This article examines one aspect of the current crisis enveloping the SWP. The SWP has not had a programme, so it has no real strategy for achieving the socialism it claims to support. Instead, the SWP leadership concentrates on the tactics it thinks will bring it new members. In the SWP leadership’s thinking, socialism will come about through an arithmetical increase in SWP members. Allan Armstrong, himself a former member of the SWP and its predecessor organisation, the International Socialists between 1972-82, looks into the history of the SWP’s lack of programme and strategy, and some of the results of its concentration on recruitment tactics.
The SWP is currently undergoing a severe, and possibly a terminal crisis. The immediate causes of this crisis lie in the expulsion of four members for planning to meet to form a faction before the 2013 Party Conference; and the allegations of sexual assault directed against Central Committee (CC) member, ‘Comrade Delta’. As elsewhere in Britain, Scottish SWP members are divided between CC loyalists and dissidents.
Just before this crisis exploded into the public arena, the SWP published a contribution to the Scottish independence referendum debate – Scotland – Yes to independence, No to nationalism. This pamphlet has been written the SWP’s Scottish organiser, Keir McKechnie. SWP organisers are appointed by the CC. So, there can be little doubt, where Keir’s allegiances lie in the current dispute in the SWP.
Keir’s pamphlet highlights one of the SWP’s underlying problems, which has contributed to the party’s crisis. SWP pamphlets are often written to address whatever current issue the SWP leadership wishes to highlight, mainly with the aim of getting fresh new recruits in mind. Thus, Keir writes that the purpose of the SWP pamphlet is “to convince readers that socialists should vote Yes to independence in the 2014 referendum.” The immediacy of his declared purpose, and its elevating of a tactic – in this case voting ‘Yes’ – to an issue of strategy, bears the hallmark of many SWP pamphlets.
SWP pamphlets tend to be ‘of the moment’. They do not account for the party’s past theories, positions and practice concerning the particular issue its leadership has decided to focus upon. The SWP hopes that its new supporters and readers will know relatively little about these. It is assumed that they will only need answers to the immediate arguments they are likely to face in discussions with others.
Although not mentioned in the pamphlet, the SWP opposed Scottish independence up until 2010. However, articles written before this date had not ruled out the possibility of the SWP giving their support in the future, if there was a different balance of class and political forces – or the ‘mood music’ was to change. By 2010, as far as the SWP leadership was concerned, the political situation had changed though. It was time to make a political U-turn. New tactics were needed to bring in those much-needed recruits.
Hence, the SWP’s dramatic U-turn over Scottish independence, completely unconnected to any examination of the underlying principles involved, or the development of a strategy which could maintain an independent Socialist profile within the context of the SNP government’s ‘Yes’ campaign. But, making a complete U-turn over pre-existing positions or policies has a long history within the SWP. A little ‘stick-bending’, though, can always compensate for past miscalculations.
However, major problems arise when important political issues are reduced to a question of tactics adapted to the mood of the moment. The SWP got its fingers badly burned when it adapted to Islamic communalism in Respect, particularly in London’s East End, at the same time as tailing celebrity Left populist, and self-proclaimed old Labourist, George Galloway.
The problems arising from this particular turn contributed to the SWP breakaway, Counterfire, and to expulsions in 2010. However, the lack of any meaningful SWP internal democracy has meant that this has only been the beginning of a growing crisis in the party. The International Socialist Group in Scotland left in 2011. In 2013, the scandal over ‘Comrade Delta’ looks likely to bring about bigger splits.
The SWP CC has been unable to admit its own responsibility for the creation of these problems. It responds to criticisms by resort to name-calling – “anti-Leninist”, “anti-Bolshevik” or “anti-Party”, rather than by seriously addressing the issues raised by its critics. The CC tries to find scapegoats and make life so unbearable that these people leave, or they are expelled – John Rees and Lindsey Germain in 2010, Chris Bambery and Jonathan Shafi in 2011, and Richard Seymour in 2013.
There has always been a certain cynicism involved in the CC’s ‘recruit, recruit, recruit’ tactics. They know that many new members will soon leave, and that others who ask awkward questions will have to be marginalised and encouraged to move on. The CC has always hoped, though, that the number of members retained will exceed the numbers who leave.
However, the CC’s artificially boosted official SWP membership figures suggest they have known for some time now that these tactics are not working. Without a strategy, though, their only response is to look for another ‘magic bullet’ – a new campaign, a new front organisation, which they hope will reverse the decline.
In contrast to SWP CC’s approach, it is vital that Socialists can identify the underlying principle/s when confronted with a particular issue. Only then can we develop a clear strategy that goes further than merely reacting to the situation we currently face. When we have a strategy, the wider significance of the immediate issues can be understood more easily. And, it is only then that suitable tactics can be developed. If tactics are not to lead to new political dead-ends, they should flow from a strategy designed to help us reach our ultimate aim – the complete transformation of society.
This is why Socialists need to develop a programme that outlines a path towards our desired aim – socialism/communism. Such a programme can draw upon the principles developed in past struggles. These can assist us when it comes to drawing up a strategy.
Using this strategy, we can then find tactics designed to address the various struggles – political, economic, social and cultural – which are taking place, in the here and now. Principled tactics are those, which help us to develop independent class organisation, based upon and accountable to our class.
The SWP, though, does not agree with the need for a programme. Its predecessor, the International Socialists (IS), although it came from the Trotskyist tradition, reacted to some of its leading characteristics, whilst still retaining others. For orthodox Trotskyists, having a programme, specifically Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Programme, had become as much a shibboleth as a guide to action. This became even more obvious as the purchase of Trotsky’s programme upon contemporary reality decreased as the decades rolled on.
Therefore, a ‘revisionist’ Trotskyism developed in response to this old orthodoxy. It redefined the Transitional Programme as a transitional method that allowed its various supporters to adapt to new and unforeseen situations, and in particular, to relate to official Communism or to Left social democracy. The debates about the degree of permissible compromise around the orthodox Trotskyist programmatic legacy contributed to the emergence new factions, organisational splits and the notorious ‘57 varieties’ of Trotskyism.
Looking from the outside of the official Trotskyist tradition, SWP spokespersons have for a long time highlighted this political fragmentation. This became one publicly declared reason why the CC felt no need whatsoever for a programme. Programmes lead to debates, debates lead to factions and factions lead to spits!
But this abandonment of the need for a programme, along with the associated requirement for meaningful internal political debate, has been very much a case of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. The effect has been to leave the SWP CC with sole responsibility for deciding the Party’s changes of line, based on their self-proclaimed ability to divine the current mood of the working class.
It is upon the assessment of such moods that the CC bases its tactics for getting new recruits. These tactics are supposed to be ratified automatically by the SWP’s subordinate bodies. Strictly speaking, SWP members have the right to form a temporary faction in the run-up to their Annual Conference. However, the formation of a faction is always seen as a threat by the CC, not as an opportunity to have a proper debate and to reach a higher level of agreement after a democratic discussion of differences. This has been very clearly shown over their handling of the current crisis in the party.
However, one of the main reasons why it is necessary to have tendencies or faction rights is the fact that there can be sharp changes in the political situation. This leads to the need for political reassessments and new responses. Organised tendencies or factions are a good way to address such situations in order to conduct proper discussions and debate. Class struggle just does not observe the SWP’s official annual calendar for permitted internal debate. Lenin could not have produced his famous April Theses in the SWP. He would have had to wait until next January’s Annual Conference – so no October Revolution!
Thus, without a programme, which would allow democratic discussion and debate over any necessary (or unnecessary) changes, SWP members have to wait until the CC comes to its decision, before receiving their instructions from the CC appointed full-timers and finding out what tactics they have to adopt and place before the wider movement, preferably in front organisations the CC controls.
But since the CC’s tactics are not drawn from any strategy based on a programme to achieve socialism/communism, they have the opposite effect to that of developing of independent class organisation. They tend to tail-end, and hence to build-up, illusions in Left social democratic or Left populist trade union bureaucrats and politicians, who are currently seen to enjoy more support. These are the kind of people who are invited to gatherings of SWP front organisations.
Yet, as we have seen, the wider Left’s attempts to build up organisations around celebrity politicians – whether it be Ken Livingstone, Arthur Scargill, Derek Hatton, George Galloway or Tommy Sheridan, have soon come unstuck. And, attempts to replace Right trade union leaders with Broad Left trade union leaders have usually led to the latter quickly replacing the former as representatives of the narrow interests of the union machine.
This takes us further away from Socialists’ most pressing need at the moment – the development of independent class organisations, accountable to our class. These are the organisations – economic, social, cultural and political – that are required before we can begin the revolutionary transformation of society made so urgent by the ever-worsening prospects the multi-faceted crisis of capitalism offers humanity today.
Allan Armstrong, RCN, 10.3.13
For good collation of material of about the ongoing crisis in the SWP from all viewpoints see:-