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 of 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 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 The article only goes up to 1999 so is out of date.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 that.
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 would 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.
Like all the post-war British ‘Trotskyist’ left, the SRG originated in the wreckage of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the British section of the Fourth International (FI), as this organisation disintegrated after the Second World War. Formed in the teeth of reaction in the late 1930s, the FI was almost stillborn, but at least in a number of countries, a modest start had been made in creating small organisations with some working class membership.
However, the ending of the war led to a deep crisis within the organisation at both international and national levels. Trotsky, just before his death, had predicted that the war would end in revolution in the same way the First World War had. When the war ended in 1945, Trotsky had been dead for 5 years, so he can’t be blamed for his prophecy not coming true, but no such excuse was available for the leadership of the FI. While Trotsky was still alive, he could analyse the world situation and plot a direction for the FI but once he was dead, the leaders who remained could only try and use his ‘prophecies’ and try to fit reality into his blueprint.
In November 1945, James Cannon in a speech on the anniversary of Russian Revolution claimed:
Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think that the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage and is now in the process of regroupment and reorganisation for the second. The war is not over, and the revolution which we said would issue from the war in Europe, is not taken off the agenda. It has only been delayed and postponed, primarily for lack of leadership, for lack of a sufficiently strong revolution-ary party.
This failure to face up to the real world became more and more pronounced as time went on and led into a multitude of confusion towards the post war situation, culminating in the claim that revolution was being spread by “Tito (and Gomulka, and tomorrow perhaps by Mao Tse-Tung) who expresses the programme of Trotskyism unconsciously, in a distorted form”. This position, of course, led to some comrades questioning the point of Trotskyism if the likes of the above could introduce ‘revolution’. In addition, the debate on the nature of the Soviet Union again reappeared within the British section, Jock Haston, the national secretary, supported by Ted Grant who later became the leader of the Militant Tendency, arguing the case for Russia being ‘state capitalist.’ The FI leadership put up Tony Cliff, recently arrived in Britain from Palestine, to argue the workers’ state thesis. In the course of the argument, both sides adopted the view of the other.
In Britain, the problems were deeper than an argument over the class nature of Russia. The RCP had expected their modest growth during the war to continue afterwards but it didn’t. With Labour’s massive election victory in 1945 and the return of the Communist Party to active politics, the RCP found itself squeezed out of the picture. Loss of a focus for activity, lack of influence and an inability to map out a clear revolutionary strategy led to disorientation and, eventually, calls for entry into the Labour Party, which was enjoying a renaissance. The FI itself, already bureaucratically manoeuvring in support of their man in Britain, Gerry Healy, encouraged him and his faction, a minority of the RCP, to enter the Labour Party. Now there were two official sections, one in Labour and the other outside.
The objective position soon made it obvious to the majority that an activist organisation outside of the Labour Party and the CP was a non-starter, particularly one which had no clear perspectives. The remainder of the RCP was split over the question of entry but when much of the old leadership changed its mind and came out in favour of it, the RCP dissolved itself as an open party in June 1949 and went into the Labour Party. There, on the instructions of the International Secretariat, they had to fuse under the leadership of Gerry Healy. This was the end for a united British Trotskyist group, as many of the old leadership, such as Jock Haston, gave up and walked away.
The bulk of the remainder were expelled by Healy as he consolidated his grip on what was left of the group. The 400 members of the RCP, who had made some impact on the Labourism of the working class, had shattered on the rocks of reality due to a lack of Marxist politics and a false perspective. Though few, if any, realised it at the time, the high point of British Trotskyism was now in the past. The remaining activists consisted of around 100 or so members spread over a number of different organisations, all of which were based in the Labour Party.
THE LONG ROAD: 1950-1966
After being expelled by Healy, Cliff’s faction, based on a ‘state capitalist’ position, constituted itself as a separate grouping with 33 members in September 1950. At its founding conference, the only distinction between the SRG and the orthodox Trotskyists of Healy’s Club and Grant’s Revolutionary Socialist League was their acceptance of the heresy of state capitalism. The main political figure in the organisation, then as now, was Cliff whose positions on Russia and the Stalinist states set the course of the group and its new magazine, Socialist Review. The first ten years of the SRG saw very little gains in terms of membership or influence but they did acquire the habits of vulgarised Marxism, adaptation to left reformism and opportunistic economism that became ingrained in the way their future incar-nations would operate.
Like the rest of the RCP fragments, the SRG was forced to seek a lifeline in the Labour Party. Although they were supposed to avoid adaptation to their new environment, the SRG, along with the other entryists, failed this test, and ended up with some very strange bedfellows. The group’s main activities were around Labour Party events or meetings of the Club, Gerry Healy’s much more successful entryist organisation.
The group’s publication was the monthly Socialist Review which was fairly liberal in the type of people it encouraged to write for it. One of the fundamental tenets of the group in its early years was that there was very little that could be done by socialists apart from make propaganda for the years to come when a new generation would take up the gauntlet. A prime example is this quote from 1961:
Let us admit it: workers have lost some of the consciousness of class over the post war years… Capitalism is in a surge of expansion. We can do nothing about it and little in the short run to stop the setback to the socialist movement that stems from it.
This attitude was hardly surprising, industrial struggles were still at a really low level and political activity, such as it was, still centred around a Labour Party with a membership of just under a million. More importantly, the quote reflects the tendency’s ingrained inability to seek to raise political horizons instead of settling for current levels of consciousness. For instance, the group’s programme which appeared in every issue of the magazine called for nationalisation and workers’ control by a Labour government. The SRG may have only been a small discussion group but it could have tried to create a cadre instilled in classical Marxism; instead it preferred to leap from one superficial analysis to another. This led to surprising positions such as Kidron writing that trade unions should join the Tory government’s National Economic Development Council or supporting Labour left or CP-sponsored formations. This eclectic approach arises from the unstated view that theory is not used to explain reality or map out an analysis of the world but instead functions as a justification for past or future actions.
This tradition lives on in the SWP to this day and is exemplified in the way that they chase after any political movement around, adjusting their politics to match, and then dropping it when the returns are no longer deemed fruitful enough. Rather than build a stable body of theory, everything is justified in terms of ‘building the party.’
An early example of this tendency is Cliff’s 1959 book, Rosa Luxembourg, which sets out a half-baked argument on why her approach to the question of the party was better than Lenin’s. The idea behind the book seemed to be that while the other left organisations were proud to be ‘Leninist’ in title, they also operated internal regimes that were short on democracy and long on discipline. As an attempt to plug a gap in the market, Cliff decided in 1960 that the SRG was a Luxemburgist formation which meant very little really, apart from hinting that they were a much nicer group than Healy’s organisation, now called the Socialist Labour League. If he had been serious about this conversion, there would have been some attempt to turn it into a coherent theory. But, of course, there wasn’t and Luxemburgism was duly dumped for an equally unconvincing Leninism in 1968. This limping from one idea to another was hardly surprising, as at no time during this period, the 1950s and early 1960s, did the SRG or IS attempt to identify what a revolutionary organisation should be doing. In fact during this period, they were insistent that revolutionaries had to stay in the Labour Party because capitalism was, for the time being, expanding and no opportunities would arise for the working class to make an impact.
Having missed out on recruitment from the CP over the fall out from the 1956 invasion of Hungary and Kruschev’s secret speech, the group was determined to gain members from the radicalisation of (mainly) young people occasioned by the growth of anti-nuclear weapons protests in the early 1960s. Against Cliff’s wishes the group decided to take part in the first Aldermaston march, at Easter 1958, against nuclear bombs. As it turned out, this was a shrewd move. The SRG’s slogan of “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism” fitted the mood far more than the orthodox Trotskyists’ nonsense about defending the ‘workers’ bomb.’
Through this and related activity in the Labour Party Young Socialists, the IS began to grow quite considerably in the early 1960s. For the first time, not only were most of the members quite young but there was also a reasonable influx of workers from industry and this gave rise to another lurch: this time towards intervention in industry. In 1961, they had already begun to produce a paper called Industrial Worker, aimed at agitation amongst workers but after a short period, the name was changed to Labour Worker and its orientation moved towards the Labour Party..
This period, the early to mid 1960s, was an important one in terms of the changing nature of class struggle in Britain. For a brief period, the trade unions were so embroiled in the workings of the state, that in many industries control of wage negotiations passed into the hands of shop steward organisations, both locally and nationally. This in turn led to more strikes as these organisations showed they meant business. As a result, strike days increased from 1,964 in 1946-51 to 2,450 in 1958-1963. This growing militancy became important for the future development of the IS as it became a focus outside the Labour Party for them. It meant there was an area in which revolutionaries could at last do something. However, it also saw the rise of the hotchpotch of syndicalism that has characterised the organisation ever since.
Even with a small membership, they tried to relate to as many strikes as possible but, without a Marxist under-standing of the political situation, they began to see industrial action as an end in itself. When a Labour government came to power in 1964, capital required something had be done to keep control over wages and a variety of legal measures were introduced, including income policies. The conflict that this produced gave the IS a chance to make a small but significant impact within a small section of the politicised working class.
A small book by Cliff and Colin Barker was produced in 1966, Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards, with, more importantly, an introduction by Reg Birch, a leading, but dissident, CP member. The book, which sold around 10,000 copies, mainly to trade unionists around the country, was, in effect, a manual on how to fight the Labour government’s policies.
Technically the book was very good, as it spelt out to stewards exactly how incomes policies would affect them, and it also detailed what could be done to defeat them, at least in terms of strikes action. The real problem, however, was there was no attempt to analyse the political steps needed to win the fight. At the same time as they denounced the Labour Government for their introduction of incomes policies, they were still calling for a vote for them. This flaw in their argument came from an inability to understand that the working class needed to break from Labour, not just organisationally, but more importantly ideologically. Only if the working class on a mass scale broke from Labour could it begin to realise itself as a class-for-itself. Unfortunately, the IS leadership continually underestimated how important ‘Labourist’ ideology was in constraining the development of an independent working class consciousness.
The SWP’s view of their own history is that the period from 1950 to 1967 was the golden age where a small group of revolutionaries developed their theory and slowly began to be able to talk to the outside world. The reality is somewhat different: a small organisation with an uneasy relationship to Marxism, along with an unhealthy adaptation to Labourism, began to acquire a growing, but still small, membership by virtue of the actions of CND and the Labour Party Young Socialists.
These new members, as the industrial action of the 1960s developed, were then used to push outwards towards the working class with only enthusiasm and an underdeveloped syndicalism to protect them. Due to the influx of new, and overwhelmingly young, recruits in the early to mid 1960s, Cliff’s unique brand of opportunism was never challenged. The end result was that when the struggles of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s appeared, there was no real opposition within the group to push a Marxist alternative.
THE ROAD TO THE PARTY: 1967-1977
The late Sixties and early Seventies in Britain saw a dramatic end to the social and political consensus that had developed on the back of the post war boom. A growing number of strikes, violent anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and a moderate student movement were one side of it. More importantly in political terms was the emergence of the crisis in the sectarian statelet of Northern Ireland. In a situation where Catholics fought back against the attacks of the state and loyalists and began to take control of their own areas, this had the potential to undermine the very existence of the British state. This was fertile ground for an imaginative approach from a revolutionary organisation but the IS, and the rest of the left, just wasn’t up to the job.
All the same, 1968 was the IS equivalent of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. They started the year with 400 members, but grew to around 1,000 members by the end, making them the biggest grouping on the Trotskyist left in Britain. The events of May of that year in France – the biggest general strike in history and a huge student upsurge – coupled with the anti-Vietnam war struggles gave them a profile within the left, and the wider public, that they didn’t deserve. Most of this growth was due to their success within the student milieu which was radicalised through the events in France and the anti-war movements.
The IS used their new student membership to move outwards towards the factories and workplaces with their new weekly paper, Socialist Worker, and this was where they picked up the rest of their growth. Due to this influx of membership, the IS now faced the problem of how to integrate them into the organisation.
Prior to 1968, the IS constitution had been federalist and informal which reflected the small membership of the organisation. This effectively meant Cliff had his own way, due to his seniority in the group. Once the membership began to grow, his authority had the potential to be challenged. So in June 1968, he produced a short internal document that called for the introduction of Democratic Centralism into the IS. After a short but vigorous debate, an expanded version of the document was adopted as the basis for a new constitution. Politically, this document was the first sign of Cliff’s newly adopted ‘Leninism’ which, in later years, has mutated into a creature having only a tenuous connection to anything Lenin did or wrote.
The increasing number of strikes allied to a greater interest in revolutionary politics led Cliff to believe that the IS was on the verge of a breakthrough in membership and influence. To achieve the breakthrough, the organisation had to change its orientation. This meant moving away from the old fixation on the Labour Party and positioning itself as the main revolutionary organisation and attempting to play a greater role within the left. However, there was never any sustained attempt to create a theory of the party or to spell out what the IS needed to do to become that party. A typical example of this is this extract from an October 1968 IS Political Committee document: “Whether the IS group will by simple arithmetic progression grow into a revolutionary party, or whether the party will grow from a yet unformed group is unimportant for us.” This organisational and political opportunism is still present today.
As outlined above, the Irish situation was a great opportunity for the IS to break out of the left ghetto and become the ‘tribune of the oppressed’ that Lenin talked about. Traditionally, compared to the rest of the left, the IS had always had a reasonably clear and coherent position on Ireland. As the situation developed Socialist Worker had the slogan ‘Troops Out’ on its front page. However, immediately the army went into action in August 1969 and the situation became ‘live’, their attitude changed dramatically. Instead of the argument of ‘Troops Out’, the line was that the presence of the soldiers would allow a period of consolidation for the nationalist minority and that the army wouldn’t have the same viciousness as the RUC and the B-Specials.
This myopic vision was fortified by an Executive Committee decision that had been taken which rejected the view that the army’s presence was “in the long term interests of British Imperialism.” Despite the activity of the troops on the ground, Socialist Worker didn’t return to the slogan of ‘Troops Out’ until May 1970. The reason for this is not just an element of political cowardice, in terms of sticking their necks out from the rest of the left, but more importantly the absence of a revolutionary consciousness within the organisation. Aside from any other considerations, any revolutionary has to condemn any instance of ‘their’ state using force.
The attitude of the IS towards the situation in the North of Ireland was a typical one for their brand of politics. With the armed might of the British state engaged in an attack on a section of what it claimed as its ‘own’ population, a vigorous campaign by the IS in support of the Catholics’ right to defend themselves could have found a resonance within the organised working class in Britain as attitudes towards the situation were in a state of flux due to seeing pictures from Derry and Belfast on their screens every night.
However, though they ran a series of meetings featuring Eamonn McCann and Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) which attracted thousands of people, they didn’t try to create a movement within the working class. Chris Harman, in The Fire Last Time, argues:
Most British workers were indifferent, or even hostile to, the struggle in Northern Ireland…and could normally be won to support the struggles of the Catholic minority against British rule only after they had been won to a socialist understanding by arguments over other issues.
For the past twenty years, their position on Ireland has remained mealy-mouthed and opportunistic, justified by the slogan of ‘unconditional but critical’ support for the IRA. This meant that whenever there was a bombing that killed a lot of people, it would be a lot more critical than unconditional.
The inability of the IS/SWP to understand the struggle in Ireland comes out of their lack of a clear Marxist politics. Their basic position is that only the unity of Catholic and Protestants can create a united Ireland which is, in effect, an abstentionist standpoint. It reflects the inability of the organisation to do little more than reflect basic trade union and Labour politics with added radical gloss. This forgets a few basic points that James Connolly argued, namely that working class unity between Catholics and Protestants was impossible as long as the imperialist oppression of Ireland continued, because the British presence maintains the privileges of the Loyalist workers. As Marx said a hundred years earlier, before the British working class can do anything decisive, they have to support the cause of Ireland against the ruling class. A sentiment not heard within the IS/SWP.
For the IS, any importance of the Irish issue was subsumed by the priority area of industrial struggle. Strikes were the measure of the health of the class; the more strikes, the better the struggle was. This simplistic syndicalism had been growing within the organisation since the early 1960s, until the point was reached that this was now the politics of the IS. Of course, in a situation of rising struggle, revolutionaries have to relate to strike movements, but all the same we have to be aware of the limitations of industrial action.
From around 1969 to 1979, the number of strikes grew year by year. However, within this same period the actual impact of particular strikes varied massively. For instance, the Ford strikes of 1969 were a real problem to the company, the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 brought the government to its knees but the firemen’s strike of 1977had much less effect. A whole number of other strikes were total failures. At the end of that 10-year period, British workers were no more class conscious than before and in some ways less so.
This reflects a critical point about class consciousness: it does not emerge spontaneously out of the every day experiences of workers, even when these experiences are those of militant industrial struggles. This was well understood by Marx and subsequent revolutionaries such as Lenin, Trotsky and Lukacs, but appears absent from the mindset of the IS/SWP.
Nevertheless the organisation continued to make some headway in terms of recruitment and influence in industry. Throughout the period, the IS’s claimed goal was the building of rank and file groups to overcome the gap between reformist trade unionism and revolutionary politics and to establish links between militants in the same industry. By using this tactic, the hope would be to reach a wider milieu. The idea was loosely based on the experience of the CPGB’s Minority Movement of the 1920, amongst others. Through the tentative steps towards this kind of work, such as producing rank and file papers, as well as their general activity, the IS was now picking up some very experienced militants.
As militancy grew in the early 1970s, the IS formulated a strategy towards launching a rank and file movement, beginning with a conference in November 1973. At first it was supported by Cliff, but he changed his mind and opposed it, arguing that it was more important to recruit young workers, untainted by years in the ‘movement’. The conference should be replaced by a rally for young workers. This was when Cliff began his ‘distinctive’ theory of the downturn. Arguing that shop stewards and other lay union officials were now ‘bent’ and corrupt, he urged the IS to turn to the youth. To attract them, Socialist Worker had to become more basic and not assume a certain level of knowledge. In the end, the conference and rally both took place.
This was the first skirmish in a series of internal battles that ended with a large proportion of the old leadership and much of the experienced membership outside the organisation. Cliff’s reasoning was that the level of struggle in the next few years was to be so high that there would be massive opportunities for growth. The most important thing to do was to recruit, recruit and recruit. Any serious discussion on strategy or tactics was a diversion.
Thus Cliff set out to destroy those who still clung to some of the tenets of Marxism. This took a few years but eventually it worked, leaving Cliff, by the end of 1976, a clear enough run to do what he wanted. This involved, declaring that the time was ripe to turn the IS into a revolutionary party and open the gates to the workers. One of the partys key leaders who had been expelled in this process, Jim Higgins, has written about the launch of the SWP as follows:
The party that was formed in 1977 was not predicated on great upheavals and political differentiation; it was less capable of mounting its own initiatives in the workers movement than it had been 3 years before. Its founding was for purely internal reasons, to give the members a sense of progress, the better to conceal the fact that there had been a retreat. . . Of course there were noisy campaigns – a Right to Work march here and some anti-fascist work there – but they were one-off campaigns which were allowed to live just as long as they produced new members: when that stopped the life support system was just switched off.
After reaching a high of 4,000 members in 1974, plus a very high circulation of SW, by the launch of the SWP in 1977, the membership was down to under 3,000 and was now considerably less experienced than it had been. While the direct cause of the crisis in IS had been Cliff’s determination to get rid of the old guard, a contributing factor was the absence of an in-built tradition of Marxism which in turn led to a lack of internal democracy. The key element in the dispute had been between people such as Higgins who had some sort of strategy for developing the group and Cliff who was only interested in activities that led towards recruitment. From now, the SWP would operate like a bizarre drunk, lurching from one place to another without any logical purpose. For the new ‘party’, the future was over before it had begun.
THE ROAD TO NOWHERE: 1978-1999
In his 1975 book, The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism, Tony Cliff stated:
It is now possible to talk, and to talk credibly, of the need to build a socialist workers’ party that will sweep away capitalism. Building such a party is now fully on the agenda. It is a challenge the International Socialists willingly accept.
The rising tide of struggle that brought down the Tories in 1974 was expected by the IS to carry on, leading to more and more unrealistic expectations, like the quote from Cliff above. This revolutionary fervour, however, didn’t stop them calling for a vote for Labour in the 1974 General Election. The struggles that began under the Tories began to peter out under the new Labour government, leading to blind panic within the IS leadership. More and more, the trade union leaders were enforcing Labour’s Social Contract. Looking back with hindsight, Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, his son, claimed that the Labour Party broke the tendency, which had been growing under the Heath government, when workers were beginning to challenge capitalist society in action.
This analysis contains the heart of the problem with the SWP’s understanding of the world. The reference to “when workers were beginning to challenge capitalist society in action” doesn’t refer to workers breaking into army barracks and
demanding weapons from the equally furious soldiers. No, it refers to the fact that in this period of growing industrial militancy, some strikes were inspired by opposition to Tory anti-trade union laws. Of course, the vast majority of strikes were purely for higher wages and/or better conditions but given the austerity measures the Tories were trying to impose, it was inevitable that most strikers should be pro-Labour. When Labour became the government, the strike wave died down for a while but exploded again in 1978 in what has become known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’ when workers went on strike usually in favour of wage demands that were above the norms laid down by the Social Contract between the government and top union leaders. This change occurred not because workers were now less ‘anti-capitalist’ than they had been previously but because they had never been ‘anti-capitalist’ but only anti-Tory and pro-Labour.
To mix the two up is only to sow seeds of illusion in the activities of the Labour Party which is something that the SWP and its predecessors have always been guilty of. Some workers struck because they rejected the results of Labour’s policies rather than Labourism itself.
At no point during this period did any strike or political movement break out of the straitjacket of trade unionism or Labourism despite the high level of strikes and stoppages for the best part of a 10-year period. In and of themselves, strikes can’t revolutionise class consciousness and neither can voting for a social democratic party. The SWP, however, on many occasions appears to believe they can. Even worse, they have continuously sown illusions by arguing that trade union leaders should ‘fight’, that Labour are ‘betraying’ their voters and that all that needs to be done is to ‘build the fightback’.
This simplistic approach means that the hard arguments about the reality of unions and reformists under capitalism are never taken up. Essentially, despite its formal rejection of Labourism, the SWP, and the rest of the left, have never understood how deeply this form of social democracy exerts a hold over the working class and at the same time how it is just an alternative method of exploitation and control. This lack of an understanding of the nature of the struggle under Labour, plus the absence of a clear strategy of what they should do, left the SWP in a sorry state by the time Thatcher won the 1979 election.
Superficially, it probably seemed to most of their members that they’d finally arrived, as they were becoming a nationally known organisation. The Anti-Nazi League, essentially a popular-front style organisation, was able to hold massive public carnivals which attracted large layers of young people and also to involve them in activity. However, politically, there was no real content to the ANL, partly because the SWP leadership toned the political content down to gain endorsements from bishops, MPs and celebrities and partly because their only solution to fascism was ‘vote Labour’.
At the same time, Cliff in a fit of panic as his organisation began to crumble around him, came up with an explanation for the failure of his predictions: the ‘theory of the downturn’. Over time the meaning changed but essentially it sought to explain why there had been a drop in the level of class struggle or, more pertinently, why the expected explosion of strikes hadn’t occurred. Cliff’s argument was that shop stewards had become incorporated into the trade union bureaucracy and therefore were lost to revolutionary politics at least in the short term. Instead, propaganda should be aimed at newer workers who had not yet been corrupted. The hidden agenda of the ‘downturn’ theory was that all SWP members should retire from union positions so they wouldn’t be led to the right.
The real reason for the ‘downturn’ theory was that Cliff wasn’t confident about keeping the organisation together while there was a fall in the number of strikes and an unexpected, by the SWP, revival of the fortunes of the Labour left. Rather than thrash the arguments out politically and tell the truth, the leadership cabal around Cliff preferred to bullshit their members with a ridiculous theory.
The other side of the theory was the argument that you couldn’t do anything because there was a ‘downturn in the struggle’. The aim of it was to isolate the remaining 2,500 members from all the other currents on the ‘left’ so they wouldn’t get contaminated by meeting any Marxists, or just plain give up and leave. In other words, they turned inwards. Now, there are times when it is necessary for organisations to retreat into themselves but if this is done, there has to be another side to the process such as concentrating on Marxist theory. For the SWP, the retreat was all there was and if it hadn’t been for the miners’ strike in 1984/85 things would probably have become worse for them.
The SWP was very uncomfortable with the miners’ strike at first, not least because it was something they said couldn’t happen during this period. The argument had been that class struggle would reappear once the economy revived and workers became more confident, but aside from that nothing would happen.
The miners strike didn’t fit into that template. At first the organisation was very reluctant to allow its members to get involved in the miners’ support groups (MSGs) that were being set up by Labour Party members and trade unionists. Partly because of the pull they might have on their members, but more so because the MSGs were concentrating on collecting foodstuffs rather than money that could pay for flying pickets. Eventually the SWP joined the MSGs but at the same time argued their own line which differed very little from the rest of the left.
The continual cry from Socialist Worker was ‘Build the pickets’ but it may as well have been ‘back to the Seventies!’ for all the awareness of the changing nature of society it demonstrated. At the same time there was very little condemnation of Arthur Scargill, the new president-for-life of the NUM, at least not in Socialist Worker, nor was there any convincing counter-strategy put forward to oppose the dead ideas of the Stalinists and Labourites in the NUM. Since the NUM leadership had already accepted the state’s plan for the coal industry, it was unsurprising that their strategy for the miners was hopeless. A revolutionary alternative, which could at least develop the consciousness of sections of the miners, was needed. As the largest far-left group, the SWP was best-placed to provide it. But everything in the history of the ‘party’ and its mindset led it to tail-end the existing leadership and existing level of consciousness, rather than attempt to transform the situation.
By the time of the defeat, the SWP were already reinstating the downturn and battening down the hatches. Surprisingly however, they actually had a small surge in membership at the end of the strike, even including some miners. This did show the potential that existed for a genuinely revolutionary organisation to recruit among miners.
The defeat of the year-long miners’ strike was bound to have an effect on the working class and in this the SWP were right. However, they weren’t able to identify the real cause of the defeat – a lack of independent class politics within the movement – and instead reduced it to not enough ‘militancy’. The biggest negative effect of the strike in the SWP’s terms was the rapid movement of all the official parts of the ‘labour movement’ to the right, leaving them even more isolated. The response to this was another one of Cliff’s priceless gimmicks.
This time it was an open letter to the left, and in particular to the Militant Tendency, calling for unity. Essentially, this was just a scam to try and win some softer elements from the rival organisation, while pretending to their own members to be doing something.
The two or three years after the defeat of the miners were hard for the SWP and produced a situation where the organisation was essentially split between a small core of young activists and a larger group of older, more inactive members. A revealing report by Alex Callinicos in the internal bulletin to the SWP’s international groups in 1989, though not shown of course to the actual SWP membership, revealed that the organisation was in crisis. To quote from Keith Fisher, it was
increasingly distancing itself from workers through the adoption of manic activism. No Johnny Busworker was going to join an organisation which demanded so much from its members. ‘Young Turkism’ was the identifiable cause of the trouble. Too many young people running round doing fifty paper sales a week and haranguing the older, more respectable members.
Eventually, the leadership changed tack, but put the blame on a group of young organisers and purged them plus one expendable Central Committee member, Phil Taylor. No mention of this crisis was made at any SWP conference or in any of their publications at the time or since. Just when it seemed there was nowhere for the SWP to go, apart from into the dustbin of history, their fortunes began to change, however. The introduction of the Poll Tax by Thatcher in the late 1980s became the turning point for the organisation, at least in terms of numbers.
At first the attitude of the SWP was quite clear, only industrial action by the council workers who were supposed to collect it would be able to defeat the Tories over the Tax. The SWP’s main slogan was “Don’t collect, don’t pay!” with the emphasis on the former. Unfortunately, council workers showed a complete disinclination to refuse to collect, partly because those whose job it would be inhabited an ambiguous position within the councils and partly because their unions refused to support them. At the same time, however, more and more people were not even registering to pay the Tax, let alone pay it. Anti-Poll Tax unions sprung up all over the place, usually, but not always, in sympathy with Militant. The SWP, though, found it difficult to relate to these campaigns and continued to attack community-based non-payment as disorganised and weak, compared to union-based defiance which would show the power of the workplace.
By late 1989, the real world had shown that the SWP’s preferred tactic, non-collection, was a dead duck, and the campaign of non-payment was being taken up enthusiastically all around the country, leading to mini-riots in obscure places no-one had ever heard of. The SWP now plunged wholeheartedly into the campaign and after the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax riot of March 31, 1990 had been condemned by Militant, began to take over the movement. While for the first time, ever, the SWP began to recruit in numbers higher than ones or twos, they still expressed a schizophrenic attitude to the Labour Party, complaining that Neil Kinnock should be leading the fight against the Poll Tax and that Labour would benefit from this. They also began to talk up the strength and meaningfulness of the anti-Poll Tax campaign, making it – and their own role in it – seem more and more important.
They effectively claimed that the riot in Trafalgar Square and other ‘street’ protests had brought down Thatcher but at the same time weren’t able to explain how something like this could have happened in the midst of the ‘downturn’. The lack of a clear explanation for the movement against the Poll Tax had little effect on the SWP – despite it undermining its own theory – as they increasingly began to recruit from a layer of disillusioned ex-Labour activists. What began as a modest trickle in 1990 became a flood in 1992 when two huge demos against the Tories’ plans for massive pit closures took place.
This is where the second quote from the head of this article comes from and illustrates the complete opportunism and confusion at the heart of the organisation. The ‘downturn’ which had dominated the SWP’s view of the world for around 13 years disappeared as quickly as you could say ‘the new mood.’ Without any explanation justification or embarassment, ‘the new mood’ became the official SWP description of the current period, circa 1992/3, as membership increased in leaps and bounds, until the figure 10,000 was claimed.
Of course, the real figures bore no relation to that but neither did their picture of the world. As when the SWP was launched in 1977 for purely internal reasons, now the downturn was over for equally internal reasons. Except that they would have little chance of keeping up the level of recruitment if they persisted with a theory that insisted the class struggle was in remission. Cliff, quick as ever to sense a gap in the market, changed everything to sneak a lead over the competition and so far the gamble has paid off.
So six years since the end of the ‘downturn’, where are the SWP? Well, they’ve urged the working class to vote for Labour in 1997, for the SWP in the Scottish and Welsh elections in 1999, and the Socialist Labour Party, also in 1999, in the European elections. Since Labour were elected in 1997, they’ve become obsessed, to the point of insanity, with identifying a growing anger with Labour which will lead to major struggles against Blair and his party.
For instance, the main article in International Socialism 82 by Lindsey German, heiress apparent when Cliff dies, is called ‘The Blair Project Cracks’ and seriously argues that Blair is in all sorts of trouble. Even more bizarrely, the September 1999 issue of Socialist Review carries an editorial by the same author with the following immortal lines:
The Labour Party’s annual conference takes place this month against a growing clamour of opposition to the policies of New Labour, which in all too many aspects mirror those of the Tory government. . . privatisation, cuts and attacks on benefits have become the order of the day. . . but there are signs of resistance across the country. Housing workers from London’s Tower Hamlets have struck for several weeks over the summer against the Blairite council’s plans to replace local housing offices with a call centre. Council tenants are fighting privatisation of their homes. Pensioners have organised a national demonstration this month for decent pensions.
This type of nonsense is either an example of the terrifying effects of BSE or it’s the sign of an organisation that has spent so long waiting for a change in the outside world that they have now decided to pretend it’s happening anyway. Certainly back here on planet earth, the Blair government faces no significant challenges at all.
When writing about the SWP, the temptation is to reduce its history to a series of anecdotes about their inadequate responses to various political situations. While this would be amusing as well as instructive, it would actually let the leadership of the organisation off the hook. The problems of the SWP, or its various international offshoots, don’t arise from unfortunate decisions relating to particular campaigns or movements, rather they lie in an inability to apply a Marxist analysis to the world as it exists.
The two quotes at the start of this article illustrate both the promise and the reality of the SWP and its predecessors. The passage by Michael Kidron points to a direction very different to that which has been pursued by the organisation in its various guises. Despite his rhetoric, every action of the SWP has been to accept, and accommodate itself to, the existing level of class consciousness amongst the working class. This has been the case not only during the many years when they were officially still in the Labour Party, but has equally been the case in the period since.
Marxism is not a blueprint that can be applied ready-made to any given situation; instead each changing form of social relation has to be investigated anew by developing a fresh analysis based upon that of the past. The SWP, however, doesn’t take this approach at all. A few pieces of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, frozen in time, have been the building blocks of an opportunistic and superficial view of the world. Essentially, the basic element of the SWP’s worldview can be summed up in the phrase ‘Building the party’, a motto that is seared into the brain of every member. This has been used to justify not only a succession of bizarre politics but also an extremely undemocratic internal structure.
To reduce the complexities of revolutionary Marxism to purely a numbers game is to abstain from the world of serious intellectual analysis and at the same time absence yourself from the struggle for a better world.
Despite publishing vast amounts of propaganda over the years on almost every conceivable issue, the SWP has still not produced a coherent Marxist understanding of social democracy, trade unions or the development of class consciousness. It has, of course, written interminably about these subjects but has not learned anything in the process. This is why Cliff can argue that the reason the Tories weren’t brought down in 1992 was because the SWP didn’t have enough members on the demonstrations in support of the miners. It is also the reason why John Rees, one of their leading intellectuals, can write the following:
Revolutionary mass movements have challenged the existing order on three crucial occasions in the last decade. In 1989, the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe were demolished, in part by mass movements from below. At about the same time South African apartheid was destroyed bya mass movement, at the core of which stood the organised working class, led by the ANC. Most recently the 32 year old dictatorship of General Suharto was overthrown in Indonesia by a mass uprising spearheaded by a highly politicised student movement.
And it is the reason that the SWP look upon the number of strikes as embodying the political health of the working class.
This is not Marxism or anything even approximating to it. Rather it is the product of a feeble-minded, middle class, liberal radicalism, that can only lead to disaster for all who follow it. Out of the thousands of individuals who have been through the various branches of the International Socialists in the last 5 decades, only a small number are still active in Marxist politics. Add to these, those people who never entered politics because they were put off by their antics, and you get an even higher figure.
More importantly, for vast numbers of workers in Britain at least, the SWP is seen as the left alternative to Labour. This is a disaster for the working class, as in a revolutionary crisis, they would play the role of the Mensheviks. As yet, there is no British equivalent of the Bolsheviks.
ADDENDUM on IS theory
Permanent Arms Economy
After State Capitalism, the most holy part of the SWP’s theoretical armoury is the Permanent Arms Economy, or PAE, developed to explain the long post war boom. Despite its canonical status, virtually none of the membership understand it or are able to explain how it works.As with state capitalism, it didn’t spring out of the head of Tony Cliff but had an earlier existence. Versions of a prototype of the PAE came from a number of directions, including the American Marxist, Paul Sweezy in 1942 but in terms of Cliff’s appropriation of the theory, it was an article by Walter J Oakes in the Schactmanite journal, ‘New International’ in 1944, which is the most significant step. As well as Oakes, a series of articles by T.N. Vance in the same publication in 1950-51 put it on a firmer footing. The few statistics quoted by Vance come from the earlier article and the rest of the figures are his own with no references. However, as Jim Higgins points out both Oakes and Vance were pseudonyms for a guy called Ed Sard, leaving very little, if any, authority with the article. Cliff’s version first appeared in 1957 under the title, ‘Perspectives for the Permanent War Economy’ but again the figures were bogus.
It wasn’t until Mike Kidron got hold of the theory that it made any sense whatsoever and even then it didn’t go very far. Kidron himself retracted the theory in 1977 and it’s worth quoting this in detail:
Its origins were in a heavily Keynesian view of the post 2nd world War economic order set out in 1944 by Walter J. Oakes…and later elaborated by T.N. Vance…It was brought over by Cliff…and only later underwent a Marxist conversion. Even then it was never elaborated in any detail: a couple of articles in IS, one of which is repeated in a book, a few further passing observations in other articles some of which were collected in another book, and that’s all. Not much for analysis that was meant to encompass the world order and explain its innermost drives
As expanded by Kidron, before he retracted it, of course, the main aspects of the theory are as follows: Kidron claims that the organic composition of capital either rises slowly or not at all, due to the fact that state arms expenditure is paid for by the taxation of private capitalists. This means the amount that they have to invest further drops, which consequently slows down the rate of capital accumulation. Therefore if there is no rise in the OCC, there need be no fall in the rate of profit. The obvious problem with this is that it means in theory that there is no reason, as long as arms spending continues, for the tendency of the rate of profit ever to fall. However, it loses all its explanatory value when you realise there could never have been a boom in the first place if arms expenditure slows the growth of capital accumulation. In addition, it is worth noting that even when the boom collapsed in the early to mid 1970s, arms spending, at least in the USA, carried on rising.
The goods produced in the numerous sectors that make up the arms industry as a whole, according to the SWP thesis, are not consumed by workers or reused in industry, and are therefore luxury commodities. This means that they don’t ‘count’ towards the decline in the average rate of profit. But this is a nonsense. The “average rate of profit is formed by capital flowing from less to more profitable branches of production. Even if supported by the state, private defence industries are stillbranches of capitalist production. Commodities are produced which embody value and surplus value. What barrier is there between these and other industries that can prevent profit rates from averaging out? No answer.”
Anyway, apart from anything else, luxury production leads to rates of profit falling faster. These are the most basic tenets, though more could be said. However, the anti Marxist nature of the theory should now be clear.
If arms spending didn’t create, or sustain, the long boom, what did? The answer is straightforward, but the political implications are very important and probably explain the reluctance of the SWP to take this route. The Second World War led to an unprecedented destruction of capital throughout Europe and Japan which allowed the reconstruction of capitalism, particularly in countries like West Germany and Japan, on a much more profitable basis. At the same time it meant the USA could carve out for itself the major role in the post war era, finally dispalcing the British. In addition, the massive defeat of the working class in every country, before, during and after the war, also played an important part in creating the boom. The physical, and ideological, defeat of the working class meant the capitalist class could easily get away with pushing up the rate of exploitation. Let’s not forget that countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece were still under dictatorships for the 20 years after the war. Equally importantly, the working class in the rest of Europe, Japan, the USA and Australasia were ideologically disarmed by the historic defeat of the 1917 Russian revolution. This allowed the twin devils of Social Democracy and stalinism to work against the working class and allow capitalism to have an easy ride. In Britain, and most of western Europe, it was social democracy that paved the way for the rise in the rate of exploitation. The trade unions and Labour party ideologically hijacked the working class, pulling them into a long cooperation with the ruling class and state that only served to disarm them further. The result was the destruction of any independent working class consciousness for, so far, 50 years. The middle class left, like the SWP, have never realised this and consequently still pursue the old pro-social democratic politics that were discredited in the thirties. The permanent arms economy then, is a theoretical and practical disaster.
Most SWPers, when pressed, will claim that the theory of State Capitalism is the most important and unique element of their organisation, one which has explained the past, as well as predicting the future of the USSR and ‘East European’ states. A closer look will reveal that this is simply not the case, though the theory did have the positive effect of shielding Cliff and his group from the concept that these countries were in any way workers’ states.
Cliff was not the first, by any means, to identify the Soviet Union as being capitalist, as the idea had been around almost as long as the state itself. The most well known proponents were CLR James and Raya Dunayevska, though Paul Mattick also categorised the Soviet Union in the same way. Most of the different versions of State Capitalism had very little in common with each other which begins to illustrate the difficulties of putting flesh on the bare bones of the concept. The attraction of the theory, in and of itself, and here I’m not referring to the content, was (1) that as shown above, it obviated the necessity to believe Russia was any sort of workers’ state, and (2) it allowed the argument that Moscow and Washington presided over the same systems but in different forms, and therefore both needed to be overthrown in the same way.
The difficulty that Cliff and the other State Capitalist enthusiasts had was discovering the economic mechanisms that ‘proved’ they were capitalist. The most straightforward way would be to show that the essential elements of capitalism in the west, existed, and operated, in the same way in the East. In other words that the same economic rules applied to Britain, the USA, Japan, etc. Just to make life harder for himself, Cliff, also claimed that the East European countries and China were State Capitalist. Now, one of the important things to understand about Marxism is that it is not a simple blueprint to be applied to a society, like matching an architect’s blueprint to a building. To understand Russia, you would have to locate it in its historical form as an independent social formation and then investigate and discover the laws of motion that applied to it, taking into account any other factors that impinge on it. Only then could you apply a label to it.
Cliff’s theory developed in a different way, mainly because he was originally doing the research to prove that it was a Workers’ State, not a State Capitalist one. The first four chapters are devoted to showing how workers have no control over production and that therefore it cannot be a workers state. It is only in the next three chapters that Cliff attempts to prove that Russia is State Capitalist, a total of 90 pages. In brief, Cliff argues that the Stalinist bureaucracy is a ruling class in a capitalist sense, even though he can’t show that it is forced to accumulate in the same way as in the West. In other words, he applies a label to a phenomenon, even though he can’t prove that it is the case. After a lot of huffing and puffing that bares no relation to his arguments, in chapter 7, he finally attempts to ‘prove’ that Russia is state capitalist. He does this by a lot of bogus theorising about the Law of Value and its relation to capitalist monopolies and, as if by magic, pulls out of the hat the amazing fact that the Law of Value does apply to Russia, though in a different way to the west. This different way is that military competition between Russia and the West, imposes on the former, all the laws of motion that Marx discovered applied to capitalism!
Of course, the theory as outlined by Cliff, and expanded by Harman and others, is more complex but, in its essence that is all there is. The rest is really window dressing. So with Cliff’s theory of state capitalism, aside from the spurious references to the Law of Value, there is no attempt to analyse what the mode of production is, what the driving force of society is or any other laws of development. All we get is capitalism by analogy. It looks like capitalism, it must be capitalism. This however, is totally alien to any of the important works by Marx, Engels, or Lenin and has more in common with bourgois analyses of Russia: It calls itself communism, it must be communism. Even more slackbrained is the sleight of hand that continues by saying if Russia is state capitalist, Eastern Europe, China, the ‘Third World’ are the same, so they’re state capitalist as well. Even more bizarrely, despite it being the supposed cornerstone of the ‘IS tradition’, there has never been any attempt to integrate it into an up-to-date analysis of the changing nature of the various ‘state capitalist’ societies. All the SWP accounts of the end of the Soviet Union and its satellites rely on an empirical approach and could have been written by anyone.
This approach to the question of the USSR fits entirely into the practice of the SWP in every other theoretical or political area. Instead of an attempt to get to grips with a problem through a thorough Marxist analysis, they always resort to a shallow, superficial approach that has some sort of opportunistic purpose. The theory of the downturn, analysed elsewhere is a case in point. For the SWP, theory is just whatever justifies the latest action.
Further reading: James Heartfield reviews Ian Birchall’s book on Cliff
 James P. Cannon, November 17, 1945, quoted in Bornstein and Richardson, The War and the International, p173.
 A good example of this and worth quoting at length, is a letter by a reader, A.L. Buick, to International Socialism 19, Winter 1964/1965, p19-20:Although I have subscribed to your journal for over 3 years, I must confess that I find myself unable to understand your attitude to the Labour Party. It seems to change from issue to issue. . . Looking through the back numbers of your journal, I find 4 distinct arguments as to why ‘Marxists’ or ‘Socialists’ should join and support the Labour Party.
- 1. It is the political organisation of the working class.
- 2. It is still, to a certain extent, the political arm of the TUs.
- 3. It is more subject to working class pressure than the Conservative party.
- 4. It has a good reform programme as regards education and health.
On the other hand, I find arguments advanced as to what a Labour government would do which would lead me. . . not to vote for or otherwise support the Labour Party.
- The function of a Labour government, as determined in the present programme and as emphasised by both Gaitskell and Wilson, may be summarised as the rationalisation of certain traditional anomalies within British Capitalism. (IS 13, Summer 1963)
- ‘If the present leadership get their way, the next Labour government will be well set to present capital with the greatest prise ever, sought for 200 years or more, the voluntary abdication of their bargaining role by the organs of the labour movement’. (IS 17, Summer 1964).
- ‘From being a petitioner of capital, mostly humble, occasionally importunate, it has become, at least at the leadership levels, its foreman.’ (IS 16,Spring 1964)
- Capital in Britain has raised problems of economic growth and structural change which the Tories are unable to, but which a Labour government, conceivably might, solve. The attempt – whether by imposing a wage freeze, speeding Labour ‘’mobility or whatever – is bound to harm working class interests”. (IS 17, Summer 1964)
All of which is an admirable analysis of the role of the Labour Party in present-day circumstances. . . It strikes me, as I said earlier, that you contradict yourselves, and that in urging the working class to vote for Labour, you ask them to cut their own throats.