Submitted by Matthew on 3 March, 2013 - 4:49

“Standing resolutely on the side of the proletariat, the socialists do everything in their power to facilitate and hasten its victory. But what exactly can they do in this case?

“Standing resolutely on the side of the proletariat, the socialists do everything in their power to facilitate and hasten its victory. But what exactly can they do in this case?

“A necessary condition for the victory of the proletariat is its recognition of its own position, its relations with its exploiters, its historic role and its socio-political tasks.

“For this reason the socialists consider it their principal, perhaps even their only, duty to promote the growth of this consciousness among the proletariat, which for short they call its class consciousness.

“The whole success of the socialist movement is measured for them in terms of the growth in the class consciousness of the proletariat. Everything that helps this growth they see as useful to their cause: everything that slows it down as harmful” - Plekhanov, The Tasks of the Social Democrats in the Famine


“Tactics contradict principles” - Tony Cliff (quoted by Ian Birchall, International Socialism no.127)


We are now in the middle of a capitalist crisis whose equal has not been seen for decades. And yet the left is ineffective. It is divided into a number of competing and usually hostile organisations, the biggest of which is the SWP.

Where do those divisions come from? We can identify a series of junctures where forces have been scattered.

At the end of the 1940s, the RCP, which had for a while united all the Trotskyist tendencies in Britain apart from one small group, broke up. Out of that came the Cliff group (today the SWP), the Grant group (today the Socialist Party), and the Healy organisation (which collapsed in 1985). That division set the pattern for the whole of the 1950s. There were occasionally other small groups, but the three main groups were shaped by the break-up of the RCP.

A second scattering came from the sectarian self-destruction of the SLL in the 1960s. Most of the activists scattered by the SLL disappeared from organised revolutionary politics, but one of the products of that scattering was Workers’ Fight, which then became the Trotskyist Tendency, and today the AWL.

The next big scattering came with the tightening-up of the regime in IS, from say 1971 to 1975. In 1971, Workers’ Fight (the Trotskyist Tendency), which had fused with IS in 1968, was expelled.

The Right Opposition, which called itself the Revolutionary Opposition, was expelled in 1973; and then split into a number of groups, the most important of which remaining is the RCG and the best known of which was the RCP (now Spiked Online).

The “IS Opposition” which was expelled from IS in late 1975 had about 200 members, including many of the leading cadre of the previous period. They formed the Workers’ League, and one could have expected them to do well. In fact they fell apart quickly. They biodegraded; some of them went off to bourgeois careers, and the leading journalist in the group, Roger Protz, who had edited Socialist Worker from 1968, became the well-paid champion of real ale.

A “Left Faction” had taken form in 1972, heavily under the influence of Workers’ Fight. They were expelled in 1975 and immediately fused with Workers’ Fight. Various differences then led to the splitting-off of a little more than half of the Left Faction people who had fused. After many mutations they became the Workers’ Power and Permanent Revolution groups of today.

There has been a new period of scattering more recently; and it is continuing. The crisis of the SWP has already produced Counterfire (John Rees and Lindsey German) and the International Socialist Group (Chris Bambery), and it seems unlikely the process of the SWP shedding splinters has ended.

Some of the differences that have contributed to the splintering, and then become consolidated, are of real importance. They can’t be wished away or skated over. Realistically today we cannot hope for a full unification of all the left groups, though in general terms that would be desirable. We can unite the groups in action on specific questions, and seek dialogue where there are serious differences.

One of the consequences of the sectist nature of the SWP and of the SLL before it has been the atrophying of any real discussion on the left. There was discussion in the 1950s and 60s. But that habit of dialogue has broken down. The spirit of Zinoviev has come to rule among the British left-wing groups — raucous heresy-hunting and demonisation.

We need unity in action where we agree, and real dialogue about our differences. That needs a transformation of the culture of the left.

Fully to overcome entrenched divisions — divisions which have their own autonomy because they are bound up with party leaders, party machines, petrified dogmas — takes some tremendous event like the Russian Revolution which sidelines those divisions because it presents everyone with new perspectives, new ideas, new tasks.

Even then, the unification in Britain, for example, was incomplete. The formation of the old Communist Party (1920-1) brought together the British Socialist Party (which had been the SDF); the De Leonites, who were in some respects sectarian but in others had been the clearest of the socialists in the previous period; a group around Sylvia Pankhurst originating in an attempt to relate the suffragette movement to the working class in East London; and others.

Even then the leadership of the De Leonites never joined the Communist Party. Sylvia Pankhurst was soon expelled. But the main bulk of the organisations stayed.

There is no magic formula that will bring about unity at will. But we can consciously create a culture where real dialogue is possible, and a will to find unity in common areas of activity.

And we can foster a culture of democracy. Splits may happen anyway, however good the movement’s democracy. But splits are absolutely inevitable given a culture where the majority rules absolutely and the minority must not only observe unity in action — which was Lenin’s conception — but also be silent and publicly pretend to agree with politics they do not really agree with and may detest. This conception of “democratic centralism” is an engine of dispersal. It comes from Stalinism. It was not Lenin’s conception. He wrote in 1906:

“Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free, not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism... cannot be prohibited. The Party’s political action must be united. No calls that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either at public meetings, or at Party members, or in the Party press”.

We need a cultural transformation. And that is one of the reasons why the AWL publishes material from the past dealing with these questions, for example material from the Workers’ Party of the USA in the 1940s, which was very active in the class struggle but nevertheless maintained a democracy which allowed for real discussion.

This is a fundamental practical question. If we’d had that transformation, if the forces of the left were at all adequate, then we might have won the miners’ strike in 1984-5. In fact the SWP was sectarian and aloof for the first six months of it. The Militant (today the SP) was immersed in its own manoeuvring to preserve its base in Liverpool council. Instead of mobilising the working class in Liverpool alongside the miners, it made a deal with the Tories for short-term financial expedients to rescue Liverpool council which secured nothing for longer than a year.

Either the revolutionary party is a movement such as Marx and Lenin and Trotsky described, regulated by the logic of the class struggle, or it is something that sees its own organisational needs as central. During the miners’ strike, and with tremendously bad consequences, the SP did see its own organisational needs as central.

Yes, indeed, we need to build a party “machine”. But the machine is only of use if it is attuned to the working class and its struggles. We have to educate the working class — about the nature of capitalism, the history of capitalism, the history of the revolutionary movement. We have to learn the lessons of the errors which destroyed previous revolutionary organisations or made them inadequate. That can only be done by building a party which is a “machine”, but is also democratic and governed by the logic of the class struggle and the imperative to discover and tell the truth.

If the groupings within the SWP now had a culture in which they could take it for granted that differences emerge, even when all sides are arguing in good faith, then they could have had a real dialogue. On each issue there would then be a majority which decided what the group did; but the structure of the SWP, the fact that it has a culture hostile to any real debate, has decreed a situation where it seems certain that the SWP will scatter a lot more activists.

More on the SWP

The SWP crisis of 2013

The SWP crisis of 2013

The SWP and “Leninism”: response to Alex Callinicos's “Is Leninism finished?”

Where will SWP opposition go? (comment on ISO-USA and Socialist Alternative)

The political record of SWP-IS

The paradoxes of Tony Cliff, 1917-2000: a critical memoir, by Sean Matgamna

“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice”: review by Paul Hampton of Ian Birchall's biography of Tony Cliff

The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left: a 12-part series including coverage of the iS (SWP)'s line

IS and Ireland: 1969 Workers' Fight pamphlet

The politics of IS: a 1969 polemic on IS's switch from concocted “Luxemburgism” to a “Leninism” redefined as administrative centralisation

The IS-SWP tradition: a Workers’ Liberty symposium

Steve Jefferys

Ken Coates, Sheila Rowbotham, Stan Newens, the ISG

Jim Higgins, James D Young, Mike McGrath

John Palmer

Pete Keenlyside


Alex Callinicos and the future of the SWP: Workers' Liberty 3/33

AWL versus SWP: educational and background texts

“Neither plague nor cholera”: open letter to SWP about their call for a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood

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