I’ve come across more than a few obituaries for the SWP in the last week or so, particularly since a number of people split from the party and are now forming the IS Network. This article on the Left Unity website, for instance, starts with the following statement:
“The SWP – one of the most successful organising forces on the British left over the last few decades – is close to death...”
But is the SWP really going the way of Monty Python’s parrot?
It does seem clear that the SWP has suffered significant damage as a result of the present crisis arising from the botched (to understate it) handling of a rape allegation against a senior party member. The leadership exacerbated their error by using bureaucratic suppression of internal criticism to try and “draw a line under” the unfolding disaster. The impact will likely be far larger than the actual loss of members, which may be in the order of a couple of hundred, perhaps less. That’s a significant amount but still may be only ten percent of active members.
However, the credibility of the party, its ability to be effective, to be a part of the wider left and workers movement, to initiate campaigns, etc. may well have suffered more profoundly. A women’s conference for the large, UK public sector union UNISON, recently wound up in loud denunciations of the SWPs record on women’s oppression, particularly around the alleged rape issue, for instance. Even where union members and left activists may be friendly with individual SWPers and with branches and districts, the fear of unsympathetic union leaders, local councilors and political opponents using this debacle as a hammer against a campaign or rank and file initiative may dissuade people from involving the SWP. I’ve read that UNITE General Secretary Len McCluskey, for instance, has attacked his left wing challenger, Jerry Hicks, by tying him to the “discredited SWP.” How widespread this phenomenon will become and the depth of its impact has yet to be seen. But from the continuing revelations it is clear that this crisis hasn’t run its course. Only in the minds of bureaucrats do “special conferences” draw a line under crises that have a life of their own, like voting to end a recession.
But my guess is that this moment will ultimately pass in a shorter or longer period of time. After all, look at the vampire-like resurrection of the Labour Party throughout its history. The SWP may have botched a rape allegation but they didn’t drop bombs on Iraq and Afghanistan that killed tens of thousands of women, children and civilian men. Ditto the record of Labour Councillors implementing Tory cuts that predominantly impact the most vulnerable and oppressed. Yet, still the Labour Party wins back voters and activists and retains significant support in the unions. It’s also worth adding that the shocked outrage of some Labour Party activists is, shall we say, a bit rich. When your party stops killing and impoverishing women by the trainload you’ll have a firmer leg to stand on in the judgment of the failings of others. Which is not to say that concerns about this whole debacle are misplaced. It is a singular failure of the leadership to have ceded the high ground on women’s liberation by dealing so badly with the claim and, obviously, the claimant. The resolution passed at special conference to find ways to better guarantee “confidentiality” will have given few women confidence that the leadership is concerned with dealing better with rape and sexual harassment claims in the future – as opposed to better covering up short-comings in the process.
But if the anathematization of the SWP is a passing phase from which they will recover, more serious, to my mind, is that this present crisis may deepen and accelerate the process of internal degeneration past the point of no return. We’ve seen this happen before in revolutionary organizations, of course. As Soviet Goon Boy (SGB) aptly puts it: “There is much more that could be said about the degeneration of the US SWP, which in the 1970s was a fairly impressive organisation of a couple of thousand well-trained Trotskyists, and nowadays is a real estate company with around 30 members that occasionally does a bit of über-Stalinist propaganda.” While perhaps SGB is being (slightly) unkind with the membership figures, it seems clear that, In some ways, the degeneration of the US SWP can be summed up as a process in which the bureaucracy accrued enough money that it no longer needed the membership, which could be occasionally troublesome, demand accountability, question judgment, etc. They had the material resources to become fully independent of (and dissolve) the membership.
But the US SWP is not just a tale of degeneration. It is also a tale of resurrection. By the end of the 1930s the US-SWP was also an impressive organization. James Cannon had not only held together a core group of cadre against the onslaught of the Depression and US Stalinism – the CPUSA were quite large and very aggressive about dealing with “Trotsky-Fascists”, and Cannon’s group often had to get some of his former comrades in the IWW to defend their meetings from CPUSA attacks. They had led important strikes, like the Minneapolis “Teamster Rebellion” in 1934, and they had an organization pushing 1500 iirc and perhaps more, including some key worker militants. But their slavish adhering to the prognostications of Trotsky that World War Two could only end with a collapse of capitalism or the destruction of the USSR, led them into political confusion when neither happened. That disorientation and the brutal effects of McCarthyism had a devastating impact on the organization, along with Cannon’s propensity to generate splits. More than one of those splits predicted the end of the US-SWP far sooner than it actually happened. And as the quote above indicates, the organization did make a “return from the grave” in the upsurge of struggles of the 1960s. As Yogi Berra famously said: “it ain’t over till it’s over.” It is safe to say, however, that for the US-SWP, except as a business concern, it is definitely over.
The British SWP has, of course, also come back from difficult times, growing significantly in the early 90s after the doldrums of the 80s and playing an important, high profile role in important campaigns, especially the Stop the War Coalition in the first decade of the new century. And, I would argue, it has better politics, having consciously broken with the schematism of the early Trotskyists in order to re-emphasize socialism from below, self-activity of workers, etc. That, after all, is the real significance of the theories of state capitalism and deflected permanent revolution – only workers themselves can create socialism, full stop. Not that this immunizes the party against the development of bureaucratic practices. Not even the best program – as the Bolsheviks discovered – escapes the imperatives and pressures of actual, lived history.
Nonetheless, while program and orientation are no guarantee, it is reasonable to look to the theory of an organization or tendency to try to forensically unearth the seed that would blossom into later degeneration, given the proper circumstances. I would argue that In some ways the counter to the “tonic” of socialism from below came from Cliff’s Lenin Volume 1. I suppose I respectfully disagree on this count with SGB, who argued that Cliff didn’t “attempt to theoretically justify an elitist party bureaucracy.” While, on the one hand, he does emphasize the conjunctural, context-specific nature of Lenin’s conception of the party, there is a certain valorization of “What Is To Be Done?” and Lenin’s admonition that party members ought to be professional revolutionaries. I remember this during the clique fight in the Canadian IS in 1994 – Cliff’s letter specifically spoke of what differentiated the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks as being the Bolsheviks emphasis on committed party activism. He also specifically pushed for us to hire full-timers. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before, the Canadian IS at the time was more like a Marxist coffee klatch – or rather two, warring klatches – and desperately needed some “objective” measures of leadership, rather than a recurring popularity contest. But you can see how, in the context of a decline in activity by the working class and even the membership, this could provide the theoretical foundation to justify the advance of bureaucratic practices – and was perhaps itself the product of the rise of those practices.
If I remember my Lenin he was not so much valorizing the party machine over the activity of the masses. He was, rather, bemoaning the fact that revolutionaries were constantly getting busted and sent into exile. If they were going to succeed they needed to get more serious and professional so that Marxist circles lasted more than a week or two. This was about survival against very concrete, material repressive measures. It wasn’t primarily an argument about substituting an unaccountable bureaucracy for the masses. Or, rather, insofar as it did contain substitution this was the result of Lenin grappling with a problem that hadn’t been grappled with before and thus reaching a conclusion that was only partly true. His argument about “socialism coming from without” wasn’t the core argument and was, rather, his justification for why the party needed to maintain its integrity and resist police infiltration. Given the tumultuous nature of struggle in Russia in the early years of the century, the one-sidedness of his conception was corrected by the revolution of 1905. I think Cliff overplays the “tactical” nature of Lenin’s changing formulations and underemphasizes the fact that he was learning on the fly how to structure a revolutionary movement under particular conditions, which required refinements over time. That conflation of tactics vs refinements could lead to solutions that emphasized the apparatus of the party as a solution to the retreat of the class. And this solution never gets corrected, or refined, not only because it is based on a wrong argument but because the struggle never rises to force a correction. For certain Lenin was later much less concerned with questions of organization until the revolution was in retreat and he was forced to try and use organizational mechanisms to solve political problems – because the working class was no longer playing as active a role in the country as it had in 1917. Even the famous 21 conditions of the Communist International has to be understood as a conjunctural process of trying to overnight transform the habits and machinery of social democratic parties that had broken ideologically but which contained a sprawling reformist machinery in the form of bureaucratic trade union officials, newspapers that were little different from the bourgeois press, parliamentary MPs who were used to hobnobbing with parliamentary colleagues in Tory parties, etc.
The point of this detour through “What Is To Be Done?” and the Comintern is three-fold. 1) Relatively small tactical errors can lead to big problems if not corrected. 2) Damaged socialist organizations can come back from even very deep crises. And, 3), they can come back in ways that are simply temporary reprieves that are hostages to fortune unless problems described in 1) are dealt with (never mind larger strategic problems, as I believe the US SWP had). This last problem is, of course, tied up with the level of struggle.