that such a turn is necessary are frightened that it would blow the party up. The reality is that the risk of a destructive crisis is much greater if they continue on their present course.