SWP’s “good old days”?

Submitted by Matthew on 13 February, 2013 - 9:20

Oppositionist writers in the SWP, in their polemics against the SWP’s current regime, are sometimes harking back to the ideas of the SWP (then called IS) before 1968, as summarised by two texts by Tony Cliff: Trotsky on substitutionism (1960) and Rosa Luxemburg (actually also 1960, but usually attributed to 1959).

Both those texts are still kept in circulation by the SWP (though the Luxemburg one in a bowdlerised edition), and neither has been thoroughly criticised by any authoritative SWP writer.

It is easy to see why SWP oppositionists find them attractive. In them Cliff advocates a socialist organisation which is easy-going and entirely open about its internal debates.

The forerunners of AWL, the Workers’ Fight group (1967-8 and 1971-5) and the Trotskyist Tendency in IS (1968-71), thought those old Cliffite ideas were false. We still think them false.

Although the SWP’s regime has evolved over the years, and reached its current level of “commandism” and Central-Committee-controlled monologue only well on into the 1980s, it is based on principles common to the pre-1968 conceptions. And some axioms of the current regime — the ban on “permanent factions” (i.e. the imposition of an arbitrary time-limit on factions); the rule that factions must always dissolve after a conference; and the rule that dissident revolutionary socialists can be expelled for having “too big” political differences, or for being a “secret faction” — were instituted very soon after 1968, in a series of expulsions between 1971 and 1975.

Both now and then, the SWP conception is based on a neglect, or downgrading, of struggle on the ideological front, and a consequent belief that slogans must always (in the SWP catchphrase) “fit the mood”.

The SWP today is of course willing to run counter to majority working-class opinion on issues. The IS before 1968 would do that, too. But such stances are always based on an argument that the contrarian position nevertheless “fits the mood” of some “militant minority”, and will help SWP, or IS, recruit that militant minority.

Both now and then, the SWP conception is based on a concept of “Leninism” as administrative centralisation. Between 1959 and 1968, IS was a small group with little ability or zest for initiatives, and had to compete on the left with a larger group (Gerry Healy’s SLL) much more capable of initiative.

IS adopted the “Luxemburgist” doctrine as a way of advertising itself as more easy-going, less scary, less tense than the SLL.

From about 1963 onwards, the SLL increasingly marginalised itself by sectarian bluster. IS grew. Cliff shifted to advocate “democratic centralism”, first simply as a more effective way of organising a group larger than the old IS discussion circle, and then rationalising it a bit more in a pamphlet on the French events of May-June 1968. As IS-SWP came to be able to take some initiatives, it moved towards much the same regime as the old SLL.

In 1969, Workers’ Fight (the Trotskyist Tendency) saw ourselves as continuing the political tradition of the US Trotskyist leader James P Cannon.

We have learned things since then, including that some of the ideas we took from “Cannonite” stock were false. For example, we were wrong to believe Cannon’s story that the demand in 1940 by the minority of the US Trotskyist movement, led by Max Shachtman, to be able to express itself publicly on issues like Stalin’s invasion of Finland, was a matter of “reneging” and “capitulating” people wanting to appeal to “the general public”. In fact Shachtman’s group was more intransigent in politically dissociating from US bourgeois democracy during World War Two than Cannon’s group was.

Our custom, even in our “Cannonite” days, was to give our big political debates among ourselves expression in our public press. We think that was right, and since 1995 have written the custom into our constitution.

The 1969 article’s criticism of Cliff’s 1960 statement that “all discussion on basic issues of policy should be... in the open press” was not without substance, though. Cliff justified on the basis that it would enable “the mass of workers [to] take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party...”

It was demagogic fantasy, in 1960 or even 1969, that “the mass of workers” would follow debate in the IS-SWP press, and Cliff’s underlying thought here was that a revolutionary organisation should always keep in tune, ideologically, with “the mass of workers”, or at least, realistically, with the “militant minority”.

There are drawbacks to carrying a revolutionary organisation’s debates in public. It can, for example, lead to a custom of dissenters not pursuing their debate rigorously within the organisation, but instead being satisfied with a declaration in the paper or on the web which may have about it some of the character of a signal to a chosen public: “Look at me! I’m not as bad as these hard Trotskyists!”

On balance, however, those drawbacks are smaller than those associated with pressing minorities to pretend to agree when in fact they don’t, with feeding the readers of the organisation’s press only a very filtered version of the arguments behind the organisation’s stances, or with putting minorities who feel strongly in a position where they will be inclined to split just in order to get a chance to express themselves.

SWP calls special conference

The SWP [Socialist Workers Party] Central Committee has not expelled the opposition, but instead called a special conference for 10 March.

This follows the launching of a “moderate” faction on 9 March. Many prominent SWP old-timers and writers back the faction. Though its other demands are vague, it calls for Martin Smith no longer to be a paid public representative of the SWP, and opposes expulsion of the more militant oppositionists.

The more outspoken SWP opposition says it will join the faction and work within it.

When the CC got a clear majority at the SWP national committee on 3 February for motions authorising it to expel oppositionists, it looked as if the CC would move quickly to expulsions and a split. Evidently the CC did not feel strong enough to do that.

The oppositionists say that the calling of a special conference at such short notice is a move to squash the opposition, and to cow the moderates by using against them the SWP rule that factions must dissolve after conference.

Whether the SWP CC can get away with that is another matter. Its authority in the organisation is diminished.

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