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a socialistworld is possible: the history of the cwi by peter taaffe
new introduction

SWP’s electoralism

Previously, the SWP accused the CWI of ‘electoralism’. This was never true.

For instance, in all the election campaigns mounted in Liverpool in the 1980s, in Coventry, past and present, or in the successful parliamentary campaigns of Joe Higgins, in Ireland, socialism, the need for a democratic, planned, socialist economy, was prominently featured. The SWP have not put a clear case for socialism in the election campaigns they have been involved in.

This is manifested in Britain by their leadership’s uncritical support and advocacy of George Galloway’s ‘Respect Unity’ coalition. This has now involved them in arguing against advancing the case for “socialism” in their eagerness for electoral success. A striking example of their reluctance to mention the ‘S’ word was provided by Alex Callinicos, a professor at York University in northern England, and a central leader of the SWP. He was invited to participate on Sunday 30 June, 2003, in a debate on the BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘Broadcasting House’, with Ruth Lea, Head of Policy at the British bosses’ organisation, the Institute of Directors, and Robert Kelsey, the pro-capitalist author. Towards the end of this radio discussion, Callinicos was asked what his alternative to capitalism was. Not once did he even mention socialism. In fact, he sounded like a liberal. His answer began by simply saying that it was time to “move beyond capitalism”. Callinicos went on to say, “We’re going to create an alternative model,” and he promised that, “We will come up with a more promising way to run the world”. Finally, when challenged by the others that he was arguing for something like Stalinist North Korea, all Callinicos could say was there were “plenty of better ways to run the world”. The question arises whether Callinicos is becoming a ‘post-socialist’ or does the SWP think that the word ‘socialism’ can only be spoken in limited circles, and certainly not on national radio?

In his recent book, ‘Anti-Capitalist Manifesto’, the demands Callinicos puts forward are completely within the framework of the capitalist system. He demands capital controls but does not raise the need for the nationalisation of the big banks and big industries. The question of economic planning seems to be raised in the book but not as part of the transitional programme. His ‘transitional programme’ also does not include any demands for the labour movement and no proposals for a strategy for the working class. Callinicos writes that these demands should mean improvements here and now but also should start to invent “a different social logic”.

The IST grouping shows a similar attitude to the discussion in 2004 on the need for a new left party in Germany. They openly came out against not only a socialist programme for the new party (known in June 2004 as ‘Election Alternative – Work and Social Justice’) but also against even a debate within the new formation on that question. They claimed that this would be a barrier for new layers to join. On at least three occasions, IST members have intervened openly against CWI members and others who wanted to raise the “system question” and they supported the reformists.

In the anti-capitalist struggle, for instance in Genoa, the IST/SWP’s main slogan was “Another world is possible”. But they did not even attempt to link this to the idea of a socialist world. Bob Labi, a member of the International Secretariat of the CWI who participated in this demonstration, comments: “Their Irish contingent [in Genoa] had a placard calling for ‘Fair Trade not Free Trade’, a utopian demand under capitalism that, in reality, implies asking for a ‘nicer’ capitalism. When challenged on this slogan, one of their Irish leaders replied: ‘Why can’t you enjoy this wonderful event? Look how many people are here, don’t spoil it.’

 “Moreover, the German IST grouping, Linksruck, produced a special nine-page briefing for their members under the title, ‘A different world is possible! – Info briefing for the G8 Summit protests in Genoa’. This document, while stressing building an anti-capitalist movement with strong local roots, did not raise the question of how to develop this movement into a socialist one. In fact, the word ‘socialist’ is not used anywhere in this briefing.”

In Britain, the main spokespersons of the IST have specifically argued against using the word ‘socialism’. Lindsey German of the SWP in Britain argued against its inclusion in the ‘Respect’ coalition programme, because, allegedly, the ‘Socialist Alliance’ had failed in elections because it stood on a socialist platform! Needless to say, this switch in ‘politics’ did not extend to the SWP’s methods and approach towards other groups, which have been as overbearing as ever.

An indication of the IST’s complete inability to correctly estimate a situation is how Alex Callinicos, their major theoretician since the death of Tony Cliff, could write, in March 2002, about the “Isolation [of] revolutionary socialists… for the past twenty years.”21 This encompasses the period in Britain during which the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the magnificent anti-poll tax movement, organised and led by Militant, and the tumultuous upheavals in the British Labour Party around the figure of Tony Benn and the emergence of a powerful left wing, all took place! This was a period of isolation not for genuine revolutionary socialists but for the sectarian SWP/IST, who were reduced to shouting from the sidelines at real movements of the working class. For instance, when Liverpool City Council humbled Thatcher in 1984 and extracted big concessions from the government, the SWP denounced the City Council in their paper, ‘Socialist Worker’, claiming that the working class had been “Sold down the Mersey!”

Conversely, when the objective situation had become really difficult, if not mostly unfavourable, for revolutionary socialists, what did Tony Cliff, for decades the chief theoretician of the SWP, declare? The 1990s were, according to Cliff, “Like a rerun of the 1930s in slow motion.” Truly a case of the celebrated fable in Russian literature of a fool singing a funeral dirge at a wedding and a wedding song at a funeral! This conclusion, moreover, was advanced by Cliff not just at the beginning of the 1990s, when it was not absolutely clear what the political repercussions of the collapse of the Berlin Wall would be, but throughout the decade and beyond. The ‘nothing-has-changed’ scenario painted by Cliff meant that the IST organisations, particularly the SWP in Britain, but not exclusively, could continue with fanatical zeal to organise and build their organisation – involving a rapid turnover of membership – on the premise of a radicalised period. With their advocacy of simplistic ideas and slogans such as, “One solution, Revolution!” they took no account, whatsoever, of the recession in the broad consciousness of the working class,

For a time, it was possible to sustain such an approach to building a movement but at a cost internally. There was an inevitable questioning within the SWP/IST’s ranks when the false perspectives of this organisation clashed with the reality of the milieu within which their members worked. The consequence was an inevitable swing from sectarianism to opportunism, reinforced by the death of Cliff in 2001; and it was an extreme opportunist adaptation at that. Its manifestation in Britain is the tail-ending of left figures – or those who appear to stand on the left – such as Ken Livingstone, after his expulsion from the Labour Party and while he was campaigning to be Mayor of London in 2000. Livingstone has turned out to be a solid pillar of Blairism, which laid the basis for his return back to the Labour Party! Following his readmission, Livingstone’s first preference vote, during the 2004 mayoral elections, while in absolute terms rising by over 17,600, on a larger turnout, fell in percentage terms from 39% to 34.5%. In June 2004, Livingstone shamefully stated that he would cross the picket lines of the London Underground workers because they would not bow to his diktats in wage negotiations.

The careful attempts of the England and Wales section of the CWI – the Socialist Party – to organise the original ‘Socialist Alliance’ as a holding organisation preparing the basis for a future new workers’ party, was shattered by the entry of the SWP and the sectarian methods they employed. Up to their joining, the Socialist Alliance had been a genuine attempt for different, mostly small, organisations (with the exception of the Socialist Party) to carry out a limited united front tactic, primarily for electoral purposes. This all changed with the entry of the SWP. Using their weight of numbers, in London, in particular with their large petty bourgeois membership, and also their material resources, the SWP insisted on a single ‘line’ predetermined by them. This took the form of opposing others on the left, such as the anti-privatisation and RMT-backed, ‘Campaign Against Tube Privatisation’, in the Greater London Assembly elections of 2000, as well as other single-issue campaigns, which wished to come together with organisations on the left in a common electoral front.