by Colin Clarke
This article was originally written in 1999 for an issue of the New Zealand journal Revolutionary Marxist. Unfortunately, neither that issue or any other appeared and the article has been stored on various computers since. While reading the James Heartfield review on the biography of Tony Cliff, I thought it worthwhile finally giving it the light of day as it still stands up quite well. I don’t have the time or the inclination to rewrite or update it so a few worth points are worth making about the article:
1. The article only goes up to 1999 so is out of date. However, the Heartfield review tells you all you need to know about the SWP since that time.
2. For reasons, I no longer remember, the article is written in a really annoying, dismissive tone so try to ignore it.
3. I think the sections on State Capitalism and the Permanent Arms Economy could do with being covered in greater depth and if I was writing the article now, I wonder examine the SWP’s theoretical output in greater detail.
4. The very brief mention of the Anti-Nazi League is inadequate. While the focus of the ANL at a national level was populist, the history of the organisation is more complex. In particular, the working class squads that operated against the National Front in the late 1970s and early 1980s and were expelled from the SWP for their efforts, showed another way forward for the party. This period is covered in Beating the fascists: the untold story of Anti-Fascist Action
“What is needed is an analysis of contemporary capitalism in terms of its impact on working class consciousness, prescriptions tailored to the weakness and strength of class consciousness today; in fact the recognition that class consciousness is the material with which we deal as socialists with a view to transforming it into a material force in its own right. Without this at its centre, socialist analysis loses its coherence and socialist programmes their reality.”
- Michael Kidron, review of E.P. Thompson, Out of Apathy, in International Socialism 2, Autumn 1960.
“Imagine if we had 15,000 members…and 30,000 supporters: the 21st October miners’ demonstration could have been different. Instead of marching round Hyde Park, socialists could have taken 40 or 50,000 people to Parliament. If this had happened, the Tory MPs wouldn’t have dared vote with Michael Heseltine. The government would have collapsed.
The prospect is not unrealistic or romantic. The number of socialists organised together is important in determining the outcome of the struggle.”
- Tony Cliff, Socialist Review, January 1993.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), whether you believe their claims of 10,000 members or not, is the biggest ‘revolutionary’ party on the British left and possibly in the English-speaking world. It also has a host of affiliated organisations around the world that follow in its footsteps. For this very reason, notice has to be taken of them. Yet, despite this position of hegemony, there has been very little serious analysis of the organisation. This current article is, hopefully, a contribution to this discussion.
Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Socialist Review Group (SRG) from which the SWP grew, so it is a useful point to analyse the tendency, its theories and its claims to be a revolutionary organisation. This is also a particularly apt time to undertake this investigation, as the organisation is facing a deep internal crisis at leadership level, for the first time since the 1970s, over key issues of strategy, especially standing in elections.