In 1973, International Socialism, the theoretical journal of what is now the Socialist Workers Party, serialised the memoirs of the pioneering British Trotskyist Reg Groves, which later formed the basis of Groves’s The Balham Group: How British Trotskyism Began.
Re-reading the book it struck me how many of the criticisms levelled by Groves against the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the 1930s could, depressingly, be applied to elements of the would-be Trotskyist left today.
Commenting on CPGB intervention into a 1930 dispute in the woollen industry in Yorkshire, Groves wrote: “The Daily Worker sloganised this struggle as it sloganised all struggles, large or small, making it faceless and drab. To anyone on the spot, the slogans appeared to have nothing whatever to do with the course of events, nor did they seem to have any meaning for those directly engaged in the battle.”
The inability of the CPGB to follow the logic of the class struggle and seek to guide the dispute bears a close resemblance to the SWP’s completely mad “all out, stay out” slogan for the strikes of 30 November 2011. In both cases, the lack of engagement with tangible reality stemmed from a sectarian approach to agitation, seeing it as a means through which to “build the party” rather than advance the interests of the working class.
Familiar, too, was Groves’s criticism of the CPGB’s propensity to form front organisations in an “attempt — vainly — to hide itself and its political identity”.’
One such example is the Workers’ Charter, a document of demands for workers and the unemployed. The front campaign culminated in a conference in Bermondsey on 12 April 1931. Discussing attendance, Groves commented: “Of the 316 organisations represented there, only sixty-eight union branches and seven co-op guilds could be called genuine, non-party organisations.” Right to Work and Unite the Resistance, anyone?
Anyone who has had a broad-based local anti-cuts group completely taken over in a sectarian manner will sympathise with the example of the Wandsworth Trades Council’s association for unemployed trade unionists.
During the Comintern’s ultra-leftist Third Period which branded social democrats as “social fascists”, the CPGB instructed its members to break up such organisations in order to build the membership base of its own front organisation, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Thankfully, local CPGB members sympathetic to the Left Opposition refused and the CPGB later u-turned on its original instructions.
My point is not simply to score points against the SWP. My hope is that holding up a mirror to the way in which that organisation conducts itself in the wider movement could prompt SWP comrades to dwell on the reflection. My fear is that even if they fail to recognise the outward appearance of Stalinism staring back at them, as with Dorian in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the soul of the SWP has long since been corrupted.