At the crossroads

Sooner or later the Socialist Workers Party faces a choice between strategically counterposed perspectives which have developed within the ranks of its leadership, argues Mike Macnair

What we have seen since the death of Tony Cliff is a combination of thrashing around and sharp about-turns. To grasp the origins of this impasse it is necessary to delve back into history

The main existing organisations of the far left and their current leaderships are all in their various ways ‘children of 68’ - that is, products of the youth radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like the (much smaller) ‘anti-globalisation movement’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the youth radicalisation was dominated by hostility to the ‘old left’, belief in spontaneous and leaderless forms of organisation, and an aspiration to fighting in the streets as a way of ‘confronting capital’.

The International Socialists (now the SWP) and the International Marxist Group (whose main descendant is the International Socialist Group) plunged into the youth movement, particularly working among students, and grew about tenfold. Workers Fight, from which today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is descended, joined the IS and within it also grew about tenfold. By the early 1970s the IS had about 2,000 actual members (though it was claiming more), the IMG about 500, and WF about 100.

Meanwhile, the radicalisation of student youth proved to be a harbinger of a larger radicalisation of the working class more generally, reflected in a major strike offensive in the early 1970s, which was also reflected in extensive growth of the trade unions and the Labour Party and its left, and a temporary pause in the decline of the ‘official’ Communist Party. The trade union offensive boosted the strength of the older and larger Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Labour League, led by Gerry Healy (later Workers Revolutionary Party). This also grew from some hundreds to a few thousands. The growth of the Labour Party left boosted the strength of the Militant Tendency, which was based in the Labour Party Young Socialists and grew from below 100 into the high hundreds (by the mid-80s it too was to reach several thousands).

It thus became apparent that, though the organised far left had grown very dramatically in absolute size, the relationship of forces within the workers’ movement had not altered. Moreover, in the mid-1970s the offensive movement of the class faltered, as the ‘oil price shock’ to the world economy created ‘stagflation’ (a combination of inflation and growing unemployment). In this situation the labour bureaucracies were generally able to reconquer the rank and file movements which had led the class offensive. In Britain the 1974-79 Labour government played a central role. This shift produced a general crisis of the perspectives of the far left, which had counted on the spontaneous class struggles of the late 60s and early 70s growing over into a revolutionary crisis.

The party turn

The new militants of the organised far left were young comrades who had drawn up a negative balance sheet from the unorganised or semi-organised spontaneist phase of the movement. We had seen how ineffectual this movement was in responding to the manoeuvres of the organised right wing of the workers’ movement and of the CPs, and/or how undemocratic spontaneism was, since it provided no way to call leaders to account. The alternative seemed to be offered by Lenin’s What is to be done? and the communist organisational tradition descended from it. We did not in the main understand that Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism involved centralising the work of the party through a common political programme: our own organisations either clung to the 1938 programme of the Fourth International as a meaningless fetish, or had deduced from its failure that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” (Marx to Bracke, 1875, taken out of context): ie, that programme was not central.

Most of us were kids who had grown up in the long boom and had no idea what real capitalist crisis looked like. Our elders were not much help. Either they were people who had clung to ‘the coming crisis’ like a mantra and now announced imminent crash (Healy, Grant), or they had re-theorised the boom as a ‘normal condition’ in which the character of the class struggle was permanently shifted (CP theorists, Mandel, Cliff). In reality, world capitalism had begun to descend into a downward spiral which would gradually and eventually strip the working class of its social gains made since 1945, but we were in for a very prolonged period of decay until the US world hegemony reached terminal crisis - and one which would be characterised by ups and downs, not continuous crisis. The groups of the far left generally did not grasp this, but either made short-term analogies with the 1930s (Cliff, Healy), or conceptualised revolutionary crisis apart from the decay of capitalism and so, similarly, saw short-term perspectives of revolutionary crisis.

We were therefore looking for quick-fix solutions to the problem of the relation of forces in the workers’ movement. We expected that a revolutionary crisis would make it possible, with the right tactics, to win the masses, but thought that at least the ‘core of a revolutionary party’ needed to exist before revolutionary crisis broke out. We looked at how small the Bolshevik Party was in February 1917, but ignored the fact that before 1914 the RSDLP (Majority) had already become the majority party of workers’ political representation in Russia and acquired deep roots in the trade unions and their leaderships.

It was in this context that the groups of the far left generally turned to ‘Bolshevisation’ and, in the cases of the SLL and IS, launching themselves as “the revolutionary party” - the SLL turning itself into the WRP and the IS into the SWP. But there was a key common element also shared by the IMG, Workers Fight and, by the early 1980s, Militant: the idea that the time for propaganda had passed - now it was necessary to build the organisation through “initiatives in action”. This formulation appears first in the IMG’s 1970 perspectives document, From a propaganda group to a league for revolutionary action; it had been adopted by the IS by the time of Cliff’s document on the ‘party turn’ in 1977.

It meant, inevitably, that a group of this type would recruit mainly among newly radicalising activists who would not ask the hard questions which only a programme and systematic propaganda could answer. Its effect was to focus the work of the groups on nationally organised campaign initiatives, as opposed to local work (which was and is inevitably a lot more diverse in character). This could be the practical framework of building ‘centralism’. Its tendency, however, was to deprive the organisations of the limited organic links they had developed with local labour movements, or in specific trade unions in the early 1970s, to undermine practical collaboration between the groups (which was also driven by common experiences in the localities and trade unions), and, by aiming to recruit mainly among newly radicalising elements, to promote the social logic of sectarianism.

It should perhaps be emphasised that this turn was not a Trotskyist peculiarity. A very similar evolution can be found in the Leninist wing of the American Maoist movement in the same period, as can be seen from Max Elbaum’s participant history Revolution in the air (2002).

Electoral turn and the regroupment question

The SWP’s party turn led it in 1977 to begin standing candidates against Labour at by-elections. An early attempt at Ashwell garnered enough votes to give the Tories the seat. The IMG, meanwhile, had shifted in 1976-77 to a partial regroupment perspective. It initially approached the SWP for common left candidates in some upcoming by-elections and, when this failed, put together first ad hoc local coalitions and then a national coalition, Socialist Unity, to stand against the SWP. Both the SWP and Socialist Unity candidates polled pretty weakly - though not much more weakly than Socialist Alliance candidates generally do nowadays. But the effect was enough to persuade the SWP that the electoral tactic, far from showing it had outgrown the ‘sectarians’ to its left, tended to show that it was still in the same ball park and create pressure for regroupment. It pulled back from electoral work.

Events made it easier for the SWP to do so in two ways. In the first place an independent initiative by a group of supporters, Rock Against Racism, mushroomed and allowed the SWP, in collaboration with some CPers and Labour lefts, to launch the Anti-Nazi League as a national, bureaucratically controlled, top-down organisation, and thereby marginalise the left and trade-union-based, local anti-fascist/anti-racist committees. This success in a ‘campaign’ reduced the regroupment pressure coming from the electoral work and the white-collar trade union fractions.

Secondly, in autumn-winter 1978-79 the ability of the trade union bureaucracy to hold back strike struggles in the interests of the Labour government finally broke in the Fords strike and the ‘winter of discontent’. The SWP fell back on its trade union and student bases; in the manual unions it had enough strength to marginalise the IMG and its collaborators, though the CP, WRP and Militant were stronger; the IMG bizarrely decided to abandon student work in 1979, leaving the field clear for the SWP and AWL. Then the Labour government fell, the labour left went on the offensive in the party, and the IMG - as well as a large part of the independent left milieu - turned to Labour Party entry. The SWP was left in splendid isolation.

Frozen survival

The events of the 1980s broke up most of the substantial existing organisations of the far left. The WRP and IMG were shattered by the course of world events, especially Gorbachevism, and the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The Labour witch-hunt and leadership of the anti-poll tax movement drew Militant into work outside the Labour Party and split today’s Socialist Party from today’s Socialist Appeal; the same dynamic was to produce the Scottish and English splits in the SP and its Committee for a Workers’ International in 1998-2001, which reduced the Socialist Party from some thousands to some hundreds. That landmark of the left, the old ‘official’ CPGB, was liquidated by the Euros in 1991.

The SWP survived more or less intact essentially because of its isolationism, because it had become a stopped clock (as Militant and the WRP were before the 1980s). The organisation continued to recruit, primarily on the campuses through Socialist Worker Student Societies. The tasks of the members were to ‘build the party’ and to engage in such ‘united fronts’ as the leadership might from time to time direct; in the early 80s the SWP entered the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, playing, as it had in the ANL, the role of left guard and bureaucratic support for left reformism. The idea of the ‘downturn’, already developed before the great miners’ strike, limited expectations. The enormous changes in eastern Europe were taken merely to ‘prove’ the theory of state capitalism. The SWP congratulated itself - and still does - on this frozen survival.

In the same period, the crises of the principal international Trotskyist organisations opened up space for the SWP to develop its own international network. The International Socialist Tendency was launched in 1977, but it seems to have been only in the 1980s that it was able to spread much beyond its British and US heartlands.

At the turn of the millennium

In 1999-2000 two sets of events brought this period of ‘frozen survival’ to an end. In both cases we are concerned with slightly belated responses of the SWP to earlier developments.

The first was the re-emergence of the issue of electoral challenges to Labour, as was inevitable under a Labour government. Whereas under the Tories it is enough to be the “best fighters”, a Labour government inevitably poses the question: what alternative? From the 1995 launch of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party this question was put more firmly on the agenda. Scargill’s isolationism, like the SWP’s in its electoral challenges in the 1970s, posed the question of left unity as an alternative. By early 1999 the SWP was approaching the Socialist Alliance for a common electoral project and in the spring of that year it entered direct discussions on the issue with a number of groups, including the SP. The SWP’s first clear and unambiguous support for contesting elections came with the decision to enter and relaunch the London Socialist Alliance, for the Greater London Authority elections coinciding with Ken Livingstone’s 2000 campaign for the London mayoralty.

The second development was the emergence of the ‘anti-globalisation movement’ from small beginnings building to the ‘battle of Seattle’ in December 1999 (and since then some large-scale mass protests against international summitry). The SWP leadership insisted that this movement, which it dubbed ‘anti-capitalist’ (even the Fourth International, which is almost as strong an enthusiast for it, does not agree that the movement can as a whole be characterised as anti-capitalist), represented a fundamental shift in the political situation, with the beginning of a ‘new radicalisation’. It carried its insistence on a turn to the anti-globalisation protesters to the point of an open break with the International Socialist Organization, the IST’s US affiliate. In 2001 the SWP launched Globalise Resistance as an SWP-controlled ‘united front’ to attract forces from the anti-globalisation movement.

To make sense of the situation facing the SWP today, it is important to be aware that these developments are quite radically distinct from one another, though they have a common underlying ground: viz the global offensive of world capital, the capitalists’ control of the principal political organisations of the workers’ movement, and efforts to find some way to fight back.

The Socialist Alliance developed from 2000 into an initiative of the existing organised Marxist left attempting to break into electoral politics, with the participation of a number of longstanding independent activists in the labour movement (some of whom had been the founders of the original Network of Socialist Alliances) who were mostly ex-members of the organised Marxist left, with a handful of former Labour Party (and a few trade union) activists ‘disenfranchised’ by the turn of Labour under Kinnock and Blair to anti-democratic organisational structures.

The anti-globalisation movement acquired its prominence through the headline-hitting ‘direct actions’ of quite small groups of anarchists and libertarians - in this sense rerunning the youth radicalisation of the late 1960s - coupled with peaceful protest initiatives of a much wider layer of ‘third worldists’ who had at best passed through a dilute Maoism or Stalinism into the charity/NGO milieu, and whose perspective is in the main that of a reformed international capitalist world order (within this movement there is a slightly more political trend, whose core is activists of the Mandelite Fourth International, which began to turn to the NGO/‘third worldist’ milieu in the early 1990s). Its appeal is from either angle to an element of newly radicalising youth, as an alternative to class, party-political and electoral politics.


The SWP’s turns in 2000-2001 to these milieux thus confronted its leadership with two problems. The first was that the Socialist Alliance in particular posed the question of regroupment of the left. It did so both because the SWP was joining a regroupment initiative which already existed, at least in theory, and where it had now been followed by the ‘sectarian’ other far-left groups. It did so also because electoral work necessarily poses the regroupment question, since the disunity of the Marxist left exacerbates its electoral disadvantage face to face with the Labour Party (which fraudulently used to hold itself out as the party of working class unity). Now the problem here is not that the SWP is in principle opposed to regroupment of the left. The problem is that its concept of the Leninist party - in particular the radical separation of internal and public discussion, and the prohibition of factions and tendencies outside pre-conference periods - is inconsistent with any regroupment actually taking place.

The second problem was how to square the circle that the SWP was now attempting to ride two horses - the SA and GR - with radically different political cultures. For an organisation of the size of the SWP, which was founded on a definite political programme, this need not be a problem. But this is not what the SWP is. It is an organisation founded on the “need for the Leninist Party”, which for the best part of 30 years has been attempting to build itself by adapting, chameleon-like, to the milieux in which it hopes to recruit newly radicalising militants. This sort of policy only ‘works’ to the extent that the organisation turns as a whole to ‘anti-fascist work’, or to ‘unemployment work’, and so on.

‘United fronts of a special type’

The SWP leadership essentially sold the turns to its middle cadre by characterising both the SA and GR as ‘united fronts of a special type’: that is, as a continuation of its existing policy in single-issue campaigns. The SA was to be a ‘united front’ with elements of the Labour left breaking with the Labour Party and seeking an ‘old Labour’ home. GR was to be a ‘united front’ with ‘the best’ anti-globalisation activists: ie, those who were prepared to play ball with the SWP. The theory did more or less ‘save the phenomena’: ie, reconcile the SWP’s self-image as “the revolutionary party” with the fact that it was working in two global (rather than single-issue) fronts, each of which would - if set free - have a dynamic: the SA towards a regroupment party of the far left, GR towards a new semi-spontaneist left group.

What it did not do was resolve either the problem of schizoid chameleonism (SWP members would need to be semi-anarchists on Mondays at GR meetings, semi-social democrats on Tuesdays at SA meetings), or the problem of conflicting priorities between the two projects. In the upshot, the SWP leadership has been unable to deliver sufficient forces to either project with sufficient consistency to make them work. GR is universally recognised as a mere front for the SWP which contains a few independents who are prepared to provide a public face. The SA is more complex. It seems likely that the SWP was at least initially happy enough to see the SP walk out; but in the result the SA has not succeeded in marginalising either the SP or the SLP on the electoral field. Its own results have remained stubbornly on the fringe, with a few exceptions.

The third option

The war drive and the anti-war movement seemed to the SWP leadership to offer a way out of these difficulties. ‘Turning’ the SWP round a single-issue ‘united front’, built on a bloc with the Stalinists, elements of the Labour left, etc, and vigorously ‘building the party’ within this movement, was something that had worked well in the past, and at least the forces of the anti-globalisation movement could be expected to be subsumed in the anti-war movement. That this was the response of the SWP leadership seems clear from the marginality of both GR and the SA in the SWP’s response to the anti-war movement and from the notorious Bambery email instructing members to do nothing but sell Socialist Worker on the big February 15 demonstration. SWP cadre responded accordingly. Unlike ‘united fronts of a special kind’, this was stuff they knew how to do and were good at.

The results in terms of the anti-war mobilisations were spectacular. The results in terms of growth of the SWP were desperately disappointing. Here was the SWP leading a movement of hundreds of thousands, with at least one demonstration of more than a million, and yet ... the SWP was not recruiting hand over fist; Marxism 2003 was about the same size as Marxism 2002. In fact, the anti-war movement, far from making the electoral question go away, posed it more strongly - since this was a Labour government launching an unpopular, etc war. Moreover, the question of the UN and ‘world orders’, which was highlighted by the refusal of the French, Germans, Russians and Chinese to go along with the US project, and the Lib Dems’ flirtation with opposition to the war, posed political questions to which “being the best builders of the movement” provided no answers.

In this context, the issue of the anti-war movement mutated in spring 2003 from being a solution to difficulties of the SWP’s perspectives to being a third option in perspectives. This option is to attempt to assume the mantle of the old Stalinised CP. This party functioned (the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain to some extent still does) as the external organisers for the more timid variants of the politics of official Labour and trade union left, and sold the political self-limitation this function involves to its members through the theory of the popular front - though the old CPGB’s ‘popular fronts’ never involved more serious ‘bourgeois forces’ than a few radical vicars and intellectuals.

The idea of a ‘peace and justice’ platform based on a bloc between the SWP, the CPB, George Galloway and a few left imams, who are to be the alibi for a policy which pulls the left towards the political centre, is a repeat of this traditional CP policy. This project could be sold as ‘giving political representation to the anti-war movement as a whole’; its ‘united front’ character would enable the SWP to sidestep the political questions of world order and alternatives to Blairism by adopting the CPB’s and official lefts’ general preference for a ‘reformed UN’ perspective and a British road to socialism-style programme. There was some risk that the full development of the project would provoke an explosion in the SWP, but the leadership had handled sharp turns before and the SWP cadre was accustomed to acting as political chameleons, at least for a time.

This summer, the CPB - which was pivotal to the project - would not play ball. This was a setback to the perspective, but the SWP leadership has now shifted to the Monbiot-Yaqoob platform as an alternative route to the same goal.


The underlying problem facing the SWP can now be seen. It is not centralised round a common programme, but round ‘campaigns’ that are expected to produce access to newly radicalising forces who can be won directly to the SWP. As a result, tactical courses of action which would not be counterposed (subject to resources) for an organisation defined by its programme are counterposed for the SWP. In addition, for an organisation of this type a prolonged Labour government is a serious problem. It has the effect of posing the question: what political alternative to the Labour government? As a result, the electoral question, and with it the questions of programme and of regroupment of the left, are never far off the agenda.

In this context there are broadly five alternative perspectives available to the SWP. The first is to dump the ‘united fronts of a special type’ and retreat to the ‘party and single-issue united fronts’ perspective of the 1980s and 1990s. Chris Bambery has been rumoured to be a supporter of this view. The problem remains what led the SWP to its SA turn: if it abstains from electoral blocs, it risks someone else creating a ‘Scottish Socialist Party’ in England and as a result marginalising the SWP. We are not yet sufficiently in the end game of the Labour government for this to be a practical option.

The second option, which is close to the first, is to ‘go banker’ on Globalise Resistance and/or Social Forums, accompanying the turn with denouncing the futility of electoralism and asserting the importance of ‘direct action’. This would be a gamble on the assessment that the anti-globalisation movement is a fundamental new radicalisation of the late 1960s type and will marginalise the ‘old left’. This assessment frankly now looks like an instance of male mid-life crisis and the yearning for one’s youth affecting the leaderships of the SWP and the Fourth International (and to a lesser extent the AWL with its No Sweat). Alex Callinicos’s regroupment discussions with the FI seem to be a component of a perspective of this type. It carries the same risk as the first option, with the additional risk, in the absence of a deal with the FI, that in the international anti-globalisation movement the SWP cannot avoid the FI’s French, Italian, Portuguese, etc organisations, who are better entrenched in the movement than the SWP-IST because they have been there longer. Thus a turn to the anti-globalisation movement which is also a turn away from electoral politics risks being denounced by the FI and by Rifondazione Comunista as sectarian, frontist and anti-parliamentary cretinist, with the SWP repeating the experience of the early and middle 1970s in which the IMG ‘came up from behind’ to challenge the IS-SWP on the strength of its international affiliation.

The third option is to turn the SWP vigorously round the Socialist Alliance as a ‘brand’, with the effect that much SWP work would be done through or in the name of the Socialist Alliance and its branches, while retaining the theory of the ‘united front of a special kind’. This seems to have been Rob Hoveman’s line for some time, and it may have temporarily gained ground in the wake of the failure of the CPB negotiations. Its disadvantages are two. The first is that the SA ‘brand’ has already become somewhat fly-blown as a result of the split with the SP and the SWP’s on-off policy towards the SA, and does not seem to be very saleable even with lots of effort (Brent East). The second is that, given the existing relationship of forces, if the SWP did throw all its members into activity in SA branches, without opening out its own regime, the SA would come to appear even more as a front for the SWP and might cease to function as anything else.

The fourth possibility is some variant of ‘peace and justice’. John Rees and Lindsey German were pushing this hard in spring-summer, and it has now resurfaced in the form of the Monbiot-Yaqoob platform. Its great advantage for the SWP is that it might succeed in unifying their disparate “areas of work”, superseding both the Socialist Alliance and Globalise Resistance. However, it is not at all clear that this initiative has any real prospect of getting off the ground on a scale larger than the SA, though it would clearly involve some different forces from the SA. On the one hand, as we move towards the end of Labour’s second term, there is, as could have been expected, some revival of trade union struggles and of the Labour Party left.

This will be a significant magnet for potential unorganised supporters of ‘peace and justice’, and for the Morning Star’s CPB and those in its orbit. On the other, if the SWP has found new friends in the Stop the War Coalition, it has also gained an unenviable reputation for frontism and bureaucratic manipulation among independents both in the SA and in the anti-globalisation movement. The SA has failed to leap ahead of either the SP or the SLP on the electoral field; it seems likely that without some stronger organised counterweight to SWP dominance, the fate of a ‘Monbiot-Yaqoob’ or other ‘peace and justice’ platform would be the same. If this occurred, the SWP would have paid a substantial political price for no political gain.

The fifth option is one that does not seem to have been contemplated by any of the SWP leaders. This is to break the infernal machinery which produces these dilemmas: that is, the centralisation of the SWP round ‘initiatives in action’ (rather than around programme), the ‘small mass party’ concept, and the controls on public discussion and factions, and to take real and serious initiatives towards regroupment. Without a doubt this would be the hardest turn to undertake, since it would involve unpicking much of the political culture of the SWP’s leadership and middle cadre, and recognising that the party concept what has brought them this far can take them no further forward. However, the potential prize is enormous.

However, it is perfectly clear that the SWP cannot carry on much longer without the tensions between its at present uneasily combined, but fundamentally competing, perspectives breaking to the surface.