Programme and Party

The SWP's main problem is that it is "not big enough", says Paul Foot. Size isn't everything, reckons Mark Fischer

(Editor’s note: The following article was originally published in the Weekly Worker. The “Socialist Workers Party” referred to in the article is the British Trotskyist organization founded by Tony Cliff, previously aligned with the U.S. International Socialist Organization, and with which it still shares its politics. We reproduce it here as the problems of sectarianism and bureaucratic centralism raised by the author apply equally well to Marxist organizations anywhere in the world.)

Socialist Review is the middlebrow monthly of the Socialist Workers Party. While it generally avoids the patronisingly dumbed down tones of the postage stamp snippets in Socialist Worker, it rarely carries a genuinely thought-provoking article. January’s issue was an exception – in a way.

I recommend to all comrades a piece by the outstanding investigative reporter, Paul Foot (‘The party’s just begun’ – all quotes from this article unless otherwise stated). Comrade Foot makes the case that to achieve socialism “spontaneous activity is not enough” and that “we need collective organisation”.

However, the content of the article underlines once again that the method of the SWP actually remains that of adaptation to spontaneity. Moreover its concept of ‘party’ is a deeply sectarian one. Ironically, the one truly interesting feature of comrade Foot’s short article is what he cannot bring himself to say, not what he actually gets down on paper.

Over two pages of argument, the comrade cannot bring himself to tap out the word ‘programme’. It is from this vacuum at the heart of SWP politics that all the problems, inconsistencies and opportunist weaknesses of its practice flow. SWP writers have been consistently allergic to the ‘P’ word.

Writing at the time of the 150th anniversary of the Communist manifesto, for example, Dave McNulty and others told us that it had become “one of the most popular pamphlets of all time” (SR January 1998). Again, in seven pages of fulsome praise of this pivotal work, the SWP journalists cynically manage to avoid actually telling us at any stage what it was – that is, the programme of the Communist Party.

But this is not simply a question of linguistic eccentricity. As an organisation, the SWP prides itself on having no programme. Leading members boast of its absence. As Maureen Watson told a session on ‘Centrism and ultra-leftism’ at the SWP’s annual ‘Marxism’ school in 1990, “Lenin would be turning in his grave at the thought of being bound hand and foot by a programme” (cited in Republican Marxist July 1990).

In case readers were wondering – yes, this is the same Lenin who repeatedly wrote of the “tremendous importance of a programme for the consolidation and consistent activity of a political party” (VI Lenin CW Vol 4, Moscow 1977, p229). Comrade Watson’s foolish throwaway remark is very instructive, however. It shows us not that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were wary of being “bound” by a programmatic document.

In truth, it is the leadership of the SWP that view these things as unnecessary encumbrances to building their ‘party’. For example, before the two acrimoniously parted ways, the SWP leadership fought with its fraternal organisation in the United States over tactics in the anti-capitalist movement. Alex Callinicos – an authoritative and long-term member of the SWP’s inner elite – wrote that the US organisation was foolish to believe that “the way in which revolutionaries differentiate themselves within [movements] is by ‘putting forward the arguments’ which set us apart …”

Instead, it was in “being the most dynamic and militant force in building the movement in question that we distinguish ourselves and draw new people towards us”. In other words, if it moves, chase it. Hand out loads of placards. Convince people that joining the SWP is simply the natural next step demanded by the politics they already have – whether those politics are pacifist, left reformist, whatever. Then, once they are in ‘the party’, they can be ‘educated’.

With this method, ‘Marxism’ is kept as the preserve of the ‘party’: any old crap politics will do for propagation in the movement as long as they facilitate recruitment to the organisation. Put another way, the SWP tails spontaneity in order to build itself – a cynical and unMarxist approach. This explains its advocacy of left Labourism as being appropriate for the Socialist Alliance or pacifism for the Stop the War Coalition.

In the absence of a coherent political method – codified in a programme – the SWP reduces the question of revolutionary unity to organisational unity in the ranks of the SWP. Paul Foot impresses on us the “need for coordination, for linking the different and disparate struggles of the dispossessed … This not just a matter of strikes … It involves coordination on every issue that constricts working people …”

Thus he argues against a “new objection” he has encountered to joining a revolutionary party. “Why do I have to join a party?” some people ask him. “Why can’t I just take part in campaigns such as Globalise Resistance or the campaign against the war in Afghanistan?” In response, comrade Foot asks, “Where did these campaigns come from? How can they be sustained? … They required organisation – yes, leadership.”

The article finishes with the flourish: “Of all the socialist parties in Britain today by far the largest, by far the most disciplined, by far the party most likely to organise wider campaigns in a non-sectarian manner [debatable, to say the least - MF], is the SWP, whose main … fault is that it is not big enough.” So, join up. Simple isn’t it? In fact, the unity that needs to be fought for between the “disparate struggles” our class and the oppressed wage under capitalism is primarily a political one.

A revolutionary programme crystallises the generalised, strategic line of march the working class needs to take it from today’s conditions to those of revolution. Thus it is able to unify all the partial struggles of the day – be they on wages, against racism, sexism or the monarchical constitution – into a general assault on the state. It is by intervening in struggles in imaginative, responsive and militant ways that communists fight for this programme.

To the extent that they are successful, spontaneity is overcome, genuine working class unity forged. Viewed in this light, comrade Foot’s method – the method of his organisation – actually perpetuates sectionalism. The only spurious ‘unity’ the comrades seem able to offer is simply to join the ranks of the SWP itself. But without real political cohesion, what type of ‘unity’ are we talking about here? Can it be a genuinely democratic unity?

Any comrade with a degree of experience of the revolutionary left will find comrade Foot’s criticisms of the Labour Party’s reliance on focus groups to formulate policy ironically amusing. He tells that it is “the exact opposite of any genuine democracy. That depends entirely on the process of argument, of challenge and counter-challenge.” Are we being told that the inner life of the SWP consists of an “argument, challenge and counter-challenge” to the abrupt policy turns of the leadership?

Nonsense. It is established fact on the British left that the SWP has a regime of bureaucratic diktat. That dissenters are systematically sidelined or turfed out. As one group of ex-members put it, “Successive layers of cadre are driven out of the party, or into passivity in the party, every time the leadership makes one of its characteristic ‘turns’” (ISG Group Democracy and the SWP1994, p11).

While the degree of latitude the SWP may allow its top apparatchiks and luminaries like Paul Foot may be quite wide, for every layer of the party below them a bureaucratic ‘discipline’ prevails. Fundamentally, this flows from the sect-project of the SWP. Since it subordinates principle to the organisational growth of the group, the last thing the leadership needs is a standard, or reference point, in the form of a revolutionary programme against which it can be judged; still less an independently-minded rank and file, confident that they can openly voice criticisms and win people to their point of view. What the SWP does have though is “discipline”.

Comrade Foot tells us that, “It is precisely that discipline and that ability to act together that provides the party with its greatest asset: the self-confidence of its members, a self confidence that flows from the knowledge that when we think, debate and act we do so with others inspired by the same ideas and the same objective” (my emphasis – MF).

Pardon? The same ideas? So what’s the point of debating? If Paul refers here to the broad overarching ‘ideas’ of socialism and communism, a revolutionary road rather than parliamentary, then fair enough. But these are covered by the phrase “the same objective”, of course. If a presumption of SWP ‘discipline’ is that its membership has “the same ideas”, then disagreement becomes an act of indiscipline, a challenge not simply to the majority, but to the organisational integrity of the group itself.

In this way, someone with different ideas becomes an enemy of the party and is treated like a traitor. Ask any comrade who has been expelled or more ‘informally’ ejected from the SWP, or perhaps a comrade who has been driven into passive cynicism and simply renews membership once a year and attends the occasional rally. There are plenty enough of them.

Comrade Foot illustrates that neither he nor the organisation that has trained him over several decades has a notion of what real discipline in a workers’ party entails. In sharp contrast to what prevails in today’s SWP, Lenin defines it in this way: “… universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as it does not disturb the unity of a definite action” (VI Lenin CW Vol 10, Moscow 1977, p442).

Indiscipline means disrupting the work of the organisation, “a boycott …, standing aloof from positive work or … cutting off financial resources” (ibid Vol 34, p223). Nowhere does Lenin even hint that having ‘different ideas’ might be an act of disloyalty to the party.

Of course, there is perhaps a question mark over comrade Foot’s identification with this revolutionary strand of history in the workers’ movement altogether. He is renowned for being on the right of the SWP. In his article, he formally concedes: “We can learn a lot from the Russian Revolution, from Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party.” But, echoing the philistine dismissals we often hear from Labourites, he adds “that was a long time ago” and, anyway, “most people equate Russian socialism with the horrors of Stalinism”.

Thus he can correctly write that building a revolutionary party today “involves ” linking current struggles with those that have been waged in the past … We have a history … that needs to be learned, studied and blended into the struggles of today.” Very true. So I wonder why the comrade does not mentioned the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 anywhere in his article? “The Great Unrest of 1911-14″ is there. As is “the massive wave of industrial struggle after WWI”. “The General Strike of 1926″ gets a name-check. But no Communist Party.

The comrade’s focus of political attention is made apparent when he goes on: “If socialists are to achieve anything, they have to come together in a party. Over the last century hundreds of thousands of socialists responded to that obvious conclusion by joining the Labour Party … An effective socialist party has to break with that tradition … It has to be a revolutionary party.”

Of course, the CPGB represented the first and – so far – the only truly significant ‘break’ from that poisonous tradition of Labourism. Perhaps the world movement that it was part of – Lenin’s Third International – with its emphasis on the need for programme, its culture of open debate and polemic and its rigorous adherence to principle might have a lesson or two for us today?

Within the ranks of the SWP – at every level – there are comrades who question the orientation of the leadership on the party question. In England this manifests itself concretely in the attitude towards the Socialist Alliance. Such comrades see Paul Foot’s formalistic and deeply unconvincing justification for the SWP’s ‘small mass party’ posturing as clearly at odds with the political realities of left unity as it develops. It is high time such comrades challenged these ideas. Openly, in a genuinely disciplined, Leninist type of way.