Does a sense of political tradition matter? In some ways no and in some ways yes. All traditions are in a sense invented: they involve retrospectively imposing a pattern on various events and developments, generally smoothing out inconvenient rough edges in the process. What you get is a selective arrangement of reality, not reality itself.
But in a way that doesn't matter (though it's useful to keep the constructed and selective nature of tradition in the back of your mind) because traditions can still be useful. They are a way of conceptualising a range of experiences. They provide some sort of order and consistency. They enable people to talk about differences and distinctiveness (different traditions represent different ideas, tendencies and practices).
Traditions allow some sort of collective identity – different people can be combined together in a shared identification with a tradition. This can, in turn, be the basis for collective organisation, and help hold people together in face of external pressures. They provide a link with the past and a sense that what we do now is part of something bigger.
The ‘IS tradition’
Let's think, then, about 'the International Socialists (IS) tradition'. This refers to the current of revolutionary socialism originating in work by Tony Cliff - developing an account of 'state capitalism' in Russia and eastern Europe in the late 1940s - and the split in British Trotskyism in 1950 which launched the Socialist Review Group (later the International Socialists and, later still, the Socialist Workers Party). This is a niche interest and the present blog post has no pretensions of broad appeal: if you’re reading this it’s likely you either a) identify yourself with this tradition (or have done), or b) are active in the radical left and know that this tradition is an important part of the admittedly small world in which we operate.
One answer to the question in the title of this post is 'There isn't one'. At one level that is undoubtedly the most accurate answer possible. There is no singular, coherent tradition which objectively exists in the material world. There is a range of possibilities for us to exploit.
Recognising this is no slide into postmodernist relativism - it is, instead, to grasp the contested nature of any tradition, the complexity of it, and the fact it has been (and continues to be) a dynamic, living and evolving tradition. Socialists tend to understand that traditions we are hostile to are invented – and need to be critically interrogated – but we are perhaps reluctant to approach any traditions we identify with ourselves in a reflective way.
Despite undermining the idea of a single tradition, however, I will outline some key elements of what I regard as integral to what’s normally thought of as the ‘IS tradition’. There are vital lessons for us to learn.
The ‘IS tradition’ was recently debated in a session, introduced by John Molyneux, at the SWP-organised Marxism 2013. I’ve watched the debate section and it’s interesting enough. There are points I agree with and some I disagree with. But it is not, truth be told, a very illuminating or useful discussion.
The debate is a case of more heat than light. This is because it’s really a displaced debate between different factions inside the SWP, so that even the oppositionists’ contributions – while generally making good points – risk being more about point-scoring than thoughtful reflection (I don’t criticise them for this – I’ve been there myself, and it is frankly difficult to do much else in a 3-minute contribution).
This post is therefore far removed from any current internal debate in the SWP – I haven’t been a member since 2009 and I no longer regard it as an effective political vehicle. It is much more concerned with reflecting on lessons from Tony Cliff in particular and some historical experiences associated with the organisation which he pioneered.
This is not to downplay the importance of organisation, or to separate political lessons from the project of building an organisation. Tony Cliff's greatest achievement wasn't the theory of state capitalism - or any other theoretical innovation - but his contribution to building an organisation of thousands of socialists. I no longer think that particular organisation is fit for purpose, and am instead committed to building Counterfire. Hopefully my comments here will be illuminating regardless of the reader’s organisational affiliation.
Ways of defining the tradition
There are four common ways for people - both within the IS tradition and outside it - to talk about the tradition.
1) It is sometimes suggested that the IS tradition has been, for several decades, the concrete embodiment of the authentic Marxist tradition, sustaining the thread that goes back to Marx and Engels via Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and the early Third International. This is, in my view, essentially correct: it has indeed been a continuation of that tradition. The point Cliff made perhaps more frequently than any other was that Marx had said that the emancipation of the working class was the act of the working class – and that this fundamental principle was the consistent basis of IS/SWP politics.
However, it is obviously not enough simply to stop at this. More specific characteristics and contributions need to be identified. And it is problematic because there were, and are, clearly others outside the IS tradition who can claim to have continued that tradition. There is a danger of vanity and arrogance in assuming that only a particular organisation has maintained the Marxist tradition of socialism from below and the self-emancipation of the working class.
2) The most conventional way of characterising the IS tradition is according to three particular theories – state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution and permanent arms economy – with which the International Socialists (which in 1977 became the SWP) was long associated. I don't have space here to summarise these theories, but they are discussed here. These theories retrospectively formed a ‘troika’ which, taken as a totality, provided an over-arching analysis of the post-WW2 world, though obviously their development was more complex. Tony Cliff was their principal author, but contributions by Michael Kidron, Chris Harman and others also played a part.
This was often, during the 1960s and 1970s, the way that critics of IS characterised the group. Critics – especially sectarians – emphasised the distinctive positions identified with the IS as a way of attacking it. To such people, IS were ‘the state caps’. For IS activists, however, the key contemporary theories were important but so was the inheritance of classical Marxism – and so was the not insignificant matter of what political tasks the group was actually engaged in. IS was not solely defined by a number of specific theories, even at a time when those ideas were acutely relevant and useful.
3) Discussion about the IS tradition often focuses on democratic and organisational norms. It is those outside the tradition who tend to make this their focus, but it is also a key characteristic of how some people who have broken from the SWP appear to view things.
For example, it is seen as being characterised by such things as a ban on permanent factions, the use of a slate system for electing leadership bodies, and so on. Some of this territory is interesting and significant - although much of it really is trivial - but in my view the internal characteristics of the SWP at different times is not the most useful way into considering the distinctive emphases of the tradition.
Similarly, while it is useful to consider such characteristic Cliff motifs as 'bending the stick', 'seizing the key link', and 'making sharp turns' (more on which below), these practices tell us very little when taken out of their context and treated as abstract organising principles. Cliff, when formulating such practices, was writing for a specific context: he was very much an 'activist historian' when writing about the Lenin and Bolsheviks, looking for lessons to be learnt, rather than endeavouring to offer the definitive scholarly and objective account.
4) Finally, the tradition is seen as entirely synonymous with a specific organisation - the British SWP - regardless of what direction it goes in. This is a common view among those currently described as 'SWP loyalists', i.e. leadership supporters in the current, on-going, factional dispute inside the SWP. Anyone who leaves the party is automatically deemed deviant from the IS tradition, whereas those who remain are loyal and faithful to that tradition.
While it's true that particular organisations embody particular traditions - and historically the IS tradition is principally a history of IS/SWP - the problems here should be glaringly obvious. It's a worldview that encourages and legitimises uncritical acceptance over critical and original thinking, and privileges an inherited body of doctrine over the challenge of developing living theory. It is also untenable when the tradition has in fact fragmented into a number of different organisations.
One danger inherent in tradition is that of ossified doctrine - a kind of tradition more appropriate to religious denominations than to revolutionary socialist currents. That is what we are dealing with when ‘loyalists’ make appeals to ‘the tradition’ as a means of silencing dissenters.
Content and method
I think the most common error in discussions of the IS tradition is to emphasise the 'troika' of state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution and the permanent arms economy over questions of method. I do think these theories were - and to a lesser extent still are - important. But I would recommend Cliff's short book 'Trotskyism after Trotsky: the origins of the International Socialists' as much as a demonstration of Marxist method as because of its specific theoretical or analytical content. Method as much as content is what we can learn from Cliff's key innovations.
The actual content was certainly once useful for building an organisation. Taken together the three theories provided a coherent analysis of what was then the contemporary world. But they were never definitive of the IS tradition - and they certainly can't be definitive today.
State capitalism and deflected permanent revolution retain some relevance, though less so than in the Cold War era (and permanent arms economy is really a matter of historical interest). State capitalism retains relevance partly because of its implications for thinking about the relationship between the nation state and capitalism today; partly because we need it to answer the still-prevalent question of 'What went wrong in Russia?' (Stalinism is still used to discredit Leninism). Deflected permanent revolution is still a useful framework for understanding the relationship between class and revolution, e.g. in the Arab revolutions. Incidentally, I disagree with Neil Davidson's revisionist approach to deflected permanent revolution - not because he is 'breaking from the tradition', but because I think he's wrong. Assessing the relationship between theory and reality is, as ever, crucial here.
When considering the development of new theory and analysis by Cliff, and others in the IS tradition, there are particular elements in the method that seem to me especially prominent. One would certainly be the stress on understanding the distinctive features of any particular economic and social order – e.g. what’s different about post-1945 western capitalism to what went before, or to the post-war state capitalism of the East.
Another element would be the lack of determinism and attention to how working class agency can shape history in different directions – Ian Birchall made the point in his fascinating Cliff biography that Cliff used the ‘crossroads’ metaphor on several occasions, with the implication that different routes are possible depending upon what people choose to do. This was, in turn, linked to a huge emphasis on the role of reformist, Stalinist and trade union leaders in understanding the outcomes of various forms of class struggle.
Another (related) aspect is the close attention to class consciousness, and how it was shaped by a range of factors in any given period or place. For example, a number of Cliff's 1960s and 1970s books were shaped by his interviews with workplace militants and their own experiences and reflections - he was supremely attentive to the details of consciousness, how it changed, and its relationship with working class action. None of these aspects are unique to the IS tradition, but I do think they were more prominent than in most other organised Marxist currents – and I think we can learn from them.
I also have a problem with the idea that the accepted troika were the dominant three theoretical innovations made by Cliff. I’d add at least three more: the analysis of reformism (and its changing forms after 1945), the trade unions (especially the role of the union bureaucracy and its relationship to the rank and file), and the work on revolutionary organisation. All of these were practically important for revolutionaries in this country – more so, if might argued, than the account of deflected permanent revolution.
In all these areas I think that changing circumstances necessitate some significant revisions, while nonetheless retaining the theoretical core of what Cliff argued. For example, the analysis of the union bureaucracy and the rank and file remains correct and valuable, but the massive changes to union organisation and the long-term slump in strike levels also require a distinctive analysis that does more than repeat what Cliff said in the 1970s.
It is the ways in which Cliff adapted and applied Marxist theory to changing or new situations that is really valuable for us. It is what Paul Le Blanc has termed ‘open marxism’ – an openness to changing reality and determination to develop theory that fits reality (instead of distorting reality to fit an existing theory). One absolutely vital component in this is a sure grasp of the classical tradition - the firmer the knowledge of the theoretical tradition, the more skilfully and creatively it can be applied in new situations. In his memoir, 'A World to Win', Cliff recalled his in-depth reading of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky in the 1930s when he was a teenager.
The practising of a flexible, innovative 'open marxism' also implies a particular sort of temperament or disposition: irreverence towards what we inherit, an absence of dogmatism and defensiveness, and a certain humility and honesty (staring reality in the face). It also requires a degree of ruthlessness (in the best sense possible) because it means saying what is right even if it turns old comrades into enemies and requires a break with an existing organisation. It should be recalled that any distinctive IS tradition we might discuss was born out of a break from orthodox Trotskyism and its organisations - a difficult and risky experience for those involved.
I'd suggest there are a number of things which have been given particular emphasis in the tradition - all of them certainly closely identified with Tony Cliff, but much more than just his personal style. Three are especially worth thinking about. I am not suggesting that any of them were ever unique to the IS tradition, but I am suggesting they have been given special emphasis.
1. Detailed attention to the balance of class forces. It's an old-fashioned and nowadays rarely-used phrase, but the 'balance of class forces' remains a useful concept. The very attentive focus on patterns and trends in class struggle, on looking carefully at the balance between our side and their side, and drawing strategic conclusions from those observations, used to be a hallmark of the SWP. An important example is the analysis of the downturn Cliff and others developed from 1979 onwards, which underpinned the stability and modest growth of the organisation in the 1980s.
Other groups - WRP, IMG, Militant - all declined or collapsed during the same period. The failure to accurately analyse the balance of class forces - and draw the appropriate conclusions - is a big part of the explanation for their demise. In 1985 Duncan Hallas perceptively explained the WRP's implosion as originating in a very long-term failure of analysis, accentuated in the 1980s by its insistence - even during and immediately after the Miners' Strike of 1984-85 - that capitalism was on the brink of crisis and a massive working class upturn was just around the corner.
2. The economic, the political and the ideological. Cliff was fond of citing a comment by Engels that class struggle operates on three levels - economic (or industrial), political and ideological - which have different tempos and a complex, uneven relationship with each other. The application of this idea is, in my view, a far bigger part of what sustained and built the SWP than is ever acknowledged.
I am not sure exactly what Engels was getting at - or what the context for the formulation was - but in the IS tradition it developed a particular meaning. It was especially used at times of low levels of industrial struggle (or of industrial defeats), i.e. after the mid-1970s, to both honestly acknowledge the poor industrial situation (rather than bluffing and bullshitting like some on the left) and to identify more positive tendencies in other kinds of struggle or discontent, therefore preventing a slide into despair. It meant that the party grasped all sorts of opportunities other than strike action - this is something I wrote about in my article on 'movementism'. Class struggle is complex and multi-faceted, not just a series of strikes.
It has also, though, always been recognised that the low level of strike action cannot continue forever. It is unthinkable that a serious challenge to capitalism or major upturn in struggle could happen without a high level of strike action being an integral part of it. So the formulation of three levels of class struggle has always been a useful way of adapting to changing circumstances while retaining core principles and a longer-term vision.
This may all seem fairly uncontroversial or obvious, but in the world of the far left it has been anything but. Plenty of other groups during the last several decades have over-emphasised one or other of these dimensions, or falsely separated the different levels out from each other, and they have paid the price.
3) A strategic perspective. This is linked to - and largely follows on from - both of the above points. There is a strong tradition on the wider left of repeating the same slogans and objectives regardless of concrete circumstances. I will just mention two examples here.
The Socialist Party (formerly Militant) says the same two things regardless of circumstances: we need a new workers' party and the TUC should call a general strike. This is the blind repetition of dogma, not a concrete strategy based on a concrete analysis. The second example is the current Socialist Platform inside Left Unity - it is advocating the kind of founding statement that would be more applicable to a Trotskyist group than a broad left party. But it's also notable for being a document that could have been written at any time in the last several decades, give or take a few phrases.
The SWP historically had a radically different approach - so radically different that numerous critics on the radical left have frequently accused it (wrongly in my view) of opportunism, bandwagon jumping, and endlessly vacillating between different things. It is known within the left for changing and adapting its focus of activity, its orientation, far more than many other groups.
Now of course it's possible to make specific errors here, but the general approach is one I've always considered the right one. It combines principle and flexibility, and enables effective action by not getting unthinkingly stuck in certain struggles of forms of action that may no longer be relevant. It links our actions to our analysis of the world as it is.
Now let's briefly consider question of organisation, often framed in terms of a discussion about 'Leninism'. It is comprehensively missing the point to see Cliff personally, the SWP organisationally or the IS tradition politically as defined by such things as 'bending the stick' or 'sharp turns'. There's something in the idea that such aspects of organisational practice - of Cliff's distinctive interpretation of Lenin - are important. But they need to be considered in context - to be exemplified and assessed in concrete terms - rather than asserted or rejected as principles.
A well-known such example, from after Cliff's death, is the way the SWP responded to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, playing a dynamic role in initiating and building Stop the War Coalition. That rested upon a particular set of political analyses, but it was also influenced by a certain sort of organisational style, i.e. a big emphasis on swiftly identifying a new major priority ('seizing the key link'), responding quickly and decisively to new developments (a 'sharp turn'), if necessary over-emphasising the new while temporarily relegating other things to a secondary status ('bending the stick').
This approach is not inherently good or inherently bad. It is not foolproof. It depends, of course, on the correctness and effectiveness of specific changes and initiatives. In most cases in the SWP's history, prior to it taking a decisive wrong turn from 2008 onwards, it got these right. Occasionally it got it wrong - and occasionally the general approach was right, but the balance or the details were mistaken - but this shouldn't distract from the absolute necessity of such an approach for extremely important positive developments like the commitment to building Stop the War.
Discussion of organisation also draws attention to the question of democracy. I have never agreed with those who depict the SWP as having for a very long term been undemocratic. Neither do I think it was perfect during my years as a member (1992-2009). There are several things I’d point to as less than ideal elements of a healthy internal culture. By and large such weaknesses were shaped by a long period of downturn, defeat and relative isolation, which can have a damaging effect on an organisation.
More could have been done to rectify these weaknesses, but I don’t accept the idealist, essentialist notion that they are somehow inevitable characteristics of any revolutionary organisations, mere symptoms of a universal Leninist malaise. They were historically conditioned. And there is simply no credible comparison between the largely democratic but flawed party culture of old and the awful culture which has developed in the last few years – see here for my thoughts on this (and more). A deep practical commitment to democracy is integral to any current or future efforts to renew the revolutionary left.
I am not especially interested in the ‘continuity’, or the ‘recovery’, of an ‘IS tradition’ – or any other tradition – and think it’s more important to do what is right and effective, learning from historical experiences and the insights from others. Tony Cliff liked to say that we can see further on the shoulders of giants, but that we won’t see anything if our eyes are closed. Today we need to both learn from those who have much to teach us and look at the world around us, willing (as Cliff did after the Second World War) to examine assumptions and base our analysis on concrete realities.
The key thing vis-à-vis this ‘tradition’ is to learn and apply what is useful (and, where appropriate, learn from other sources too). Sanctifying it serves no useful purpose. No single organisation is the definitive embodiment of a discrete, self-contained tradition that requires preservation and protection.
I was motivated to write this article largely because of two things. One is that aspects of what is identified as the ‘IS tradition’ have been under attack from a range of sources lately. The other trigger for writing it is that the fiercest defenders of the tradition recently (SWP ‘loyalists’) are in the wrong and, in the process of defending ‘the tradition’, they are dragging its reputation through the mud.
It is therefore necessary to rescue what is useful – both from enemies and ‘friends’ of the tradition under discussion. I hope this account has at least provided a starting point for doing this.
Recommended reading: This speech by Cliff on Engels in fact reveals an enormous amount about Cliff's own approach and methods, as well as highlighting the numerous continuities in the classical Marxist tradition.