The SWP’s tipping-point ?

November 24, 2007 at 10:27 pm (Jim D, left, political groups, Respect, sectarianism, SWP)

“…by whatever criteria you wish to use, our Party has shrunk to a shadow of the size it was even a few years ago. In many areas where the SWP once represented a chaotic pump of activity that connected with all that was vibrant, energetic and rebellious in the city, now meetings are tiny, bereft of anyone under forty and attended out of duty….A few years ago, almost any campaign or labour movement event in a medium-sized town would incluse a Socialist Worker presence. But over the last eighteen months, of the many such events I’ve attended and spoken at, hardly any has been blessed with anyone visibly from the SWP, or for that matter Respect.”

I have a feeling that the SWP-member, middle-class posh-boy, mockney ‘comedian’ Mark Steel’s critical comments about his organisation’s modus operandi may be more significant than most of us have given him credit for.

Steel, despite having joined the SWP in 1978, is a fairly lightweight figure in political terms, and a good part of his document seems to be a rather laughable (from a supposed “comedian”…) complaint that the SWP hadn’t mobilised its membership for his gigs:

“In the spring of 2006 I did a tour of theatres in Britain , performing my show on the French Revolution, in over forty towns, to a total of twelve thousand people…So before the tour began I spoke at length to members of the Central Committee, on four seperate occassions, about how the SWP could benefit from this, and they decided there should be Rsspect stalls at each venue. I arranged that for each venue there should be as many free tickets as needed, made available for Respect supporters, so that it could be used as a social event, as well as a means for publicising Respect…At not one venue did a single person turn up to do this.”

But what Steel’s bleatings tell us about the present state of the SWP is its loss of elan – or that je ne sais quoi that has been so essential to its survival over the years. After all, by any rational measure the SWP should have been discredited years ago: it expelled the bulk of its working class membership in the mid-1970’s; it failed to recognise the importance of the miners’ strike for the first six months; it has been consistently hostile to womens’ and gays’ self-organisation, its founding “third camp” theoretical positions long ago collapsed into a “second camp” semi-Stalinism; for some years it has promoted the anti-semite Gilad Atzmon…

And yet, until very recently, none of this seemed to matter, and the SWP continued on its merry way as the largest and most influential far left group in the UK.

After the catalogue of u-turns, re-writings of history and general record of opportunism, dishonesty and plain wrongness briefly alluded to above, many of us have had difficulty in understanding exactly how the SWP has managed to hang onto its pre-eminent position on the British left for so long. I came to the conclusion, long ago, that the secret lay not in the SWP’s theoretical positions (most of which – ‘state capitalism’ for instance – are non-Marxist garbage), nor in its organisational methods (which have always been simply chaotic), but in its reputation for being…well… more ‘human’, ‘down-to-earth’, and ‘realistic’ than most of its competitors.

To understand what I mean by that it’s worth recalling the SWP’s predecessor as the largest British far left group, the SLL/WRP:  a vicious, dictatorial and ignorantly dogmatic sect that insisted a boom was a slump throughout the 1950’s because it didn’t have the theoretical equipment to come to terms with the ‘long boom’ of the 1950’s; in addition, its leader, Gerry Healy was a vicious thug and political gangster, eventually exposed in the mid-1980’s as a rapist. By then, most of the serious members of the WRP had left and even Vanessa Redgrave and her coterie of luvvies (the “West End Revolutionary Party”) couldn’t save Healy. The WRP imploded, leaving a few preposterous, laughable, offshoots, a few of which survive to mislead gullible people to this day…

In comparison with that sort of grotesquery, the IS/SWP seemed like a serious and honest organisation. In the 1950’s and 1960’s (until 1968), it had been explicitly anti-Leninist, with founder Tony Cliff claiming that Leninism led inevitably to Stalinism, and that Rosa Luxemburg’s model of the revolutionary party was much more appropriate to the conditions of contemporary European society than Lenin’s.

All this seemed like a breath of fresh air to many middle class intellectuals and working class militants who’d been repelled by the bureaucratism, thuggery and dishonesty of the CP and the WRP, and the IS gained, during the early 1970’s, a significant number of working class, industrial militants in factories in the midlands and the North – the sort of people who up until then would probably have joined the CP. It also gained the services of several outstanding intellectuals, including Jim Higgins (from a working class background), Duncan Hallas (who’d been an early supporter of the Cliffite ‘Socialist Review’ group in the 1950’s and then dropped out), and Wally Preston (from the Socialist Party of Great Britain): what all these people had in common  was that they had an intimate understanding of the class struggle, a realistic grasp of the role of the revolutionary party…and in the cases of Hallas, Higgins and Preston, were outstandingly effective and witty public speakers, as was Cliff himself.

This combination of “realism”, contact with a significant vanguard of industrial workers, and political sophistication (in stark contrast with the self-evident lies and self-delusion of the CP and the WRP), made the IS an attractive option for intelligent workers and intellectuals in the early 1970’s.

Such was the appeal of the Cliffites to a wide range of workers and intellectuals, that most were willing to overlook the thoroughly undemocratic expulsion of the ‘Trotskyist Tendency’ (Sean Matgamna and what became the AWL) in 1971…

Cliff’s prediction that Leninsm would lead, inevitably, to Stalinism, started to become a self-fulling prophesy in 1975, when two groups of oppostionists were expelled: the “Workers Opposition” (led by Jim Higgins), and the “Left Opposition” (led by Dave Hughes and Dave Stocking)…these groupings would become the Workers League and Workers Power, respectively. The Workers League soon collapsed, whereas Workers Power continues to this day, albeit with very different politics from its days as an IS-opposition group (for instance, it was vigorously “state capitalist”).

And yet the SWP still managed to maintain its image and reputation as the “sensible”, “realistic” far-left group. It maintained this image even during the miners’ strike of 1984/85…and here, I’ll tell you a little story:

When the strike began in March 1984, Miners’ Support Committees were formed in most large towns and cities throughout Britain. The driving forces behind these committees were usually Labour Party people, often backed up by Communist Party members and non-aligned trade unionists. Where they were present in a town or city, IMG’ers, AWL’ers (then called the WSL), and Workers’ Power, would also be involved. The SWP and the WRP were not involved in Miners’ Support committees.

The reason(s) for the WRP’s abstention is/are too tiresome to go into here; but the SWP’s was very simple: their analysis of the class struggle at that time was one of “downturn”, and therefore the miners’ strike was doomed to failure. It wasn’t until 6 months into the strike that the SWP changed its line and joined the united-front Miners’ Support Committees.

Just after the SWP changed its line and began to give support to the Miners’ Support Committees (having previously sneered at them as “the baked beans brigades” and “left-wing Oxfam”), I met SWP’er Paul Foot at an event in Birmingham. I was in the company of some friends who were SWP members, and because of that he assumed I was, myself,  a member of the SWP: I asked him about the change of line towards miners’ support work, and he said something like: “Thank God that sectarian madness is over: I couldn’t have taken much more… I’m not saying that I’d have left the Party, if the sectarianism had carried on,  but I’d certainly have had to have stayed in the background – I couldn’t have defended our attitude to the miners”; I then asked Foot about who should be held to account and he replied:

“We don’t want name-calling or recriminations; let’s just be grateful that the madness is over”…at this point someone pointed out to him that i was not a member of the SWP, and Foot recoiled, making a sort of “aghgg…hhh…gg!” noise; that was that last time I ever had any contact with him.

In many ways, it seems to me, that Foot and Steel are quite similar figures, and play quite similar roles within the SWP: both are/were  political lightweights, both are/were well-known public faces for the SWP, and both eventually fell out with the sectarianisn of the SWP. Foot, of course, died before his disenchantment with the SWP could run its course (and, in fairness, there is no evidence to suggest that he would ever have left the SWP), wheras Steel seems to be on the verge of leaving after the forthcoming SWP conference…

The likes of Cliff, Hallas and Higgins had the wit, charisma and authority to keep political lighweight “stars” like Foot and Steel on board; the thick, pompous, over-promoted dullard Rees and the chronically uncharismatic Callinicos, cannot do that. The last remnant of the old IS, Chris Harman, is too compromised by going along with their flirtation with clerical fascism (here’s what the Cliffites used to write about it) . I think the Cliff tendency – after years of blagging it – is now, finally – fucked.


  1. Jim Denham said,

    The link to “Socialist Review” doesn’t seem to have worked; here’s what it says:
    “Islam and Reaction (by Jonothan Neale)
    “Recently we have seen and heard a lot about fundamentalist Islam. The Ayatollah’s face stares at us from the television, the insurgent militia moves into Beirut. It isn’t hard for the commentators to explain. Christian west and muslim east have been at each other’s throats since the crucades. There is a rich vein of stereotypes to mine. The Ayatullah and his ilk are ‘mad mullah’s’, ‘fanatics’, and ‘whiling dervishes’. They are reactionary and irrational.
    “For British socialists much of this propaganda rings an uneasy bell. Fundamentalist Islam does seem reactionary, sexist and irrational. Yet we feel a certain uneasiness. We don’t want to be associated with the commentators. It all seems a bit too imperialist, a bit racist.
    “It isn’t. The television may be racist. We aren’t. Fundamentalist Islam *is* reactionary. It is based on the bourgeoisie but appeals far wider groups. It is implacably hostile to socialism, trade unionism and womens’ liberation.”

  2. Darren said,


    have you read any of Mark Steel’s autobiographical books? Unless he’s bullshitting, I don’t get the impression he was a “middle-class posh-boy, mockney . . . . “, and the book’s are fucking funny. 😉

    Btw, I’ve met a few mockneys in the AWL in my time. Nice people as well, I hasten to add. 😉

  3. capacitor said,

  4. Dave Osler said,

    Sorry Jim, but I can’t go along with your characterisation of Paul Foot – probably the finest British journalist of the twentieth century – who I got to know reasonably well before he snuffed it.

    He wasn’t some sort of intellectual lightweight SWP hanger-on, as you portray. He was well aware of the thinking left’s critique of ‘the party’, just too committed to come out into public opposition.

    But you are right to postulate that this is a crossroads for the SWP. The alternatives for what is still the biggest grouping on the UK far left are either a return to class politics or descent into further irrelevance.

    True, the latter is the most likely option. If this were a rational political world, the AWL would have picked up at least a couple of dozen ex-swoppies by virtue of its correct politcal line over the last period. That is hasn’t , probably says it all.

  5. Wer steckt dahinter? « Entdinglichung said,

    […] “joining the party” (unklar, ob RESPECT (es kann nur einen geben!), SWP (hat momentan Probleme), oder beide) for “selling the paper” (nebst Beförderung dieser Zwecke durch Gründung […]

  6. Jon said,

    Well, for a scarred lefty, Denham’s post is a bit less full of abuse than normal. The familiar vein of bitterness is present, of course, but the hatchet’s blade is at least concealed. Steel gets the standard opprobrium – being called middle class and a “mockney”, even (achingly childishly) a “posh boy”. Foot is simply pronounced a “political lightweight”.

    But having said that Denham has reduced the abuse and white noise to a degree where reasonably coherent arguments can be heard. Well done to you, sir.

  7. voltaires_priest said,

    Damnation by faint praise there?

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