The SWP and the IS tradition

Socialist Workers Party membership badge

One of the recurring themes of the SWP leadership’s current furious efforts to repel the criticisms of an increasing number of its members is the need to ‘defend our tradition’, or ‘defend the IS tradition’. It’s worth taking a look at that tradition to see where the SWP has come from and to what degree it still represents the vision and value of its founders.

It is well known, at least among the tiny number of historians, sectarians or obsessives who are interested in such things, the the SWP was born from a tiny group of heterodox Trotskyists who (to dramatically oversimplify things) had been thrown out of the only slightly less tiny ‘official’ British Trotskyist sect for their refusal to slavishly support North Korea (which of course was a proxy for the stalinist regimes of Stalin and Mao) during the Korean War. The basis of this refusal was their analysis, worked out and developed by Tony Cliff, of Russia and its Eastern European satellites  as ‘Bureaucratic State Capitalist’ regimes.

Within a couple of years of the end of World War II, it was obvious – or should have been to anyone who didn’t have their heads deep in the Sacred Books of World Revolution – that much of what Trotsky had predicted before his murder had not come to pass. The Stalinist regime in the USSR, which Trotsky thought could never survive the trauma of war, had not only survived but was much stronger, having taken control of half of Europe as vassal states. Capitalism seemed to have escaped the systemic crisis it faced before the War and was not only rebuilding Western Europe but rebuilding it on a broadly social democratic model. The long boom that was to last until the early ‘70s had begun.

Clearly, it was time for fresh thinking in order to understand what was happening, but for the majority on the non-Stalinist left, the reaction was either to try to find refuge in now redundant orthodoxies or to make concessions; so one section of the Trotskyist movement started to describe the satellite regimes of Eastern Europe as ‘deformed workers’ states’ and to proclaim Tito as a sort of proto-trotsksist, while another grouping in the United States described the USSR as ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ – an entirely new type of society which it gradually began to see as worse than Western capitalism, leading some of its most prominent members to end up Cold War warriors working for the State department and supporting the Vietnam War.

However, the tiny Socialist Review group (named after the magazine it produced) avoided both Scylla and Charybdis. With its understanding of the fundamentally exploitative nature of Russian society and the rejection by its rulers of everything that is liberating and life-giving in the ideas of Marx, Socialist Review was able to turn a long cool gaze on some of the more cherished myths of the left; in particular the myth that state ownership of property and a monopoly of planning and foreign trade could be equated with socialism. To apply the description of ‘socialism’ or ‘workers’ state’ to a society where there the relations of production are, if anything, even more oppressive than in the West and were workers’ control has no basis in reality, is to debase those terms to the point of absurdity.

Because the little group began by placing the idea of independent working class self-activity at the centre of of its analysis, as opposed to the parliamentary vanguardism of the Labour Left and the revolutionary vanguardism of the comic opera bolsheviks, it began the work of, in the words of one of its later recruits, the ‘restoration of the libertarian roots of Marxism.’  


When I joined the group (by then perhaps 120 strong and called the International Socialism group by then) in the early ‘60s it had developed three defining theoretical propositions. The first, its ‘State Capitalist’ analysis of Russia and the Eastern bloc’ which made clear that state capitalism was a distinct period within the imperialist stage of capitalism and not simply a new label to be plastered upon the Russian state, had been little developed since the early ‘50s. The second, an attempt to understand the dynamics of the long boom of the ‘50s and ‘60s, was the ‘Permanent Arms Economy’ theory, primarily developed by Michael Kidron.

The theory had two aspects. First, it recognised the fact that the system had stabilised itself and set out to find out why. The answer it came up with was that the diversion of a large portion of the total surplus value extracted from workers into spending on arms offset the basic problem that Marx had identified at the root of capitalist crises: the tendency of the system to over accumulate capital and so bring down the rate of profit. Second, the theory argued that the permanent arms economy could offer only a temporary stabilisation of the system.

The third leg of the Socialist Review/IS analysis of contemporary British capitalism was the idea of the Changing Locus of Reformism’. This was about a growing understanding that during the long boom increasing numbers of working people had become less enthused by the reforming abilities of Labour and more keen on do-it-yourself reform at the workplace, spearheaded in engineering with its tradition of shop stewards and local negotiation by lay union militants. In short, workers were seeking gains through localized class struggle at the point of production where the institution of the elected and recallable shop steward was key. Thus the issues of bottom-up organisation and rank and file democracy had be central for socialists within the labour movement. And of course, this meant that the revolutionary movement must be democratic too. This was indeed a profound insight, but as Jim Higgins said “like so much else in SR/IS theory, having elucidated a few insights that could be spatchcocked into the overall Group politics it no longer became necessary to elaborate or confirm that which was handy enough as it stood.”

Tony Cliff طوني كليف

Today, all three of those three theories are redundant. Except for those interested in revolutionary metaphysics (who should clearly get a life, or a girlfriend), the question of whether or not the USSR was a socialist paradise, a degenerated workers’ state, bureaucratic collectivist or state capitalist is entirely academic (and not in a good way).

In the ‘50s some on the left were tempted by the claims of the system’s apologists that capitalism had solved its problems and that the path of gradual reform offered a sure road to socialism. Others were tempted to deny the obvious signs of stability and prosperity and assert that capitalism was on the verge of imminent, catastrophic collapse. While Kidron’s permanent arms economy theory provided a really useful insight into how capitalism was able, for a relatively short period anyway, to appear to have become able to defy the laws of economic gravity, it was never fully developed and Kidron himself became very critical of it, writing a critical review of his own work with the brilliant title Two Insights do not Make a Theory. But more important, the long boom is long over, capitalism’s apparent ability to levitate has turned out to be a conjuring trick and we are in an entirely landscape.

The same is clearly true for the changing locus of reformism. It was very valuable, in that it came out of a recognition the the centrality of working class self activity and self organisation in the struggle for socialism, and important in that it very firmly placed the struggle for human emancipation in the hands of working people themselves, rather than their enlightened proxies in this or that revolutionary vanguard. However, it was always rather impressionistic and was never properly developed into something a bit more coherent. And of course, today we face a landscape in which trade union membership has halved, anti union laws constrain effective rank and file action and the real problems within the labour movement are largely about how we can mobilise workers for defensive rather than offensive campaigns.

So the obvious rhetorical question must be; is there anything left of the ‘IS tradition’ and is it of any relevance today? My reply to my own question is a firm yes and yes.

It seems to me that the real contributions the comrades of SRG/IS made to the socialist movement were (and are) their heterodoxy and their commitment to democracy and openness in the socialist movement. Faced with an entirely new political landscape they didn’t develop perspectives fixed within the limits of current mass consciousness. They didn’t see the elements of politics as fixed quantities with only themselves capable of movement, and therefore allow themselves to slide towards reformist compromise, but neither did they close their minds and march towards sectarian isolation.

They were prepared to abandon those old route maps which could no longer provide useful guidance, but then, with the assistance of more reliable, if older and larger scale, maps, they set out to develop new and relevant guides to the new world situations that confronted them. One early member cheerfully said to me, “if Trotskyism is a heresy then we are a heresy of a heresy”. IS’s refusal to be bound by orthodoxy in trying to understand the world in order to change it was one of its great achievements.

As Duncan Hallas said of those who cling to the Sacred Robe of Trotsky as their political comfort blanket: “The ossification of the living thought of a great revolutionary into a dogma, the failure to apply the methods he applied, to new situations, new problems; in short the erection of an orthodoxy is as much an insult to his memory, as it is incompatible with the spirit of his life’s work.”

Portrait of Rosa Luxemburg. Français : Portrai...

But the other key element of IS’s contribution to the left was its commitment to the centrality of democracy and openness in socialist organisations. When, in 1971, Duncan Hallas argued for IS to move towards a rather more centralised organisation than the loose structure it had when it was just a couple of hundred strong, he wrote:

Only a collective can develop a systematic alternative worldview, can overcome to some degree the alienation of manual and mental work that imposes on everyone, on workers and intellectuals alike, a partial and fragmented view of reality. What Rosa Luxemburg called “the fusion of science and the workers” is unthinkable outside a revolutionary party.

Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”

Chris Harman, one of the leading theoreticians...

The SWP of today represents the mirror image of its ancestor. The SRG/IS’s heterodoxy and willingness to think in new ways unhindered by any tendencies towards ancestor worship have long since coarsened and scleroticised into a mechanical orthodoxy based on an uncritical adherence to every utterance and action of Lenin, real or imagined, regardless of consistency or relevance.  IS’s openness to others on the left and willingness to look at the world as it really is, even when it doesn’t fit into previously accepted theories, has degenerated in the SWP into a semi-religious fanaticism, a theoretical conservatism and blindness to unwelcome aspects of reality. An internal regime that celebrated and encouraged political debate has become one where dissent, until the last few weeks, when it has become to widespread to police, has been firmly discouraged and bullying by paid functionaries has become widespread. Lying to members, to the rest of the left and even to themselves, has become the norm for the party’s leadership.

Those responsible for the moral and political decline of the SWP bear a heavy responsibility, one they can’t shirk by continually claiming to be the inheritors to a tradition they have thoroughly abused.

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3 Responses to The SWP and the IS tradition

  1. Pingback: SWP crisis: who is saying what « Jim Jepps

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