|Manchester, 29 September 2013. Photo: Mark Husmann|
‘The politics of the crisis in the SWP’ – by leading Socialist Workers Party members Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber – includes a defence of the SWP leadership’s positions in recent internal party debates and of its handling of accusations of rape and sexual harassment against a leading member. However, it is also an attempt to locate the specific debates inside the SWP over the last year among larger social and political trends. The authors’ dominant idea is that the political tendency they call ‘movementism’ has pulled layers of revolutionaries away from the tradition.
A great deal has been written about the specific controversies in the SWP recently. The debate prompted by the Central Committee's response to allegations against Martin Smith, former SWP national secretary, is a tremendously important one in its own right. This article is not adding to the discussion about those particular issues - there are well-informed accounts elsewhere.
Leading UCU activist Sean Vernell appears to refute the narrow view offered by Callinicos when he writes:
'Too often the debate about the street versus the workplace is a sterile one with a false polarisation between the two. Socialists welcome all and any forms of protest against any aspect of injustice or poverty... Strikes and street protests are sometimes simplistically counterposed. However, both are going to be vital in defeating the government's offensive.'
Callinicos and Kimber argue that the trend of ‘movementism’ is shaped by a wider context characterised by widespread street protest coupled with low levels of strike action. Movementism and left reformism are viewed by the authors as two sides of the same coin: left reformism is focused on parliament and the Labour Party while movementism is concerned with street-based protest movements, but they are both given greater radical legitimacy by supposed ex-revolutionaries who reject revolutionary organisation and downplay the role of 'organised workers' in social change. This 'downplaying' is treated as synonymous with writing off the working class as a political actor.
'Movementism': the origins of a concept
I will return to the current debate about 'movementism' below, but first let's consider where the concept comes from. It is a creature of the downturn for working-class struggle that began in the mid-1970s. The disorientation of the revolutionary left followed the ending of the international upturn in working class struggles in around 1975 - with the defeat of the Portuguese Revolution, Italy's 'historic compromise', Britain's 'social contract', the end of mass workers' unrest and so on. The end of the upturn was accompanied by a general shift to the right and a profound weakening of rank-and-file workers' organisation. This was complemented by the marginalisation of Marxist ideas (replaced, over time, with ideas labelled 'poststructuralist', 'postmodernist' etc) and a move into the Labour Party by former revolutionaries attracted by the rise of Bennism.
Criticising such 'movementism' did not mean neglecting the kind of issues that it tended to promote like gender, race and sexuality. It did mean having a distinct Marxist analysis of such issues combined with a practical approach that emphasised connections between oppressed groups and the working class movement. It also put the stress on mass activity, rather than elitist and separatist forms of action. The 'social movements' were not class-wide movements of protest but rather sectional campaigns which, though they didn't need to be, were often counterposed to a supposedly outdated class politics.
Many SWP activists were involved in campaigning to defend abortion rights in the mid-1970s (indeed Lindsey German was a founder member of the National Abortion Campaign). The Anti Nazi League was launched in 1977 and formed a huge part of the party's activities until 1979. The SWP took the riots in Brixton and elsewhere very seriously (they were not a distraction from the 'class struggle'). The CND demonstrations of the early 1980s were important for the party, while the period also saw attempts to relate to fights over oppression.
There may have been a strong critique of 'movementism', but this was not a period of abstention from real-live movements. The critique of movementism was in fact quite precise: it was a critique of various forms of identity politics and their relationship to a drift by some from the revolutionary left into Labour Left politics. From the mid-1980s onwards the term almost completely disappeared from SWP discourse.
That is indeed a real danger. No doubt there have been individual examples of it happening. But it is a grossly inaccurate characterisation of many critics of the current SWP leadership, including those of us seeking to build a new revolutionary socialist organisation in the form of Counterfire. In fact the commitment to movement building reflects, as it has done for over a decade, two core understandings: in an era of political radicalisation and protest movements, revolutionaries can most effectively build their own organisation and spread their ideas by participating centrally in the movements; and, secondly, movement-building is not an alternative to the working class, but rather a particular expression of working class resistance and organisation. Trade unions remain hugely important and need to be an arena of political action for revolutionaries, but limiting ourselves to them would be foolish.
The emergence of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, against a backdrop of continuing low levels of industrial struggle, meant that working class resistance followed a very different pattern to the 1960s and 1970s, the era which had been the context for the growth of the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP). It was also very different to the downturn of the 1980s, which had largely shaped the modern SWP. It was generally political and ideological issues which provided the cutting edge for resistance. SWP founder Tony Cliff, shortly before his death in 2000, grasped the new opportunities which were opening up and urged changes in how the SWP should operate, moving away from the more routinist and propagandist approaches necessary to survive the downturn years, turning the party outwards to embrace new developments (a number of those who worked most closely with Cliff in his later years are now involved in building Counterfire or Scotland's International Socialist Group).
The growing People's Assembly movement, the large and vibrant 29 September demo and Miliband's very hesitant leftward shift - itself a product of pressures from protests, trade unions and public opinion - have all given confidence to some trade unionists to go for strike action. And when strike action happens its most visible expression is often in public protest, something we have seen this week with the strikes, marches and rallies by teachers.
Organised workers will be at the strategic centre of any successful revolutionary movement. This is one of the great lessons, still as relevant as ever, of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the wave of revolutionary upheavals which followed in its wake. Rebuilding trade unions - and workers 'confidence to take strike action - is a central priority. We are seeing signs of a growing spirit of resistance in the unions right now, including teachers', higher education workers' and firefighters' strikes this month and a national post workers' strike lined up for 4 November. But as well as winning arguments for strike action - and the projects of recruiting and workplace organising which are linked to such action - the process of rebuilding confidence also involves the development of wider movements of resistance.
The rejection of a united front approach to the economic crisis was a serious mistake by the SWP leadership and the main issue of contention in the SWP faction fight of 2009/10 then the main cause of the successive splits which led to the formation of Counterfire in 2010 and Scotland’s International Socialist Group in 2011. Some SWP members are now involved in the People’s Assembly, which the party formally supports, but there is still a reluctance to fully commit to it in practice. This is reflected in the almost-total absence of references to the People’s Assembly from the Callinicos and Kimber article.
Reasserting democratic centralism does not mean importing wholesale the practices and structures of the pre-1917 Bolshevik Party (which, in any case, changed greatly over time and varied in different places). The essence of Leninism and the particular forms it can take need to be separated out. Crucially, what democratic centralism means in reality - how it is embodied in structures, procedures, practices - can be quite different for an organisation of modest size (like today's SWP) compared to one with a genuine mass base like the Bolsheviks.
The need for revolutionary organisation remains rooted in an understanding that real change has to be fought for through action from below. We cannot rely on either politicians or bureaucrats to change things for us, but must instead build broad, democratic coalitions of resistance. To make permanent gains and bring about radical social transformation, revolution will be necessary, in which the repressive state is replaced with a new order based on mass democratic assemblies. To this end we need an organisation of revolutionary socialists rooted in, and shaping, broader working class struggles.
We need to group together those who are consistently anti-capitalist and recognise the need for fundamental system change. This is the necessary complement to participation in broader social and political struggles. It is essential if revolutionaries want to make an impact on the world around them, rather than being reduced to either sectarian position-taking or, on the other hand, tailing more moderate elements in the broad labour movement.
The future of the revolutionary left
The SWP leadership has developed a narrow conception of class struggle that regardless of concrete circumstances privileges the call for strikes – despite actual strike levels being historically low –and downplays other forms of struggle, deriding them as ‘movementism’. This confuses a matter of principle, the centrality of the working class as the agent of change, with strategic and tactical assessments of which actions are possible at any given moment. This leads to ultra-left propagandism in practice and crude reductionism in theory. Sean Vernell expresses a more sophisticated view when he writes:
'Street protests of all kinds therefore must play a significant part in any real mass movement against austerity - not only because they can, given the right conditions, give confidence to workers to take strike action but also because they play a vital role in winning the battle of ideas within the working class against arguments justifying austerity. The question for the left should not be the street or the workplace but how we can inspire people to campaign and get involved with all types of campaigns to end austerity and for a different world.'
There have been times in the past when the SWP made initial mis-judgements about what forms of action to prioritise. In the late 1970s it was only through experience that the party realised the Rank and File Movement was going nowhere but the Right to Work Campaign had great potential, necessarily correcting its perspective (which had previously regarded the rank and file union work as paramount, while work among the unemployed was a mere adjunct). In the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 there was an initial over-estimation of potential for workers’ action, with a focus on calling for secondary strike action that quickly turned out to be less important than building practical solidarity campaigns in localities. When the poll tax was introduced in Scotland the party adopted the line of calling for strike action by those responsible for collecting and administering the new tax, while ignoring the emerging non-payment campaign. Thankfully the line changed when the poll tax was introduced in England and Wales.
Some of this material has been posted previously in a different form on Luna17.