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...