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 and 70s.
The latter two pillars are no longer applicable and, in a world of near universal neo-liberalism, the theory of state capitalism, though still relevant in various debates, such as anti-imperialism,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 SWP today?
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.