This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

The Case for the SWP

Ian Birchall

A NUMBER OF recent articles in What Next? have been concerned with the argument about prospects for the revolutionary left in Britain. Should revolutionaries stay in the Labour Party, or attempt to establish a new organisation to the left of Labour? One point that has been largely ignored is that there does already exist a small but substantial organisation to the left of Labour, namely the Socialist Workers Party. With around ten thousand members the SWP is certainly the largest independent force on the left, considerably bigger than the much discussed Socialist Labour Party was even at its short-lived peak.

Many What Next? readers may feel that the SWP is an option they have already rejected. But times are changing and I should like to contribute to the discussion with a case for joining the SWP.

To examine the sort of organisation required in the present period we need to begin, not with Trotsky’s writings from the 1930s, but with an examination of the present state of the socialist movement. The most crucial fact, as we face the new millennium, is that the two traditions which have dominated the movement for most of the last century – Stalinism and social democracy (parliamentary socialism) – are plainly bankrupt. If socialism is still relevant – and everything from the collapse of the Asian tigers to the prefigurations of barbarism in Bosnia and Rwanda show that it is – then we need to build on the best traditions of revolutionary anti-Stalinist socialism to create a new movement based on the core of Marxism, the principle that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes of the Eastern bloc after 1989 came as a surprise to everyone on the left inasmuch as none of us predicted its imminence or its speed. Yet the impact was obviously greatest for those who believed that these societies represented – in however "degenerated" or "deformed" a fashion – a higher level of social and economic organisation. These regimes – which had been deemed worth defending – collapsed with a display of general economic incompetence; these alleged "conquests of the working class" disappeared amid the hostility or indifference of those who had lived under their rule.

The debate about the nature of the Stalinist regimes characterised a whole generation of the revolutionary left. Some of us have been through the arguments far oftener than we would wish. But the argument is unlikely to arouse passions among a new generation of socialists. A handful of ageing nostalgics may cling on to their lifelong illusions about the old Stalinist bloc, but it is scarcely conceivable that many young people will be won to a struggle to rebuild societies in the image of Enver Hoxha’s Albania.1

The SWP, which always held that the Stalinist states were "state capitalist",2 had far less difficulty in coming to terms with the events of 1989 and after.3 But the argument about state capitalism was never just about labelling particular regimes. It was about the whole question of the agency of social transformation. If one believes that, shall we say, Bulgaria was a "workers’ state" from the 1940s to the early 1990s, then one has to accept that this workers’ state was born without any active intervention of the Bulgarian working class. So much for Marx and the emancipation of the working class. It was done without the smashing of the existing state machine. So much for Lenin and State and Revolution. It was done without an independent, non-Stalinist revolutionary party. So much for our own struggle to build such a party.4

There is another important corollary to the argument. If there can be a workers’ state which was not created by workers, is not controlled by them and does not represent their interests, then it is easy to become fixated on "workers’ organisations" rather than actual flesh-and-blood workers.

This is highly relevant to the other main component of the current period: the slow death of social democracy. The Blairite project shows the way in which "parliamentary socialism" is heading – a reformism without reforms, an abandonment of even the superficial trappings of attachment to the labour movement. Experiences of social democracy in power in Spain, Italy and France have shown a slow – and not-so-slow – slide into corruption, symbolised by the faces of François Mitterrand and Bettino Craxi.

Indeed, the collapse of social democracy reflects a more general crisis of politics. As people see that what can be achieved through parliamentary channels is relatively small, and that the mainstream parties are less and less distinguishable from each other, the general level of contempt for politics and politicians rises. As ever fewer people embark on political careers with any hope or expectation of actually changing anything, the logic of such a career becomes to line one’s own pockets – legally or illegally. Most people expect professional politicians to be corrupt liars.

Labour got a landslide vote because the previous gang of Tories were exceptionally incompetent and corrupt. But the activist base of the Labour Party is slowly withering. Of course there will be anecdotic evidence of areas where there are still pockets of socialist resistance to Blairism, groups of activists who would like to revert to the golden days of Bennism – or Bevanism. But such pockets are getting smaller and do not constitute a viable basis for the restructuring of the left. The long-term trend is clear.

All this creates problems for revolutionaries. Much of the left still thinks in terms of addressing an ever smaller politicised layer. What Next? has given some vivid accounts of the Socialist Labour Party, with miniature vanguards rampaging around in search of a non-existent rank and file. The logic of this position was taken to its furthest point by the Spartacist League, which argued that it was impossible to actually recruit in the working class, and so directed its efforts to the "ostensibly revolutionary organisations"5 – in other words to trying to poach members from other groups. Another variant is the idea of revolutionary regroupment, or what I always think of as the "brush and pan’ theory of revolutionary unity. The fractured remnants of the revolutionary movement are to be glued together into a single utensil. The already "politicised" talk to the already politicised, all in search of a lever that will – sooner or later – enable them to relate to the masses.

Many comrades argue that revolutionaries must stay in the traditional organisations of the class because when a period of radicalisation comes workers will flock to these organisations, enabling mass organisations to be built from splits as they were in the early years of the Comintern.6

Now there is absolutely no sign of such flocking at the moment. Because of the process of depoliticisation referred to above, I suspect it may well never happen. But even if it does, it scarcely justifies entrism at the present time. If there is a mass influx into the Labour Party resulting from a high level of struggle, then there will be a complete upheaval in terms of personnel and organisational forms. Surely comrades do not believe they will be able to say: "I’ve been ward minutes secretary for the last seven years, so you must elect me as president of the workers’ council."7

So what is the alternative? The working class may be turning away from politics, but politics will not leave the working class in peace. On the contrary, unemployment, cuts in health and education provision, homelessness, benefit cuts, tuition fees, deteriorating environmental conditions, gridlock and collapsing public transport represent a continuing threat to the quality of life of working people. Nationalism, racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia divide workers and impair their ability to defend their conditions. The "traditional mass organisations" of the working class may be withering, but the working class – the women and men whom produce the goods and services that society needs and who have nothing substantial (beyond, at best a car and a mortgaged house) to sell except their ability to labour – still constitute the great majority of our society.

For Marxists, the workplace must be the first priority. It is in the workplace that capitalism creates its gravedigger, by concentrating the oppressed in large groups and teaching them in practice the lesson that the means of production are worked collectively and can only be appropriated collectively. It is in the workplace that workers experience the most fundamental proof of their potential power, the ability to withdraw their labour. It is in the workplace that revolutionaries are best placed to make strategic interventions (in 1968 it was three Trotskyists, established trade union militants in the Sud-Aviation aircraft factory at Nantes, who persuaded their fellow-workers to occupy and thus sparked off the biggest general strike in history).

Revolutionaries in the workplace have to be able to take up the most basic and even the most trivial issues in defence of their fellow workers. They have to be the ones who are not afraid to speak and organise in opposition to the employers. By so doing, they can win an audience in order to raise more general political questions, of solidarity with other workers, opposition to government policy, etc. (It may not seem as glamorous as committing an SLP-led government to give armed support to Saddam Hussein, but it is a thousand times more relevant to the real world.) It is because the SWP has built up a core of experienced militants with some standing and credibility in their workplaces that SWP members incur the enmity of both employers and trade union bureaucrats.

But at the moment the SWP is present in only a minority of workplaces. So the workplace activity must be paralleled by a regular public presence. This is established by regular street sales of Socialist Worker accompanied by petitioning on current issues. This in turn requires a newspaper written in accessible language and addressing issues without any assumption of prior political knowledge on the readers’ part. Of course, such activity has its disadvantages. It rains. It snows. You meet nutters, you get regular abuse and occasional fascist threats of violence. But nobody who engages regularly in such activity will make the mistake of confusing the working class with the residual inhabitants of declining organisations. Nor will they preserve any illusions about the size of the job facing us in winning the working class to socialist ideas. But they will also be struck by the depth of anger that does exist among many thousands of workers. With patient and systematic work such people can be won to readership of the revolutionary press and involvement in revolutionary organisation. The enormous potential of the present period should not be underestimated.

Thirdly, it is the duty of revolutionaries to be present wherever there is resistance to the existing system. That means being present on every picket line, participating in and where necessary initiating campaigns against school and hospital closures, confronting racism wherever it arises. A glance at pages 14 and 15 of any issue of Socialist Worker will reveal the number of struggles a still relatively small organisation is involved in. Regular viewers of television news will note the number of times that Socialist Worker placards are visible. The achievements of the Anti-Nazi League have been acknowledged by all but the most sectarian of our rivals.8

Of course some people will sneer at all this as mere "activism". I remember some years ago the SWP was characterised by a slogan – originally, I think, intended satirically, probably by a member of the IMG – "If it moves, recruit it; if it doesn’t move, stick a poster on it." In fact, I think it sums up rather well the spirit that should animate a revolutionary organisation.

Theory without practice is sterile, but practice without theory is mindless. We have to educate and develop a new generation of socialists who can face the unpredictable challenges of the coming years. If we reject the notion of simply shuffling and reshuffling the pack of the already politicised, then we must accept that, in William Morris’s words, "our job is to make socialists".

The SWP carries out a whole range of educational activities, with publications aimed at making propaganda and developing theory at all levels. For reasons of space, I shall simply mention two aspects of this work which are particularly relevant to the left as a whole.

The first is the publication of classic socialist literature. As well as publishing new works on historical topics and the analysis of contemporary capitalism, the SWP has made efforts to ensure that classic Marxist literature continues to be available, so that a new socialist tradition can be built on what was best in the past. In the last few years the SWP has reprinted some of the classic works of Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollontai, reissued Hal Draper’s The Two Souls of Socialism and made available some of Victor Serge’s writings for the first time in English. More recently we have been responsible for the reissue of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.9

Secondly Marxism, held every summer by the SWP, is attended by several thousand people, including a substantial proportion of non-members. Figures like Benn, Scargill, Christopher Hill, Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton have attended to discuss and debate with us. That Marxism is generally acknowledged to be a focus for the whole left is shown by the large number of organisations who turn up to sell their papers outside it – and on occasion attempt to seek publicity for themselves by disrupting it.

One other point must be dealt with. Critics will allege that the SWP has a draconian internal regime, ruthlessly expels oppositionists etc.10 In fact, the SWP has a generally benign internal regime.11 During nearly thirty-five years of membership of the SWP (and its predecessors) I have opposed the leadership on a number of questions, both tactical and theoretical. I have always been allowed to argue my case, on occasion in the open publications of the organisation, and have never been threatened with any disciplinary sanction.

What the SWP does not permit is permanent factions or tendencies, and these are indeed rooted out with a degree of ruthlessness. (The present invitation to join obviously does not extend to those considering "entering" the SWP for factional purposes; to them my advice would be: Don’t waste your time.) This position is based on the hard experience that the existence of organised factions polarises debate and actually prevents the free flow of discussion and criticism required in any living organisation.12 Anyone extolling the virtues of a "multi-tendency" organisation should look at the experience of the LCR in France. New members recruited to the organisation had to make a choice of which faction to belong to; members spent one night a week at their branch meeting and another at their regular faction meeting. Finally, the organisation found itself split several ways over the recent Presidential elections and was unable to take a position as no faction had the majority.

The British Revolution, when it comes, will not be a simple rerun of Russia 1917. (For one thing, global warming means we won’t get the snow.) I, for one, am quite agnostic about what will happen between then and now. There may well may be various regroupments, mergers and splits within the left. But, for the present, I believe that in terms of programme and analysis, of propaganda and education, and of regular intervention in the class struggle, the SWP is making a substantial positive contribution to the building of the mass revolutionary movement we need.

Finally, I urge anybody reading this not to take what I say on trust, but to come and observe and discuss with the SWP at Marxism 98, to be held in London from July 3-10.


1. It is heart-warming to learn from What Next? that there are still socialists fighting to "defend" North Korea (No.7, p.15). What, I wonder, do they find particularly worthy of defence – the high living standards of working people or the remarkable record of civil liberties?

2. I am, of course, aware that there is a third position – namely that these regimes were neither capitalist nor socialist but required some other label, such as "bureaucratic collectivist". But if one discovers a new mode of production one is under some obligation to give an account of its basic dynamic. When someone does this for "bureaucratic collectivism", I will start taking the argument seriously.

3. For an account of the transition from the era of state capitalism to the era of multinational capitalism on a world scale, see Chris Harman, "The Storm Breaks", International Socialism, No.46, 1990.

4. The ultimate absurdity comes with the case of the North Korean "workers’ state", which was created by President Truman’s "General Order Number 1". (G. Kolko, The Politics of War, 1969, p.603.)

5. I observe that a similar phrase – "self-styled revolutionary Marxist organisation" – is now being used in Workers’ Liberty (No.18, p.26), with a similar logic, the attempt to poach a few members from their rivals.

6. Actually this model derives from the experience of at most half a dozen countries, notably France, Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia ...

7. Even in terms of the Comintern experience, it should be remembered that the French revolutionary syndicalists played a key role in the creation of the PCF, although they were never members of the SFIO.

8. See for example the editorial in Socialist Challenge, 4 May 1978: "The Anti-Nazi League ... was an initiative undertaken and launched by the comrades of the Socialist Workers Party... It would be crass sectarianism to try and underplay this fact."

9. In association with Pluto Press.

10. Workers’ Liberty claims that we are a "rigidly authoritarian variant of the Stalinist model of a party" (No.18, p.26), thus raising the entertaining notion that there could be a libertarian variant of Stalinism.

11. Another critic of the SWP’s internal regime is former National Secretary Jim Higgins, in his recent book More Years for the Locust, 1997. Jim’s criticisms would be considerably more convincing if he had not been one of the more authoritarian figures in the organisation when he held a position of power. See my review in the Spring 1998 issue of Revolutionary History.

12. Workers’ Liberty still protests at its predecessor’s expulsion from the International Socialists in 1971 (No.41, p.49). But the Workers Fight grouping within the IS had its own subs-paying membership, its own democratic centralism and its own probationary membership. It was allowed to function in this way for three years. I imagine that if I joined the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty with the declared intent of setting up a faction on such a basis, I would not least three days. Likewise, I doubt very much whether the RDG or the International Bolshevik Whatsits would admit a faction on such a basis.