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Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
World capitalism and, along with it, diseased British capitalism have entered its worst period of crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) had anticipated this well in advance, as the columns of our newspaper, The Socialist, our journal 'Socialism Today' and the website of the Committee for a Workers' International all demonstrate. Moreover, at the time of the first stages of the 'subprime mortgages' housing collapse in the US more than 12 months ago, we described this as a decisive turning point for world capitalism, a crisis which this time it was unlikely to evade. This, we argued, would have far-reaching effects of a social and a political character. The economic crisis would be more drawn out and deeper than most expected, particularly capitalist economists. Big questions would now be posed over the character of 'modern' capitalism and the reasons for the crisis. Given that Gordon Brown had boasted that New Labour had ended the cycle of 'boom and bust', the questioning in Britain would perhaps be strongest. Certainly, the political landscape in Britain and the world has been utterly changed by this crisis.
The events of September and October 2008 represented a huge blow against the idea of 'free market' capitalism. The economics editor of the Guardian, Larry Elliott, wrote: "Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Hank Paulson, the Goldman Sachs tycoon who became US treasury secretary, have done more for socialism in the past seven days than anybody since Marx and Engels." By part-nationalisation of some banks, they have dealt a colossal blow to the idea of unregulated capitalism. State intervention by capitalism to 'save their system' rehabilitates the idea of the state solving workers' problems.
Why then, on the eve of what promises to be momentous political events, produce a book dealing with a left organisation, the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) and its record in the labour movement in Britain and internationally? History has shown that on the eve of and even during great events, it is not uncommon - in fact, it is sometimes vital - for reasons of political clarity for political debates to take place between different left parties or currents. Witness the clash between the different trends within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) between the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority) before the first, 1905, Russian revolution. These disputes centred over the character of the coming revolution and the tasks of the workers' movement within this. Equally, the German revolution of 1918-23 - the 90th anniversary of which we celebrate in 2008 - saw the mass upheaval of the working class but, at the same time, intense discussion and debate on the programme, strategy, tactics and organisation to defeat the capitalist enemy.
Lenin explained this by invoking the parable of a man sharpening a knife on a stone. From a distance, it looked as though he was waving it around in an uncontrollable fashion. Upon closer examination, however, he was performing a necessary task. Serious debate within the workers' movement on strategy, tactics and even organisation fulfils a similar role in sharpening the political and theoretical weapons for coming battles.
It is true that we are not yet at the stage in Britain reached in Russia or in Germany then. This is the most serious crisis for over 75 years, the first stages of what could be a chain of crises stretching over a lengthy period of time. Moreover, it comes, particularly in the case of Britain, after a 16-year period of uninterrupted growth, which has corroded the foundations of the official labour movement, signified by the disappearance of a distinct mass workers' party, the Labour Party. The Blair-Brown duo and their supporters have transformed this party into a party of capital, with a complete absence of a worker base and, increasingly, a collapse of support even amongst 'traditional' Labour voters. This means that there is a colossal political vacuum, signified by the absence of a mass left pole of attraction. This holds back the working class from drawing all the necessary conclusions posed and mobilising against the intention of the capitalists to unload the burden of this crisis onto their shoulders.
Left organisations have sought to partially fill this gap, sometimes collaborating in order to lay the foundations for such an alternative. This has certainly been a vital aspect of the work of the Socialist Party in England and Wales throughout the 1990s and the first part of this century. The SWP, on the other hand, while formally subscribing to 'left unity' has, as we show, proved to be an obstacle to the creation of such an alternative force. Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1930s that if the Communist Party - under the tutelage of Stalinism it made numerous mistakes - had not existed in Britain then the revolutionary movement would have been immeasurably stronger:
"Without the smallest exaggeration one can confirm that from 1923 (for Britain especially from 1925) had the Comintern not existed, we would have today in Britain an incomparably more important revolutionary party." [Leon Trotsky, Letter to Reg Groves, Trotsky on Britain, vol 3, p63.]
Unfortunately, on a smaller scale, the same conclusion can be drawn from the role of the SWP in the 1990s and since. Because the left has been smaller, they have been able to have a disproportionate effect in acting as an obstacle to the necessary crystallisation of a new, left, guiding socialist and Marxist layer. Playing a negative role in the past, they and others can have a disastrous effect if they or similar organisations cling to mistaken ideas and approach. This is why we take up the ideas of the SWP here.
Using the method of contrasts, we compare their ideas and ours on how best to take the left forward. But our arguments are not directed solely at the SWP and its supporters in the British and international labour movement. There are also organisations and groupings which have a similar approach. This book is a critique of what we believe are wrong methods in general, which in the crucial task of forging a new Marxist force can be a barrier to building a new mass workers' left party in Britain. Our task above all is to seek to educate the new generation of workers and young people who will be moved into action by the great events that impend in Britain and worldwide. Many will investigate the credentials - including the history of all organisations - before engaging with them. A serious examination - which we aim for here - would show that the SWP in its fundamental ideas, its approach and, above all, its method has been found wanting. Unless they change, they can still have a negative effect in the battles to come.
This is not the first work to criticise or engage in debate members of the SWP. Peter Hadden produced an excellent and substantial work in 1999 on the methods of the SWP in general, with specific examples of their disastrous outcome in Ireland and elsewhere [Peter Hadden, 'The Struggle for Socialism Today - A Reply to the Politics of the Socialist Workers Party', 1999, found at www.marxist.net]. That retains its full validity today. Yet his critique did not even receive one line of reply, apart from a few mumbled, verbal comments from SWP members: "Why engage in polemics now when the labour movement should be interested in more important issues?"
This book has been produced, as a supplement and complementary work to Peter Hadden's. It covers some of the same ground as his, but from a more 'British' party and 'international' standpoint. Moreover, the SWP has changed and done a somersault on many of the issues but not all that he criticised. It is possible, even likely, that this book will not evoke any reply from the SWP either. Frankly, we would not be surprised from an organisation that seeks to draw a veil over its past mistakes, particularly as it is now retreating from its recent more 'open' phase of approaching others on the left. The ultra-left sectarian tactics of the early 1990s, which in practice it never abandoned, have been maintained even when they give the impression of wanting to work in collaboration with others on the left.
The debacles of the Socialist Alliance and Respect have provoked a crisis within their ranks - possibly the biggest in their history - signified by the removal from influence and public positions in the now to be disbanded 'Left Alternative' of some of their leading lights such as John Rees and Lindsey German. This appears to have been organised by a majority around the SWP's main theoretician Alex Callinicos. The SWP, no doubt, wishes to discount its recent past by such measures by the removal of those figures most closely associated with this. There are, accordingly, no reasons given why these individuals have been removed; no explanation, no analysis of previous mistakes and failures. 'Year Zero', it seems, is their approach towards the recent past. The new generation of recruits will therefore be ignorant of, or will not examine too closely, their real history, which we trace out in this book.
We hope to reach - if not SWP members who can still be won to a Marxist approach - others and hope to educate them against these methods, which can only prepare further political cul-de-sacs and a weakening of the left in the task of rebuilding the labour movement on socialist and Marxist lines.