The theory and practice of the Socialist Workers Party - a critical assessment
By Phil Sharpe
The following collection of articles represents a critical analysis of the views of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) concerning globalisation and imperialism. Why is it important to develop this type of critique? Firstly, globalisation and imperialism represent crucial aspects of our understanding of the world today. So how and why we understand their character is of vital importance in relation to the question of whether we can develop a principled political practice. In this regard, the articles will try to show that the SWP have a wrong conception of both globalisation and imperialism, and this is the result of upholding an unprincipled political practice that rejects the necessity of a revolutionary theory and practice.
The SWP are presently the most influential ‘Left’ group, and this means what they say and do is considered by significant numbers of people as an expression of Marxism. Hence an important purpose of these articles is to show that the theory of the SWP is effectively against an intransigent Marxism, and instead upholds a formal Marxism. This is in fact based upon an increasing acceptance of the role of the capitalist nation state as the basis for a reformist political practice. The rest of the introduction will outline important flaws on the SWP's theoretical approach, and this outline will hopefully be of use in the process of study of the following articles.
The standpoint of Alex Callinicos, the main proponent of the SWP on questions of globalisation and imperialism, is opposed to the materialist and dialectical approach of revolutionary Marxism. The materialist view of Marxism maintains that the material world is the primary basis for understanding the role of human practice and consciousness. Thus human practice is based upon a relation with nature in order to meet material needs, and specific social relations become the historical basis for realising these needs.
Consequently, this material and social being of humanity is the primary and objective basis for understanding the subjective role of consciousness. In contrast, Callinicos upholds a philosophical stance that adapts to the idealist view that consciousness is the primary basis for grasping the relation between human practice and consciousness within the material world. This view is expressed in the conception that globalisation is essentially nothing more than the expression of the policy of particular capitalist nation states and governments.
In other words, for Callinicos - and therefore the SWP - globalisation is essentially nothing more than something ideologically adhered to at the level of the consciousness of particular capitalists and reactionary politicians. This suggests that it will be possible to overcome the reactionary consequences of capitalist globalisation by adopting another policy within the limits of capitalism, such as a return to welfare state Keynesianism. Consequently, there is an important theoretical and political connection between Callinicos’s philosophical adaptation to idealism and his effective adherence to a reformist political standpoint.
In contrast, a principled Marxist standpoint recognises that globalisation is not an ephemeral and transitory phenomena that is essentially constituted at the level of consciousness, or the particular policy of specific capitalists and politicians. Instead globalisation represents the present structural development, or social being of capitalism, with regards to the processes and tendencies of change within the imperialist stage of world capitalism.
The economic and material content of globalisation is expressed by the competitive and contradictory domination of transnational capital, which is based upon the transformation of national monopoly capital and finance capital. But in his analysis of globalisation and imperialism Callinicos makes no analytical mention of the importance of transnational capital, and so his approach is based upon an idealist emphasis upon the importance of what occurs at the level of the political superstructure.
This means that the primary relation of the economic structure to the political superstructure is inverted in an idealist manner. Hence the role of the nation state is examined by Callinicos in terms of a geopolitical methodology that abstracts out the important economic and material role of the transnational corporations. The strategic conclusion of this idealist stance is a reformist call for changes and modifications at the level of the political superstructure, whilst essentially leaving the social relations of the economic structure intact. So Callinicos makes no effective call for the social and co-operative ownership of the transnational corporations by the producers, and is instead concerned with more modest changes at the level of the political role of the nation state.
Secondly, the approach of Callinicos is opposed to the dialectical standpoint of Marxism. The materialist dialectical approach of Marxism attempts to show the importance of the contradictions of material reality. In contemporary terms this standpoint is connected to showing the rich, complex and concrete importance of the contradictory antagonistic relations between capital and the role of the producers. The strategic conclusion made by Marx about this contradiction was to show the historical necessity for social transformation and the transcendence of the exploitative character of this social relation.
But Callinicos’s non-dialectical approach means that he often denies the importance of this social contradiction and instead defends the more abstract contradiction of nation versus the people. The result of this non-dialectical standpoint is to defend a populist "anti-imperialism" that glosses over the political necessity to overthrow the imperialist nation state and replace it with a state based upon the democratic will of the producers. Instead the ‘anti-imperialism’ of the SWP is connected to support for pressure group politics, of trying to change the policies of the capitalist nation state rather than strive to overthrow this state.
How can we explain this non-dialectical standpoint? We have already referred to Callinicos’s reluctance to recognise the primary importance of the material contradictions of reality. But another important aspect is that Callinicos refuses to recognise the dialectical process of the transformation of quantity into quality. He disregards the importance of qualitative leaps, such as the transition from capitalism to socialism. Callinicos prefers to conceive of transition in more narrow and rigid terms of changes at the level of quantity, or within the present economic and political system of capitalism.
Indeed in general Callinicos has a static and non-changing view of reality, such as expressed by his refusal to recognise the important economic change from the period of the domination of monopoly capital to the situation of the present domination of the transnational corporation. Thus Callinicos combines distrust of the importance of the new with adherence to a dogmatic and vulgarised conception of the Leninist theory of imperialism. The political result of this ideological conservatism is a refusal to acknowledge the new, revolutionary and qualitative possibilities for socialist transition based upon an increasingly interdependent global economy.
Thirdly, Callinicos also upholds an inconsistent and eclectic standpoint that is expressed by the pragmatic view that what works is what is valid. Hence if it is occasionally useful for the purposes of polemic and debate, Callinicos will accept that globalisation is important. But this formal recognition is combined eclectically and paradoxically with the opposing view that globalisation has been ‘overrated’. In other words, Callinicos is quite prepared on the grounds of what is useful at a particular moment in time to uphold a stance of having his "cake and eat it".
This point is shown most graphically by his adherence to two theoretically conflicting abstract and concrete models of capitalism. All of these inconsistencies are yet another illustration that his approach does not represent a principled methodology, but instead is a collection of often contrasting principles and premises. However, the result is consistent - he upholds a reformist political stance whilst using formal Marxist terminology.
Some of the ideas in the following collection of articles will now be summarised in a manner helpful for the reader. In his Anti-capitalist Manifesto, Callinicos identifies globalisation as a policy. If globalisation is a policy, then the strategic assumption is that it can be changed without the overthrow of capitalism. Callinicos then tries to defend his approach in programmatic terms by outlining what he calls a Transitional Programme, but this has nothing to do with Trotsky’s revolutionary Transitional Programme of 1938.
Instead he outlines what are essentially reformist demands that are about the modification of capitalism, rather than premised by the necessity for its overthrow. In order to reconcile his stance with formal Marxism, Callinicos eclectically shifts between an immediate practical model that upholds reformism and an abstract model that formally conceives of the necessity of revolution and socialism. Callinicos’ stance is most compatible with the right-wing of the anti-capitalist movements, and is critical of what could be an emerging left-wing. Callinicos also vulgarises Lenin’s theory of Imperialism, in order to reduce its economic and political complexity to a geopolitical emphasis on the struggle between nation and nation. This results in a populist anti-imperialism that upholds reformist politics of putting pressure on New Labour to change policy.
The political and tactical implications resulting from the flawed conception of globalisation and imperialism are shown in a recent article by Lindsay German following the massive February 15th demonstration opposing war against Iraq. She is a prominent leader in the Stop the War Coalition. Using what seems to be radical terminology that denounces Blair and New Labour for its immorality, German’s stance is essentially no more than the ethical socialism of a Tony Benn variety. The result is the call for pressure group politics that still aim to reform present policies rather than aim and connect the present struggle to the possibility for struggle against capitalism:
"The Labour government now has no legitimacy on this question. Blair talks about the moral right to wage war, but what he is saying is that we have to take one man’s supposed morality against the wishes of the whole people. Therefore if he goes to war he will not be fit to be prime minister. If parliament either cannot or will not speak authentically for what people in this country think about war then people will have to do it elsewhere. The traditions of civil disobedience will be the traditions that people look to. They are not simply going to be prepared to say, we will kick Tony Blair out in two years time - they are keen to do something now in order to stop this war." (Lindsay German: ‘Millions say No to War’: Socialist Review March 2003 p9)
This move towards a form of ethical socialism, as the basis for understanding political tactics, is not accidental, or primarily caused by instant impressions of the significance of the February 15th demonstration. Instead it is in a complex theoretical and political relation to the view of globalisation and imperialism held by the SWP.
For if globalisation is conceived as a policy, and the war drive against Iraq is considered as an imperialist expression of this policy, then the expansionism and military aggression associated with globalisation are essentially based upon the ideas and views of influential politicians such as Bush and Blair. Hence politics and its tactics becomes a question of trying to change the mind of Bush and Blair about the consequences of globalisation. How better to do this then to exert mass pressure based upon denouncing the immorality of Blair and Bush in relation to the possibility of war against Iraq?
Alternatively, if Bush and Blair do not change their minds and policies, the tactic to be supported is then about who can replace them within the ruling class and implement the demands of mass pressure. To demand revolutionary change is essentially denounced by the SWP as an expression of ultra-left sectarianism and ultimatism. This is because it apparently represents the imposition of unwanted aspirations onto a diverse movement that is united only by the aim of stopping the war. Thus the SWP effectively counterpose the united front tactic to the struggle for socialism. The united front becomes conceived as an expression of developing a mass movement for the winning of reforms, rather than a possible political basis for developing mass struggles for socialism.
German concludes her article with the comment that:
"As people act to change the world, so they experience the feelings of collectivity and solidarity which open them to socialist ideas." In the abstract this comment seems to have some validity, but it is completely vacuous and lacking any political content in meaningful strategic terms. For concretely and specifically, in relation to the strategy and tactics of the SWP, they are putting forward a ‘united front’ tactic that is immediately about changing the policy of New Labour rather than about trying to facilitate the overthrow of New Labour and advance the struggle for the realisation of socialism.
Instead the SWP’s conception of the transition to socialism is divided into an immediate short-term goal of reforms and policy changes and a long-term and distant aim of the actual realisation of socialism. But this very ambiguity about the relation between the short-term and long-term means that their whole strategic and tactical emphasis is upon what is important for the here and now and the possibility for immediate policy change and a changing of course by Blair, or by the successors of Blair.
Indeed, it is significant to note that German is careful not to make any explicit call for the removal of Blair, because this might be conceived as a distraction from the immediate tasks of the diverse united front. Hence, she is contented to express moral outrage with the policies of Blair towards Iraq, and this moral outrage functions as a demagogic and ideological substitute for the lack of any coherent and bold politics in relation to the reactionary role of New Labour. Thus a type of vulgar ethical socialism represents the ad hoc politics of the SWP and the general policy of an inarticulate articulation of the drift towards a complete and consistent acceptance of reformism.
Consequently, on the one hand the SWP tries to sound radical in terms of its ethical socialist terminology because it wants to relate to the dynamism of the growing movement against imperialist war. On the other hand, the real political content of this ethical socialism and a populist ‘anti-imperialism’ is to try and limit the mass movement to the increasingly right-wing and reformist aims of the SWP.
Thus the SWP actually tries to uphold the illusions, which are bound to be present within a contradictory mass movement of many opinions, in the role and durability of the capitalist nation state. So the SWP acts to ensure that the mass movement doesn’t develop beyond these reformist limitations. This means that the SWP is seeking to ensure that the dynamic potential of what is still mainly spontaneous struggle does not become transformed into a conscious revolutionary aspiration for socialism.
It is also important to indicate that in her article, German makes no reference to the political stance that has to be taken if war breaks out. Instead, German calls for civil disobedience. But the central political question will be, what is our attitude towards the struggle between Iraq and the various imperialist powers? The absence of such a response by German is not accidental, because the SWP consider that giving an honest answer to this question is not diplomatic and might disrupt the cohesion and dynamism of the ‘united front’. But a principled answer to this question is vital, because it relates to the very future of the mass movement against the war.
For if this question is evaded and avoided, the result may be that under the pressure of imperialist war propaganda not only will the anti-war movement not become consistently anti-imperialist, but it could also fragment and disperse. Consequently, another aspect to the reactionary stance of the SWP is that its claims to be anti-imperialist are in actuality a sham, because it cannot provide a coherent answer as to whether it is necessary to defend Iraq against imperialism.
Instead its whole emphasis is on the minimal standpoint of Stop the War, because on this basis of the lowest common denominator politics it can uphold and defend its unprincipled conception of the "united front". Hence the SWP is not interested in trying to provide principled revolutionary leadership for the anti-war movement. Instead the SWP aspires to gain maximum organisational influence within a mass movement on the basis of not alienating any allies, such as the Labour Left and pacifists.
It is argued in these articles that it is necessary to have a materialist and dialectical standpoint that contrasts with the idealism and non-dialectical approach of the SWP. On this basis we can understand the tremendous importance of the transnational corporations within the contemporary global economy, and why the nation state is becoming increasingly subordinated to the requirements of the TNCs. It is in this context that we can understand the role of New Labour, and why it is idealist and illusory to develop tactics which are primarily based upon changing the mind and policies of New Labour.
Instead despite the political uncertainties involved, Blair and New Labour will continue to act on behalf of the TNCs, and this will involve supporting Bush’s war drive against Iraq. Thus the only principled approach towards New Labour is not empty and demagogic moral denunciation, but instead a strategy that seeks to overthrow New Labour and replace it with democratic structures that are based upon the collective will and co-operative power of the producers. This process will obviously involve the need for the social ownership of the TNC’s. This struggle against capitalism will involve the struggle for world revolution, which is the only definitive basis for overcoming the alienating power of the imperatives of capital. Only a consistent struggle for socialism can overcome the horrors of war, exploitation and poverty.
Download the complete set of five articles in pdf format (73kb)
On this page
"Callinicos essentially replaces the class struggle of capital and labour with that of political struggle between the nation state against the people. This formulation suggests that the nation state can be "pressured" and transformed into meeting the objectives of the mass struggles of the people"
"The strategic result of this opportunism is to create an objective divide between reforms and revolution as an expression of an immediate short-term and long-term goal, or the division between minimum aims and maximum aims"
"Callinicos has two theoretical models uneasily coexisting together. One is the "concrete" model which shows that capitalism could improve in terms of economic efficiency and general prosperity by a return to the policy of Keynesianism. The other is the abstract model, which tries to show neo-liberalism as the logical expression of the requirements of capital accumulation"
"Callinicos’s stance is limited to opposing a timeless abstraction defined as American imperialism. So he glosses over the important structural connections between American imperialism and the transnational corporations. Instead America is seen as a nation of reactionary geopolitical values and envisaged by Callinicos as the political antagonist of the people of the world"
see also: War is a test for principles