A rather long but useful analysis via Luna17
Posted: 18 Oct 2013 01:56 PM PDT
'The politics of the crisis in the SWP' – by leading Socialist Workers Party members Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber – includes a defence of the SWP leadership's positions in recent internal party debates and of its handling of accusations of rape and sexual harassment against a leading member. However, it is also an attempt to locate the specific debates inside the SWP over the last year among larger social and political trends. The authors' dominant idea is that the political tendency they call 'movementism' has pulled layers of revolutionaries away from the tradition.
A great deal has been written about the specific controversies in the SWP recently. The debate prompted by the Central Committee's response to allegations against Martin Smith, former SWP national secretary, is a tremendously important one in its own right. This article is not adding to the discussion about those particular issues - there are well-informed accounts elsewhere.
The SWP crisis has prompted some written commentary on wider political issues than those at the heart of the dispute. A common idea in much discussion is that what's gone wrong in the SWP has been a corrosion of democratic culture. This is true - the party's democratic culture has decayed badly. But we need to explain why that decay may have happened in relation to the organisation's actions in the outside world. Otherwise we are left with accounts of an inadequate democratic culture that can easily lapse into implying that any such attempts at building revolutionary organisation are doomed.The long-term crisis of the SWP is not merely a crisis of democratic culture or of organisational form. It is a crisis of political strategy and orientation. This is important for anyone who wants to build more effective revolutionary organisation. We have to understand what has gone wrong in order to learn the right lessons. We mustn't throw the Leninist baby out with the SWP's dirty bathwater. The issues involved are fundamental to socialist strategy today and therefore require serious attention.
Leninism, left reformism and movementismThe International Socialism article was pre-figured by a talk by Callinicos at Marxism 2013, which explicitly criticised Counterfire's John Rees. Callinicos claimed that Rees had abandoned fundamental tenets of Marxism by supposedly emphasising protest movements and suggesting they are equivalent to strikes. In the International Socialism article, Callinicos and Kimber extend this criticism by claiming: 'Counterfire has become little more than decorative coverage for the efforts by Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, to rebuild the Labour left.' (no reference or link is provided to support this particular claim, which in fact has no basis in reality).
The basis for the criticisms Callinicos made in July was a remark made at the People's Assembly. This is what John Rees said in the closing session of the People's Assembly:"Some people want to say that there is one form of protest superior to all others, that direct action is superior to marching, that strikes are better than marching, that direct action is superior to strikes. Don't be ridiculous! We need them all, we need every single one of them. We are going to need to break this government. And if we are going to break this government, we are going to need to demonstrate, to strike, to take direct action..."
Rees was moving the People's Assembly declaration in this speech, which contained a series of practical priorities including the 29 September national demonstration at Tory conference, a day of civil disobedience on 5 November and the building of local People's Assemblies alongside pledging practical solidarity with strike action against cuts. It isn't clear which of these practical initiatives Callinicos regarded as unimportant and unworthy of a mention. And in fact the course of events has been as predicted: some highly successful local and regional People's Assemblies, a mass demonstration in Manchester, strike action accompanied by big regional street protests, and a day of direct action planned for 5 November which, not by accident, is now preceded by a CWU national strike the day before.The critique of 'movementism' involves identifying three linked characteristics: giving up the project of building a revolutionary party, rejecting the agency of the working class, and a commitment to movement building as a central priority. The term was first revived in 2008/09, as a way of justifying the SWP leadership's sharp turn away from the sort of united front building (Stop the War, Respect, anti-capitalism) that had characterised the previous period. A positive project of movement-building was swiftly turned into a negative trend of 'movementism', with lots of dark mutterings about the dangers of 'liquidationism' and 'dilution' of Marxist politics.
Leading UCU activist Sean Vernell appears to refute the narrow view offered by Callinicos when he writes:
'Too often the debate about the street versus the workplace is a sterile one with a false polarisation between the two. Socialists welcome all and any forms of protest against any aspect of injustice or poverty... Strikes and street protests are sometimes simplistically counterposed. However, both are going to be vital in defeating the government's offensive.'
Callinicos and Kimber argue that the trend of 'movementism' is shaped by a wider context characterised by widespread street protest coupled with low levels of strike action. Movementism and left reformism are viewed by the authors as two sides of the same coin: left reformism is focused on parliament and the Labour Party while movementism is concerned with street-based protest movements, but they are both given greater radical legitimacy by supposed ex-revolutionaries who reject revolutionary organisation and downplay the role of 'organised workers' in social change. This 'downplaying' is treated as synonymous with writing off the working class as a political actor.
'Movementism': the origins of a concept
I will return to the current debate about 'movementism' below, but first let's consider where the concept comes from. It is a creature of the downturn for working-class struggle that began in the mid-1970s. The disorientation of the revolutionary left followed the ending of the international upturn in working class struggles in around 1975 - with the defeat of the Portuguese Revolution, Italy's 'historic compromise', Britain's 'social contract', the end of mass workers' unrest and so on. The end of the upturn was accompanied by a general shift to the right and a profound weakening of rank-and-file workers' organisation. This was complemented by the marginalisation of Marxist ideas (replaced, over time, with ideas labelled 'poststructuralist', 'postmodernist' etc) and a move into the Labour Party by former revolutionaries attracted by the rise of Bennism.
One aspect of this downturn was increasing emphasis on the role played by 'social movements'. This trend was regarded on the revolutionary left as a shift to the right because it downplayed class politics, wrote off any need for independent revolutionary organisation (deploying rhetoric about how 'Leninism' was dated, undemocratic and patriarchal), and paid little attention to trade union activity.Having a critical stance towards 'movementism' was important for the revolutionary left: in a hostile climate, where there was considerable pressure from the right, it was necessary to maintain a distinctive Marxist pole and that often meant emphasising differences with others, while nonetheless working with others in joint political action. The critique of movementism was a historically specific critique that responded to a fashionable rejection of revolutionary organisation coupled with a downplaying of any emphasis on the working class as collective agent of social change.
Criticising such 'movementism' did not mean neglecting the kind of issues that it tended to promote like gender, race and sexuality. It did mean having a distinct Marxist analysis of such issues combined with a practical approach that emphasised connections between oppressed groups and the working class movement. It also put the stress on mass activity, rather than elitist and separatist forms of action. The 'social movements' were not class-wide movements of protest but rather sectional campaigns which, though they didn't need to be, were often counterposed to a supposedly outdated class politics.
Many SWP activists were involved in campaigning to defend abortion rights in the mid-1970s (indeed Lindsey German was a founder member of the National Abortion Campaign). The Anti Nazi League was launched in 1977 and formed a huge part of the party's activities until 1979. The SWP took the riots in Brixton and elsewhere very seriously (they were not a distraction from the 'class struggle'). The CND demonstrations of the early 1980s were important for the party, while the period also saw attempts to relate to fights over oppression.
There may have been a strong critique of 'movementism', but this was not a period of abstention from real-live movements. The critique of movementism was in fact quite precise: it was a critique of various forms of identity politics and their relationship to a drift by some from the revolutionary left into Labour Left politics. From the mid-1980s onwards the term almost completely disappeared from SWP discourse.
Building the revolutionary left in an age of mass movementsIn the aftermath of the big Seattle anti-WTO protests of November/December 1999, there was a turn towards anti-capitalist organising by the SWP. This was particularly marked by mobilisations to the large-scale anti-capitalist protests in Prague, Genoa and elsewhere, participation in the World and European Social Forums, and by attempts to develop stronger networks domestically, e.g. a Globalise Resistance speaking tour in early 2001 drew turnouts that make it comparable to recent People's Assembly public rallies around the country.
A key element in this anti-capitalist work was an emphasis on winning trade union backing for initiatives - while more anarchist or autonomist elements in the movement tended to be dismissive of this - and articulating a resolutely anti-systemic politics against the movement's more moderate elements. Simultaneous to this growth of anti-capitalist activity, the SWP became centrally involved in important new electoral initiatives while continually endeavouring to link electoral work to broader efforts to build the left and the working class movement.
From September 2001 onwards the Stop the War Coalition gave fresh impetus to both the anti-capitalist networks and the electoral work: the former was reflected, for example, in the centrality of anti-imperialist politics to London's European Social Forum in October 2004, and the latter found expression in the emergence of Respect from the anti-war movement (in particular, but not limited to, the relationships developed with some Muslims who had not previously associated with the radical left).None of this movement-building was an example of the kind of 'movementist' thinking which had previously been criticised. It reflected new opportunities which were opening up: the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements were an extremely welcome shift in our political direction and provided a vital new audience for us. The political movements of the last decade or so have been a response to three decades of a generalised ruling class re-structuring of the world, involving neoliberalism at home and, more recently, the new imperial offensive of the 'war on terror'. Callinicos and Kimber themselves provide a summary of the period which is similar to that which I have outlined, but they argue that the experience of building coalitions pulled a layer of revolutionaries away from the SWP's traditional commitment to working class self-emancipation and the accompanying need for independent revolutionary organisation.
That is indeed a real danger. No doubt there have been individual examples of it happening. But it is a grossly inaccurate characterisation of many critics of the current SWP leadership, including those of us seeking to build a new revolutionary socialist organisation in the form of Counterfire. In fact the commitment to movement building reflects, as it has done for over a decade, two core understandings: in an era of political radicalisation and protest movements, revolutionaries can most effectively build their own organisation and spread their ideas by participating centrally in the movements; and, secondly, movement-building is not an alternative to the working class, but rather a particular expression of working class resistance and organisation. Trade unions remain hugely important and need to be an arena of political action for revolutionaries, but limiting ourselves to them would be foolish.
The emergence of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, against a backdrop of continuing low levels of industrial struggle, meant that working class resistance followed a very different pattern to the 1960s and 1970s, the era which had been the context for the growth of the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP). It was also very different to the downturn of the 1980s, which had largely shaped the modern SWP. It was generally political and ideological issues which provided the cutting edge for resistance. SWP founder Tony Cliff, shortly before his death in 2000, grasped the new opportunities which were opening up and urged changes in how the SWP should operate, moving away from the more routinist and propagandist approaches necessary to survive the downturn years, turning the party outwards to embrace new developments (a number of those who worked most closely with Cliff in his later years are now involved in building Counterfire or Scotland's International Socialist Group).
This 'political upturn' was typically expressed in street protest, but it's important to recognise that this phenomenon was - and continues to be - reflected in the trade unions. Callinicos and Kimber make a passing reference to political trade unionism, but the SWP leadership has in fact forgotten the lessons learnt in the early years of this century. The political and ideological levels have still not been matched by a sustained rise in struggle in the workplaces. This fact has been largely ignored by the SWP leadership in the last few years, but it is something that fundamentally influences how revolutionaries ought to respond to austerity.
Industrial action cannot be seen in isolation from the political context and from developments in the wider labour movement. This is a general truth that finds particular resonance in the present period. In the last few years the biggest street demonstrations have been organised by the trade unions; the 26 March 2011 TUC national demonstration, involving half a million people, fuelled momentum towards the co-ordinated strikes on 30 June 2011 and, on a still larger scale, 30 November 2011. Those strike days involved the biggest local anti-cuts protests many areas have seen to date, with several hundred thousand people protesting nationwide on 30 November.
The growing People's Assembly movement, the large and vibrant 29 September demo and Miliband's very hesitant leftward shift - itself a product of pressures from protests, trade unions and public opinion - have all given confidence to some trade unionists to go for strike action. And when strike action happens its most visible expression is often in public protest, something we have seen this week with the strikes, marches and rallies by teachers.
The new popular revolts
Globally, recent years have been characterised by fresh popular revolts. There are many differences between - to take some high-profile examples – Tunisia and Egypt (at the highest level of revolution) and disparate examples ranging between Turkey, Brazil, Spain and the Occupy movement, but there are also some unifying characteristics. They have been centred on major cities and the main focus of resistance has tended to be the streets and the squares; occupations of public space and street protests have been central to the movement (though in Egypt, where popular struggle has reached higher levels than anywhere else, there has also been massive unrest outside the urban centres while strikes, throughout the country, have played an important role).Young people have played a defining role, though these have not been primarily generational movements. They have been largely movements of the working class, but that means unorganised workers, unemployed people and often students as well as trade unionists (and where trade union members have been involved it hasn't necessarily been via their union).
A broad mix of ideas has emerged in discussions and debates, with a lack of ideological coherence or clear political leadership. This is a result of the relative historic decline of traditional social democracy (Labour and its equivalents elsewhere), the small scale of the revolutionary left and the intellectual marginalisation of Marxist ideas. The last few years in particular have - under pressure from capitalist crisis in its different forms - seen a marked growth in such movements. However, there has also been an absence of radical political leadership to help give them direction. Egypt's predicament - with mass demonstrations followed by the military taking advantage of the lack of popular political organisation and leadership in the movement to instigate a counter-revolution - is really a vivid, large-scale version of the strengths and weaknesses in many different centres of resistance.The last few years have reminded us that mass strikes – while still a vitally important form of class struggle - are not in fact the only kind of mass working class struggle. Chartism was a mass working class movement but it was far from being only a strike movement. The Paris Commune wasn't mainly a struggle fought in the workplaces. Many other examples can be given.
In British history, even the high points of trade union struggle - including the New Unionism in the late 1880s, the Great Unrest before World War One and the explosion of strikes in 1919-21 - were shaped and characterised by forms of action that went beyond the limits of the unions. All of those phases of mass workers' struggle were preceded and accompanied by big protest movements over political and economic questions. Mass strikes themselves have always involved marches, protests, meetings and other forms of activity – and have never been centred solely in the workplaces. The class struggle operates, as Engels noted, in the ideological, political and economic dimensions. But it also operates through different forms. Economic grievances don't only find expression in strikes.The poll tax, as Callinicos and Kimber observe, was a mass working class movement, but one that involved no strike action. In the Arab world, rises in food prices and the growth of graduate unemployment were big factors driving the revolts which began in Tunisia in December 2010. Public transport costs lit the fuse of revolt in Brazil. More generally, it is impossible to make sense of the wave of popular revolts and revolutions since 2008 - from Occupy to the indignados, from Greece to the Arab uprisings - without registering the impact of economic crisis. Directly economic issues often become enmeshed with 'political' problems like the role of police violence or the hollowing out of democracy.
Organised workers will be at the strategic centre of any successful revolutionary movement. This is one of the great lessons, still as relevant as ever, of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the wave of revolutionary upheavals which followed in its wake. Rebuilding trade unions - and workers 'confidence to take strike action - is a central priority. We are seeing signs of a growing spirit of resistance in the unions right now, including teachers', higher education workers' and firefighters' strikes this month and a national post workers' strike lined up for 4 November. But as well as winning arguments for strike action - and the projects of recruiting and workplace organising which are linked to such action - the process of rebuilding confidence also involves the development of wider movements of resistance.
Roots of the SWP crisisThe two turning points in the SWP's longer-term decay were the Respect split of November 2007and the economic crash of September 2008. In the wake of these developments there was a sharp turn in the party's perspectives, which was strongly opposed by a small minority of us - who at the time were still members of the SWP, and who are mostly now in Counterfire or Scotland's International Socialist Group. The Respect split and its aftermath led to a significant layer of cadre believing that a turn away from united front building, and towards a model of 'party building' familiar from the 1980s downturn, was necessary. By the time of the financial crash in autumn 2008 there was a mood for retrenchment, for strengthening a steady routine of branch meetings and paper sales at the expense of wider engagement with others in the movement.
This mood of retrenchment was strengthened after the Crash, when the majority of the party leadership rejected arguments for coalition-building responses to the crisis and instead advocated a narrower 'party building' response. There were arguments, for example, that selling Socialist Worker at workplaces was the main way we should respond to the crisis, or that the SWP - having argued for years that a return to economic crisis was imminent - could reap the rewards of being vindicated by recruiting directly to the party in large numbers, with less need for such mediating mechanisms as united fronts. Some of us rejected the new line, but we were in a minority. The minority's arguments about strategy were underpinned by our recognition of broader changes. Here is how a Counterfire article from January of this year – on the SWP crisis – expressed it:'Underlying this conception, although not adequately formulated in Party debates at the end of the last decade, was a recognition that both the British working class had changed, and that our own forms of organisation needed to adapt with and to it. Trade unions were essential as the bedrock working class institution, but could not be the only game in town for socialists. Their recent strength has been in their contribution to movements of political protest, which include one day strikes, rather than in prolonged industrial action. None of this implies for an instant a retreat from the principle that the working class is the key agent of change in capitalist society. But as Engels noted the workers struggle exists in three registers: ideological, political and economic. In some periods the main form of struggle may be political and ideological rather than purely economic. To judge the state of the struggle simply by the level of strike action is to ignore the level of generalised, politicised anger and opposition that suffuses society today.'
The leadership resorted to vilification and personal attacks - and increasingly to disciplinary measures including expulsions - in order to defeat the minority. Many serious problems of internal culture witnessed in recent months are nothing new. They were also characteristic of the leadership's approach to the internal debate in 2009 and early 2010:'Suspensions and expulsions preceded conference in January 2010, again with private online discussions used as a pretext. For the first time the CC used secret caucuses of its own supporters against the minority. This was the first time too someone was instructed to stop running a website. Email accounts were hacked to gain 'evidence' for expulsions. Students who disagreed were invited to leave the party before they were expelled.'
A politically weak leadership, having adopted the wrong approach, could only prosper if it caricatured the arguments of its internal opponents and ultimately drive us out of the organisation. By February 2010 it had become clear that the party was not going to change direction and that disciplinary measures were becoming a permanent substitute for open, reasoned debate. We split and founded Counterfire. The SWP drifted more and more towards a kind of soft syndicalism that overstated the likelihood of sustained co-ordinated strike action and remained trapped in trade union sectionalism, while downplaying the opportunities for broader political united fronts against austerity. This led to the formation of Unite the Resistance in 2011, a trade union network that rested upon rejecting the case for a broad anti-cuts coalition (and specifically upon hostility to the Coalition of Resistance, established the previous year) and instead stressed the important but narrower terrain of several public sector unions.Counterfire activists had already worked with a range of others to establish the Coalition of Resistance, initiated in August 2010 with a very big launch conference a few months later. This aimed to connect trade unions to other anti-cuts constituencies, addressed a very wide range of issues under the umbrella of austerity, and embraced a range of methods (not just strikes but demonstrations and campaigns). We also sustained a central role in another genuine coalition addressing a set of major issues, namely Stop the War. More recently, the Coalition of Resistance has played a big part in developing the People's Assembly - precisely the kind of big, broad anti-cuts coalition that we have argued and fought for over time. Unlike CoR and the People's Charter, the SWP's Unite the Resistance has refused to operate within the People's Assembly and carry out anti-austerity activity within its framework.
The SWP leadership's errors of political strategy led on to further problems. In the course of driving through the new strategy from late 2008 onwards, it developed a culture of intolerance which has since become more entrenched. The party apparatus of full-time workers was used to enforce the leadership's will against dissenting voices, while the leadership has encouraged factionalism among a layer of loyalist cadre. The SWP developed greater sectarianism, as it was turning away from the kind of outward-looking attempts at building coalitions that characterised much of its history. Martin Smith, the party's national secretary until January 2011, was admired by many party activists for having spearheaded the new, post-Respect, perspective. It perhaps became difficult for anyone (in the national leadership or the wider party) to challenge his leading role, however troubling the emerging allegations about his behaviour may have been.The current SWP crisis is thus part of something bigger and more long term; without this context it is impossible to understand how it could have happened in a party with such a strong historic record on women's liberation and fighting oppression. It is also important to grasp the political context because otherwise we are reduced to misguided revisionism about 'Leninism', searching for a narrow organisational or internal solution while ignoring the wider political context. There are many very good socialist activists in the SWP, yet they are stuck in an organisation that sadly seems to be in permanent decline.
Arguments about united front strategyInstead of a strategic focus on building united fronts against austerity, a combination of three things was deemed necessary by the SWP leadership from 2010 onwards: trade union work, narrow 'party fronts' (Right to Work, Unite the Resistance) and socialist propaganda about the capitalist crisis (embodied in party routines of branch meetings and paper sales). Trade union work and propaganda have very important roles, but are insufficient in themselves.
The rejection of a united front approach to the economic crisis was a serious mistake by the SWP leadership and the main issue of contention in the SWP faction fight of 2009/10 then the main cause of the successive splits which led to the formation of Counterfire in 2010 and Scotland's International Socialist Group in 2011. Some SWP members are now involved in the People's Assembly, which the party formally supports, but there is still a reluctance to fully commit to it in practice. This is reflected in the almost-total absence of references to the People's Assembly from the Callinicos and Kimber article.
We have argued for five years that building a united front must be revolutionaries' central strategic response to the crisis. The rejection of this by SWP leaders has been justified with three main arguments. Firstly, it has been argued that the way to defeat austerity is through strike action and therefore broad coalition-building is of secondary importance compared to work through the trade unions. Secondly – and this is closely linked – the tendency of union leaders to betray workers' struggles has been regarded as a fatal flaw in any attempts to build an anti-cuts coalition that includes those very union leaders. Thirdly, the People's Assembly is viewed with distrust and suspicion, as essentially a vehicle for a resurgent left reformism which a genuinely Leninist organisation must guard against.These arguments are wrong. We need strikes to be bigger, more numerous and more co-ordinated. But simply calling for a general strike gets us no nearer to making it a reality. A great deal of resistance to cuts has been manifested outside the workplace and socialists need to take that seriously. We cannot substitute wishful thinking for attempts to advance the actually existing struggle by outlining practical next steps. A higher level of street protest and campaigning can help encourage greater confidence to strike. Even if there is a rise in strike action we will still need a range of tactics to confront the government, not least because protests can involve large numbers of people who are not organised in trade unions.
It is true that trade union leaders are unreliable allies, but united fronts are often built with unreliable allies. United fronts are somewhat unstable formations and there may be times when some forces have to take action independently of other forces in the united front. That tension is both inevitable and healthy. But there is also a more concrete point here: at a time when official union structures and the union bureaucracy are strong, relative to rank and file organisation, revolutionaries must work with those union leaders who are sympathetic to a broad coalition against austerity. A degree of agreement with those leaders is essential to building the movement successfully in the grassroots, thereby increasing confidence and the potential for independent action.
This particular criticism of the People's Assembly is also strangely inconsistent. The SWP established Unite the Resistance explicitly on the model of the Communist Party-initiated Minority Movement in the 1920s, which involved creating a bloc with the trade union bureaucracy. So what we have here is that a united front is criticised for its links with the trade union bureaucracy by a party that is self-consciously modelling its operation on an organisation noted for that very characteristic. In practice the SWP vacillates between voluntarist actions like the storming, led by then national secretary Martin Smith, of the negotiations between British Airways and union representatives and trying (with very limited success) to develop links with some left-wing union leaders.Finally, the charge that the People's Assembly is providing a space for resurgent left reformism is an erroneous view. Many of those involved in the movement identify with one expression or another of left reformism. With a hurricane of cuts upon us, people look for shelter to protect them. A number of factors – the low level of strike action, the small scale of the revolutionary left, the marginalisation of Marxist ideas – mean that only a small minority look to revolutionary ideas and organisation, while left reformism fares somewhat better. This is no reason to neglect coalition building. Any coalition will contain different currents and there will be some political and ideological tension. Considering the balance of forces in the movement, abstention or a lukewarm approach from revolutionaries to broad coalitions is a recipe for sectarian irrelevance.
One symptom of the SWP's unwillingness to adopt a serious united front approach to opposing austerity is the increased recourse to shallow sloganeering. The party has repeatedly called for a general strike regardless of whether that has been plausible. It reflects a lack of a properly grounded analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the trade union struggle. The preoccupation with 'radical' position-taking, at the expense of practical strategy and tactics, also reflects the growing sectarianism: when a socialist group is not seriously working to influence events it becomes preoccupied with having the 'correct' abstract position and the defence of dogma.Tony Cliff always insisted that revolutionaries must stare reality in the face and plot a course of action based on an accurate grasp of the balance of class forces. Over-optimism would only breed demoralisation, as socialists would be unprepared for any failure to turn grand expectations into reality. The overwhelming sense of disappointed expectations after some union leaders backtracked in the pensions dispute, a retreat that started in December 2011, did much to disorient the SWP. The SWP leadership had not prepared the organisation for such a turn for the worse - and this is a factor in the party's recent troubles.
The failure to develop an anti-austerity united front has been accompanied by a retreat from active participation in an anti-war united front. The recent victory over Syria - with Cameron forced to drop plans for British participation in a new war in the Middle East - vindicated the enduring commitment to Stop the War sustained by Counterfire activists, among others. The SWP, however, long ago withdrew from serious participation in local Stop the War groups, despite the party's outstanding role in initiating and building Stop the War - nationally and locally - from 2001 onwards. Very few SWP members are now involved in Stop the War and the party hardly ever promotes its events or distributes its materials. This retreat has been an integral part of the wider retreat from the 'political upturn' perspective established in the months and years after Seattle.It has also been symptomatic of the SWP's move away from sustained commitment to united fronts as strategic priorities. Callinicos and Kimber emphasise the party's commendable role in campaigning against the bedroom tax, which is indeed an important issue, but the lack of long-term strategic commitment means a tendency to pick up and later drop issues. The same applies to questions of war: a sudden flurry of brief interest in response to specific events is no substitute for on-going practical commitment. We live in an era which requires long-term coalitions in response to austerity and war, not this sporadic and inconsistent approach.
Leninism, movements and the working classWhat is falsely characterised as 'movementism' today is completely different from what was correctly referred to as 'movementism' in the radically different circumstances of the late 1970s and the 1980s. Revolutionary strategy which stresses the building of broad movements against austerity, racism and war is a strategy with class politics at its heart. It involves a commitment to using the strengths of the protest movements to reinvigorate the trade unions and, especially, to encourage confidence in workers to use strike action as well as other methods to challenge the government and employers.
This is, indeed, a key characteristic of the People's Assembly, which emphasises a range of tactics and explicitly refers to strikes as an integral component of the fight to end austerity. This is precisely how socialists should be shaping a working class movement which also contains people who largely dismiss trade unions altogether and, conversely, people who are part of the union movement but reluctant to pursue the kind of mass co-ordinated strike action we need to win. This commitment to the People's Assembly does not for a moment mean abandoning distinctively revolutionary organisation. The building of united fronts and the building of revolutionary organisation are mutually complementary poles. The fact that people have rejected one particular organisation does not mean they have rejected revolutionary organisation altogether.Marxists in today's world need political analysis of capitalism and the working class as they really are today, a strategy that reflects actual social forces, and ways of organising that connect with current forms of resistance and organisation. The defensive repetition of dogma and abstract truths is no substitute for this. At the core of Leninism is 'principled flexibility', a combination of Marxist principle with flexibility in tactics and organisational forms. This is linked to a kind of 'open marxism'. Rather than a closed system of doctrine, theory must be constantly evolving in interaction with political reality and the lived experience of class struggle.
Democracy is at the heart of the authentic Leninist tradition. It is essential for effective action. The centrality of democracy applies not only to our social and political struggles, but also to our own organisation. We need to recover authentic democratic centralism and recognise that the genuine Leninist commitment to internal democracy is radically different from the 'sect' form, in which an ossified dogmatic orthodoxy is seen as needing protection against challenge in democratic discussion.It is essential we reassert the need for revolutionary organisation, unfashionable as it may be. The sectarian degeneration of the SWP has, unsurprisingly but mistakenly, encouraged a backlash against the Leninist tradition. The current trend is to promote 'loose networks' and 'decentralised organisation', yet experience shows that this generates its own problems of political incoherence, fragmentation and poor democratic accountability (problems I discussed in this article).
Reasserting democratic centralism does not mean importing wholesale the practices and structures of the pre-1917 Bolshevik Party (which, in any case, changed greatly over time and varied in different places). The essence of Leninism and the particular forms it can take need to be separated out. Crucially, what democratic centralism means in reality - how it is embodied in structures, procedures, practices - can be quite different for an organisation of modest size (like today's SWP) compared to one with a genuine mass base like the Bolsheviks.
The need for revolutionary organisation remains rooted in an understanding that real change has to be fought for through action from below. We cannot rely on either politicians or bureaucrats to change things for us, but must instead build broad, democratic coalitions of resistance. To make permanent gains and bring about radical social transformation, revolution will be necessary, in which the repressive state is replaced with a new order based on mass democratic assemblies. To this end we need an organisation of revolutionary socialists rooted in, and shaping, broader working class struggles.
We need to group together those who are consistently anti-capitalist and recognise the need for fundamental system change. This is the necessary complement to participation in broader social and political struggles. It is essential if revolutionaries want to make an impact on the world around them, rather than being reduced to either sectarian position-taking or, on the other hand, tailing more moderate elements in the broad labour movement.
The future of the revolutionary left
The SWP leadership has developed a narrow conception of class struggle that regardless of concrete circumstances privileges the call for strikes – despite actual strike levels being historically low –and downplays other forms of struggle, deriding them as 'movementism'. This confuses a matter of principle, the centrality of the working class as the agent of change, with strategic and tactical assessments of which actions are possible at any given moment. This leads to ultra-left propagandism in practice and crude reductionism in theory. Sean Vernell expresses a more sophisticated view when he writes:
'Street protests of all kinds therefore must play a significant part in any real mass movement against austerity - not only because they can, given the right conditions, give confidence to workers to take strike action but also because they play a vital role in winning the battle of ideas within the working class against arguments justifying austerity. The question for the left should not be the street or the workplace but how we can inspire people to campaign and get involved with all types of campaigns to end austerity and for a different world.'
Paul Le Blanc responded to Callinicos' criticism of Counterfire by noting that 'a majority of today's working class finds itself outside of trade unions and participates in struggles, necessarily, through mass actions organised by social movements outside of the workplace... What is dismissed as "movementism" can be essential to the actual, real-life class struggle.'
There have been times in the past when the SWP made initial mis-judgements about what forms of action to prioritise. In the late 1970s it was only through experience that the party realised the Rank and File Movement was going nowhere but the Right to Work Campaign had great potential, necessarily correcting its perspective (which had previously regarded the rank and file union work as paramount, while work among the unemployed was a mere adjunct). In the Miners' Strike of 1984-85 there was an initial over-estimation of potential for workers' action, with a focus on calling for secondary strike action that quickly turned out to be less important than building practical solidarity campaigns in localities. When the poll tax was introduced in Scotland the party adopted the line of calling for strike action by those responsible for collecting and administering the new tax, while ignoring the emerging non-payment campaign. Thankfully the line changed when the poll tax was introduced in England and Wales.
In all three of these cases it was initially assumed that trade union struggle, especially through strikes and with a combative rank and file, would be the central means of advancing the movement. This rested on an over-estimation of union strength in the field of strikes - and in the last example, that of the poll tax, it also rested on an under-estimation of the potential for community action. In the 1990s a number of major struggles were expressed through street protests and campaigning. This was true of the big demonstrations against pit closures, Anti Nazi League's mobilisations and the movement against the Criminal Justice Bill. Later, in spring 1999, there were protests against Nato's war in Kosovo. The late 1990s also saw some indications of the anti-capitalist movement in the making, from the big protest against third world debt outside the G7 summit in Birmingham to the Carnival Against Capital in the City of London.The examples I cited above were understandable errors, in the context of a generally correct wider perspective, and were remedied in time. Now it is different. The entire direction has been wrong since 2008. The SWP has failed to develop an anti-cuts strategy that reflects real political forces and the forms of resistance which currently pre-dominate. It is an approach that threatens to trap it in sectarian isolation. There is little evidence of re-thinking or positive change. That is, ultimately, what could doom it to terminal decline. All of its other problems – the crackdown on democracy and the recourse to disciplinary measures, the dogmatic propagandism, the endemic factionalism, the falling membership, the chronically weak leadership etc - need to be reckoned with in that context.
Paul Le Blanc recently argued that: 'While carrying on serious socialist educational efforts, we must be involved in mass social struggles in the here-and-now, most definitely for reforms. This should not be dismissed as "movementism" or as "left-reformism"… Such initiatives as, for example, the People's Assembly should be embraced and whole-heartedly advanced. Efforts such as these are what can help to create the preconditions for a revolutionary party.'The revolutionary left has to be part of shaping new working class struggles. Building a mass anti-austerity movement and expanding the influence and size of the revolutionary current within it are the two main challenges we face.
Some of this material has been posted previously in a different form on Luna17.