For almost a year the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has been seized by deep division. It has not stopped us acting as a revolutionary organisation. We have had successes and recruited hundreds of new members. The trade union conferences saw some of the biggest party fringe meetings ever and near-record sales of Socialist Worker. The paper and the party responded very effectively to the death of Margaret Thatcher. We rightly supported the rank and file candidate Jerry Hicks in the Unite leadership election and helped make his campaign a success. We have placed ourselves at the centre of the movement against the bedroom tax in many areas and supported numerous struggles in the workplaces and communities. As part of Unite Against Fascism we played a crucial role in blocking the revival of the English Defence League after the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich.
But none of that is to underestimate the shock we have suffered or the damage inflicted, as hundreds of members resigned from the SWP. The specific issues that sparked this process are very important. But we need to understand that this is also a debate about the relevance of revolutionary politics in the modern world and the form of organisation needed. Some of the critics of the SWP leadership have challenged our analysis of the trade union bureaucracy and our understanding of democratic centralism and of the role of the party in the class. Others haven’t gone as far, but use their criticisms of the leadership to justify an increasing detachment from the common work of the party.
Political differences cannot be resolved administratively. This article argues that the differences that have emerged in the SWP have deep roots in the shape of the working class struggle in Britain and internationally and in the experience of our party. The way forward cannot be imposed-and it would be wrong to do so even if it could be done. We need to argue out and test our views in practice. This process has to involve as wide a group of members as possible and be within party structures and publications.
The real test of any revolutionary organisation comes in practice. A successful party must seek to chart a clear way forward, and to develop alternatives to capitalist explanations of the world, but crucially it must also raise the level of confidence and struggle by the working class. Ultimately a revolutionary party is about providing the leadership that can enable the working class to conquer state power-in its own country and internationally.
That is the most difficult, and the most important, battle in history. Capitalism means crisis, war, poverty and the threat of environmental extinction. The economic crisis has underlined how we face “socialism or barbarism”. Of course, world history does not hinge on the fate of a small revolutionary party in one small part of the globe. But the issues we are debating have much more general resonance. They are taking place, in different contexts, among revolutionaries everywhere.
Where the crisis began
The trigger for the crisis was an allegation of rape against an SWP member who was at the time a member of the Central Committee (CC), which has the main responsibility for leading the party between conferences. In any circumstances and for any organisation this would have been a dreadfully difficult situation to handle, but there were three reasons why this was particularly hard for the SWP.
First, and most importantly, we are a revolutionary socialist organisation that has prided itself in its principled opposition to all the different forms of oppression that capitalist society maintains. A pivotal moment in the party’s history came at the end of the 1970s, when intense debates about the oppression of women and of black people eventually gave rise to a theoretical consensus that situated them in relation to their role in reproducing capitalist exploitation. We therefore see the liberation of the oppressed as central to the success of the socialist project.1
Secondly, the true horror of rape has begun to receive its proper recognition. One manifestation of the global rebellion against capitalism has been the emergence in recent years of a new generation of feminist activists. Outrages like the appalling rape and murder in Delhi last December and scandals such as that surrounding Jimmy Savile have encouraged them to campaign against all forms of sexual violence.
Thirdly, if this were not reason enough for a rape accusation against a leading member to precipitate a profound crisis for the SWP, there had been controversy between the parties to the case from 2010 onwards, although the issues raised then were not the same as in 2012. Only a small minority of SWP members were affected by this controversy, but this ensured that the handling of the complaint was politically divisive from the start. One consequence was that, outrageously, details of the case were already known to people outside the SWP before the Disputes Committee (the elected party body charged with dealing with disciplinary matters) had reached its final decision.
The SWP Central Committee responded to the complaint by referring it immediately to the DC in the hope that a rigorous application of the party’s disciplinary procedures would produce an acceptable outcome. We proved badly mistaken in this belief that the process would be almost universally respected. After a serious investigation the DC concluded that rape had not occurred and that other allegations of sexual misconduct were not proven, and recommended that no disciplinary action be taken against the member involved.
But, by the time the DC reported on its findings to the SWP conference in January 2013, the case had already led to divisions on the CC and helped to provoke the formation of two factions. After what was generally agreed to be a calm, serious and fair discussion of the report, the conference voted by a small majority to accept it. By the close of conference most delegates, including many who voted against the DC report, felt that the matter was now resolved. But this soon unravelled in a barrage of attacks on the internet and articles in the mainstream press that were triggered by the publication of a transcript of the conference session on the DC on a sectarian left website and of a highly tendentious article by an ex Socialist Worker journalist on another.
Many in the opposition that developed within the SWP claim that once the news leaked out to the whole of the party’s membership and the left in general it then became impossible to defend our position. But many never tried. Within days of conference one member had spoken to a journalist, who wrote a critical article in the New Statesman. Another had gone public on his blog to criticise the decision of conference and to campaign against it. A number of Marxist intellectuals who have previously spoken at our events wrote a letter claiming they would no longer speak on our platforms; they did so after consulting comrades, who were, at the very least, unwilling to argue for the position taken by conference.
Controversy over the case then became surrounded by a fog of gossip, innuendo, distortion and plain lies-all perpetuated on the internet and in the mainstream media, and reinforced by the shocking willingness of others on the left to believe, without any knowledge of the facts, the worst about the SWP. There is little point in trawling through the vast volume of nonsense that has been written about the case, and in any case we are constrained by the obligation of confidentiality towards the parties involved that others have so shamefully ignored.
Given that all those involved in the subsequent debates within the SWP have agreed that the case itself should be treated as closed, the most important issue left open is what can be learned from it. Concretely, did it reveal fundamental flaws in the SWP’s disciplinary procedures? Much wisdom has been exercised in retrospect, and other organisations on the left have asked what they would do in similar circumstances and have hastily changed their own procedure. And in truth no one in the SWP leadership thinks that, with the benefit of hindsight, we would address the issue in exactly the same way.
One criticism aimed at us, mainly by those outside the party, was that we were not competent to handle an allegation of this kind. The implication was that the case should have been referred to the police and courts to resolve or not considered at all. Our position is that in this kind of case (and we know of only one other that the party has dealt with in recent memory-we do not know where the figure of “nine rape cases” that circulated on the internet came from) it is the woman’s choice whether to take the matter to the police. There would rightly have been an outcry if we responded to such a complaint by refusing to refer it to the DC or pressuring the complainant to go to the state.
What about the procedures themselves? Two important areas of discussion here concern the kind of support a woman making a complaint of this nature should be given and the composition of the panel hearing the case. Under the SWP constitution, the CC has the right to nominate up to two of its members to sit on DC panels, a right that it exercised in the case of the rape allegation. This provision reflects the role that the DC plays in assisting the CC to maintain the functioning of the party’s internal democracy and its effectiveness as an interventionist organisation. Alongside the many falsehoods circulating about the composition of the DC panel came the much more serious argument that CC members should not participate in hearings where other members of the CC stand accused.
One of the main decisions taken at the special party conference held in March 2013 in response to the controversy over the DC case was to institute a review of the SWP’s disciplinary procedures. The review body reported in September 2013. Its recommendations seek to address these and other questions raised by the case. The debate that these provoke and the decisions taken on them by the annual conference set for December 2013 can help to heal the wounds in the SWP and renew its democratic culture.
Inevitably, the DC case has provoked a widespread questioning of our theoretical understanding of the relationship between class exploitation and the different forms of oppression (gender, race, LGBT, etc). This question was in the air anyway, thanks to the influence the new feminism has exerted within our ranks and the repackaging of often quite old ideas in a new language in the left academy (privilege theory, intersectionality, and the like). These debates-which have already been unfolding in this journal-are timely and welcome.
In advance of the review the CC has already implemented some significant changes to the disputes procedure, responding to the concerns that have been expressed. These included withdrawing CC members from a subsequent hearing where the CC was alleged to have behaved wrongly, and expanding the panel to make sure it was acceptable to the complainant. This willingness to re-examine our procedures should not be allowed to cast any doubt on the integrity of the process in the original case or of the individual members of the DC who heard it. Even the chair of the DC (who subsequently resigned his post to join the opposition) has argued that the problem was more one of perception than of how the case was handled in practice.
Indeed, many members of the party have been able to explain the processes we did follow, our position on women’s oppression, and the serious way in which this case was handled-and in doing so have managed to maintain good relations with those working alongside us in the unions, on campuses and in campaigns. This has included our members in unions in which there are sharp debates taking place and in which this matter could be expected to be used to attack the party. In fact the experience of the trade union conferences in 2013 is that they did not see this issue raised at all in most cases and only marginally where it did appear. As we have already noted, the SWP had some of its most successful interventions ever at these conferences.
Party and movement
So is everything fine? Of course not. The party has suffered serious damage to its reputation, it has lost members, and it is still hampered by deep divisions. An allegation of rape and any perception that the party did not deal with it seriously will inevitably cause a crisis. But that is not the whole explanation of why this issue has been so damaging. The truth is that it intersected with broader political debates that have been simmering on the left for years. This is why the special SWP conference in March resolved also to address the questions at stake in these debates in party publications and forums. Our commitment to seeking to clarify what is at stake through theoretical discussion has been on show in this journal, in Socialist Review, and also at the Marxism 2013 festival in July.
Many critics of the SWP leadership agree that the divisions can’t be reduced to the original case. One leading figure described what has happened as a “lightning rod” for the broader issues. An Open Letter to the SWP written by a longstanding collaborator, Michael Rosen, in July 2013 has nine points. By point three he is saying:
This leads me to the question of structure. I am quite clear in my
mind-perhaps clearer than I have ever been-that now is not the time for a socialist organisation to take the form that your organisation has. As it happens, when IS became the SWP, I thought at the time that this was a mistake. It seemed to me then that it was, if nothing else, presumptuous. That’s to say, it seemed to be a way of trying to create a leadership role (“vanguard”, if you like) with the wrong personnel and at the wrong historical moment.2
Michael is entitled to his opinion, but in expressing it he confirms that what’s at stake can’t be reduced to the DC case. And supporters of the opposition faction have similarly raised a series of disagreements about class and oppression, revolutionary organisation, combating fascism, and party industrial strategy. The controversy over the DC starkly exposed political fractures that were already forming. The context ensured that the debate has developed in a particularly bitter and personalised way. It’s important, however, that we take it onto a political terrain where the issues can genuinely be clarified and the party can emerge strengthened.
The SWP believes that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class and that we need a revolution to destroy the capitalist state and capitalism itself. The working class is at the centre of that process because it is crucial to the production of wealth and must act collectively in order to transform itself and society. Because the working class is uneven in consciousness and organisation, revolutionaries must come together as a party to defend their ideas and to act as a leadership within the working class. As Colin Barker puts it,
It is movements from below that can change the world. They draw their power from their capacity to mobilise large numbers of people. Movements provide most of the energy and creativity involved in great challenges to our rulers. The overthrow of capitalism will involve an immense movement from below. It will engage the self-transforming activity of millions of working people, struggling for economic, political and cultural power. Such a movement, developing its own democratic organisations from below, will provide the first bases for a new constitution of society. However, there is a problem. Such movements are mixed and contradictory in their character. Great movements are not composed of people who all think and act the same way… That’s why revolutionary socialists need to organise themselves into a party to argue their case within movements. If they don’t, other tendencies or parties will prevail-and hold the movement back, or lead it to defeat.3
The relationship between the working class, the movement and the party is always complex. And there have been sharp tests over the last 35 years in Britain. The SWP believes the working class is at its strongest when it uses its power to turn off the source of profit through strikes and occupations. Yet since the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 there has been a generally low level of struggle, much lower than in the 1970s. If you confine yourself to Britain, then for three decades the idea of mass, successful strikes driven by the rank and file has often seemed no more than a memory or a hope.
This has almost inevitably led to a desperate search for some other agency of change. As the CC wrote in its main document for the special party conference in March this year:
In our view, some of the issues [dividing the SWP] are the result of frustration felt across the party due to the failure of struggle to break through after 2011. Indeed, the wider problem of the downturn in industrial struggle that took place several decades ago, and which has not subsequently been wholly reversed, despite many hopeful signs, is implicated in the internal crises the party has faced since 2007. Three splits-first, by a very small group of comrades who sided with George Galloway during the Respect crisis; second, by the group that broke away to form Counterfire; third by the group concentrated in Glasgow who broke to form the ISG-reflected, in different ways, attempts to find shortcuts to overcome the low level of workers’ struggle. Forms of voluntarism, whether expressed through electoral shortcuts, movementism, attempts to substitute students, unemployed youth and a supposed “precariat” for workers, and so on, are a price we have paid for a long period of a generally low level of class struggle. The revival of ideological radicalism, in a context where organisations orientated on workers and socialism are especially weak, and the halting pattern of one-day strikes, can reinforce these tendencies.4
Our position is not that only struggles by employed workers count. Unlike most of the rest of the left, for example, we rightly stood with the rioters against the state in 2011.5
But we are not going to abandon our insistence on the special role of the working class and on the struggle at the point of production as the most powerful weapon available to workers.
At the same time, we have to address the particular pattern of struggle that currently prevails. It is now nearly 15 years since the anti-capitalist movement burst into public consciousness at the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle at the end of November 1999. The protests were not huge6 but they were far bigger than any similar march in the preceding years-and they reflected a broader rage against inequality, capitalist globalisation and a political system that was immune to popular control.
Seattle was a global watershed-and the SWP recognised it.7 As we wrote even as the tear gas was swirling in the streets, “The ‘Battle in Seattle’ has opened up a new chapter in politics, given hope for a new beginning of struggle and change”.8
It was followed by major mobilisations against international capitalism in Washington (16 April 2000), Millau (30 June 2000), Melbourne (11 September 2000), Prague (26 September 2000), Seoul (10 October 2000), Nice (6-7 December 2000), Washington again (20 January 2001), Gothenburg (14-16 June) and Genoa (20-22 July 2001). Genoa saw some 300,000 people hurl themselves against the G8 leaders and the ranks of the Italian police. When the police killed Carlo Giuliani, a young activist, it triggered even bigger protests. The SWP took a leading part in the movement, helping to establish Globalise Resistance as a focus for all those inspired by anti-capitalism, organising big delegations to the international protests and working with new layers of people. The SWP was absolutely right to immerse itself in this way, while also stressing the need for revolutionary politics.
As one of us argued in March 2001:
New methods of working are now required. In particular, systematic use of the united front approach… The Socialist Workers Party in Britain stumbled on this more or less empirically during the Balkans War of 1999, when the anti-war movement was characterised by a much higher degree of unity and common purpose than it possessed during the Gulf War in 1991. Left unity attained a much higher level in the London Socialist Alliance, which ran a slate in the May 2000 elections to the Greater London Authority. This shift towards systematic united-front work is merely an important part of the much wider change that revolutionaries must make in order to relate to the anti-capitalist movement. This change involves developing a sensitivity to the distinctive style and concerns of the movement, a familiarity with its literature and issues on which this focuses, and a willingness to engage in dialogue.9
The SWP concentrated on stressing the 80 percent of agreement with activists in the movements against capitalism and war in the early 2000s rather than the 20 percent that divides us. Of course, we had always recognised the importance of the united front-for example, applying the lessons of Trotsky’s writings on fascism in the 1930s to the Anti Nazi League in the 1970s. But there is no doubt that the party was making a real shift to stress the united front, and away from a routine of party and branch building that had been developed in the 1980s. This routine sustained the party during a difficult period of defeats for the working class. But it could become an obstacle to reaching out and working with others.
The turn towards united front work accelerated immensely after the formation of the Stop the War Coalition in September 2001 to campaign against the wars launched by the US and Britain after the attack on the Twin Towers. The extraordinary success of Stop the War (StW) should never be forgotten. It showed the capacity of the revolutionary left to work alongside a broad range of other people and to create a genuinely radical mass movement.
StW was not only responsible for the biggest demonstration in British history on 15 February 2003, but also organised a series of other major demonstrations and hundreds of meetings across Britain. These shifted public opinion in a major way and left a legacy of hatred for New Labour’s wars. StW put in the balance British participation in the attack on Iraq and made it far harder to launch a war on Iran. Its long-term influence on British foreign policy debates was reflected in David Cameron’s humiliating defeat over military action against Syria in the House of Commons on 29 August 2013.
The anti-capitalist mood coincided with growing anger against Tony Blair’s New Labour for its war on welfare, its war in the Balkans, and its open embrace of policies entirely tailored to the needs of big business. Just as in Germany, where the bitter experience of the Red-Green coalition headed by Gerhard Schröder eventually led to the formation of Die Linke, the Left Party, the reality of social liberalism-the neoliberal takeover of social democracy-opened a gap to the left.
There was new struggle and an absence of a focus for it. The SWP moved to fill this vacuum. The London elections of May 2000 saw the SWP turn towards electoral work alongside other socialist groups. The party campaigned energetically to build the London Socialist Alliance (an alliance of socialist organisations and independents) and to help elect Ken Livingstone as mayor (in opposition to the Labour candidate).
A leading member of the CC argued at the time: “The whole of the SWP’s electoral work is bound up with the rise of the anti-capitalist movement and the crisis of New Labour. People’s disillusionment with New Labour should not be left to others to exploit. We want socialists to gain from the anger in society”.10 The Socialist Alliance had some important, if modest, successes but it remained largely confined to the memberships of the existing organisations to the left of Labour.
So the SWP was involved in an electoral alliance before the “war on terror”. But the size and reach of StW transformed the prospects for such a formation. The anti-war movement created a much larger and more dynamic environment for a left challenge to Labour. As hundreds of thousands and then millions took to the streets in opposition to imperialist wars launched by Tony Blair and his acolytes, it was crucial to give a focus to the minority who wanted a radical challenge to Labourism. The result-Respect-was a huge step forward from the Socialist Alliance.
SWP member Lindsey German, a leader of StW, came close to election to the London Assembly in June 2004 and then a couple of months later local trade unionist Oliur Rahman became a councillor in Tower Hamlets with 31 percent of the vote. In the 2005 general election there were a number of excellent results but especially for George Galloway, who defeated the pro-war Labour candidate Oona King and was elected as an MP on a Respect ticket. This great achievement underlined the potential for Respect. The pattern was repeated in the council elections of 2006. Respect won 26 percent of the vote and three council seats in Newham, 23 percent of the vote and 12 seats in Tower Hamlets, and a seat for Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham.
Yet tensions and differences emerged almost immediately after Galloway’s victory. They began with an attack on the record of Respect’s national secretary, John Rees, who was then a leading member of the SWP. By October 2007 this had escalated into an onslaught against the whole SWP. One document circulated by Galloway and his supporters declared: “Respect is in danger of being completely undermined by the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party.” The SWP were “Leninists” seeking to control Respect by underhand methods. Local SWP members were “Russian dolls”, “members of a group that meets in secret, deciding on a democratic centralist line”.11 By November 2007 there were rival conferences both claiming to represent the Respect legacy.
None of this should detract from Respect’s initial success. It was a genuine attempt to bring together a political selection from the anti-war movement and to give it a breadth and permanence beyond that particular movement. But it suffered from serious defects. One major problem was that George Galloway was the only Labour MP who moved from bitter criticism of the Labour leadership to breaking with Labour and attempting to build an alternative. To look at one comparison, when Die Linke (an alliance of the Party of Democratic Socialism and the Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice) stood in the 2005 German federal elections, it won 54 MPs-51 of them due to the proportional representation system. When you have 54 MPs there is a breadth to the party’s profile that does not apply when you have one. If John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott and others had felt it was necessary to build a left wing alternative to Labour then it would have been many times stronger. In truth, they thought there was no effective life outside Labour, that they wouldn’t be elected, and stayed as critics of the leadership, but inside Labour.
Perhaps even more importantly, there was no necessary crossover between voting to the left of Labour and taking part in the life of Respect. In several areas we could quite consistently win between 5 and 10 percent of the vote in council elections, which was towards the top end of the European experience for similar initiatives. Yet in many of those areas there were few Respect activists who were not SWP members or very close to being SWP members. It was different in a number of predominantly Muslim localities where working class people felt deeply alienated from Labour and were drawn to Galloway’s stand on war, Islamophobia and social justice, but these were the exceptions.
In general Respect was too small and too narrow. Sections of the left stood apart from the process and the level of struggle was too low to produce sufficient new forces. Most workplace activists felt drained of confidence to launch battles without the support of the trade union bureaucracy, which remained hostile to sustained struggle under a Labour government. The anti-war movement could play a key role during, for example, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, but it was a much smaller movement than in 2003 or even 2005.
Because Respect was small, the SWP played a dominating role-not because we wanted to but by sheer force of numbers. Instead of revolutionaries arguing for their politics among a much wider group of radical non-revolutionaries, we were deciding how much to hold ourselves back in order to seek wider alliances. That was problematic. The fault perhaps was not to recognise it and to see that at some point the non-revolutionary allies would start to chafe at the situation.
Inevitably activity centred on united fronts raises potential problems. The united front, a crucial part of how we build as revolutionaries, is based on two ideas: first, that confronting the assaults from capitalism and imperialism requires the greatest possible unity. A revolutionary minority is too small to beat back the threat of fascism or campaign against an imperialist war. Revolutionaries therefore have to secure a limited agreement to unite over particular issues with political forces that may have very different longer-term ideas.
Secondly, revolutionaries have to maintain an independent press, meetings and agitation, and continue building their own organisation because the solution to fascism, imperialism and so on in the long term is the elimination of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. By fighting over particular issues alongside people who believe in reform, the revolutionary minority can show in practice that its approach is correct, and so win people to its ideas. The united front is a method of working with and against political forces to the right of revolutionaries.
What are the dangers? The first is to overestimate the degree of agreement between the ideas of socialist revolutionaries and those they are working alongside. The truth is that those who were energised by the anti-capitalist movement did not thereby become socialist revolutionaries, still less commit themselves to building a Leninist party. Indeed, one of the features of the movement after Seattle was a deep distrust of parties of all stripes. It was perfectly possible to join (and even to speak at) demonstrations against the war and yet remain a reformist or worse. The SWP sometimes overestimated the degree to which our important role in the movements spread over into support for the revolutionary party.
Moreover, attempting to apply the united front to electoral work is particularly fraught because it doesn’t involve unity around a particular action or struggle, but prolonged unity around a whole programme to fight elections, a terrain on which reformists tend to prove their superiority in practice.
The second problem is that the united front can seem to be everything, the party nothing. The sense of being part of a movement of thousands or even millions is quite rightly exhilarating. At last there is a break from the small meetings, the small sales of Socialist Worker, the sense of isolation. This is all true, and welcome. The united front matters. Think of the importance of Unite Against Fascism. We are different to most of Europe in not having a large Nazi movement because of that work. And you cannot build any party worth the name apart from or opposed to the living working class movement.
It was right, for example, to break away from the branch-building routine of the 1980s. It was wrong to dismantle practically all branch structures in some areas. Over-emphasising the movement can flow over into the idea that it is sectarian or unnecessary to build an independent party based on revolutionary politics. It can seem inappropriate to sell our publications or to fight for recruitment to the party. Chris Harman pointed out in an internal document that from Seattle in 1999 it took until 2005 before “real effort was put into party building effort, although even then there were people in the party (including in the CC) who in practice behaved as if it was a diversion from what we were doing in the united fronts”.
It also has to be remembered that at every moment reformists may back off from their commitment even to the minimal points of agreement with revolutionaries. To put it at its harshest, no united front will last in the same form forever. We went through a process of what we could describe as deliberately forgetting this basic revolutionary understanding.
The third problem is that winning people to our ideas is very hard when the level of working class struggle is low. We should be careful about what we mean by “working class struggle”. It means much more than strikes. The poll tax struggle was based mainly in communities and on the streets: it was still working class struggle. So is the movement against the bedroom tax. We ignore such battles at our peril. The highest form of activity is at the point of production, but it’s not the only form. However, there will be a problem long-term if the struggle in the workplaces does not catch up with the struggle in the streets or the communities. And since the 1970s the struggle has been low.
What does all this mean? The veneration of the movement leads to the sidelining of the revolutionary party; the low level of struggle encourages the belief that it’s possible to go round the working class or replace the working class with something different. Both errors, although they seem polar opposites, meet in an abandonment of a focus on the organised working class. As we shall see later, this is reflected partly in the belief that the working class has been so rotted by neoliberalism that it is fragmented and broken, and also by a contempt for the actually existing workplace struggle.
These difficulties are reinforced by the form taken by the movements that have developed since the outbreak of the global economic and financial crisis in 2007-8. While there are important, though only partial, exceptions (above all, Egypt and Greece), these-the Arab revolutions, the 15 May movement in the Spanish state, Occupy, Portugal, Turkey, Brazil-have been movements centred on the streets rather than on the workplaces. They confirm that the political radicalisation that began back in Seattle in November 1999 continues but they don’t represent a significant break in that pattern. One marked feature is that, thanks to the negative experiences of Stalinism and social democracy in the 20th century, rebellion against capitalism does not automatically take the form of some version of socialism, let alone Marxism.
In this context, it’s a tremendous temptation simply to celebrate the movements. But the most recent ones all illustrate how counter-productive this is, since all unfold within a specific political context that contains very dangerous possibilities as well as more liberating ones. The most obvious example is that of Egypt, where the weakness of all political forces has allowed the military to channel the extraordinary popular rising of 30 June in a counter-revolutionary direction. But the attempts of Kemalist nationalists to appropriate the Occupy Gezi movement in Turkey and of the bourgeois right wing parties to exploit the Brazilian protests for electoral purposes underline the limits of purely spontaneous rebellions.
So movementism is not enough. Revolutionary socialists should continue to be part of these movements and help to build them. But we need at the same time to organise to help to shape them in a way that maximises their emancipatory possibilities and to fight for our own politics within them.
When we fail to do this we can end up paying a high price. The SWP was quite right to throw itself into and enthusiastically to build the student movement of 2010, which shared many features with the struggles we have been discussing. As a result, we won many students to our ranks. The problem was that they were integrated into the SWP on a movementist basis that encouraged them to see themselves as separate from and superior to the rest of the party, part of a student vanguard that could lead the working class as a whole into struggle against austerity. This helps to explain why so many student members of the SWP abandoned the party in reaction to the DC controversy.
More than anything else it is the pressure of movementism that is responsible for the succession of crises the SWP has experienced since 2007. But it must also be acknowledged that the forms of party organisation that became prevalent in the 1990s increasingly clashed with the realities of life in the new movements. Moving out of a period centred on a large degree of party routine, a very cohesive leadership and little controversy, into the era of the mass movements contributed to the development of internal crises. The 2009 Democracy Commission, which sought to review the SWP’s internal procedures and culture in the light of the Respect crisis, noted the unpreparedness of party structures for sharp tactical disagreements on the leadership. Alas, the remedies it proposed were not sufficient to prevent the development of even more severe conflicts over the past year.
Giving up on the organised working class
Within the SWP the pressure of movementism doesn’t take the form of a formal rejection of the conception of party, class and movement expressed by Colin Barker in the passage we cited earlier. Instead there is a tendency to exaggerate the extent to which neoliberalism has weakened and fragmented the organised working class. One extreme version is the recent writing of Richard Seymour, one of the leaders of a split in March from the SWP, which might be summed up as: however bad you think things are, they actually are worse. Neoliberalism has entered the very soul of the working class, crushing class solidarity and identification, engendering acceptance of market relationships and hollowing out resistance.12
Of course, it’s idle to deny the effects of defeats. It’s quite another to detect a transformation that has totally gutted working class power. Is the problem in Britain that workers are so in thrall to the system and blinkered to any alternative to austerity that they won’t fight, or is the fundamental question one of organisation, confidence and leadership?
On 30 November 2011 some 2.5 million workers struck over pensions. It’s sometimes dismissed as simply a “bureaucratic mass strike”. It certainly has such features, but it reflected also a good deal of rank and file involvement, pressure and energy. Many elements were involved. The student revolt at the end of 2010 shattered the idea that resistance was impossible or unpopular. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions inspired a section of activists and renewed their hope. The TUC demonstration of 26 March 2011, itself the product partly of pressure from below, was the biggest trade union demo in British history and gave further momentum towards strikes. The strike by several unions on 30 June 2011 reflected organisation by trade union activists, socialists in the unions, and left wing union leaders. It increased the pressure on more right wing union leaders and the TUC. The votes for action on 30 November saw 23 TUC-affiliated unions and seven non-affiliates ballot their members. In every case there was a majority for strikes, not quite the triumph of neoliberalism. The day itself was a celebration of working class activity.13
But just days later most union leaders, rather than building for the next phase of resistance, rushed to sign up to rotten deals. That experience affected the battles that came afterwards. It’s not just the big strikes that show the way the bureaucracy has acted. It’s also true that chance after chance has been missed to win significant smaller workplace battles and to mobilise on the streets.
This is not to say that union members are a seething mass of discontent that is held back by a thin layer of bureaucrats. The reality is that the mass of union members lack the confidence to move into struggle independently of the bureaucracy. But the general tendency is that, when the union bureaucracy gives a lead, people are prepared to fight.
The argument is that the actions of the union leaders matter-even more so when there is hesitation among the rank and file. And a rank and file to the left of the union leaders does still exist, although not as an organised movement. It was reflected in the 36 percent of the vote won by Jerry Hicks in the Unite general secretary election against Len McCluskey, one of the most left wing leaders. It was seen in the votes at the trade union conferences this year where a substantial minority of a third or more wanted to go much further than the union leaders proposed. It made itself felt in the warm reception at the local and national People’s Assemblies for criticism of the trade union and Labour leaders’ lack of action.
This is the primary layer that Unite the Resistance seeks to pull together and organise into more solid networks of solidarity and political understanding. The problem with the pensions dispute was not just that the union leaders squeezed life out of the struggle. It’s also that they did not face a wave of revolt from union members. That doesn’t mean workers are indifferent or acquiescent. It means we have to redouble our efforts to change the situation. That will come through all the methods of supporting struggles, spreading solidarity and taking the best from international experience. It will also come from what we have called “political trade unionism”, taking up issues of oppression and imperialism, combating scapegoating and state repression, raising the political defence of public services alongside jobs and pay.
The alternative to understanding the central role of leadership, allied to lack of confidence, is to denigrate workers themselves. One particularly gross example is when David Renton writes about SWP members in the public sector:
“Core” public sector workers, like these, having final salary pensions arguably have as much in common with MPs and bankers as they do with the nine out of ten workers who rely on private pensions or no pensions save the state pension. It is a layer whose day to day experiences at work are professional and either didactic (teachers) or even disciplinary (benefits staff, social workers, the council housing officers who will make the decisions as to who to evict under the bedroom tax).14
Renton makes no effort to justify this nonsense by reference to Marx’s theory of value and class. One of the distinctive features of the SWP has been its insistence that white collar workers and public sector workers are as much part of the working class as manual industrial workers in the private sector. To some extent it was our practice-notably in NUT Rank and File-among white collar public sector workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s that led theory. Interestingly, it was Duncan Hallas (often cited by Renton and his ilk as the representative of a “healthy”, “democratic” IS tradition) who, drawing on his own experience as a militant teacher, first began to spell out the theoretical implications.15
To say that those with final salary pensions have more in common with bankers or MPs than the rest of the working class is an odious reflection of Tory views about “gold plated” conditions that have repeatedly been used in an attempt to divide workers’ opposition to austerity. Does David Renton not understand that it is a good thing that some workers have been able to organise to defend their pensions? To blame benefits staff for the savage sanctions built into the system, or housing officers for evictions under the bedroom tax is to overplay their power disgracefully. Strikes by these NUT or PCS or Unison members are not a reactionary attempt to protect their privileges. They are part of the resistance, which is not just a defence of workers’ conditions but also an essential element in providing a political shield against Tory attacks on the public services. It beggars belief that serious revolutionaries should direct their fire at some of the best organised sections of the British workers’ movement.
There has always been a section of the left that has written off better paid sections of the working class. The Bolshevik leader Grigori Zinoviev wrote off munitions workers as a “tool of reaction” and others were perilously close to identifying trade unionists with an “aristocracy of labour” that were an essential prop to the bourgeoisie. 16 Yet it was the “privileged” engineers and workers in munitions that played a leading role in the shop stewards’ movement in Britain in the First World War, in the revolutionary movement in Russia and Germany at the same time, and in Italy a few years later. 17 We shouldn’t repeat the ultra-left errors of the past as a reaction against the present low level of struggle. For the first time in its history the SWP is relatively well placed among some of the most combative sections of the organised working class: this is a source of strength, not of weakness.
A much more serious review of neoliberalism’s effects by Neil Davidson is discussed by Jane Hardy and Joseph Choonara elsewhere in this issue. But let us comment on his final conclusion concerning rebuilding the power of the working class. Neil rejects the idea of a disappearing working class but adds that “most workers are not unionised, above all in the private sector where union density currently hovers around 14 percent and those who are unionised often belong to declining sectors of the economy”.18 However, with the exception of the late 1970s it’s never been the case that most workers were unionised. Even in the most militant times and among the most militant sections of the class, there are people who don’t join: in 1925 in the South Wales coalfield, a cockpit of militancy if ever there was one, 30 percent of the miners weren’t in the union. By international standards Britain retains a very high level of unionisation and of workers covered by recognition agreements.
It’s true that the public sector is much more unionised than the private sector. But Neil cannot think the public sector is irrelevant. As he points out, some of the changes in the working class during the last 30 years have made these workers more important: “By 1987 fewer than one male worker in ten in Glasgow was employed in manufacturing while nearly a quarter of all workers were women employed in public services”.19
The issue is how we can turn things round. Neil asks:
How can revolutionaries play a role comparable to the British and US Communist Parties in the 1930s in unionising aerospace and auto workers? For without the entry of the currently unorganised private sector workers into the trade union movement any revival of struggle will be unnecessarily weakened and limited, and their recruitment will not happen automatically. In any case it is not by any means clear that generalised resistance will begin in workplaces, although to succeed it will have to spread there. Most private sector workers (and many public sector workers too) do not currently feel strong or confident at work, and may well find it easier to mobilise in their communities, among friends and family, than they do at work under the gaze of the supervisor.20
We can agree that there needs to be a serious effort to unionise. Is this news to the SWP? There is no organisation that has taken so seriously any glimmer of struggle in the private sector which can act as a beacon to others. Nobody else worked as hard to support and popularise the occupations at Visteon (April 2009) and Vestas (July 2009), for example-indeed some of those who now criticise the CC for underestimating “new” struggles now attacked us for overestimating them at the time. Nobody put more emphasis than the SWP on the battle to win the living wage and to unionise among London Underground cleaners or the battle by construction workers against BESNA or against victimisations on Crossrail. The Unite the Resistance conference in October has rebuilding unions as a key theme.
But at the same time it’s fairly empty not to recognise that the key element that makes widespread unionisation possible is not the efforts of activists but the evidence of serious struggle. It was true in the 1880s in Britain and it was true in the 1930s in the US. That is why orienting on the sections that are actually fighting is so important. A strike by 2.5 million public sector workers is important in itself. It could also have triggered a much wider process of unionisation if it had been continued. Unison reported in January 2012 that in the previous year it had recruited more than 175,000 new members-the best annual figure since Unison was created in 1993. The boost to recruitment, which took the union above the turnover rate and into net growth, was completely linked to the prospect of struggle. Some 30 percent of all the members who joined Unison in 2011 did so in October and November.
When looking at the prospects for a revival of working class struggle there are two points to stress. The first is that the class does not move as a whole and that the particular sections which break through are very difficult to predict. One of us wrote four years ago, “When we speak of ‘workers fighting back’ it does not mean that everyone has to realise the necessity for resistance all at the same time… It may well be that the groups involved will be unexpected ones. Nobody would have put money on the match women in 1888 (or the poorly organised and casualised dockers for that matter)”.21
Trotsky wrote at the start of the Great Depression of the 1930s:
In conditions of “everyday” life in capitalist society, the proletariat is far from homogeneous. Moreover, the heterogeneity of its layers manifests itself most precisely at the turning points in the road. The most exploited, the least skilled, or the most politically backward layers of the proletariat are frequently the first to enter the arena of struggle and, in the case of defeat, are often the first to leave it.22
But the second point is to recognise the role of the more established and better organised layers. The NUT or the PCS or Unison are not the same as the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners and the craft unions of the 1880s, which often cut themselves off from unskilled, women and migrant workers. Some 70 percent of those who struck on 30 November 2011 were women. The SWP has been entirely correct to stress the central importance of the public sector battles.
Not giving up on the SWP
The controversies surrounding the DC case have deeply alienated several hundred SWP members-including some of very long standing. Their perception of the handling of the case (whether or not justified by the facts) has prompted them to question, not just the party’s approach to women’s oppression, but in some cases our particular take on the Marxist tradition. The review of our disciplinary procedures and the debate to which it gives rise offer the party the opportunity to demonstrate its capacity for renewal and its commitment to women’s liberation and thereby to reunite.
But there is a serious obstacle to achieving this. Political alienation has been institutionalised in the form of a permanent faction organising in opposition to the CC. The existence of this faction flies in the face of the longstanding practice of the SWP to allow the existence of factions only during the period of discussion leading up to a conference and the conference itself. Agreement on this practice was so taken for granted that it was not even seriously discussed during the 2009 Democracy Commission. The principle was reaffirmed by large majorities at the SWP’s two conferences in January and March 2013. Yet it has been flouted by supporters of the faction, who have maintained a high degree of internal organisation and started producing their own blog in June 2013.
Leaders of the faction have offered no principled justification for their behaviour, and have instead excused themselves by appealing to the crimes of the CC and the necessity of stopping their supporters leaving the party.23 But in fact the conduct of the faction has thoroughly vindicated the SWP’s longstanding objections to permanent factions. As Chris Harman put it 35 years ago:
Few things are more stultifying for debate in a revolutionary organisation than a “government-opposition” arrangement by which one section of the organisation feels that it is compelled as a matter of principle to oppose the elected leadership on every issue: this makes it extremely difficult for either the leadership or the opposition to learn from the concrete development of the class struggle.24
So, as we have already noted, the present faction has moved from an initial focus on the DC case to a range of other issues. Increasingly its relationship to the rest of the SWP has been mediated by its own internal relationships. And a logic of mutual self-defence against the party majority has allowed the most disaffected members of the faction, those for whom leaving the SWP is purely a matter of timing, to dictate tactics to the rest. The result is a situation where one faction member could gloat on Facebook about a state of “dual power” in one party district.
But, however loose one’s definition of Leninism, a situation where a micro-organisation is taking shape within the larger party is a recipe for a split. This would be the second this year. After the March conference an agglomeration of those who had effectively broken with the politics of the SWP used a systematically false account of the DC case to justify splitting to form the International Socialist Network. The leaders of the present faction had allied with this grouping in the run-up to the March conference-in order, they said, to tone down the disgraceful attacks that Seymour and his ilk were making on the rest of the party and to prevent them from leaving. They failed to achieve either of these objectives.
Our fear is that this pattern will repeat itself, with the more moderate members of the faction, including many of its leaders, muting their criticisms of more extreme elements in an attempt to hold people in the party. But in reality only a serious attempt to air the political differences on every side, to thrash these out openly in the party and to fight to win members to the outcome of these debates can minimise the losses to our organisation. Papering over political differences in order to hold the faction together only heightens the likelihood of a split. Since there are many valuable comrades who support the faction, this would be a tragedy both for them and for the SWP.
In recognition of this, the Central Committee has abstained from taking the disciplinary measures against the faction to which it would be fully entitled under the party constitution.25 It has preferred to rely on political argument to resolve the differences. But this position cannot be sustained indefinitely, particularly given the increasing tendency for faction members to freelance in different areas of work, notably anti-fascism, where some members of the opposition counterpose squaddist “direct action” against the Nazis by a self-appointed vanguard to the emphasis on mass mobilisation that has distinguished both the ANL and UAF. What the outcome will be is to a large extent in the hands of the faction members themselves. They should think twice before continuing on a course that will lead them to abandon the SWP.
One thing this thinking should focus on is what a precious achievement this party is. Of course, we are far from achieving our ultimate goal of socialist revolution. And, contrary to the more foolish attacks on us, we have no illusions that we are the unique embodiment of Leninism. That doesn’t mean what we have achieved is so negligible that it can be lightly jeopardised or abandoned.
It is easy to be a sect, and it’s easy to adapt. What is hard is to be a principled but non-sectarian revolutionary Marxist organisation that exists in constant tension with the trade union bureaucracy and reformists who together dominate the workers’ movement. Maintaining this tension is crucial to winning wider forces to a revolutionary perspective and to building the struggle.
There are two ways of avoiding this tension. The more obvious is opportunism, which consists in adapting in practice to the dominant forces inside the labour movement. A sad case of this is provided by John Rees, sometime editor of this journal and still a firm defender of the Marxist tradition in words. But his group Counterfire has become little more than decorative coverage for the efforts by Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, to rebuild the Labour left. Sectarianism is the second form evasion takes. Ultra-left sectarians never have any problem about denouncing trade union bureaucrats such as McCluskey. But, by counterposing abstract programmes to living movements, they ensure there is no interaction between them and activists influenced by reformism but open to the arguments of revolutionaries.
What successes the SWP has achieved have arisen precisely from the degree to which we have maintained this tension, particularly through the use of the united front tactic. This has allowed us to play a leading role in the anti-fascist and anti-war movements in Britain, and to help create the pressure that led to the 2011 pensions strikes. But, as we have already shown, these successes presupposed the existence of a vibrant and principled revolutionary organisation. It is this that has been threatened by the past year’s crisis.
We are confident that the debates currently under way will demonstrate the SWP’s inherent strengths and its capacity for renewal. We hope we can win the entire party membership to share this view. We are determined, in any case, to continue building a party that can shape and even lead the struggle.
1: For statements on this consensus see, for example, Harman, 1984, German, 1989, and Callinicos, 1993.
3: Barker, 2004.
6: Charlie Kimber’s immediate on the spot report for Socialist Worker estimated the main march at 40,000-a figure that was also the estimate of the Seattle Police Department.
7: We were helped in seeing the potential after Seattle by the broad unity of the movement against the Balkans War in April-May 1999, the very big and militant “Carnival Against Capitalism” in London in June 1999 and the 50,000-strong Drop the Debt demo in Birmingham in May 1998.
8: Socialist Worker, 18 December 1999.
9: Callinicos, 2001, p15.
10: Socialist Worker, 18 November 2000.
11: For a full analysis, see Harman, 2007.
12: For one example see www.leninology.com/2013/06/where-next-for-left-speech-at-is.html
13: Kimber, 2012.
14: David Renton, “Waiting for the great leap forward”, http://livesrunning.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/waiting-for-the-great-leap-forward/
15: Hallas, 1974; see also Callinicos and Harman, 1987.
16: Zinoviev, 1916.
17: See Post, 2010, for a good critique of the theory of the labour aristocracy.
18: Davidson, 2013, p215.
19: Davidson, 2013, p189.
20: Davidson, 2013, p217.
21: Kimber, 2009.
22: Trotsky, 1976, p32.
23: Thus opposition to permanent factions is common ground in an exchange between one of us and a prestigious supporter of the faction: Callinicos 2013a and b, and Birchall, 2013.
24: Harman, 1978.
25: When it came to light that a small group within the wider faction had set up a bank account to fund a new organisation and were agitating for a split, the CC did suspend four individuals. Once they gave undertakings to close the account and that they were not campaigning for a split, their suspensions were lifted.
Barker, Colin, 2004, “We Need a Party of Leaders to Change the World”, Socialist Worker (15 May 2004), www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=332
Birchall, Ian, 2013, “What Does It Mean to be a Leninist?”, Socialist Review (June 2013),
Callinicos, Alex, 1993, Race and Class (Bookmarks).
Callinicos, Alex, 2001, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left (Socialist Workers Party), www.marxists.de/intsoctend/callinicos/isodoc.htm
Callinicos, Alex, 2013a, “Is Leninism Finished?”, Socialist Review (January 2013),
Callinicos, Alex, 2013b, “What Sort of Party Do We Need?”, Socialist Review (July 2013),
Callinicos, Alex, and Chris Harman, 1987, The Changing Working Class, (Bookmarks), available at
Davidson, Neil, 2013, “The Neoliberal Era in Britain: Historical Developments and Current Perspectives”, International Socialism 139 (summer 2013) www.isj.org.uk/?id=908
German, Lindsey, 1989, Sex, Class and Socialism (Bookmarks).
Hallas, Duncan, 1974, “White Collar Workers”, International Socialism 72 (first series), (October 1974), www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1974/10/whitecoll.htm
Harman, Chris, 1978, “For Democratic Centralism”, Socialist Review (July/August 1978),
Harman, Chris, 1984, “Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism”. International Socialism 23, (spring 1984), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1984/xx/women.html
Harman, Chris, 2007, “The Crisis in Respect”, International Socialism 117 (spring 2008),
Kimber, Charlie, 2009, “In the Balance: the Class Struggle in Britain”, International Socialism 122 (spring 2009), www.isj.org.uk/?id=529
Kimber, Charlie, 2012, “The Rebirth of Our Power? After the 30 November Mass Strike”, International Socialism 133 (spring 2012), www.isj.org.uk/?id=774
Post, Charlie, 2010, “Exploring Working-Class Consciousness: A Critique of the Theory of the ‘Labour Aristocracy’”, Historical Materialism, volume 18, number 4.
Trotsky, Leon, 1976 , “The Third Period of the Comintern’s Errors”, in Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1930 (Pathfinder), available at www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1929/12/mistakes2.htm
Zinoviev, Grigori, 1916, “The Social Roots of Opportunism”, www.marxists.org/archive/zinoviev/works/1916/war/opp4.html