The left: Rebellion, regroupment and the party we need

Ben Lewis surveys the British left’s response to the crisis gripping the SWP, and calls for a radical change of culture

Judging the crisis at present ripping through the Socialist Workers Party, Weekly Worker writers have has quite rightly stressed that the trigger that set the whole thing off was the scandal surrounding its former national secretary, Martin Smith.

Yet we have also pointed out that the underlying reasons for the current crisis can and should be located elsewhere - firstly in the Stalinoid organisational norms and rotten practices that the SWP leadership shamefacedly pursues in the name of ‘Leninism’; and secondly in the organisation’s lack of serious and workable perspectives more generally. Either these perspectives begin and end with an extremely narrow sect outlook of simply recruiting, at an extremely low political level, another thousand or so ‘members’ per year, or they border on the unhinged: anybody remember the ‘All out, stay out’ call for the unions’ general strike demanded by the SWP in 2011?

Nonetheless, the SWP is hardly unique on the British, or indeed the international, Marxist left, when it comes to lack of internal democracy or to its inability to offer any kind of viable strategy for moving beyond our current petty divisions and frontist fakery. General-strikism, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring and an almost exclusive reliance on spontaneity abound. Unfortunately, this reflects a common understanding of revolution amongst the left premised on a small, tightly-knit group that skilfully, almost imperceptibly, manipulates the working class towards the socialist dawn - a million miles away from the project of Marxism, with its emphasis on majoritarianism, consciousness, democracy and the mass party.

As such it is worth taking a look at some of the far-left responses to the current factional war being fought in the SWP as a way of assessing where we are currently at, as well as the prospects for revolutionary regroupment posed by this welcome rebellion within Britain’s largest leftwing group. Some of our more philistine readers might dismiss such things as ‘sectarianism’, ‘navel-gazing’ or ‘old left’ methods of conducting politics. Yet this mindset ironically reveals how much they have in common with those like Charlie Kimber, Alex Callinicos and Martin Smith, who dismiss other organisations and their ideas as nothing but “vultures” bent on poaching members from “the party”.

No. Reports of SWPers up and down the country becoming more open to engagement and discussion with those outside their ranks is good news indeed and must be encouraged. Far from seeing others as enemies, it should be the absolute norm for comrades to exchange ideas, write polemics and letters in each other’s newspapers (or to establish publications where such exchanges can take place) and generally behave as thinking and critical communists. This would facilitate the development of strategic ideas, the struggle against stale sect perspectives, and help to confront the burning question of our times: organising our forces into a viable partyist project solidly based on the politics of Marxism. This is, after all, what the CPGB and the Weekly Worker are dedicated to.

Calling the kettle black

The unsigned response by the small British Trotskyist group, Workers Power, is well written, and has the rare merit of openly calling on the SWP opposition to stay in and organise.1 Instead of responding with a narrow, ‘all join us’ approach, the article calls for “an emergency conference to restore the basic norms of democratic centralism”, arguing that without the right to form factions and tendencies or to openly and democratically elect the leadership, that leadership is “not accountable to the members”, which can lead to a culture of “leadership impunity”. “Outside periods of severe repression,” it continues, “there are no good reasons for limiting these safeguards.” All fair enough, so far.

However, WP to this day stubbornly sticks to the bureaucratic-centralist notion that factions and tendencies can only exist internally - ie, they must never go public outside the group. So the comrades write that the scandal around comrade Smith “immediately led to an enormous explosion of anger and disagreement and left members with no alternative but to take up the issues outside the party” (emphasis added). In other words, given internal democracy and factional rights, comrades are normally expected not to raise criticisms of disagreements outside the group. But if the minority cannot appeal to the working class on a question they consider vital, what choice do they have but to split off? In the conflicted and sectarian world of modern British Trotskyism, the reasoning usually offered for restricting dissent to internal channels is that sects like Workers Power are merely small ‘fighting propaganda groups’, whose capacity to organise would be weakened and its message obscured if they were to permit anything other than a single public line on all main questions. For them the masses have no right to know about differences or even conflicting nuances and shades of opinion. That would only confuse the poor things.

Indeed, while I in no way countenance the recent apolitical walkout from Workers Power led by comrades Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper (nor, as we shall see, their liquidationist political conclusions!), the above description of the brewing dissent in the SWP could equally apply to WP less than a year ago, when the organisation developed varying ideas on the question of ‘broad parties’.

Not that we could read about these arguments in the pages of Workers Power, of course. That would be tantamount to ‘centrism’. Instead there were rumours, and finally the proclamation of yet another split and yet another new group. Another stunning leap forward for our class. Thus, while the WP comrades are right to mainly focus on the question of organisation and the SWP’s regime, the fact is that their criticisms smack of a certain hypocrisy, of “Trots calling the kettle black”, as it were. However it is dressed up, restricting the articulation of public dissent is a form of bureaucratic centralism too. While in WP this does not take the form of the kind of bullying and intimidation associated with your average SWP hack, the fact remains that such a modus operandi runs counter to the experience of the healthiest aspects of Bolshevik culture. From the early days and small numbers around the post-Iskra “propaganda group” to the heights of mass influence from 1905 onwards, the Workers Power way of approaching political dissent and discussion would have been anathema to the Bolsheviks.

Workers Power is not alone, however. Take Counterfire, the Eurocommunist-esque rightist split from the SWP that came out of the misnamed Left Platform in 2010. Its response to the SWP crisis has dramatically missed the point by doing nothing else than simply foregrounding Lindsey German’s ‘Feminism - a 21st century manifesto’ (yawn). Maybe some people upset with the SWP will leave and join Counterfire!

Yet any rigorous analysis of the SWP’s bureaucratic centralism from the likes of comrades German, John Rees, Chris Nineham and Chris Bambery would necessarily have to be openly self-critical too. It was they who, until a few years ago, actually presided over and helped to develop that horrid regime. And their ‘Bolshevism’ cannot countenance the public articulation of dissent either. As comrade Rees puts it in his 2010 pamphlet on strategy, analysing the world and deciding on the next step “inevitably requires internal discussion and argument inside an organisation”.2

The reader will appreciate that this is not just a case of making some rather cheap (and easy) points against the pseudo-Bolshevism of those like Workers Power and comrade Rees. The point is that unless we break with such a sterile approach then our ability to move beyond the sect is severely hampered. This approach engenders an endless cycle of splits and divisions - often for frivolous reasons. It blurs lines of political disagreement instead of sharpening them and thus miseducates both the organisation’s membership and the working class more generally.

It is not that there are no big divisions or fundamental questions that need to be addressed on the left. Quite the opposite. Yet preventing minority views from finding public expression simply breeds further splintering and overall fragmentation. Of course, while the open expression of differences is no guarantee against splits, and while not all splits are unprincipled or manifestations of regression, what certainly will guarantee them is if comrades in a minority are effectively banned from fighting to win a wider public to their side.

AWL and partyism

To its credit, the response offered by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, authored by Edward Maltby and Martin Thomas,3 delivers some solid blows against this widespread conception of Bolshevism.

As they put it, “The question of party democracy isn’t just a technical question of the best way to conduct a discussion … ideas can only be dealt with and improved rationally through full, open debate. Artificial displays of unanimity clarify nothing.”

For them, the SWP has “drifted into a concept in which a revolutionary organisation is valued mainly as a machine and measured by its ability to count recruits and issue slogans which ‘fit the mood’, not by its contribution to enlightenment, education and clarification in the labour movement”. They rightly deem the system of temporary factions to be an effective “ban on debate”. It is a “Stalinist distortion”.

This is, of course, correct. But the roots of the problems in the Bolshevik Party’s self-conception go back a little further than Stalin: to Zinoviev’s thesis on the party at the 2nd Congress of Comintern in 1920 and - most crucially in terms of this discussion - to the 1921 ban on factions within the Bolshevik Party, as Russia was desperately holding out and hoping for the German revolution.4 (As an aside, this is often why modern-day Trotskyists can often invoke Trotsky’s writings from the late 1920s and 1930s to justify their emphasis on internal democracy today: Trotsky uncritically took the theses of Comintern’s first four congresses as the basis for his later factional struggles against the Stalinist monolith. This is also true of thinkers like Antonio Gramsci and György Lukács.)

However, what is quite clearly lacking from the AWL article, as well as in a subsequent piece,5 is any kind of strategy with which the SWP opposition could fight for a healthier left with revolutionary partyist perspectives. Again, few surprises here. Time and time again the AWL has proven itself to be lacking the necessary programmatic perspective and outlook to struggle for the kind of Marxist party we need. Instead, this organisation is characterised by trade-unionism, so-called ‘united front’ work, student ‘fees and cuts’ activism, the fight for a “workers’ [Labour] government” and - lest we forget - the regularly recurring disease of social imperialism. As loudly as SWP and AWL activists might shout at each other over all sorts of issues, they certainly have one thing in common: ‘programmophobia’: that is, the failure to even see the need for a Marxist programme around which our forces can cohere.

Moreover, the question of the programme is hardly unrelated to discussions over left organisation and democracy. As the experience of the RSDLP shows us, membership is based on the acceptance of (not agreement with) the party’s programme, and the leadership must be accountable to that programme as well.

Odds and sods

Perhaps because it is constantly seeking to be the latest new thing in British politics, the Anti-Capitalist Initiative has not yet directly commented on the SWP crisis. However, over the Christmas period, one of its leading members, former Workers Power editor Simon Hardy, published a two-part series on ‘The forgotten legacies of Bolshevism on revolutionary organisation’.6 Doubtless based on material written in his internal arguments within WP from last year, the article offers some further historical examples of open factional struggle within Bolshevik history.

Yet Hardy’s critique of WP’s conception of the ‘vanguard party’ is extremely disappointing. He summarises his argument as follows: “The Bolsheviks should be situated within a tradition of building broad parties that allowed for a plurality of tendencies, and saw themselves as a tendency seeking to fuse a revolutionary-democratic and communist politics with the militant leaders of the working class struggle” (emphasis added). Neatly enough, this understanding of ‘broad-party’ fits in with comrade Hardy’s project today. Yet this overlooks the very obvious point that the RSDLP - like its model, the German SPD - was a Marxist party united around a Marxist programme. This programmatic approach thus repeatedly saw the exclusion of those who rejected the programme, not least many of the “convinced individual anarchists, syndicalists, left reformists and perhaps even those who do not accept the class struggle” that comrade Hardy and Cooper are seeking to cobble together into a single organisation.7

Stuart King, whose organisation, Permanent Revolution, has now been effectively disbanded to work in the ACI, argues along similar lines. Despite quite correctly pointing out that “no-one should rejoice at the problems in the SWP” because “an implosion of the biggest far-left organisation in Britain in the absence of any alternative will weaken everyone struggling against austerity and capitalism”, comrade King has staggeringly little to say about the way forward for SWP oppositionists. Take, for instance, the section of his article headed ‘Overcoming the crisis of the left’, something we must all aspire to. What advice does our comrade have for those fighting for democracy and strategic clarity in the SWP? How does he seek to address the big questions of programme, organisation, leadership and theory that result from our class’s strategic defeat in the 20th century, a defeat that has scattered our forces to the four winds? Simple. Don’t you know there are some people in the Anti-Capitalist Initiative who are looking to “do things differently” and to organise “new” forces around the so-called anti-capitalist movement (by which he means largely phantom allies in what the comrades conceive as some kind of mass movement: Occupy, UK Uncut, etc). The ACI wants a “new way forward”, “overcoming the sectarianism and divisions of the past” to build a “non-sectarian revolutionary left”.8 If the “new way forward” will proceed unencumbered by a revolutionary party then it is hardly surprising that comrade King has no advice in relation to members of groups whose ostensible aim is the construction of such a party. In this sense, the approach of his former comrades in WP is much better.

At least he is not as forthright in calling for the opposition to walk as is Pham Binh, an American blogger who used to a member of the International Socialist Organisation. The comrade claims that “Tom Walker, who wrote a powerful and searching resignation letter, is much more advanced in his thinking than the SWP’s critical stalwarts.” Accordingly, SWP leading dissident Richard Seymour’s “exhortation to SWP members to fight is right in spirit, but mistaken strategically. ‘Leninism’ is a rigged game to begin with, and the reality is that the majority of the SWP is behind the leadership, the CC holds all the cards, and the opposition’s power has peaked, as demoralisation, resignations, and expulsions take their toll.”9 Unfortunately for comrade Pham Binh, the “more advanced” comrade Walker was explicit in saying that he does not have answers for the left to move forward.10 One wonders where SWP oppositionists comrades are supposed to go, or how walking is going to advance the cause of revolutionary organisation?

Finally, if only to point out some of the pseudo-anarchist side-effects that the profligacy of stultifying bureaucratic centralism can throw up on the left, it is briefly worth mentioning Barry Biddulph’s reply to Simon Hardy on Bolshevism, which was published on the Commune website.11 For comrade Biddulph, bureaucratic centralism and Lenin were simply two peas in the same pod from 1904 (!) onwards. Not only does this let the SWP leadership off the hook somewhat: it also does a staggering disservice to any serious historical approach to Bolshevism. Comrade Biddulph merely takes all the hoary old myths of Trotskyism on the “vanguard party” (the elite that ‘worried about the workers’, the alleged formation of the single-faction Bolshevik ‘party’ in 1912, the so-called ‘deBolshevised’ Bolshevik party in April 1917, when it supposedly ditched the minimum-maximum programme, etc) and inserts ‘minus’ signs where most of our Trotskyist comrades have ‘plus’ signs. The fact that the article is illustrated by a flattering image of Rosa Luxemburg does nothing to strengthen comrade Biddulph’s argument.

His is a cruder form of the anti-partyist spontaneity of the far left more generally: the strategic way forward supposedly lies solely in strikes, workers’ committees, factory bulletins, occupations, demonstrations, etc. That the party is built on theory and programme ‘from the top down’ is, for these comrades, pure Bonapartist elitism etc. For Marxists it is ABC.

Significant silence

Whatever their merits or shortcomings, at least one can say that the above comrades felt obliged to comment, however tangentially, on developments in the SWP. Thus far this is not the case for two of the SWP’s larger competitors on the British left: ie, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the Communist Party of Britain.

Perhaps a certain sense of Schadenfreude currently prevails as they watch one of their most influential opponents tear themselves to pieces as they get on with ‘building the party’. After all, the Morning Star’s CPB in particular is steeped in the bizarrely Manichean world view that consists of their group and the mass organisations on the one hand, and nothing but ‘sects’ on the other.

Indeed, given that the historical roots of those like Robert Griffiths can be traced back to the (Stalinised) reading of Lenin’s What is to be done? and tracts like Stalin’s Fundamentals of Leninism and the Short course, it is hardly to be expected that the CPB would seek to lecture the SWP on democracy, internal or otherwise. (That said, it is obvious that the old ‘official’ CPGB certainly had a healthier democratic culture than the SWP today, what with elected district secretaries and such things!)

The Socialist Party’s Peter Taaffe is hardly a champion of Bolshevik democracy either. In his (pretty dire) defence of the Militant’s lack of democracy in 1996, he takes the line of Counterfire and Workers Power by wheeling out the usual nonsense that allowing open factions could lead to his group becoming nothing more than a “debating club”.12 (We note that the split in the Militant used the pages of that famed Marxist daily, The Guardian, to argue out its differences!)

Yet he and others in the SPEW office might look upon developments within the SWP with a certain apprehension. A rank-and-file rebellion in the SWP will hopefully lead to similar developments across the left more generally. It might serve to embolden those SPEW comrades who, say, might have concerns about the group’s fawning attitude towards the trade union bureaucracy, and how this manifests itself in that group’s deadly dull weekly publication, The Socialist. Here’s hoping …

Marxist unity

So what is to be done? Genuine partisans of our class can agree with the following sentiments expressed in the Workers Power article discussed above: “Against the background of the deepest capitalist crisis in generations, the abject failure of the established organisations and leaders of the working class movement to lead any effective defence of the class, the self-imposed crisis of the SWP could yet have a positive outcome - if its members use it to reorient their organisation and engage with other revolutionaries to build a party worthy of the name. We sincerely hope they can - for the sake of the entire left, in Britain and internationally.”

Struggle decides. After all, as we see from the formation of communist parties in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, such as our very own CPGB in 1920, revolutionary unity does not come through stitch-ups by bureaucratic elites. It comes through political struggle and the empowerment of the rank and file within our movement - in the left, in the trade unions, in the Labour Party - against all bans, proscriptions and gagging orders, whether carried out by a local SWP full-timer, a trade union bureaucrat or a Labour leader. Of course, the current struggle beginning in the SWP does not take place against the backdrop of 1917 and the drive to revolutionary communist unity. Yet in objective terms, at least, these are no ordinary times either. Much is at stake.

And in the process of the struggle against bureaucracy in our movement, ideas become sharper. Activists become more politicised and frozen canon can quickly melt in the heat of battle. That is why the fight for democracy and change within the largest leftwing organisation in Britain is one for the workers’ movement as a whole, one in which all partisans of our class must engage. If we refuse to foreground the question of transforming the left from top to bottom then we will not get anywhere. We cannot unite the class without uniting the best amongst ourselves.

We need a political and cultural revolution. Realignment on the basis of a revolutionary programme is necessary, desirable and increasingly urgent. It is the will that is currently lacking. This will must be forced on the current misleadership of the left.

The ‘broad party’ approach is a dead end. Eduard Bernstein does not point towards working class rule. We need a Marxist party with a Marxist minimum-maximum programme (minimum for working class rule; maximum for communism), embodying the idea that the working class can and must take political power. The fundamentals of this programme must be: working class independence; no strategic alliances with the bourgeoisie; democracy in the state and in our own movement; and internationalism.



1. www.workerspower.co.uk/2013/01/swp-rape-and-democracy-crisis-what-now.

2. Emphasis added. Cited in B Lewis, ‘John Rees: illusion of being a master of strategy’ Weekly Worker December 2 2010. Rather unfortunately for the logic of his argument, comrade Rees cites the April 1917 debates as an example of such a healthy internal culture. But both Marcel Liebman and Paul Le Blanc pointed to the public nature of these disputes long before comrade Rees picked up his pen to write his offering on the way forward for the left today.

3. E Maltby and M Thomas, ‘Politics without oxygen’: www.workersliberty.org/swpdemocracy.

4. For an extensive discussion of the implications of these developments, see M Macnair Revolutionary strategy London 2008, chapter 6, ‘University in diversity’.

5. ‘SWP: the case isn’t closed’ Solidarity January 16: www.workersliberty.org/system/files/270.pdf.

6. Part 1: http://anticapitalists.org/2012/12/28/building-a-revolutionary-organisation-i; part 2: http://anticapitalists.org/2013/01/01/forgotten-legacies-part-ii-the-problem-of-monopoly-in-the-sphere-of-politics.

7. Reported at www.workerspower.co.uk/2012/07/anticapitalist-initiative-not-fit-for-purpose.

8. S King, ‘Sex, lies and audiotape’: www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/3430.

9. www.thenorthstar.info/?p=4691.

10. See T Walker, ‘Why I am resigningWeekly Worker January 10.

11. B Biddulph, ‘The forgotten criticism of Bolshevism’: http://thecommune.co.uk/2013/01/13/the-forgotten-criticism-of-bolshevism.

12. P Taaffe, ‘On democratic centralism’: www.marxist.net/namechange/nameframe.htm.