frontline 8

Where is the SWP Going?

The Socialist Workers' Party is the largest far left organisation in England and Wales, with their Scottish membership organising as a platform within the Scottish Socialist Party. The SWP is the biggest component of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), its international grouping. The SWP and the IST are a factor in the process of international regroupment in which the SSP has played a prominent role, particularly in Europe. How the SWP and IST evolve can make a positive or negative contribution to those processes. Murray Smith looks at the recent evolution of the SWP.

In 1999 the SWP started coming out of a long period of relative isolation and sectarianism in relation to other political forces, a period where there had been little dialogue or common activity with other organisations on the left. It had concentrated, quite successfully in its own terms, on building the organisation through propaganda and conducting its own campaigns (usually via a variety of front organisations). However in the last two or three years important changes have taken place. The SWP themselves say that this really began with the Balkan War of 1999 during which they saw the possibility of building a united front against NATO's war on Serbia.

But the change really became visible to outsiders when they made the turn towards the already existing Socialist Alliance in England and Wales. It began with a decision to participate in the London Socialist Alliance campaign for the London Assembly elections in May 2000.

The new orientation was subsequently generalised, and the SWP quickly became the backbone of the Socialist Alliance nationally.

In Scotland the logical consequence of this turn was the collective entry of the members of the SWP into the SSP in May 2001.

Parallel to this opening up to work with other political forces, the SWP and the IST made a sharp turn to the movement against capitalist globalisation after the demonstrations in Seattle in November 1999, to which they had previously attached little importance.

Turning point

Overall their analysis is that we are at a turning point and that the political situation is improving internationally and in Britain. They cite a rise in industrial struggle, the development of the "anti-capitalist movement" and a weakening of the links between the working class and the reformist parties. Writing in Socialist Worker in the run up to the 2001 general election, John Rees notes that "the break-up of Labour's base is at a very early stage, but it's happening", that "the success of the Socialist Alliances is part of a wider recovery in the movement. The rise of anti-capitalism is another sign. And the embryonic revival of industrial struggle … is a third indicator". 1. The same themes are developed at much greater length in an article by Rees in the SWP's theoretical journal 2. This is an analysis with which we can be in broad agreement.

The revival of industrial struggle both in Britain and internationally is incontestable, and is certainly much less embryonic than it was a year ago. The Labour Party we will come back to. Concerning Rees's second indicator, the SWP invariably and somewhat illogically call the movement against capitalist globalisation "the anti-capitalist movement", a definition which might tend to gloss over the extremely heterogeneous character of the movement and the presence of significant reformist currents within it. However, in numerous articles they recognise this reality and indeed stress the need for revolutionary Marxists to conduct a struggle against these currents, so what might at first have appeared to be a difference over the nature of the movement does not really seem to be one.

The origins of the SWP

The roots of the SWP, as of a number of other organisations, lie in the crisis that affected the Fourth International after the Second World War. Founded by Trotsky in 1938, the international organisation found itself after 1945 faced with a world not only substantially different from that of the 1930s but significantly at variance with some of Trotsky's perspectives. The attempts to come to terms with the situation led to many serious mistakes and sharp disagreements, not only on immediate tasks but over the whole analysis of the post 1945 world order and in particular of Stalinism.

This led to a series of splits. Its British section broke up in 1949-50 and the international itself suffered a major split in 1952-53. By the early 1980s there were half a dozen internationals.

The origins of the SWP go back to 1950. A group crystallised around Tony Cliff, whose main difference was to argue that what existed in the Soviet Union was a form of capitalism, state capitalism, which did not deserve even critical support from socialists. They created the Socialist Review Group, within the Labour Party. The group went from tens in the 1950s, to hundreds in the 1960s, to thousands in the 1970s

It was at that time called International Socialism (IS). It abandoned entry in the Labour Party from 1966 and in 1968 changed the name of its paper from Labour Worker to Socialist Worker. Having recruited many students in the late 1960s, by the early 1970s it had a significant presence in the unions. They organised, by union and by industry, Rank and File groups, which were initially broader than simply caucuses of IS members and sympathisers. In the mid 1970s the publication Women's Voice was attracting and organising women from outside the ranks of IS; the organisation Flame played the same role for Blacks and Asians.


The mid 1970s clearly represent a turning point. Up until this time IS had had quite an open and undogmatic image, with a reputation for tolerating different views. In 1968 Cliff had convinced his organisation, to accept democratic centralism. Over a period of several years a sectarian political line developed hand in hand with an increasingly authoritarian regime. IS's relatively democratic regime was replaced by a highly centralised one and anyone capable of standing up to Cliff was expelled or isolated and driven out 3.

A number of oppositions developed. The main one was the "IS Opposition" which included significant elements of the old leadership. About 250 members linked to this opposition were expelled or left. In the ensuing period, the SWP took on the sectarian face that it maintained for over twenty years. One after the other the Rank and File groups were closed down, as were Women's Voice and Flame.

Cliff developed a theory of the downturn in the class struggle to justify this sectarian line. The organisation settled down to twenty years of "building the revolutionary party", marked by jumping from one campaign to the next and hostility towards the rest of the left. Non-participation in elections was elevated almost to the level of a principle.

IS became the Socialist Workers' Party in 1977. The SWP fell into what the IS tradition had previously tended to avoid, the idea that it was the revolutionary party or at least its nucleus. It was of course far from the only organisation to do so. The Fourth International (FI), the Committee for a Workers Internaional (CWI), the Workers International Legaue (LIT), the Lambertists and others have all at some point seen themselves in this way, each with its own characteristic view of the world, ideas and methods; some still do. For those organisations that have survived into the 21st century breaking from this conception is a precondition for playing a positive role in the process of rebuilding the international workers' movement.

The 1989-91 Earthquake

The events of 1989-91, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a seismic change in world politics and international relations. The world of 1945 was no more. The changes ushered in were to have an impact on the workers' movement and its revolutionary wing, including the Trotskyist movement, though this was far from clear to everyone at the time. It was not hard to see that the collapse of the Soviet Union would deal a severe blow to the already weakened Communist Parties. But the parallel development of social democracy into a direct agency of the ruling class, accelerated though not initiated by the events of 1989-91, was equally important though much less obvious.

For those who had considered the Soviet Union to be socialist its collapse was of course a catastrophe, leading to widespread demoralisation. Most of the Trotskyist movement had considered it to be a degenerated workers' state in which the working class needed to retake power from the bureaucracy by a political revolution.

Once it had become clear that the tendencies towards political revolution had failed and that capitalism was being restored the effect was also fairly devastating. Amidst the general disorientation the SWP emerged relatively unperturbed. This was summed up in the famous remark by leading SWP member Chris Harman, that what had happened represented simply a step sideways (from one form of capitalism to another), a strange way indeed to sum up a process which has led to economic and social regression on a scale with few recent historical precedents.

Faced with a new world situation the CWI suffered a major split, the FI went into a serious crisis, the LIT splintered, while the SWP carried on as if nothing much had happened, claiming the collapse of the Soviet Union was a vindication of its own theory. But of course something had happened. Insulated from the immediate effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union by their analysis of it as state capitalist, they could not remain insulated from the resulting profound changes taking place in the world and in the working-class movement.

The new world situation, the development of globalisation, the rise of the anti-globalisation movement and the crisis of decomposition/recomposition of the workers' movement eventually produced their effects on the SWP.

Crossing the desert

SWP leaders now explain that for 20-25 years they had fallen back on a propagandist "building the party" line, which they admit had overheads in terms of fostering sectarian/conservative attitudes which now have to be broken from. They justify this by the fact that the period was very difficult, that the working class suffered a whole series of defeats. That is indisputable, nevertheless, in the course of this period many battles took place.

The SWP were certainly present in the struggles on the industrial front. But big political battles also took place in the Labour Party, from which they were absent. The struggle of Liverpool City Council took place. They got the whole question of the poll tax disastrously wrong in Scotland

To say that the period from 1976 onwards in Britain was globally marked by defeats does not mean there was nothing else to do but build the party on a propagandistic basis and in opposition to other forces on the left. It was not just a question of difficult objective circumstances but of political choices. When Alex Callinicos says that "their (the ISM/SSP's) prominence is in part a consequence of our past mistakes - in particular the opening we gave to Militant through our failure to intervene in the anti-Poll Tax movement in Scotland",4 he is only telling half the story. The role Militant played in the poll tax movement was not just because the SWP gave it an opening but because Militant first of all made a correct analysis of the significance of the poll tax and then of the tactics needed to defeat it, and subsequently built and led the mass non-payment campaign.


The SWP's re-orientation is based on their appreciation of three factors: anti-capitalism, rising working class militancy and the weakening of reformism. But the weight that you give to each of these three factors is not without consequences on your orientation. The principal expression of the movement against capitalist globalisation in the advanced capitalist countries is the emergence of a layer of radicalised youth who can be won to socialist politics and to Marxism. If you only take into account the rise of anti-capitalism and the rising curve of industrial militancy and its reflection in the unions, you can still come to the conclusion that the main task remains to build the SWP as the revolutionary party.

Not in the same routine propagandist way as for the last 20 years, perhaps. Taking advantage of new opportunities certainly, working with other forces, getting involved in all sorts of campaigns and movements, as the SWP is currently doing, overcoming conservative/sectarian attitudes in their own ranks to do so. But at the end of the day the task is still to build the revolutionary party, - the SWP. No doubt at least a part of the SWP thinks this is all there is to it. But the fact of having broken from the routine of the old way of functioning and being involved in broader movements will be leading others to question long held assumptions. The tension between the old and the new in the context of a rapidly evolving international situation may explain some of the SWP's oscillations and what are, to say the least, different emphases by leading members 5, as well as a series of crises and splits in the IST.

New parties

The SWP has taken account of the phenomenon of the appearance of new parties or alliances that do not fit into the classical reformist or revolutionary categories and that have a capacity to develop. This is not least because they are confronted with such a party on their own doorstep in the form of the SSP. They are also aware of the success of such parties as the Communist Refoundation (PRC) in Italy and the Portuguese Left Bloc. And they are of course directly involved in both the SSP and the PRC.

It is possible to be involved in this process without fully understanding every aspect of it. The FI has, to say the least, an extremely cautious approach to the bourgeoisification of social democracy, which it has still not fully recognised. But it actively participates in the building of new parties in Europe and elsewhere. The CWI on the other hand, had in the beginning a better understanding of the transformation of the traditional workers' parties and the need for new parties, but in practice it stands aside from the real process of building such parties.

The SWP seems to counter pose revolutionary parties, by which it means organisations like itself, to the new parties which are developing 6. This is a false dichotomy. The new regroupments and parties that are appearing represent a moment in the evolution of a growing layer of the working class and youth. They are not chemically pure revolutionary parties but they are capable of evolving (not necessarily in a linear fashion, perhaps involving splits and realignments). The most spectacular example is perhaps the recent evolution of the Italian PRC.

The idea that at any given moment living revolutionary parties contain all sorts of currents, tendencies and trends, not all of them revolutionary, some ultra-left, is hardly new. It was true for the Bolshevik Party and for the parties of the early Communist International. We have to approach the building of new parties with a willingness to work with diverse forces and the patience to let clarification come about through debate on common experience. It is quite sterile to approach the tasks of the present period armed with a norm of what a revolutionary party should be, which is in fact just a bigger version of the existing far left organisations.

The mass revolutionary parties of the future will not be the SWP or the LCR or Lutte Ouvriere or the Socialist Party writ large. They will be open, pluralist and non-hierarchical.

The possibility of building new parties and the international process of socialist regroupment are not simply products of the present more favourable conjuncture or of the rise of the anti-capitalist movement. Alex Callinicos is therefore quite wrong to say "the starting point for any consideration of regroupment on the revolutionary left is the changed situation created by Seattle and the rise of the anti-capitalist movement" 7. The starting point for any consideration of regroupment on the revolutionary left is the broader process of recomposition of the workers' movement.

The starting-point is the qualitative change in the traditional workers' parties, which opens up possibilities for new workers' parties based on socialist, class struggle politics, and which is itself a product of the evolution of capitalism since the 1970s. The conditions for regroupment and for new parties have been germinating for ten or fifteen years. It's just a question of when different political forces understood it. Scottish Militant Labour started to understand it in the mid 1990s, which is why it took the initiative to form the Scottish Socialist Alliance in 1996 and the SSP in 1998. The SWP did not understand it at all then and does not fully understand it now. Nevertheless, with whatever limits, it has shown itself capable of recognising new realities and new possibilities, sufficiently so to commit itself to the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales, to come into the SSP in Scotland and to participate in the European anti-capitalist conferences.

John Rees goes a considerable way to understanding what is happening. He writes: "In many ways working-class reformist consciousness has remained remarkably consistent since the 1970s. But mainstream reformism can no longer deliver these aspirations 8. Talking about former Labour activists, he continues: "A minority have begun to search for a new political home. As they do so, even though they start out from traditional reformist consciousness, the fact that the traditional organisational receptacle for this consciousness is no longer adequate forces them to begin to draw more left-wing conclusions" 9. A little further on he affirms that "this process of recomposition is more advanced than many on the left realise, but it still affects a minority in the labour movement." 10.

The changes in the relationship of the working class to the Labour Party explain why the SSP is a party that corresponds to the challenges of the present period and why, for example, the SWP in England and the LCR in France, in their present form, do not, just as SML in its pre-SSP form, did not. What these organisations are capable of (in principle, but there is no guarantee that they will be in practice), is to makea decisive contribution to the creation of such parties. This would also involve them changing, divesting themselves of outmoded ideological and organisational conceptions. It is not a question of them abandoning what makes them revolutionary organisations, but of getting rid of what stops them acting most effectively in the present situation. Would we therefore consider the SSP as a model, as Callinicos says it is not? Yes and no. No, because you obviously can't just apply what is done in one country to another, all parties are in part moulded by their national context and by the traditions of the workers' movement in their country. But most definitely yes, in the sense that the SSP is the type of party that needs to be built today, rather than the old far left model.

The SWP do not have a clear understanding of this crucial aspect of the tasks of Marxists today. They are trying to grapple with the reality of the SSP and the Socialist Alliance and developments in other countries. But they are trying to do so using concepts that are inadequate.

The united front

What is the Socialist Alliance, what purpose does it serve? The SWP obviously has considerable difficulty with this, as indeed did the Socialist Party. John Rees describes it as a special kind of united front. Now that requires some explanation.

The united front in the beginning was of course a tactic of the Communist International, aiming to achieve unity in action around precise objectives between revolutionary and reformist parties with the double objective of strengthening the fighting capacity of the workers' movement and letting workers see in action the difference between the two. The term has since been widened and can reasonably be used to describe any broad front around a particular issue involving substantial but politically diverse forces. For example, the coalitions and campaigns at the time of the Vietnam war, the anti-globalisation mobilisations and the recent anti-war mobilisations. These involve forces which are revolutionary, reformist or representing different interests, but which agree on a particular point or points. The SWP systematically uses the term to describe not just broad fronts with a specific objective but also such semi-permanent campaigns such as the Anti-Nazi League and Globalise Resistance. Although in principle open to anyone these are in fact fronts for the SWP, which tends to activate them or put them on the back burner in line with its own priorities. It has of course no monopoly over this method. To take only one example, the CWI used Youth Against Racism in Europe in much the same way.

The Socialist Alliance is of course not a united front in any commonly accepted sense of the term, it is a transitional political form on the road to a party, which may or may not come into existence. As Alan Thornett recently pointed out in a reply to Alex Callinicos "the SA is a political organisation with an extensive political platform covering the full range of political issues. It does not just mobilise in elections, but also in the trade unions and on a range of campaigning issues" 11. But that is not how the SWP sees it, and since the SWP is the main political force in the Socialist Alliance, how it sees it is of considerable importance.

Although the SWP define the Socialist Alliance as a form of united front, calling the SSP a united front is probably pushing the use of the concept beyond the limit, so it becomes a centrist party 12, and that in a sense the SSP is being defined as a centrist party by default, for want of a more precise definition.

We should define a party concretely, by the role it plays in relation to the fundamental classes in society and to the state. A centrist party is a party that oscillates between reformism and revolutionary politics. Is that what the SSP does? The reality is that the SSP is playing the role of conducting propaganda and agitation in the working class, taking up all the issues that confront the working class on a national and international level and presenting a socialist alternative. No doubt the party still has weaknesses, but there is no sign of oscillation or of subordination to any other political force.

The SSP was not formed to correspond to anyone's textbook definition of what a revolutionary party is, but to act in a given situation in a given country and to take the fight for socialism forward. Of course we should not let ourselves be unduly preoccupied by questions of terminology. But in both cases the use by the SWP of these terms (centrist party and united front of a special kind) serves to mask the originality of the SSP and indeed the Socialist Alliance. And it can influence how they work in these formations.

To the extent that they approach the SSP and the SA in the spirit of being the revolutionary component of the united front or the revolutionary faction within a centrist party, then they will have difficulty functioning in a constructive way. If they understand the specific character of the SSP then they will be much more likely to do as the ISM does, which is to build the party while developing the influence of Marxism within it, but not to act as a party within the party. And they will be more likely to help the Socialist Alliance develop towards a party.

If the Socialist Alliance in England is going to develop towards a party, at whatever speed, it is crucial for it not to be conceived of as simply an electoral alliance, but for it to take up campaigning activity. However, in the case of the biggest campaign of the recent period, against the war in Afghanistan, it was the SWP itself, which led it. This is consistent with the SWP conception of united fronts, the (real) united front in this case being the Stop the War Coalition. There was no role for the Socialist Alliance, which was seen as essentially an electoral front and a receptacle for disillusioned Labour supporters. Similarly it is not supposed to campaign on globalisation, which is the role of Globalise Resistance. In fact the schema is rather like a spider's web with the SWP at the centre and around it a series of united fronts on particular issues or aimed at particular audiences, the Socialist Alliance being only one of these, albeit of a special kind.

If the Socialist Alliance was seen as a pre-party formation then it would take up campaigning on all sorts of issues and the SWP would function within it more and more as a current, easily the dominant one. This is clearly a step that the SWP is not yet ready to take. But their comrades in Scotland are already de facto in the situation of being such a current. In England, the SWP's pre-conceived schemas are likely to increasingly run up against the developing reality of the Socialist Alliance.

There are no guarantees as to the future evolution of the SWP. There is already on the left in England & Wales the example of the Socialist Party, which also in the mid1990s tried to deal with the new international situation and the recomposition of the workers' movement, initiated the Socialist Alliances and engaged in dialogue with other forces. The result was that the leadership panicked at the consequences of opening up the organisation in this way and retreated to the bunker, at the price of a weakened organisation in England and several splits internationally. It would be a tragedy if the SWP were to go down the same road. At present there is no reason to think it will. But if it is to continue to play a key role in rebuilding the left it will have to question some of its assumptions and deepen its analysis, on the Labour Party and above all on what kind of parties we need to build in the coming period and on the role of revolutionary Marxists within them.


(1) John Rees, "What's at stake ?" Socialist Worker, 2 June 2001.

(2) John Rees, "Anti-capitalism, reformism and socialism", International Socialism 90, Spring 2001.

(3) This is brought out sharply in an article by Steve Jefferys ("How the SWP narrowed into a sect") in the Workers' Liberty symposium on the "IS-SWP tradition"published by Workers Liberty magazine between February 1995 and March 1996. Jefferys was one of IS's main leaders after 1968 and their industrial organiser in the 70s.

(4) Alex Callinicos, "Regroupment", letter to the sections of the IST, 17 May 2001.

(5) We should be wary of engaging in a kind of Kremlinology as to which SWP leader thinks what about the new orientation. However the contrast between the contributions of Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos in the debate with Alain Krivine on the future of the revolutionary left at Marxism 2001 was too striking to ignore.

(6) See his remarks in his article "Regroupment, realignment and the revolutionary left" in reply to points made in my article "The LCR and the question of a workers' party". Both in IST Discussion Bulletin No 1, July 2002.

(7) Alex Callinicos, "Notes on Regroupment", 2 April 2001, sent out with the letter to the IST cited in note 4 above.

(8) John Rees, article in International Socialism 90.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Alan Thornett, "The Socialist Alliance – a united front of a new type?" (a reply to Alex Callinicos's article "Unity in diversity" published in Socialist Review, April, 2002), Socialist Outlook, Summer 2002.

(12) Alex Callinicos, "Regroupment", see note 4 above.