Paying the price for opportunism
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has recently attracted criticism for its apparent secret negotiations with the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain and representatives of a Birmingham mosque to establish a Peace and Justice Party. Lindsay German (one of the SWP’s main personalities within the Stop the War Coalition) has admitted that such a party would not necessarily include references to women and gay rights. These were described as a “shibboleth” that should not be allowed to impede political progress. Their omission would, of course, help the SWP reach agreement with the leaders of the mosque.
At the same time, former allies within the SWP-led Socialist Alliance have been purged. The Alliance has now essentially completed its process of transformation into another tame “united front” controlled by the SWP. For example, the respected FBU militant Steve Godward in Birmingham was deposed from his official post in the Alliance for daring to criticise these recent developments. Even close independent allies of the SWP, such as the writer Mike Marqusee, have decided to distance themselves from the SWP.
The SWP leadership considers these bureaucratic actions are integral to the building of the organisation. However, these types of manoeuvres are not halting the long-term numerical decline of the SWP, while the recent annual “Marxism” event was less well attended than in previous years. The fact that the SWP does not seem to have grown despite its prominent position in the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) must be deeply demoralising for an organisation that defines political success in terms of numerical growth. What may seem an illogical process of apparent self-destruction actually represents a profound political logic that is connected to the limitations and nature of the SWP.
The most recent and prominent standpoint of the SWP is based upon adherence to a type of protest politics and the perspective of putting pressure on the New Labour government in order to “stop the war against Iraq”.1 This contrasted with the obligation on revolutionaries to oppose imperialist war by campaigning for the defeat and removal of their own government. This meant working for a “regime change” in Britain. The case for this was reinforced when the Blair government decided to ignore public opinion and join US imperialism in launching an invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The SWP believed that the most crass opportunism and tail-ending of the spontaneous dynamism of the anti-war mass movement would itself result in massive numerical gains and growing influence. Instead the SWP was essentially bypassed by a mass movement that instead preferred to act in accordance with its own initiatives. Many mistakenly drew the conclusion – with the encouragement of the SWP - that politics were not required in making the anti-war movement successful. The result was that while the SWP had an important organisational role within the STWC, it could not transform this influence into direct political leadership and gains for the SWP. Instead the organisation was possibly even smaller than it was before the war. This partly explains the “get rich quick schemes” about the formation of a possible Peace and Justice Party and the purging of the Socialist Alliance.
In the run-up to the attack on Iraq, the SWP acted to ensure that protest politics were upheld and any opposition to it was stifled. For example, at the People’ Assembly convened by the STWC in central London in February, they joined with the Stalinist chair Andrew Murray, to turn it to another protest event. They blocked proposals made by supporters of the Movement for a Socialist Future, and others, that the Assembly should become a real and dynamic forum of opposition to New Labour, convened on a regular and nation-wide basis. Instead, the Peoples Assembly was transformed into a rally full of self-congratulatory speeches.
Nothing has changed since the war ended, despite the fact that New Labour was thrown into political crisis by the inability to find WMD and the clear fabrication of the official dossiers. The SWP clings to the politics of pressurising New Labour within the STWC, while its own party line is more “radical”, joining in populist calls for “Blair Out”. On the basis of trying to deflect criticism by “doing something new”, the approach of protest politics has now been combined with a reluctant call for a reconvening of the Peoples Assembly on August 30th. However, the Peoples Assembly is considered to be nothing more than an auxiliary voice to those MPs who are critical of the government on the question of weapons of mass destruction: “The Assembly on 30 August aims to keep the pressure on the government by indicting it for its lies, which in themselves constitute a negation of democracy and proper debate.” Accusing the government of lies hardly amounts to a serious challenge to New Labour!
These recent developments show that the crisis of the SWP has an interconnected relation to its opportunist politics. These override any formal adherence – and it is nothing more than that - to the principles of Marxism and the traditions of revolutionary politics. This contradiction between what they say and how the SWP operates is at the heart of their crisis. Mike Marqusee‘s criticisms of the SWP are made from an entirely different standpoint. He differentiates between the politics and the bureaucratic approach of the SWP. He writes: “I’ve never agreed with the SWP’s programme or the programmes offered by any of the Leninist groups but that’s not the core of the problem. Its not about programme, it’s about method.”2 Hence the question of “the control freakery, the intellectual dishonesty, the causal attitude towards democracy” is, according to Marqusee, shared by other left groups, and is apparently the hallmark of Leninism. This superficial comparison between the history of the SWP and Leninism tells us nothing and has more than a hint of liberal political prejudice about it.
The SWP is defined by its lack of political democracy and an unaccountable leadership. Yet this is a necessary prerequisite of a politics that is based upon the rejection of any self-critical analysis of its political practice. Instead objective reality is always portrayed as something conforming to the subjective aspirations of the consciousness of the leadership. So when the dialectical and contradictory character of objective reality and the class struggle indicates that political developments have not faithfully conformed to these subjective aspirations it is necessary to gloss over these mistakes. Empirical adjustments are necessary to provide the basis for an alternative to what would constitute a truly critical and reflective analysis of the situation. This means that democracy within the organisation is a luxury that is not possible, because democracy might lead to a questioning of the omnipotent role of the leadership and its perspectives.
In this context, the SWP was characterised by the “theory” of the “downturn” in order to explain the various setbacks for the working class between the late 1970s to the early 1980s.3 The militant miners’ strike of 1984-85 seems to contradict this theory, and actually required the development of a general strike for its victory. Instead of calling for what was necessary in the form of a general strike, the SWP leadership tenaciously clung to the downturn outlook. This effectively meant that they denied any possibility of a victory for the miners and the downfall of the Thatcher government. Here is an example of how a predetermined and fatalistic theory denied the possibility of any qualitative leaps in the situation. So reality was made to conform to the theory despite the objective intensification of the contradictions of class struggle, because the SWP leadership could not possibly be mistaken. Any dissent was inevitably dealt with in disciplinary terms since it was not possible to overturn this one-sided approach in theoretical terms because of the danger this represented to the prestige of the party’s leaders.
The SWP leadership suddenly and abruptly decided in the early 1990s that the downturn had ended. This meant that they called for a general strike in relation to the struggle against pit closures in a situation that was far less favourable. The SWP leadership was only able to achieve these U-turns in policy because it had a membership that was unaccustomed to challenging the leadership. The requirements of a collective commitment to an opportunist political practice could only be upheld by monolithic political methods. As a result, party democracy has always been a luxury within the SWP. This is why various factions were expelled in the early 1970s, and after that were effectively banned by the SWP. This parody of revolutionary political tradition stands in stark contrast to the history of Leninism, which Marqusee uses the example of the SWP to try and discredit.
Leninism has always been characterised by intense internal political discussion and clarification from its earliest days. In 1903, Lenin and other Russian revolutionaries took part in a congress in London that lasted almost a month. The minutes of the 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party show the most open and frank discussion about the way forward. Lenin bent over backwards to accommodate his political opponents, offering them key positions on the editorial board. In 1917 the Bolsheviks argued fiercely about whether the time was right to launch a revolution. Lenin found himself in a minority and went to the rank and file of the party to win support for his position. In power, Lenin and the Bolsheviks continued this tradition.
To give only one example, the question of signing the Brest Litovsk treaty with German imperialism in 1918 led to three different views: Lenin was for unconditionally signing the treaty immediately; Trotsky favoured no peace and no war; Bukharin called for open defiance and the rejection of the treaty through the possibility of international civil war. These differences were openly debated within the party and soviet organisations, and Bukharin’s platform was initially in the majority. Indeed Bukharin’s faction outlined a programme which castigated Lenin for undermining the principles of the revolution. But such strong dissent did not lead to Bukharin’s expulsion for criticising the party leadership. On the contrary, Lenin recognised the need for a reply and developed his view to show that the cause of world revolution would not be undermined by the signing of a treaty between the Soviet state and German imperialism. In other words, the question of theoretical and political clarification could not have been advanced if Lenin had been considered an infallible leader above criticism and to be supported without question. Instead the question of the mediation between the consciousness of the subject and objective reality was expressed by the contrast and interaction between different views and perspectives. The approach enabled the party to enrich the understanding of objective material reality by a dialectical process of cognition that involved the struggle between opposites in order to arrive at a new synthesis and development of knowledge.
In contrast, the SWP has always rejected the relation of knowledge to the dialectical unity and conflict of opposites. Instead they try to uphold a monolithic unity that represses contradiction. But contradiction is not a “bad thing”. It expresses both the unity and conflicts inherent not only within the thing under study but between the whole and the part, the universal and the particular. Marxists engaged in revolutionary practice are concerned with the transitions within processes which are the key, as Lenin put in his Philosophical Notebooks, to understanding leaps or qualitative changes in the material, external world.
By idealistically abolishing contradiction, all that is expressed are the “infallible” views of the wise and omnipotent leader and central committee. Any “political” differences are to be diplomatically resolved within the central committee, and the rank and file are not to be consulted about the discussions held within the higher levels of the party. So rather than a process of political clarification based upon consultation of the whole party, the central committee is defined as the part that always represents the whole. Hence the party leadership acts as the theoretical head of the SWP, while the rank and file act in a distinct manner as the activists. The ultimate political logic of this rigid and atomistic differentiation and abstract universality is that the SWP leadership, primarily John Rees, conduct negotiations about the formation of the Peace and Justice Party while the rank and file have no real knowledge of what is taking place.
Despite the historical evidence about Boshevism, Marqusee - who has his own political agenda - insists on linking the SWP’s “contemptuous attitude towards democracy” and their view of themselves as the exclusive vanguard that “alone offer the movement proper leadership” to Leninism. In reality, however, what Marqusee portrays as the alleged Leninism of the SWP actually resembles more the emerging monolithic Stalinism of the mid-1920s.
For what is described by Marqusee are the rigid and elitist organisational principles that uphold bureaucraticism while masquerading as Leninism. These organisational and elitist premises allow the SWP to deny the importance of political principles. The significance of politics is subordinated to the imperatives of organisation rather than the role of organisation being a secondary aspect of politics.
What is absent and problematical about Marqusee’s analysis is that while he is able to describe some of the traits of the SWP he is unable to explain their causes. Thus he argues that the SWP is an organisation where “a premium is placed on having the answers and exercising leadership” and “truth is reified in the form of jargon”. These features might describe the SWP quite well, but we are no nearer to explaining the source of this approach. Indeed, if carried to a logical conclusion, Marqusee could be reacting one-sidedly to the authoritarianism and dogma of the SWP by considering that leadership is itself inherently problematic, and that the search for truth is not possible. Thus within Marqusee’s critique is an accommodation to a standpoint that not only equates the SWP with Leninism, but also rejects important aspects of what constitutes principled politics.
For the important point to be made is that the “leadership” of the SWP has shown itself to be bureaucratic within the STWC and the Socialist Alliance because it is opportunist, and so has to defend itself in rigid organisational terms. If the SWP was principled it would be more able to defend its views and practices in the context of open discussion, and this process would encourage the political clarification of its membership. Instead the SWP has to defend its opportunism through bureaucratic manoeuvres that attempt to deflect by organisational methods the necessity of discussion of its political practice. In contrast to this exercise of opportunist leadership, the emergence of real revolutionary leadership would be an emancipatory process because it would be based upon the development of consciousness and the enrichment of political practice. All involved in the movement would become a potential Lenin or Luxemburg, rather than a passive voter and supporter of the latest party line.
Thus the question of power would not be reduced to the opportunist needs of a party elite. Rather the importance of power would become a logical expression of the dynamic of the mass movement. In this context, the role of the party would be to provide real political leadership and clarity of what the mass movement was itself making possible, rather than trying to restrict and limit the movement to the convenient and bureaucratic requirements of a party elite. Hence far from acting like Bolsheviks, the SWP are instead trying to limit the potential of the mass movement created by the anti-war protests in a manner reminiscent of the Mensheviks of 1917, who condemned the Bolsheviks for wanting to transform the bourgeois-democratic revolution of February into the socialist revolution.
Obviously the present situation is not the same as that of 1917. But the point is that the dogmatic politics and bureaucraticism of the SWP is a real impediment to the possibility of creating a challenge to New Labour and the transnational corporations. The point is why does the SWP leadership consider it necessary to control and limit such actions? Marqusee cannot explain why and instead comes up with what is a substitute for an answer when he refers to the “competitive dynamic” of the SWP, which is aligned to “undemocratic” Leninism. However, the real reason for this apparently obsessive attempt to ensure organisational control is because the SWP reduce politics to the attempt to develop influential allies and put pressure on governments. The means to achieve this end are considered in the most unprincipled manner, because politics is itself emptied of its revolutionary character. Virtually any organisational method becomes possible if it facilitates the realisation of these opportunist ends. Thus the SWP was quite happy to cultivate gullible allies in relation to building the Socialist Alliance. Now that the Socialist Alliance is becoming an embarrassment for the SWP, it is prepared to carry out a purge of its former allies. The illusions of Marqusee, and others who joined the SWP version of the Socialist Alliance, are being challenged by the recent actions of the SWP in the context of the changed political situation. The anti-war movement was a high point of protest and it did not succeed because New Labour is not a reform-minded government but a champion of the free market economy acting on behalf of the global corporations. The SWP does not want to recognise this reality but in the end reality, as always, proves more decisive. Panic-like reactions by the SWP in turn have proved too much for their erstwhile fellow travellers.
1 For an extended analysis see Phil Sharpe, Leadership in the anti-war movement, Socialist Future Review, Summer 2003
2 Mike Marqusee, Formations for the Next Left, www.signofthetimes.org.uk
3 See also Phil Sharpe’s evaluation of Tony Cliff’s autobiography, www.socialistfuture.org.uk
Now read Part 2: Partisanship and the truth
Phil Sharpe examines what lies behind the moves by the Socialist Workers Party to form a Peace and Justice Party with representatives of the Muslim community.
In the first of a four-part series, he examines the background to mounting criticism of the SWP’s methods and its growing internal crisis.
Part 2: Partisanship and the truth
Part 3: You can’t ‘cheat’ reality
or download the complete article (pdf file 94kb)