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

Marxists in broad formations

Materially rich, the SWP is ideologically poverty-stricken, especially when it comes to elaborating the complex strategy and tactics needed to lay the foundations for new formations of the working class.

The Socialist Party argued for a federal approach inside the Socialist Alliance, through which common understanding and mutual confidence could be developed, and genuine agreement on programme, etc. could be debated and arrived at. This was totally rejected by the SWP. They wished to impose their approach, their programme and their methods, none of which have proved to be successful in any serious struggles of the British working class.

This has not stopped the SWP leaders from acting like peacocks when pronouncing on the ‘importance’ of their party. This was shown by John Rees in his reply to Murray Smith (an ex-CWI member and now once more safely ensconced within the ranks of the USFI, which he originally left to join the CWI). In a debate over ‘The Broad Party, the Revolutionary Party and the United Front’, Rees states: “Murray Smith treats the development of the Socialist Workers’ Party as if it were only tangentially related to the state of the class struggle when in fact that was the central, and publicly discussed, heart of the matter”.22

In what way was the SWP “central”? Militant, the British section of the CWI, led two mass battles against the Thatcher government: in Liverpool between 1984 and 1987, and against the hated poll tax. In Liverpool, this involved solid industrial sections of the working class, who not only supported the central strategy and tactics, but rallied to Militant as a political organisation, which, at one stage, organised 1,000 members under its banner on Merseyside. During the British miners’ strike (1984-85), we recruited 500 miners and had a significant effect in key areas of the NUM. During this period, the SWP denounced others who were leading struggles, sometimes in shrill denunciatory tones or, on other occasions, adopted a totally passive tone. For instance, in the anti-poll tax struggle, Tony Cliff, at a meeting in Scotland, infamously suggested that not paying the poll tax was similar to not paying your bus fare! The consequence of this was that the SWP played absolutely no role in the anti-poll tax struggle. They did not have a single member on the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation National Committee. But this did not stop them from claiming later, out of earshot of Militant supporters, both in Britain and internationally, that they were “really leading the campaign”.

The consequence of this, as Rees admits, is that for virtually 20 years his organisation was hermetically sealed off from the real developments amongst the working class including setbacks. Instead, they were nourished on a diet of perpetual radicalisation, particularly in the 1990s which, as we have seen, just was not there. For a time, it is possible for an organisation based upon unstable petty bourgeois elements and not workers, to act out of consonance with objective reality and to yet grow. But it inevitably faces a day of reckoning when the internal political diet does not correspond to the daily reality confronting its members. In that situation, a party like the SWP can swing from the most ingrained sectarian methods, utterly repellent to workers and those on the left, to gross opportunism.

This is indicated on many issues: from the IST/SWP’s stance on the Iraq War and their tactics in the ‘Stop the War Committees’ to, in Britain, most noticeably, their analysis of the Labour Party and its class character. By their own admission, the IST/SWP have swung from one position to another: “During the long boom, a small organisationally loose but ideologically clear propaganda group, the International Socialists (IS), was all it was possible to build,” according to John Rees. He then claims: “In 1968 the IS grew. Over the subsequent years it gained a small but real working class implementation… it became a democratic centralist organisation… thus more open and agitational work, including the establishment of rank and file papers… went together with the more ‘Leninist’ form of party organisation.”23 What Rees is not prepared to admit is that this way of working inevitably brought them into collision with the few workers who entered their ranks; and who very quickly left. For instance, ‘Rank and File Groups’, in Leicester and elsewhere, were arbitrarily wound up by Cliff personally as soon as the miners showed the slightest independence from the leadership’s line. Those who were involved in these groups were invited to join the SWP forthwith, with few responding positively to this offer.