Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
Historical Roots of the SWP
The SWP today finds its ideological roots in post-1945 British Trotskyism, which split into three main trends. What became the Workers' Revolutionary Party (WRP) was a group initially led by Gerry Healy, who was, for a while, the main representative of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International, led by Ernest Mandel, Livio Maitan, Pierre Frank and Michael Pablo. Healy's organisation became notorious for its virulent sectarianism, combined with hooligan methods reminiscent of Stalinism, deployed internally but also against its rivals on the left. It also opportunistically sought during its 'Socialist Outlook' period in the 1950s to merge with left MPs on a minimum reformist programme.
The trend from which the present Socialist Party began, preceded by Militant, came from the current led by Jock Haston, Ted Grant and the Deane brothers, particularly Jimmy. They had basically a correct position towards world economic perspectives and, initially at least, on perspectives for the Labour Party. The Labour Party then was not a favourable milieu for Marxists because of the beginning of the world economic boom and the strength that this gave to right-wing Labour reformism. Ted Grant played a progressive role ideologically for an important historical period, but he was inept at organisation and internal debates. Although he was generally politically correct at this stage, he therefore lost out in the struggle between different trends within Trotskyism, becoming the weakest group emanating from post-war Trotskyism. While initially opposing, correctly, work in the Labour Party in the late 1940s and 1950s, he nevertheless capitulated later, suggesting ex-post facto reasons for this: "In or out of the Labour Party, Marxists could not gain." In reality, a more fruitful tactic would have been to concentrate in the trade unions at that stage, in preparation for work in the Labour Party in a future period, when it would become radicalised through the development of events, as subsequently transpired.
The other trend was the International Socialists led by Tony Cliff. The theoretical foundations of this grouping were the ideas of 'state capitalism' which, ironically, Ted Grant provided Cliff with when he flirted with 'state capitalism' in the period of the triumph of Stalinism emanating from the Second World War. Ted Grant subsequently rejected the ideas of 'state capitalism' but Cliff went on to provide a theoretical underpinning to this idea. But his characterisation of the regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe as 'state capitalist' was and is unscientific and superficial from a Marxist point of view. Like his forerunners Burnham and Shachtman in the US in the 1930s, Cliff was reacting subjectively and not objectively to the monstrous anti-democratic political superstructure in these states - authoritarianism, brutal repression of opposition, a one-party regime, etc. - which nevertheless rested on planned economies.
The criteria for Marxists in the class character of a regime is ultimately determined by the forms and ownership of the productive forces - industry, science, technique and the organisation of labour - upon which the state is constructed. From Marx himself, scientific socialists have used these broad criteria to judge the character of a regime and to decide whether it was progressive or not. The broad economic schema traced out by Marx and Engels holds that feudalism, for instance, was individual production by the peasant and the appropriation of the surplus created by their labour garnered by the feudal lords. Upon this basis was constructed the military-feudal state which, despite differences between one regime and another, was fundamentally the same. Capitalism, which superseded feudalism, meant social production by the working class, drawn into the towns and organised in big industry, producing in common and the appropriation of the surplus that they produced by the individual capitalist. Socialism, on the other hand - its highest stage, which Marx characterised as communism - would mean social production and social appropriation. Based upon a society of superabundance, it would be a question of 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs'. All the remnants of class society and capitalism - money, classes, the state, would disappear in a self-governing commune. But in the transition from capitalism to the beginning of socialism - which would only be possible on a world scale and begin with a higher level of production than that reached by the most developed capitalist country, the USA today - a nationalised economy would be the only possible foundation of a workers' state.
We have been given the outline of such a state, not in theory but in the living reality of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the state which ushered from that, until 1923, of what it is likely to be. This was a state which rested on nationalised property forms. There remained elements of capitalism - a surplus created by the labour of the working class, money, the state itself, classes, etc. - which were carried over to the new society. But this was not capitalism by virtue of the fact that planning of the productive forces was now possible for the first time in history, something impossible under capitalism as the current crisis of world capitalism has shown. The former chairman of the US Fed, Alan Greenspan, recently admitted that "he didn't get it" when it came to understanding the new 'financial instruments' which fuelled the latest boom. Eddie George, former Governor of the Bank of England, also confessed he did not understand them either. In other words, the 'captains' on the bridge of world capitalism were 'flying blind', dictated by rather than dictating to the capitalist system.
The regime of the Bolsheviks, of Lenin and Trotsky, between 1917 and 1923 was enormously progressive compared to capitalism, even though the revolution had taken place in an economically backward country. It was, moreover, conceived as a prelude to world revolution. If, as the Bolsheviks envisaged, the movement had spread to Germany, for instance, then the socialist revolution would undoubtedly have taken place on a European scale. Even without the revolution immediately spreading to the rest of the world, a united democratic socialist states of Europe would have unleashed the potential of the productive forces, which in a relatively short historical period would have outstripped even the subsequent spectacular achievements of the US.
However, the siege by the 21 armies of imperialism, the civil war and the economic, military and diplomatic blackmail aimed against Russia by the combined weight of world capitalism and the failure of favourable opportunities for revolution in Europe meant the Russian revolution was isolated. This, in turn, resulted in the rise of a bureaucratic layer, which eventually culminated in the seizure of power in the state by this stratum, personified by the rise of Stalin. Russia was transformed from a relatively healthy workers' state into what Trotsky and the International Left Opposition called a 'degenerated workers' state', dominated by the Stalinist bureaucratic caste. Nevertheless, the main gains of the Russian Revolution were retained and, moreover, demonstrated their spectacular advantage over capitalism in the rates of growth achieved by the planned economy in the 1930s, for instance. This was possible even with the disadvantages of the monstrous, one-party totalitarian regime of Stalin and the bureaucratic elite. From a Marxist point of view, this regime was relatively progressive.
In the same way, despite the horrors of capitalism and the industrial revolution, including slavery, capitalism for a time, according to Marx and Engels was a relatively progressive regime compared to the stultification and stagnation of the productive forces under feudalism. This did not mean that Marx and Engels reconciled themselves to capitalism. On the contrary, they stood for the taking of power out of the hands of the capitalist class and placing it in the hands of the working class and the construction of what we would call today a workers' democracy. The Paris Commune in 1871 showed that the possibility of revolution was lodged in the situation, even in the progressive phase of capitalism. But in the absence of this, capitalism was still a relatively progressive system. But by the First World War it had become an absolute fetter on further progress.
Capitalism, in its emergence and subsequent developments, adopted a variety of state forms. Capitalist democracy - the right to strike, free elections, freedom of assembly, the solution of the national question, etc. - was the most progressive and advantageous from the point of view of the working class and its organisations. Capitalism has experienced different types of 'political superstructures' from 'democracy' to dictatorship - including the most virulent and vicious forms in the Nazis in Germany, Mussolini's fascists in Italy and Franco in Spain. But because the productive forces were still owned and largely controlled by the capitalists, private ownership held sway - those regimes were capitalist. Where a state in the form of fascism arose, it invariably 'politically expropriated' even the individual capitalists themselves, sometimes locking up sections of them, while still fulfilling the role as the state guard over private property in general.
A mechanical or crude 'Marxist' sees phenomena in simple black or white terms - workers' state, non-workers' state - instead of approaching these phenomena from an all-sided, that is, a dialectical, manner. This is the method of Tony Cliff and his followers, including the current leadership of the Socialist Workers Party and their international organisation, the International Socialist Tendency (IST), in their analysis of the Stalinist states. Their reaction to the horrors of Stalinism was essentially an emotional one rather than a sober materialist Marxist approach of supporting what was progressive in these states while implacably opposing the backward, indeed counter-revolutionary, features of Stalinism. This has enmeshed them in all kinds of difficulties, paradoxically, particularly after the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the discrediting of this model.
Korean and Vietnam Wars
Their essentially superficial reaction to events was demonstrated in the different positions adopted by the Cliff tendency to important international events, particularly to wars. For instance in the Korean War they were neutral - 'neither Washington, Beijing nor Moscow but international socialism'. Their stance in the Vietnam War was different. The Korean War was an unpopular war, with a substantial layer of the intellectual milieu, from which historically the International Socialists initially drew support, repelled by the North Korean regime and the role of China in the conflict. But US imperialism, having lost China, was eager to stem the further spread of 'communism' in Asia. They therefore intervened to save the South Korean regime, which had initially lost its capital Seoul to the forces from the North. They subsequently imposed on what became South Korea the capitalist hangman regime of Syngman Rhee.
Marxists in this conflict had the duty to defend what was progressive in the movement in the North and in China and oppose what was retrogressive from the standpoint of the working class. The tendency towards expropriation of the landlords and actions against feudalism in Korea were steps forward. At the same time, while supporting this, Marxists and Trotskyists at the time advanced the idea of workers' democracy. When China intervened, it did so not primarily out of the interests of solidarity with the revolution in Korea but in order to further the strategic interests of the new Stalinist Chinese regime. Nevertheless, its action objectively was to further the progress of revolution, albeit in a caricatured, Stalinist fashion. In this situation, a Pontius Pilate kind of 'neutrality' - adopted by the predecessors of the SWP - was a totally unmarxist approach, because objectively it meant either supporting or acquiescing to the reactionary war aims of the US, Britain and others.
Moreover, the SWP was entirely inconsistent when approaching a basically similar phenomenon in the case of the Vietnam War, which reached its height in the 1960s and early 1970s. As with the followers of the USFI, they gave unqualified, uncritical support to Ho Chi Minh - chanting on demonstrations 'Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh' - against US imperialism. At this stage, the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Britain, Europe and the US - including the middle-class intellectuals, students, etc. - had swung over to implacable opposition to US imperialism. To have taken up the position they adopted in the Korean War would have risked unpopularity amongst this layer. They therefore, opportunistically - even from their own historical-theoretical standpoint - adapted to the movement that was taking place with all its illusions in the Vietnamese NLF and parroted the slogans 'Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh' and 'Victory to the NLF' on demonstrations, alongside supporters of the USFI and others. Militant gave unconditional support to the Vietnamese revolution but warned that even if victorious, the regime that would emerge would be the same as in the North, a planned economy but with a one-party state. This would then pose the task of fighting for workers' democracy in a unified Vietnam.
Occasionally the SWP murmured under their breath about the North Vietnamese regime being 'state capitalist' but this enmeshed them in all kinds of contradictions. Was the North Vietnamese regime progressive? It was based upon a planned economy but with a one-party political regime. If the answer is 'Yes', why the difference in their position on Vietnam to that of North Korea and the Chinese forces during the Korean War?