In class struggle, politics must always take precedence over any specific organisational matters. This doesn’t mean a dogmatic commitment to the details of past or current programmes, but serious consideration of how revolutionaries can begin to forge a mass organisation.
The major problem facing the revolutionary wing of the British left is that we do not have any such organisation that can legitimately claim to being either that party or the base for it. Our organisations are instead largely fractured into numerous different competing sects, most of which at different times have been guilty of setting up barriers to unity despite our differences being little compared to our shared political goal.
The Socialist Workers Party, Britain’s largest revolutionary group, is in crisis. The “Comrade Delta” scandal came largely out of the blue for me — then an SWP member of six years. But the SWP also faces a longer-term crisis of orthodoxy.
When the SWP first broke onto the scene as the Socialist Review Group, and later as the International Socialists, it marked a significant break with the “orthodox” Trotskyism constructed after World War Two.
Before the war, Trotsky argued that war would bring either international proletarian revolution or the collapse of the Soviet Union — in either case, the Stalinist bureaucracy would surely be removed. But Trotsky was wrong; instead the USSR went from strength to strength, with a massive expansion of influence. “Orthodox” Trotskyists performed theoretical contortions to make the analysis fit, claiming variously that World War Two had not in fact ended, that capitalism was indeed in decay, and that the Stalinist bureaucracy represented a progressive historical agent against capitalism. This was the orthodoxy from which SRG broke, developing theories of state capitalism and the permanent arms economy.
Today the SWP is largely stale. It acts as a block on the working-class movement, establishing front organisations (Unite the Resistance, Right to Work, Education Activist Network, etc.) which are then dropped without explanation when the “next big thing” comes along.
SWP members do some fantastic work in the unions and in campaigns, but the lack of an overall strategy for advancing class struggle and workers’ self-organisation has tied them to the “lefts” in the union bureaucracy.
For many years, the SWP punched above its weight in terms of profile, visibility, and influence. This much was evident during the height of the anti-war movement, the student protests of winter 2010/11, and to a lesser degree continues to be the case within the trade union movement. Its supporters make two common explanations for its relative successes in the past. Firstly the capacity of the SWP to “bend the stick’”, (that is, to jump from campaign to campaign or make sharp tactical turns). Secondly, that the SWP adheres to firm “Leninist”, democratic-centralist, organisational principles.
But the SWP and its predecessors have never been democratic-centralist. The SWP’s version of “democratic centralism” lacks the best bits of both “democracy” and “centralism”. It is a caricature of both; the bogeyman of “permanent factionalism” has time and again been invoked against oppositionists, even when no faction exists. SWP leaderships have been willing to act unconstitutionally if the end goal is the defeat of oppositional elements.
Although many on the left feel a strong antipathy towards it, what happens in the SWP still matters. It was perhaps the most promising revolutionary organisation since the pre-Stalinist Communist Party in the 1920s and 30s.
As a result of its crisis, intervention in the outside world has been stifled. On many university campuses, SWP student groups have defected and re-established themselves as the Revolutionary Socialists (RevSocs). Leading academics refused to speak at their annual Marxism political festival earlier this year, where numbers were significantly down on previous years.
Of course the SWP will not just disappear. Members will continue to do some good work, but as an organisation it has been completely discredited and proved not fit for purpose.
Democratic centralism must be rescued from the SWP caricature. It does not simply mean “unity in practice”; no genuinely democratic organisation should demand of its members to pretend to hold views contrary to their own.
Upon quitting the SWP, I immediately joined the International Socialist Network, which set itself the task of acting as a safety net for those falling out of the SWP and regrouping the revolutionary left. In the six months since then, while the organisation has made steps forward, with many members beginning to re-evaluate aspects of the SWP’s politics, some of the old attitudes have persisted.
It is unfortunate the ISN rejected unity talks, or even any discussion at all, with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
Apolitical claims that the AWL are “pro-imperialist”, “Islamophobic” and “Zionist” have continued; in fact, it is an organisation that stresses the self-emancipatory potential of the working class. Against support for reactionaries like Hamas, AWL looks not just to the workers of Palestine but also those in Israel who, like other workers, can break with reactionary ideas. Against claims of being imperialists, the AWL recognises there exist multiple imperialisms; not just the US and its allies but also regional imperialisms like Iran that have their own interests.
The AWL isn’t the revolutionary party, but believing it has consistent socialist politics and itself being in some senses a product of the International Socialist tradition, has a lot to contribute to the development of a revolutionary socialist working-class movement.
The crisis that emerged in the SWP has opened up opportunities to begin to rethink revolutionary politics. That is why I’ve joined Workers’ Liberty.