Is the SWP a Revolutionary Party?

Democratic Structures

We apply democratic centralism – or democratic unity – as we sometimes now call it – not just in our individual sections, but also in our International. It is not enough to have an international outlook. It is necessary also to build an international organisation, a world party of socialism, to put this into effect. Only within such an organisation can the lessons of work in other countries be brought into debates such as we have had over Scotland.

Having said this, we understand that decisions taken by the International cannot simply be forced onto reluctant sections. Even after the decision is taken it is necessary to try to convince those still opposed. We are very hesitant about imposing organisational sanctions, especially in this post-Stalinist period, when the emphasis must, in Lenin’s words, be on “patient explanation.” In relation to Scotland, the CWI has registered its disagreement with the Scottish section but has, at the same time, allowed them a period to put their tactics into effect.

We are not fully aware how the Socialist Workers Party is structured. It is clear that yours is a more bureaucratic centralist than a democratic centralist party. Your decisions are from the top down, but without the necessary rights of internal debate guaranteed. Your refusal to allow any democracy in campaigns which you set up is an indication of an autocratic method of leadership which extends into the internal life of your party.

When you change the “line” you do so in the manner of the Stalinist Comintern; a new position appears from above and is declared to have been the position all along. Your membership learn nothing from this. They are not “educated” they are miseducated; they are not left more “informed,” only mystified. An organisation which uses this method of debate can only hold together if there is a revolving door membership, if those with a memory of past positions are heading for the exit as the “line” is changed.

In a genuine revolutionary organisation issues need to be democratically debated, not just on a national, but an international level. You have sister organisations in a number of countries but, as far as we can gather, you have no democratic international structure, you do not hold a World Congress and do not have a properly elected international leadership. In building a revolutionary party it is not possible to proceed from the experience of only one country. After the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks made the building of a new International a central task. Even though faced with civil war and armed intervention by the imperialist powers they took the time to bring together delegates from across the globe to found the Third International. When this International was eventually destroyed by Stalin, Trotsky turned his attention to bringing together the forces of a new revolutionary international. Although a political refugee, hounded across the world by Stalin’s GPU, he devoted much of his efforts during the 1930s to this task.

This is the importance which revolutionary Marxism places on an International. As far as we can observe the SWP organisations around the world are not part of a democratically structured revolutionary International. When you left the Labour Party in Britain in the 1960s you made a call for an International – but then dropped it. Since then you have kept your international structures a secret and have placed no public emphasis on the need to build a new workers¹ International. This is no secondary issue. If there is no democratic world structure for debate and decision making how can decisions be democratically arrived at? How can the sections be guided and assisted? Without a World Congress and elected leadership bodies the line of each section will either be taken by slavishly following the lead and “advice” of the biggest and most influential section or it will be a matter of each section “doing its own thing.” It will either be a “dictatorship” by the dominant section or else a post box, exchanging information. Either way this is not Marxism, it is not the structure of the revolutionary party.

Your “ambiguity” on the issue of structures and on the nature of an international is not some minor, secondary question. It is a serious flaw which must have political consequences. It is not possible to build a mass revolutionary party based on bureaucratic methods. And to carry through the tasks of the socialist revolution it is necessary to build a revolutionary international.

Transitional Programme

On the matter of internal structures you are at odds with the tradition set down by Lenin and Trotsky. So on the question of programme. In preparation for the 1938 Founding Conference of the Fourth International, Trotsky drafted a document, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” which outlines a Transitional Programme for the new International.

Trotsky argued that it was not enough to put forward a call for the abolition of capitalism and the setting up of a new society. Under most circumstances this remains abstract propaganda, far in advance of the consciousness of the mass of the working class. As well as immediate and partial demands which arise from day to day struggles, Trotsky stressed the need for transitional demands, that is those which relate to present consciousness but point the way forward to the need for the overthrow of capitalism. As he put it: “It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today¹s conditions and today¹s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power for the proletariat.” (The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1983, pg 114.)

Trotsky contrasts a transitional programme with the programme of reformism, of Social Democracy. Social Democracy, before its most recent move to the right, maintained the general objective of a socialist society – but at some remote future time! “Meanwhile,” its programme was for reform within the framework of capitalism. Trotsky did not reject the struggle around immediate objectives. He pointed to the absence of any link between the day to day programme and activities and the supposed objective commenting that “the Social Democracy has no need for such a bridge, since the word socialism is holiday speechifying.” (ibid)

The SWP up to now have rejected Trotsky’s advice on the need for transitional demands. Examine your programme set out in the “Where we stand” column of your paper. This does not begin with demands relating to today’s consciousness and pointing forward to the need for socialist change. Rather it has generally opened with a call for “revolution not reform.” Here is a typical example of its opening, taken from your Irish paper of three years ago: “The present system cannot be reformed out of existence. Parliament cannot be used to end the system. The courts, army and police are there to defend the interests of the capitalist class not to run society in a neutral fashion. To destroy capitalism workers need to smash the state and create a workers state based on workers’ councils.”

This is true, but it is a theoretical position, not a programme. Under today’s conditions your call for the smashing of the state and workers councils, when not even the faintest outline of these exist in reality, is abstract propaganda, ultra-left musing, nothing more, nothing less. You put the conclusion which is drawn by Marxists ‹ a conclusion which would only become clear to the mass of the people in a period of revolutionary upheaval and dual power – and don¹t bother with the reasoning which leads to this conclusion. It is as comprehensible to the working class audience as listening to someone read answers without bothering to read out questions.

When it comes to day to day activity, theoretical concepts cannot substitute for a programme. Even the SWP has stumbled on this reality. Your “revolution not reform” maxim, especially in the crude way in which you present it, has no immediate practical meaning for workers. If used as a platform for intervention in the day to day struggles of the working class it will be met – at best – with incredulity and shrugged shoulders.

Those – the SWP included – who try to intervene under an ultra-left “revolutionary” banner tend, in the words of Trotsky, to be “toppled by reality” at every step. Ultra-leftism/sectarianism, when it comes in contact with reality, tends to find its bodily form in opportunism. When intervening from the sidelines the SWP are usually the loudest, most defiant, most “revolutionary.” But when it comes to campaigns that you run, or to any arena in which you have some influence, you almost invariably switch to limited, often quite liberal demands and, forgetting the denunciations of treachery you made a moment before, unite with whomever you can on this programme.

The SWP programme for the future is “revolution not reform.” For the here and now you find that this will not do and so you put forward an “action programme”; that is, such demands as arise to “mobilise the working class to action.” We understand that in formulating this “action programme” the British SWP has recently presented this as an update of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme – despite having for years specifically rejected the idea of transitional demands.

You may now pay lip service to Trotsky on this, but we don not believe you are one step closer to a transitional method when it comes to formulating a programme. Your “action programme” remains an immediate set of demands put forward to try to mobilise people around the SWP and the various “campaigns” you launch. Between this and the need to “smash the state,” set up “workers’ councils” etc., there is no connection, no bridge. The “action programme” is for now, the “revolutionary programme” is for the long term, for later. And so, masked under a heavy camouflage ofrevolutionary sounding phrases, the SWP actually adopts the same programmatic method as Social Democracy.

In recent election material – we quote here from your election platform for the Scottish Assembly – the SWP put forward its “action programme.” This included demands for a minimum wage, trade union rights, and a cut in hours, which we would include in our transitional programme. We would go further however and call for a cut in hours without loss in pay and a minimum wage tied to the cost of living – neither of which your raise. We would also find a formulation to raise the need for public ownership under democratic workers’ management of the biggest industries and financial institutions so that we can take control of the wealth in society and use this to pay for the improvements to services, to living standards and to the overall quality of life which we want to introduce.

Your material is at best foggy on this. Instead of clearly demanding public ownership of the profit making industries it calls for nationalisation of firms which lay off workers. On privatisation it demands a halt to sell-offs and the scrapping of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). There is not even a mention of bringing services and firms already sol off back into public ownership.

Where will the money for reforms come from? Our answer is found under the headline “Tax the rich.” “We say tax the rich and big business to provide the money for the services we need. That money could be used to boost the NHS and education, abolish tuition fees and reinstate full student grants.” That is no different from the position of the Labour left who in the 70s and early 80s avoided the question of public ownership by putting forward the idea of a wealth tax. Except that sections of the left at times went much further than you do. Tony Benn, at one point, advocated the nationalisation of the top 25 companies in Britain.

Your “action programme” is in fact a left reformist programme, a set of radical reforms which could be paid for, within capitalism, by soaking the rich with taxes. This is your minimum programme to be struggled for now. And what of your maximum “revolutionary” programme? Yes, the call for “revolution not reforms” is still there, but as something to be attained in the future. As your Scottish election literature, alongside the immediate “action programme,” says, “In the longer term we have to change the whole basis of society.” (our emphasis) Reform now, revolution tomorrow – it is the classic standpoint of left reformism and has nothing in common with Marxism.

Transitional demands cannot be divorced from the struggle to implement them. It is true that in a general sense the demands which make up the Transitional Programme cannot be fully realised and consolidated within the confines of the present system. This programme is modest – for a decent standard of living to be guaranteed to all – but the fight to achieve it raises the question of where the resources to meet these needs will come from. This inability of the market to deliver poses the need for an alternative, for public ownership of the wealth-producing industries so that additional wealth can be generated to cater for human need, not to satisfy the thirst of a few for profit. That is why this programme is “transitional” – the struggle to achieve these demands brings the working class up against the limitations of capitalism, or, in Trotsky’s words, to the “doorstep” of the socialist revolution.

This does not mean that we put these forward with the rider that they are unachievable, that nothing is possible under capitalism, that action in parliament will achieve nothing, that we must have rule by workers councils – in other words we do not preface our programme with the opening phrases of your “Where we stand.” To do so would be a recipe for paralysis.

Although in a general sense transitional demands cannot be fully realised under capitalism, this is not to say that concessions cannot be won. It is possible to wrest reforms from the system. Faced with powerful social movements, the capitalists and their representatives at times have to retreat and make concessions they do not want to make. During the post Second World War economic upswing real concessions were won and maintained for a whole period. The demand for wages to be linked to prices which Trotsky put forward in the 1938 programme were won in Italy, for example, in the form of the “Scala Mobile,” and in other countries.

In the present epoch of economic crisis and counter reform it is more difficult to win concessions and, if won, the capitalists will move more quickly to take them back, either directly or in some other form. Nonetheless it is still possible to make gains, but only on the basis of a concerted movement, and increasingly of a movement which goes beyond national boundaries. Although the general period is characterised more by struggles of a defensive character it is still the case that reforms can be won, but increasingly only as a by-product of revolutionary struggle.

We do not believe that this is the SWP’s attitude to struggle. For you, reality is simple. Capitalism must go. A revolutionary party is needed and as there is no-one or nothing as “revolutionary” as the SWP all other considerations must be pushed to the side in the frantic haste to “sell papers and recruit.” Above all the party cannot be diverted from this by over-involvement in struggles or campaigns, which in any case cannot achieve anything, but which tie up resources, consume huge amounts of energy on small tasks and which cannot simply be dropped when a new issue arises. In the sectarian world of exaggerated self-importance the tempo of the class struggle must not interfere with the tempo of party activity.

Your day-to-day demands and slogans are not really an “action” programme or a call to struggle. The action you see as necessary is to get people on the streets or into a room so that you can have an audience for your maximum “revolutionary” programme. The “action” programme is any demand or slogan which will achieve this. It is not intended as the first step in a struggle to implement it. Such a struggle would mean that the party would lose the agility to leapfrog to the next issue and to put forward the “action” demands on that subject which might, momentarily, bring a new audience.

Demands which are unrelated to real struggle do not make up a living programme. At best they are propaganda, comment, and not a call to action. If the main concern is to get an audience for the SWP, they can put forward without regard to the consciousness of the working class and without concern about how to develop this consciousness, step-by-step, in the direction of socialism.


Ultra-leftism and opportunism are reverse expressions of each other. In Lenin’s words they are “two sides of the samecoin.” The ultra-left runs ahead of the masses issuing demands which appear abstract and unreal; the opportunist tail ends the working class seeking the lowest common denominator in drawing up a programme. In both cases demands are not related or tailored to existing consciousness and the question of how to develop this consciousness is not even asked.

In real terms the distance between ultra-leftism and opportunism is small and to journey from one side to the other requires only a small step. Those, like the SWP, who regularly make this journey, are unable to relate demands to consciousness and have no need of a programmatic bridge, no use for the transitional method of Marxism. This is why we cannot define the differences between ourselves and the SWP statically in terms of a list of specific disagreements. It is a difference of method. The SWP’s history is one of incessant movement from ultra-leftism to opportunism and back again. You have been consistent only in your inconsistency, your somersaulting from one political position to another, your discarding, disowning and even denying of your old ideas in the process.

There are as many examples as there are areas of work in which you have been engaged. Your recent letter still holds that Broad Lefts in the unions are electoral alliances with left bureaucrats and therefore a stain on “revolutionary purity.” On electoral politics all are “damned” who take the parliamentary road. Yet, in recent SWP campaigns you invite “left” trade union officials onto your platforms and make no criticism of them when they are there. You also have invited speakers from the Irish Labour Party and other political parties and again make no criticism of what they say. Ken Livingstone, in your language, “betrayed” the struggle to stop the Tories closing down the Greater London Council (GLC). Recently he championed the NATO attacks on Serbia and Kosovo. Yet, the SWP in London have run a campaign backing Ken Livingstone to be selected as New Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London.

In the 1970s and 1980s you attacked Militant for being within the Labour Party in Ireland and in Britain – and in other social democratic parties, elsewhere. You argued that we were “reformist” because we worked within these mass parties. Yet, in the last few years your members in Germany, France and in a number of other European countries have joined the social democratic parties and are working within them.

There is a difference between what we did when we were in the Labour and social democratic parties and what you are doing today. We worked within them at a time when they were unmistakably connected to the working class through the trade unions, both in terms of individual membership and broad support. Our view – that the working class in moving into political activity would first turn to these organisations and attempt to change them – was at least partially borne out. In Britain, for example, the Labour Party was radicalised during the early 1980s and shifted significantly to the left, drawing a large section of the working class with it. Within the party we worked openly, always putting forward our ideas and maintaining our separate publications.

During the 1980s the left suffered a series of defeats within these parties. In both Britain and Ireland the expulsion of Militant was a milestone in the shift to the right. The rightward drift has been reinforced during the 1990s. Within all of the social democratic parties in Europe a counter revolution against the left has either been carried out or is being carried through. The umbilical connection with the working class has been broken or is being broken. Those which are not already bourgeois parties are in the process of becoming so.

You chose to dismiss the idea of working within the mass working class parties at that time when the basis existed for fruitful work as part of the left within them. Yet now that they have shifted to the right, are no longer working class in composition and have no prospect of moving back to the left, you have chosen to put your forces inside them in a number of countries. Given the rule changes and dictatorial control now exercised by the right wing leaderships it is no longer to carry out the revolutionary work we were able to do within these parties in the past. The only way to stay within them is to keep your head down, to bury yourself so deep you will be undetected. This is precisely the manner in which your forces are now working. From the revolutionary denunciations of the past you have moved over to an opportunist accommodation to social democracy.

So when we discuss co-operation now or in the future with the SWP we will want to know if the convergence of ideas which makes this possible is because of a fundamental rethink and change of method on your part. Or is it just a case that the political pendulum which carries you from sectarianism to opportunism, and back again, just so happens to be passing close to the position we adopted, but without any consideration of the changed situation?