Friday, 8 January 2010

The future of the revolutionary party

In my last post of 2009 I re-capped some of SWP founder Tony Cliff's key ideas. I concluded by noting: 'Entering a new decade, in the wake of an epoch-defining economic crisis, the challenge is again to apply those principles to changed conditions.' Cliff's political principles, concerning political organisation and activity, were derived principally from Lenin and adapted to suit a post-war Western European context. In the opening days of 2010, I have posted a series of summaries of key ideas to be found in Lenin's writings (and in the final installment I'll be making a few points about Lukacs' interpretation of Lenin).

Here I want to direct attention to the question of what Leninism means today and in coming years. I am looking at the long-term challenges for the revolutionary left (specifically the SWP, by far the biggest revolutionary grouping in the UK), without attempting to offer any definitive answers or solutions. The SWP's annual conference opens this evening and concludes on Sunday - discussions and debates will concern current perspectives, but it seems to me an opportune moment to take the long view.

How does the SWP normally think about its own long-term future? How do members envisage party growth taking place? The question of long-term development - and how a revolutionary party might concretely relate to any future revolutionary process - is largely neglected. It is - perhaps reasonably, when there are more pressing issues - rarely discussed and is under-theorised.

In the absence of explicit discussion, I think there are 2 underlying assumptions which co-exist a little uneasily.

1. There will be gradual numerical growth over a very long period of time, so the SWP eventually becomes what could loosely be called a mass revolutionary party (let's say 40 or 50,000 members). It goes from the current 6000+ to maybe 10,000 in a few years, then up to 15 or 20,000 after another 5 years, and so on (I am citing the official current figures here, though of course the levels of active membership are far lower). This is flawed thinking, not least because, well, it's not really happening is it? If you look across membership figures of the last 10 or 20 years - stable or declining, but certainly not growing - you realise that such future progress will be a rapid and drastic break with recent history.

It's not in fact how the SWP was built in the past. The party was called International Socialists (IS) until 1977; this name was itself adopted in 1962, by what had previously been known as the Socialist Review Group. The SRG/IS went from 60 to 200 members between 1960 and 1964; in 1968 alone IS membership leapt from 400 to 1000. These rapid surges forward have been crucial in the organisation's growth.

These are very rapid advances - not primitive accumulation of cadres - that stemmed from the existing membership throwing themselves into new milieu and recruiting hand over fist: in the Labour Young Socialists (YS) in the early 60s, amongst students in 68. In both cases Cliff had to take a lead and argue with comrades - in his memoir, A World to Win, he claims that for 6 months at the start of the 60s he was the only member of the group who took YS seriously, before others realised it was important, and in the spring of '68 he personally spent a lot of time at London Sschool of Economics.

'Bending the stick' is a phrase Cliff took from his reading of Lenin. It is about this reorientation of activity and embracing of new opportunities - and perhaps of radically different organising methods (e.g. joining the Labour Party!) - not just a shift of perspectives. Recently the term has become degraded, simply meaning (for example) that revolutionaries should focus more on crisis and less on war, or more on class and less on movements, without any grasp of the radicalism of the concept for profoundly shaking up old habits and ways of operating.

There's now a widespread idea inside the SWP that the party should have grown over the last 10 years - due to the trinity of anti-capitalism, Iraq and Respect - but in fact hasn't. This is alleged to be because the party went too far with united front work (notably Stop the War and Respect), and/or failed to build the SWP in the context of united fronts due to neglecting branch structures and Socialist Worker sales. So now the key to success is partially retreating from united fronts while focusing on 'branch building'.

There are indeed things that could have been better, but it's basically misguided to believe the party simply needs to put more effort into branch meetings and Saturday sales (or that doing this in 2003 would have made a big difference to how the SWP built out of the mass anti-war protests). This is not the time for retrenchment.

2. The second assumption is that the SWP will automatically recruit massively in the event of social and political convulsions. Somehow many thousands of raw recruits will come rushing in when the struggle really kicks off. But it's unlikely to be anything like as simple as that.

For one thing, there may be an upsurge of interest in radical and left-wing politics but without that directly benefitting 'the revolutionary party': there's nothing automatic about such a party gaining from a dramatic upturn in industrial struggle or from other forms of social rebellion. This is especially relevant to an epoch in which 'parties' are very unfashionable and there's little in the way of a culture of mass membership organisations.

It also underestimates how new alignments become possible in rapidly changing or volatile circumstances. It's true that one possibility is that the existing revolutionary party will simply grow rapidly in size. But another, probably more likely, outcome is that new formations develop, which combine revolutionaries with other forces.

We don't live in pre-revolutionary Russia, a society where reformism or social democracy (as we understand it) wasn't an issue. The political landscape is very different for revolutionaries in the years ahead. This doesn't mean abandoning the principle of Leninism that we need an organised core of revolutionaries, but it does mean thinking flexibly about the organisational form which gives expression to it.

The contradictory experiences of Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party opened up, in a milder and lower-stakes way than I'm envisaging above, possible new realignments. So, in a less threatening way, did the anti-capitalist movement (and in a number of countries - most obviously Italy - the movement formed the context for new electoral realignments).

But the dominant mood in the SWP now is to recoil in horror at the ultimately unhappy ending of these projects, and consequently to pull down the mental shutters against any creative thinking about how revolutionaries might organise. Instead the emphasis is on re-strengthening the revolutionary purity of 'the Party', with any hint of a different way of perceiving things denounced as 'liquidationism' or as a hangover from an apparently failed experiment.

Anyway, I think that should provide plenty of food for thought, at least for now. It's mostly diagnosis rather than prognosis, but it's a necessary first step...


  1. An interesting post, Alex. Two hasty comments- I think back in 1992 we actually were claiming a leap from about 6,000 to 10,000, around the massive wave of anger over pit closures. Even if both the old and new membership figures were overblown it still showed the party was capable of mass recruitment. Certainly , in Leicester, we recruited very large numbers of people and moved from one branch to two (large) and later four (small).
    However, plainly nothing came of this. Whether there was a slow or rapid decline afterwards the SWP clearly had (and has) problems in integrating raw new recruits and turning them into long-term supporters / members / sympathisers.

    Second, I think the experience of the LCR / NPA in France is instructive. The LCR made a huge strategic gamble in dissolving into the NPA- one which has paid off to the extent that the successor organisation is nearly three times as large (up to 9,000 members) with very little trade-off in terms of its politics.
    That is one way forward- perhaps reflecting specifically French conditions but also it is testament to the long-term openness and democracy within the LCR which made it possible for it to win the trust of a wide layer of activists as well as to fuse with other groups on an equitable basis...


  2. I myself started my 17 years as a member in October 1992, just a few days after the pit closures were announced. I bought a Socialist Worker on a Saturday sale and went from there. I was part of the biggest single growth in membership in IS/SWP's history, although of course a party of 6000 adding another couple of thousand isn't actually as dramatic as going from 400 to 1000. I think the growth in numbers at that time probably had a long-term effect, but naturally many of the new members didn't stay.

    I agree NPA is worth looking at. I considered exploring a number of international examples, but realised it was impossible in one blog post. Another interesting one is the Socialist Alliance in Australia, where the largest grouping within it last week formally dissolved itself. I don't necessarily advocate using anyone else as a model - there are different circumstances here - but there needs to be openness to alternative approaches, instead of naively thinking Cliff's mid-70s work on the Bolsheviks can be applied without alteration today.

  3. The NPA is certainly worth looking at as an example of how to build a larger, more open anticapitalist grouping without throwing away revolutionary politics altogether.
    BUT many British comrades seem to have a rather optimistic view of the situation in France (after all, the grass is always greener ...).
    The LCR lost a lot of time and wasted many opportunities before finally taking the plunge. The episode of the 2006-7 attempts to put together a common presidential election campaign of the radical left unfortunately put a lot of good leftists off the idea of party-building completely.
    The LCR came out of this with a reputation for sectarianism, in effect for having sabotaged genuine left unity in the interests of its own project. As a result when the NPA was set up it was smaller and narrower than it might have been - without the advantage of homogeneity.
    It would be a caricature to describe it, as many on the independent left do, as a larger clone of the LCR, controlled in practice by the old LCR leadership. But there are elements of truth in this.
    In effect, the NPA suffers from many of the defects of the old LCR - unsurprisingly perhaps. One of these is a tendency towards navel-gazing, where internal debates take up an inordinate amount of time without necessarily coming to a satisfactory conclusion - and without involving the majority of ordinary members. (My personal experience of the old LCR was of a branch office full of unread internal bulletins, and meetings dominated by a rather predictable debate between representatives of the 5 or so permanent tendencies.)
    The tendency is to blur the issues, often on questions that British revolutionaries would take for granted. The most obvious example is islamophobia, where the LCR's record was quite simply appalling, and progress within the NPA desperately slow. (I should make it clear here that I left the LCR over the question of islamophobia and have not joined the NPA).
    Another is the question of trade union work, where many comrades resist the idea of having a party fraction in the unions on the grounds that the party shouldn't dictate to the 'movement'. So party members in the same workplace may belong to different unions, and resent the idea of the party branch taking an interest in union activity.
    A final criticism (for this post) is the lack of a decent revolutionary press. This was widely recognised as a problem within the LCR, but the NPA's attemps to produce a half-decent weekly (called Tout est à nous !) and a readable political/theoretical publication have failed pretty miserably. The majority of members show little interest in the press of their own party, and little understanding of the importance of the revolutionary paper - indeed it's doubtful if a majority actually read it.
    This is not to say that the NPA is a failure, though it has certainly lost members over the last year. There is no other revolutionary (ish) party which we can relate to (Lutte Ouvrière is hopelessly sectarian, and even worse on islamophobia than the NPA), though quite how to do so is a question for debate. This is not the place to go into details of the strategy of revolutionaries within the NPA, or how to promote wider radical left unity. If anyone cares to take me up on this in private, you can write to me at colin.falconer AT

  4. Thank you, Colin - that's fascinating. I for one am acutely realistic about the NPA, as I've gathered from a number of sources that all is far from rosy. The first thing that revolutionaries anywhere need to accept is that there's no 'one size fits all' for everyone to adopt. That's one reason I'm reluctant to outline alternatives in a blog post - it is undeniably complicated.

    I think one difficulty in the UK has been a naive underestimating of how messy and complex it is to work with others on the left. There are no guarantees of a happy ending; everything is contingent. The collapse of Respect prompted a great deal of disorientation and soul-searching by SWP members, which is understandable. But it wasn't the end of the world. Sadly, there's a tendency now to see it in catastrophic terms and use it as an excuse for current weaknesses, rather than seeing it as a setback that was always one of the possible directions it would go in.

    I agree with your points about union fractions, revolutionary press and - above all - Islamophobia. This last point is a reminder that real political differences, where compromise is exceptionally difficult, can underpin problems in achieving left unity.

  5. I think you need to think about the cultural politics of the Lenninist left in the UK, real participation, pluralism and a certain modesty are all important.

    Marx argued 'doubt everything', far left parties too often proclaim sets of dogmatic certainties, doubting nothing well in public at least.

    However I think the DSP in Australia have shown you can do Marxist politics in a more attractive way.

    'messy and complex' is worth repeating.

    I would also say we have to learn from Latin America, the left are doing something right and have grown fast.

  6. I agree, Derek, about the question of internal culture - this is important and there have certainly been problems. A specific issue, as you say, is the unfortunate tendency to think public disagreement is the ultimate taboo, avoided at all costs. That actually creates a bad impression with many people outside the organisation, who perceive it as a place devoid of debate.

    On modesty... yes indeed. Humility is vital. One story I love about Tony Cliff dates from the 1950s, when he was the leading member in what was then a group of only about 50 members. A comrade supposedly commented that another organisation had 500 members, but they only had 50. Cliff's supposed to have replied that if we need a million people to support a revolutionary party before having a revolution, then "we've got another 999,950 to recruit, whereas they've only got 999,500 to go".

  7. Cheers Luna,

    ironically just did a Green Party stall with some one who used to be a SWP full timer not long ago...small world.

    and incidentally I am continue to enjoy your thoughts here.

  8. I may well know who you're talking about. Unless, of course, there's more than one ex-SWP full timer in the Green Party.

    The issue of how revolutionary socialists relate to other people on the left and in the movements is really the central issue for the revolutionary left. Colin's insights into the NPA are a reminder of how tricky and complex this is, but it's essential that any revolutionary group prioritises this issue. The alternative is a narrow approach that I'd describe as 'party isolationist' or 'party first', e.g. measuring success purely by numbers of papers sold and people at branch meetings, without any thought about wider influence.

    The irony is that for the SWP at present this approach isn't working even on its own terms. You simply don't grow in the long term as a result of such a narrow, increasingly sectarian, method. It turns many people off and it becomes hard to retain members.

  9. Yes I think you might know him, good guy but I appreciate you may have had differences.

    By the way I have just reviewed Martin Empson's Marxism and Ecology pamphlet, which I recommend, useful booklet.

    any news on the SWP conference?

  10. I've heard a few things from Conference.

    Lowest turnout in generations: 350 approx, about 250 of whom are delegates (others are observers), in a party that claims membership of 6,400. Expulsions of Clare S and me were, inevitably, ratified. The one dissenting voice on my disputes committee was excluded from attending, so she wasn't able to give the 'minority report' which I was supposed to be entitled to. Clare wasn't allowed to attend the session on disciplinary matters, so she was unable to have the right of appeal that expelled members are supposed to be allowed.

    I'm told Left Platform supporters simply haven't been called to speak in discussions, despite repeatedly submitting speaker's slips.

    It all points, in a rather transparent way, to the conclusion that the leadership is unwilling to tolerant any dissent or debate. Instead it is doing its utmost to drive people out of the party - and isn't even trying to appear subtle anymore. This is the direct opposite of how a democratic socialist organisation should function. It is symptomatic of political weakness on the part of the Central Committee and, depressingly, a wider degeneration in the party.

  11. As someone who was at conference (and voted against Claire's expulsion); I wouldn't recognise your description of the event at all.

    It was in a room which holds 600 people, which was at least 90% full throughout. Judging by the numbers voting (with cards) no less than 2/3 were delegates. Many friends of mine wanted go and didn't get in. Over 120 people applied for observer status in the last week, and weren't granted it.

    It was an enjoyable and good event - many times better than the conferences of 5 or 10 years ago. And seeing the new generations of comrades being on subjects like anti-fascism; I don't recognise at all your description of an organisation increasingly looking in.

    What there is (after the Left List debacle in particular), is a much stronger sense that alliances have to be prepared beforehand by finding people to work with. We've got to work with the left we have, not the one we want.


  12. Luna 17's description of the SWP leadership's methods for handling "disciplinary" matters sounds drearily familiar.

    It sounds as if little has changed since I got fed up with Cliff's party-itis (and methods of dealing with political disagreements with comrades, no matter how long-standing and seminal their contributions to the organisation) back in the mid-70s IS.

    While some have been encouraged by the SWP's recent apparent openness to new thinking from outside (for example in relation to value theory), this seems to signal less a change of modus operandi than a complete inability to come up with any new ideas of their own.

  13. "There's now a widespread idea inside the SWP that the party should have grown over the last 10 years - due to the trinity of anti-capitalism, Iraq and Respect - but in fact hasn't."

    I have never really got a handle on the membership figures, they always seemed to be relised in a sporadic fasion that made anaylsis hard. But from my experience I would say that in a sense the SWP did grow in the last 10 years, that is it did recruit loads of new members, its just that it also lost just as many members.

    If right this suggests that the problem is not how it could have recruited more but rather how it could have retained more. I would suggest that the top down control culture that locked new members out of being part of the desision making (unless they agreed with cc) is a large part of the reason many new members (and older members) either left in a huff or drifted away. Surely socialism is about saying that its better to let everyone be involved in decision making, even if this is slower and more messy, then have some capitalist organisation aping structure that can respond quickly but a) relies on an select self-proclaimed elite thus probably getting more things wrong and b) alienates ordinary members, robbing them of the power over their own emancipatory action.

    "The political landscape is very different for revolutionaries in the years ahead. This doesn't mean abandoning the principle of Leninism that we need an organised core of revolutionaries, but it does mean thinking flexibly about the organisational form which gives expression to it."

    I really do think that we do have to abandon the "principle of Lennism that we need an organised core of revolutionaries".

    Saying this sends waves of disgust through some. The usual reply is to point to the German example an claim that it shows that the lack of a separately organised core of revolutionaries lead to no left-wing revolution and thus rise of fascism.

    I think there is certainly some substance to this historical claim (though things where doubtlessly a lot more complicated then that). However, as you rightly point out we don't live in a pre-revolutionary society. The question is how to get us there.

    In this context semi-liquidation, where the organisation power of the revos (particularly to go 'straight to the class') is sacrificed for the good of the larger radical left project, but the revo left does keep some identity as a current which holds (necessary with less frequently and less energy than the broad party) its own meetings and has some own publications and culture.

  14. Thanks for some suggestive comments, Joseph. I should clarify something. I assert above that an organised core of revolutionaries is indispensable - I stand by this. I also say, immediately after that assertion, that the organisational form can change. What I mean is that an independent revolutionary party on the SWP model is not the only option.

    Revolutionaries being part of a wider formation is a distinct possibility, providing they don't actually alter their own politics, are free to express their ideas openly, and can win others to distinctively Marxist politics. An 'organised core of revolutionaries' is not necessarily the same as an exclusively revolutionary party.

    The failed revolution in Germany after WW1 is indeed the classic example cited within the SWP. I broadly agree with the idea that the absence of a revolutionary party was a crucial factor in the German failure, contrasting with Russia's success, but I also think it's over-simplistic when people suggest the difference is entirely reducible to the issue of party organisation. It is also inadequate for anyone to simply rely on historical example, without thinking through changed conditions and how they impact on us. I think history demonstrates the need for, as I say, an organised core of revolutionaries. But when it comes to precise organising forms I think the lessons are more ambiguous.

    A fundamental problem inside the SWP today is the narrow constraints on thinking about revolutionary strategy. There's a retreat into the comfort zone of branch meetings and SW sales, with a degree of involvement in united fronts over specific issues. We need to move beyond these narrow horizons, while not throwing away all that is valuable in the existing tradition.