The Socialist Review Group, later the International
Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party, was founded as a challenge to
prevailing orthodoxies on the left around the world. The tendency’s three
insights, the pillars of IS theory, were state capitalism, the permanent arms
economy and deflected permanent revolution. They were summed up in the slogan,
Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism. Together they helped see the idea of socialism from below
through the marginal years of the cold war and into the rebellion of the 60s
The latter two pillars are no longer applicable and, in a
world of near universal neo-liberalism, the theory of state capitalism, though still
relevant in various debates, such as anti-imperialism, Bolivarianism and so on, is clearly not as potent as in the days of Actually Existing Socialism.
It is not surprising (even before the current crisis) there has been discussion going on; what holds together the
In recent years it had been a theory of left-realignment, that we should fill the vacuum left by the rightward shift of the Labour Party
just as public opinion turned sharply social democratic. Such a theory may have
foundered with the Respect project but it was based both on actual events, Feb
15th by no means the only one, and historical precedent. Most new
developments in the labour movement have come from a combination of splits and
realignments. In Britain,
for example, the original CPGB was founded in 1921 out of four separate parties
supportive of the Russian revolution. Trying to build an organization that dug
under the foundations of the Labour Party made sense.
What guides SWP today? What makes
the party stand out?
Often it’s put down to democratic centralism, but such a
term means different things to different people. Democratic centralism is often
attributed to Lenin as a key innovation, sometimes this is blurred with
vanguardism, another ‘Leninist’ term. Independent initiative is contrasted as
federalism, something to be wary of. Even in Lenin’s What is to be Done the reorganisation of the party as a collective
of professional revolutionaries dedicated to distributing newspapers, posters,
leaflets and on, was meant to encourage independent initiative: the ultimate
aim being a simultaneous (or practically simultaneous) uprising among the
diverse and dispersed people suffering under the Russian Empire. But step into
our time again, a party whose point of differentiation is its own internal
organisation is a step away from a party that exists only to perpetuate itself.
The implosion of Respect and the
decline of the anti-war movement led to a retreat from large-scale alliance
building. I think this was practical at the time, for one thing no one else on
the left really trusted the party. The fragmented response to the austerity
drive so far also doesn’t lend itself to broad fronts. Nonetheless necessity
has been turned into virtue.
Theory, such as it is, appears
improvised. Slogans seem directed toward the needs of the party (or rather
party apparatus) rather than the class. One particular bugbear of mine is the
description of the coalition government as “nasty but weak”. Nasty, certainly,
but is it weak? There are three mainstream parties, each committed to a variety
of austerity. The 'government' has an effective majority of over 600 and only significant
social upheaval is going to change that. All significant organizations in civil
society, crucially the trade unions, are bound to the mainstream parties, part
of the deadlock. “Nasty but weak” makes no sense as outward analysis, but it
helps to dragoon members into building the next big thing to prove we “punch
above our weight”.
Part of a democratic renewal of the
SWP will be renewal of its theory. In particular the party must rededicate
itself to left-realignment. Is there potential for a British Syriza? No matter
how “weak” this government may be we are fools if we think we can lead any
fight back by ourselves.