Sunday, 23 May 2010

The political roots of substitutionism

A number of bloggers - Phil BC, Jim Jepps and Harpymarx - have already offered intelligent, and in my view basically correct, assessments of yesterday's adventurist antics by the SWP. I'll not add any further analysis here: I merely recommend you read their commentaries, in addition to noting a few inconvenient facts about yesterday's events.

It's worth, however, drawing attention to the political background to this misguided substitutionism.

There are two especially useful contributions - in the IS/SWP tradition - to our understanding of why substitutionism is so wrong and dangerous. The first is Tony Cliff's 'Trotsky on substitutionism', which explains why effective socialist strategy is radically opposed to substitutionism.

The second is a Duncan Hallas (pictured) article that I recently selected for publication at Counterfire. This will look like an extraordinary coincidence of timing - especially when you read the section titled 'The March Action' - but it isn't really. I chose it precisely because it offers a critique of what I think is currently wrong with the SWP - and, even more importantly, provides an alternative approach which I think should guide revolutionaries.

Hallas critiques both timid centrism and the 'ultra-Left' actions of revolutionaries acting in place of wider working class movements. Several months ago, some of us argued the SWP was increasingly vacillating between these two poles. It is worth going back to this argument, which was a conscious renewal of the analysis offered by Hallas and Cliff (who were themselves renewing Lenin and Trotsky). We wrote:

'The absence of united front method produces vacillation. Revolutionaries alternate between bouts of sectarian party activity (and ‘party fronts’, consisting of members plus our immediate periphery) and adaptation to conditions created by larger or stronger forces. What is missing is a systematic approach to class unity - the united front - and consequently revolutionaries’capacity for shaping events.

To put it in Marxist terms, we need a dialectical unity of opposed principles. In this case it is the unity of building an independent vanguard party with the need for working class solidarity (irrespective of party affiliation or ideological differences)in the united front. In the absence of this dialectical unity we are left with two wrong but mutually reinforcing poles: sectarianism (or propagandism) and liquidationism (or adaptation).'

Alex Callinicos recently made this facile claim: 'the two main parties of the European revolutionary left, the NPA and the SWP, have both recently experienced splits. At issue in both cases was whether or not to persist with the project of building a revolutionary party.'

He means that those who split from the SWP reject the case for revolutionary organisation. It is now more clear than ever how wrong he is: the SWP is sadly losing touch with the lessons of its own political tradition. We need to renew the authentic tradition of socialism from below - at the heart of which is the self-emancipation of the working class - just as International Socialists did in an earlier era.


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