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The SWP Acquires a Programme

Bob Pitt

IN RECENT times the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has implemented some sharp turns in its political practice. The well-established principle of not standing in elections has been suddenly abandoned and the SWP will now be putting up candidates for the Scottish and European parliaments, and also for London mayor if Ken Livingstone is blocked by Millbank. The SWP’s long-standing opposition to adopting a programme has also been ditched. An "Action Programme", first published in Socialist Worker last September,1 has since been reproduced as a glossy leaflet and SWP members have been pressing for labour movement bodies to adopt it as official policy.

The two developments are obviously not unconnected. If you’re contesting an election, the first thing voters will ask is what policies you stand for. They certainly won’t be satisfied with general denunciations of capitalism and assertions of the superiority of socialism. They will want to know what you intend to do if you get elected. Hence the need for a programme.

Lacking any precedents in the SWP’s own history, the SWP’s theoreticians have claimed inspiration for the Action Programme in the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition. Writing in International Socialism, Alex Callinicos has related the SWP’s programme to the theses "On Tactics" adopted by the Communist International’s Third Congress in 1921, and to Trotsky’s 1934 Programme of Action for France.2 In Socialist Review John Rees similarly claims Trotsky as a precursor of the SWP’s programmatic method, referring not only to his French programme but to the Transitional Programme of 1938 as well.3

All of which represents an astonishing volte-face by the SWP leadership. Because traditionally the organisation repudiated not merely programmes in general but Trotsky’s Transitional Programme in particular. In the fourth volume of his Trotsky biography, published as recently as 1993, Tony Cliff pointed out (quite rightly, in my view) that the demands of the Transitional Programme were adopted specifically in response to what Trotsky saw as "a situation of general crisis, of capitalism in deep slump", and that many of the programme’s proposals (workers’ defence squads and a workers’ militia, for example) "did not fit a non-revolutionary situation". Cliff concluded: "The basic assumption behind Trotsky’s Transitional Demands was that the economic crisis was so deep that the struggle for even the smallest improvement in workers’ conditions would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved the assumption the ground fell from beneath the programme."4

However, according to Cliff, the situation has changed dramatically in the intervening six years, so much so that Trotsky’s programmatic method is now directly relevant. In his recently published book Trotskyism After Trotsky, Cliff claims: "Capitalism in the advanced countries is no longer expanding and so the words of the 1938 Transitional Programme that ’there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards’ fits reality again."5

Now, it is true that the world capitalist economy has suffered major convulsions in the recent period, with the East Asian economic crisis spreading to Russia and Brazil, and raising the possibility (though not as yet the actuality) of a general world recession. But, so far, it is simply not the case that the advanced capitalist economies (other than Japan) have ceased to expand. The British economy is projected to grow by between 1% and 1.5% in 1999. Does Cliff really believe that the economic crisis is so deep in Britain today that reforms or wage rises are completely excluded? It is difficult to take this sort of rhetoric seriously.

I’ve never been a member of the SWP and so have no first-hand experience of its internal life. Who knows, perhaps the recent sudden changes in line are the result of a genuine democratic debate within the organisation. But one suspects not. The way I imagine such changes happening is that one morning Tony Cliff wakes up with a bright idea. "Capitalism is in terminal crisis!" he cries excitedly. "The Transitional Programme is relevant at last!" SWP organisers Lindsey German and Chris Harman are summoned and instructed to proclaim the new line in the pages of Socialist Worker. Then it’s the turn of the intellectuals, whose job it is to put theoretical clothes on Cliff’s fantasies.

Pity poor Callinicos and Rees, who are intelligent people and – privately – probably recognise Cliff’s economic perspectives for nonsense that they are. Still, they have a job to do and they give it their best, genuflecting to Cliff while attempting to introduce a note of rationality to the discussion. But they have evident difficulty getting their stories straight.

Callinicos’s International Socialism article, in deference to the great leader, is given the suitably catastrophist title "World Capitalism at the Abyss" and features subheadings such as "towards financial armageddon?" and "warnings of doom". But Callinicos has to admit that the impact of the current economic crisis has been felt mainly in Asia and that the situation overall, economically and politically, is not as serious as it was in the 1930s – though he claims that it is heading in that direction, loyally backing up this assertion with a quotation from Cliff to the effect that the situation now has close parallels with the ’30s, except that things are moving a bit slower today. And in Rees’s Socialist Review article dealing with the British economy, which is ominously entitled "Storm Warning", the author can bring himself only to identify the beginnings of a "recession [which] may well be with us for the next two or three years", the depth of which he accepts is unpredictable.

So what is the situation that working people in Britain in fact confront? Is it a capitalist system already plunged into an economic crisis of historic proportions, so deep that the most elementary improvements in the conditions of the masses are now excluded (Cliff)? Or is it a capitalism which has only reached the edge of the economic abyss, but has not yet toppled in – though it may do so some time soon (Callinicos)? Or is it an economy merely facing a temporary recession lasting a couple of years or so, and not necessarily a very serious one (Rees)? The sort of programme you would advocate in each case is obviously very different.

Not only are there grounds for questioning Cliff’s and Callinicos’s prognoses,6 but in any case programmes cannot be derived exclusively from economic conditions. Crucially, they require an analysis of the existing level of struggle and political consciousness among working people, and within the organised labour movement in particular. The SWP has little say on this, and what it does say is simplistic if not just plain wrong.

For example, a recent editorial in Socialist Worker claimed that "there is a deep bitterness against the government across Britain". As proof of this mass revulsion against Blairism, it cited: an opinion poll revealing that 49% of Scottish people think that the Labour government is "as right-wing as the Tories were"; demonstrations against cuts implemented by Labour councils in Brent and Oxford; anecdotal evidence of Labour members leaving the party in protest against government policy; rank-and-file trade union backing for Rhodri Morgan in the Welsh Labour Party leadership election as against the Blairite candidate Alun Michael; and the surge of support for Ken Livingstone’s bid to become Labour’s candidate for London mayor.7

But a sober assessment of this evidence would surely reveal the unevenness with which opposition to the Blair government is developing. In Scotland, disaffection with New Labour is obviously in advance of that in England and Wales, where the government still remains relatively popular with the broad electorate. Militant struggles against the consequences of government policy are as yet by no means general. Disillusionment with Blair has led to a limited exodus of members from the Labour Party, although they would seem to have lapsed into inactivity rather than turned to any left-wing political alternative to Labour. And active discontent with Blairism among the ranks of the labour movement is expressed in the form of conflicts within the Labour Party itself, often over basic democratic issues. None of this suggests the development of the sort of mass radicalisation for which the Action Programme is apparently designed.

To be fair, some of the demands in the Action Programme do try to relate to the actual consciousness of working people. Under the heading of "a decent minimum wage", the programme calls for "at the very least" £4.60 an hour – the half median male earnings figure. This rate in fact falls way below the European Union’s decency threshold, which forms the basis of the demand by the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) for £6 an hour. But the latter figure enjoys no support in the trade unions, so the SWP has settled on the demand around which the mass of organised workers can unite. I think they are quite right to do this. But it does represent an implicit recognition of, and adaptation to, the current low level of aspirations within the labour movement.

Other elementary demands enjoying broad support which are included in the programme are employment rights from day one, and union recognition however many members are signed up; cutting government spending on arms and diverting it to welfare and job creation; a 35-hour week; and the right to work. All of these demands are common currency in the movement and owe nothing to the SWP’s programmatic innovations.

If the Action Programme had restricted itself to promoting such popular basic demands, combining them with general socialist propaganda, it could have served a useful purpose. Unfortunately, the remainder of its points fail in varying degrees to relate to the consciousness of those to whom the programme is addressed, or to the political situation in which socialists have to operate. For example, in the union rights section, the Action Programme urges workers to "demand the right to strike, picket and take full solidarity action free of all anti-union laws". In other words, the complete abolition of the existing legislation – a demand which enjoys only minority support in the trade union movement. Yet Blair has made it clear that he intends the whole battery of anti-union laws to remain in place – a position which places Blair himself in a tiny minority within the movement. Using the method adopted over the minimum wage, wouldn’t it be better to campaign for widely-supported reform of the anti-union laws, for example of those relating to secondary action? Yet the SWP insists on repeating the mantra of complete abolition, which hands Blair a majority in the labour movement and isolates his socialist opponents. This seems to me to encapsulate the tactical ineptitude which characterises most of the far left.

The first point in the Action Programme, under the heading of "stop all closures", demonstrates a similar failure to engage with political reality. This proposes the following course of action: "When bosses say shut down, we say strike and occupy." But against a background of a historically low level of industrial struggle, it seems unlikely that proposals for militant action along these lines will have much resonance among the workers involved. Since the Action Programme was launched last September, how many occupations has the SWP in fact organised?

The Action Programme goes on to propose the nationalisation of "any company that lays off workers" or where "the bosses try to sabotage efforts to cut unemployment and redistribute wealth to working people". But virtually all companies implement redundancies at one time or another, particularly during a recession, and there aren’t many bosses who wouldn’t seek to undermine attempts to redistribute their wealth. So in effect this amounts to a demand for the expropriation of the bourgeoisie as a whole, bar a handful of eccentric capitalists who refuse in principle to impose lay-offs and who don’t object to handing over their riches in order to raise the living standards of the working class.

This is a pretty ineffectual way of putting demands on a right-wing Labour government, in circumstances where expectations among the mass of labour movement members are unfortunately very limited. Constituency Labour Party general committees are among the bodies which the SWP urges to adopt its programme. But how many CLPs have voted for this particular policy? And how many trade union conferences this year does the SWP expect will adopt it? The truth is that this demand doesn’t in practice provide a means of focusing the very real resentment which Labour Party and trade union members feel about New Labour’s economic policy. Once again, it serves to marginalise socialists and to present the Blairites with an automatic majority.

The same goes for the final demand in the Action Programme – "state control of international trade and financial movements". This appeared as a plank in some versions of the Alternative Economic Strategy drawn up in the early 1980s. But the demands relating to economic policy that have emerged more recently, since the election of the Blair government, have been around other issues entirely – for a reduction in interest rates to overcome the damaging effects of an overvalued pound, for increased taxation of the rich and the corporate sector, for measures to overcome the low level of investment, etc. These sort of policies have been advocated by labour movement figures from Ken Livingstone to John Edmonds. But the SWP couldn’t bring itself to back such reformist economic measures, even though their implementation would have provided more favourable conditions for strengthening workplace organisation and done much to counter the recession which now threatens workers’ jobs.

As for the SWP’s own proposals for dealing with the recession, if these were actually implemented, resulting in a wave of factory occupations accompanied by an all-out assault by government on the economic interests of the big bourgeoisie, then workers would be faced with the alternative of succumbing to right-wing repression or launching a struggle for power. The Transitional Programme’s demand for workers’ defence squads and militias would have direct relevance. But the Action Programme contains no such measures for confronting the repressive force of the capitalist class and its state. Nor do we find any call to build the independent working-class bodies (soviets, factory committees) which could provide the basis for a revolutionary government – even though these form a central part of Trotsky’s 1934 and 1938 programmes, from which the Action Programme supposedly derives.

Which would seem to imply that the SWP itself doesn’t expect workers to implement its more militant proposals. Indeed, Rees explicitly concedes that the new programme is "an alternative to Blairism which workers can adopt as their own irrespective of whether or not they currently feel confident enough to back their words with deeds". So we have an Action Programme whole sections of which, by the SWP’s own admission, will probably not lead to any action at all!

The fact that the SWP has produced its Action Programme has had the merit of raising issues of policy within the labour movement – or at least in those trade union branches where the SWP has any influence. But the programme itself is a mess – a confused combination of demands which have general support, but originate in the broad labour movement rather than in the SWP, together with SWP-inspired demands which the labour movement will simply ignore. In short, the Action Programme presents socialists with a good example ... of how not to draw up a programme.


1. Socialist Worker, 12 September 1998.

2. International Socialism, No.81, December 1998.

3. Socialist Review, January 1999.

4. Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star, 1993, pp.299-300.

5. Tony Cliff, Trotskyism After Trotsky: The Origins of the International Socialists, 1999, pp.81-2.

6. See, for example, Duncan Chapple’s critique of the British far left’s catastrophism in Socialist Democracy No.5, February-March 1999.

7. Socialist Worker, 13 February 1999.