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

SWP’s reformism

Reformism – a programme which restricts the workers’ struggle to allegedly “achievable aims” and fosters the illusion that society can be transformed by incremental changes over a protracted period – was energetically combated by Marxists from the time of Marx.

In the era of globalised capitalism, with its programme of brutal neo-liberal attacks on the working class, these ideas are more Utopian than they have ever been. This does not mean that Marxists must not fight in defence of every past gain or that they should not struggle for improvements in the conditions of the working class. However, we must constantly seek to explain that, even when victories are achieved, these of necessity are of a temporary character – given with the left hand and taken back by the right when conditions are ‘ripe’. It is therefore necessary to build a powerful working class force that can carry through a socialist transformation in the organisation and running of society.

The forces of socialism and Marxism were thrown back in terms of numbers and support in the 1990s. But the viability of democratic and liberating socialism, as propounded by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, retains its validity even in a period of relative isolation of the forces which argue for them. The march of events, the breakdown of capitalism, creates changes in the conditions and ultimately, therefore, in the consciousness of the working class. It can and will bring these ideas back onto the political agenda. That process is already under way, as explained earlier, and will develop at a ferocious pace, probably before the first decade of the 21st century is out. While fighting for socialism, the CWI is closely involved in the day-to-day struggles of working people.

Unlike others who are prepared just to comment from the sidelines, the CWI has never hesitated to get involved in the day-to-day struggles of the working class. Hence, our achievements in a number of countries. Our British section, a pioneer in many fields, as mentioned above, now has the most successful electoral record of any party to the left of the Labour Party in England and Wales. Moreover, in the trade unions we have a more significant number of members of the Socialist Party on national committees and at the base than any other trend on the left in Britain. This has only been possible because our trade union cadres and our members generally have dug roots in local areas and within some of the trade unions.

At the same time, we have never hidden our ideas and our programme, openly proclaiming ourselves as socialists and Trotskyists. More importantly, we have expressed the general ideas of Marxism in a manner that can be grasped by the most developed working men and women. This is why the CWI, in general, has managed to gather some of the best working class fighters into its ranks, although still too few for the tasks ahead.

The IST, exemplified by the SWP in Britain, is generally regarded with suspicion in the workers’ movement internationally. In every major strike in Britain – be it the recent firefighters’ dispute, the local government workers’ strike, the struggle at Heathrow, etc. – whenever Socialist Party members visited picket lines, they were invariably met with the demand: “You are not members of the SWP, are you?” Only after assuring these workers that we were not, were our comrades able to get a hearing! The SWP’s attitude was, in the past, accompanied with an extremely derogatory approach towards left leaders. They were denounced as “sell-outs” by the SWP in a most vicious sectarian fashion. This, of course, was during Cliff’s 1990s period of “Back to the 1930s in slow motion”. His hyperbole led the SWP to the ludicrous claim that if they had 15,000 members and 30,000 supporters on the mass miners’ demonstration of 21 October 1992 – probably 100,000 people participated on this demonstration – the SWP could have led a march on Parliament, Tory MPs would not have dared to support Michael Heseltine’s pit closures programme, and John Major’s government would have collapsed!25

As we have seen, with some delay, this clash with the reality of the 1990s has, in turn, led the SWP to swing through a 180° arc over their own heads to a total adaptation to left figures under a newly-discovered need for “unity of the left”. This involves a political kow-towing to radical and left figures in the ‘Stop the War Coalition’, and in their latest front, Respect. They have done the same thing in trade union elections. For instance, in the teachers’ union, the NUT, the SWP blocked with the non-socialist Campaign for a Democratic Fighting Union (CDFU) against the only serious left-wing candidate, Martin Powell-Davies. The SWP’s zigzag in policy has inevitably created tensions in their ranks, which is a guarantee that the constant turnover in their membership – always a feature of this organisation – will be aggravated. This could also result in major splits.

As they have shifted towards the right, the SWP has also shifted in the direction of the USFI. They claim that the core of “The revolutionary left… comprises those Marxist organisations that managed to survive the defeats of the 1980s [?!] – most importantly on an international scale, supporters of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) and the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI)”.26  By this kind of sleight of hand, the IST hope to wipe out the CWI – excise it from the world political stage, with its considerable implantation in a number of key countries, which far exceeds that of the IST. Moreover, the IST is, in general, composed of radical petty bourgeois, particularly in Britain. The CWI’s Socialist Party is numerically smaller than the SWP at the moment (although this was not the case in the 1980s). Nevertheless, the Socialist Party has a more significant position in the organisations of the working class and has had much more of an effect on the political consciousness of the working class and the labour movement.