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

Democracy and the party

The SWP has never been able to tolerate oppositions within their ranks.

The CWI and Militant, which has been accused by the SWP and others of being ‘monolithic’, nevertheless experienced factional struggles, and allowed full rights for factions. This was the case before the small Ted Grant split of 1992, and also before the departure of the Sheridan-McCombes leadership of the Scottish section of the CWI in the late 1990s. No such possibilities were entertained for oppositions to exist within the ranks of the British SWP. They are invariably met with suspension and expulsion.

This was clearly the case with the expulsion of the US section of the IST, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), in 2001. Political opposition to the IST leadership, based in London around the British SWP, was sufficient for the ISO (who claimed 1,000 members) to be expelled virtually in toto, leaving a small rump of IST loyalists. The same fate was meted out to those who sympathised with or supported the ISO, such as the majority of the Greek section.

In setting up the IST, Cliff claimed that this was not like other alleged “Trotskyist Internationals”. It was more democratic, he said. There would be no international structures, no elections for international bodies or an international leadership. The task was to build national sections loosely bound together, it was claimed, under the umbrella of the IST. However, as the public disagreements between the SWP leadership and the ISO in the US demonstrated, this was a complete sham. The leadership of the British SWP decided the “line” and any opposition to this was invariably met with disciplinary action, without any recourse by those on the receiving end to discuss through democratic structures, or to appeals, or to the possibility of overturning decisions against them. In other words, this loose, apparently less “rigid” and, therefore, more “democratic” form of international organisation, was exactly the opposite. It allowed the leadership of the biggest section, the British SWP, to dictate policy, programme and organisation to the rest of the IST. You can build an organisation of “obedient fools” in this way but never an organisation of genuine co-thinkers and cadres who are capable of analysing and arriving at decisions independently - which is an indispensable quality for a genuine Marxist and revolutionary leadership.

The same methods were arbitrarily used by the SWP within the Socialist Alliance. This inevitably brought them into conflict with those organisations that remained after the departure in 2002 of the Socialist Party (CWI). Many of them were critical of our decision to leave but were ineluctably forced to tread in our footsteps as the methods of the SWP sharply clashed with the elementary democratic procedures of the united front or even basic collaborative efforts of those on the left.

Having served the SWP’s purposes, the Socialist Alliance in Britain has been effectively wound up; the SWP have decided to put it at the service of the newly-formed ‘Respect’ coalition, which was largely a device for the European elections in Britain in 2004, around the figure of expelled Labour MP George Galloway. The expectation that this organisation could be the springboard for a new mass initiative, a step towards a pre- or actual new workers’ party will be dashed because of the false methods and policies of Galloway’s main movers of this project, the SWP. The sheer opportunist adaptation of the current phase of the SWP is demonstrated most clearly in relation to the Labour Party. Rees, for instance, claims: “Labour remains working class in the following crucial sense: its individual members are overwhelmingly working class.”24  Only a political formation that never experienced the Labour Party in a period when workers actually participated in it and, within limits, decided its policies and actions, could make such an incredible statement.

Working-class participation in the Labour Party is minimal and in many areas of Britain non-existent. We are not the only ones who claim this; Rees should read comments in the left Labour press such as Tribune, which regularly reports on the scorn with which Labour Party members and ex-members view the party today. Those who reluctantly cling to the Labour Party are predominantly the older generation for whom historical inertia – the lack of a real alternative, as well as the need to bar the way to an even more right-wing Tory party – is the main motivation for participating in and voting Labour. But this party has ceased to be working class in its base in the sense that we, and Marxists in general, understood it. In the past it really was a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ with a bourgeois or pro-bourgeois leadership but also with a working class base, particularly from the trade unions.

Bizarrely, the SWP now argues that those on the left and socialists who are still in the Labour Party should remain there. Yet Liz Davies, a former Labour left who collaborated with the SWP for a time in the Socialist Alliance, before she left the Alliance, protesting about the SWP’s methods, stated in her letter of resignation: “In this report [of the 2002 SWP conference], SWP leaders are quoted as arguing that ‘reformists’ should remain inside the Labour Party – quite a different perspective from what was put to me by these same people when they asked me to join in 2001.”

The current futile efforts of the trade union leaders in Britain to ‘reclaim the Labour Party’ will be stillborn. As one of the magnificent Liverpool 47 ex-councillors put it, in relation to Liverpool Labour Party: “Good luck to the left leaders if they want to try and reclaim the Labour Party, the problem however is to find it first.” In its stand on the Labour Party, the SWP is to the right of the best militant fighters in the trade unions, such as in the railworkers’ union, the RMT, and even its leadership, which has effectively disaffiliated in Scotland, and may do so in the rest of Britain. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has taken the same decision following a resolution moved by CWI members through the Northern Ireland FBU. This comes at a time when the SWP and their supporters muddy the waters. Rather than pose things clearly, suggesting disaffiliation from the pro-imperialist, rotten, ex-workers’ party – the Labour Party – and to begin the task of constructing a new party, the SWP merely propose “democratisation” of the political funds of the unions.

The arguments of the SWP today are analogous to those deployed by misguided workers and conservative trade union leaders in the latter part of the nineteenth century, who argued that the working class should remain as a tail of the Liberal Party and “reclaim it”! The same arguments – “the theory of the lesser evil” – are deployed in the USA to justify support for the Democrats against Bush. This is vigorously opposed by the US supporters of the CWI who say: “This argument can be deployed not just for 2004, but for 2008, 2012 right up to 3016 if necessary.” In other words, the theory of the “lesser evil” is an argument against the working class ever forming their own independent class alternative and ties them forever to the coat-tails of bourgeois parties.

The attempt of the SWP to equate illusions in ‘reformism’ (which undoubtedly exist amongst workers) with support for New Labour is bogus. In an era when the working class is subjected to vicious attacks from the bosses and their government, New Labour seeks to slash living standards. When socialism has been officially removed from the political agenda by the ideological campaign of the bourgeois, then it is inevitable there can be widespread illusions in a bygone age of reformism, i.e. incremental improvements in the standards of living of the working class. But how does this equate with New Labour? This party is a vehicle for vicious neo-liberal policies which seek to drive down living standards even further. The differences between New Labour, the Tories and now the Liberal Democrats, who accept widespread privatisation, are only of degree and, on paper, are very small ones at that.

Like so many self-proclaimed Marxists in previous historical periods, the SWP has adopted an increasingly opportunist right-wing stance in an attempt at a shortcut to gain significant political influence. This is not the first time, either, that they have employed such tactics; in the 1960s ‘liberal phase’ of this organisation, they opportunistically adapted to all sorts of episodic and single issue campaigns without attempting to skilfully link this to a socialist alternative. There is, however, some difference in their present stance, which is increasingly aimed at the tops of any movement and not to any radicalised base – i.e. George Galloway through Respect, Livingstone in the past, significant anti-war figures, etc.

Despite their ritualistic proclamations about the need for a ‘revolutionary party’, in practice the SWP is in a rapid evolution away from their previous aim. Like the leadership of the SSP, or of the LCR in France, this marks a significant departure from former positions. This could lead them to become the ideological, and to some extent the organisational, backbone of a sizeable, even mass, reformist, left reformist or even centrist current which could develop in the future on the basis of a sharpening economic or social crisis. While this may not result in a complete formal abandonment of their previous ‘ideals’, in practice, in the future, they will be relegated to the mists of time. Today, they downplay their former ‘revolutionary’ utterances, effectively sidelining their central ‘socialist’ message, in order to put forward a more ‘radical’ broad position which they believe is the only way to reach working class people.

There have been many periods in history when the ideas of socialism appear to have faded almost to extinction. The co-founder of scientific socialism, Friedrich Engels, commented that after the execution of Babeuf at the end of the French Revolution, his socialist and communist ideas were confined to the “back alleys” of Paris and other French cities. However, the embers of these ideas were fanned into a small flame and then roaring fires of working class action by changes in the objective situation and by the growth of the working class in France and elsewhere. The French working class, in the movements of 1830 and 1848, and the immortal Paris Commune of 1871, as well as the dramatic and revolutionary events of the twentieth century, witnessed the inexorable growth of the working class and, with it, the ideas of socialism. The same process has been at work in other countries although the pattern historically may be different.

The premature death of the working class and with it, the ideas of socialism, have been proclaimed on many occasions, including, as we have seen, by Alan Greenspan today. The Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, in the period following the defeat of the first Russian Revolution of 1905-1907, faced a similar situation as that which Marxists have faced in the 1990s. The adherents of Lenin were reduced to a handful and he, as well as Trotsky, was forced to combat those opportunist ideas, even within the ranks of the Bolsheviks themselves. Lenin also fought against all manifestations of ultra-leftism, such as the boycott of the undemocratic Tsarist Duma – a policy that was initially adopted by the majority of the Bolsheviks following the defeat of the 1905-1907 Russian Revolution.