Forwarded from Ernie Tate (SWP regroupment)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Jun 3 10:32:04 MDT 2001

Hi Louis:

An interesting letter from Phil Hearse.


The SWP regroupment document: an assessment

Phil Hearse

A number of comrades have expressed surprise at some of the
characterisations in the On Regroupment text circulated by Alex Callinicos
to affiliates of the International Socialists tendency. In particular, the
characterisation of the Scottish comrades and the LCR, and the rejection of
the Socialist Alliance moving towards being a party have occasioned
critical comments and talk of a certain sectarian arrogance in what the SWP
says about themselves and others. I think therefore that a hard-headed
balance sheet of the contents of the document is needed.

To start with, let s note that this is an internal document, and a salutary
reminder of the difficulty of keeping anything strictly internal in the era
of the Internet, and a post-Stalinist period of heightened concerns about
democracy and openness. I was sent the document from five different people,
on three continents, on the same day. In effect, it is now a public document.

The function and context of the document consisting of an information
report to the IST affiliates, Callinicos letter to Daniel Bensaid and the
notes which formed the basis of Harman s introduction at a meeting with the
LCR political bureau has to be borne in mind. It s par for the course that
people talk rather harshly of other organisations when discussing
internally; everyone knows it, everyone s done it. Further Callinicos, as
secretary of the IST, is talking to far-flung affiliates, some of whom may
be sceptical about the SWP s moves towards a new dialogue with others on
the far left. In that context, a strong re-assertion of the SWP s own
politics and criticism of actual and potential collaborators is rather
normal. It s elementary that when you re going to mix it and throw your
members into wide-ranging collaboration with other tendencies, you remind
your own comrades of the significance of the outstanding differences. There
s no need to get too excited about that aspect of the SWP text.

Nonetheless there are obviously some negatives aspects of what Callinicos
and Harman say. But there are tremendously positive aspects as well. For

a) There is in the text a clear declaration that the SWP wants to explore
the possibilities of international regroupment.

b) the initiation of a dialogue with the LCR is a positive step in itself.
The decision to try to jointly organise a far left rally at the Genoa
demonstration could be very important in giving the revolutionary
socialists a heightened profile at this very significant demonstration. The
SWP rightly understand that the global justice movement is a fiercely
contested space in which socialists have to contend with competing
ideologies. While the SWP tend to put the emphasis on the dangers of taking
a sectarian attitude to non-Marxist campaigners, the agreement to organise
a joint rally with the LCR seems an implicit recognition that outstanding
differences on the far left shouldn t, in certain strictly defined
circumstances, prevent a propaganda bloc around a global anti-capitalist

c) For the first time that I ve seen, the text makes clear that it would
now be sectarian to insist on only being in the same organisation as people
who hold the theory of state capitalism. That s actually one of the most
important things that the document says. At the same time Callinicos says
that the related issue of substitutionism (ie relying on non-proletarian
forces to carry out tasks which can only be accomplished by the working
class) remains important. Of course it depends exactly what is meant here,
but in and of itself is completely unexceptional. This position, that it s
possible to be in the same organisation with people who don t hold state
capitalism, is reflected in the proposal that the SWP to Socialist Outlook
to go into the SWP, and the assertion in the document that there is no
reason why the ISG and certain ex-Militant cadres (us?) shouldn t be
integrated into the SWP.

d) The criterion for judging organisations today ie their ability to
respond to the anti-capitalist movement rather than abstract programmatic
codification seems to be to be basically correct. This forms the basis of
the SWP s very critical attitude to Lutte Ouvriere, an organisation which
even nuclear war wouldn t shake out of its factory bulletin routinism. Of
course the SWP is not saying that a correct attitude to the anti-capitalist
movement is the basis for organisational unity. To do so would be commit
the old error of saying that the tasks of the period are the sole basis for
unity, whereas in reality the unity of any organisation has to be cemented
at the level of programme (although exactly what that means is a matter of
hot dispute).

e) The recognition in the text that the IST is not the basis for a new
international, and that potentially the IST could become part of a wider
international regroupment, demonstrates a rather clear sighted view of
current reality and potential prospects. It is an implicit rebuttal of the
thin red line of Bolshevism position defended by Taaffe and company ie that
we (in Taaffe s case the CWI) are the only real revolutionaries in the
world today.

All this is good news. It means that the balance sheet of the document can
only be positive. The SWP s concrete moves towards greater national and
international collaboration between revolutionaries outweigh any negative
or factional characterisations that the document contains. However, these
exist. I judge them to be as follows.

The first thing is the re-assertion of the position explained in Lindsey
German s SW article that the Socialist Alliance should be maintained after
the election, but definitely not become a new party on the same basis as
the Scottish Socialist Party which is judged to be an exception . The SWP
unity proposal to the ISG seems to be saying, in effect, the focus of a new
big party of the left can be the SWP itself. This however is untrue. The
criterion for the ISM comrades claiming the SSP is a success is its ability
to attract a majority of members who are not members of any far left
organisation. The SWP plus the ISG and a few other people from the far left
cannot substitute for a new socialist party because the political basis
would be too narrow. You cannot integrate people Mike Marquese, Louise
Christian, Ken Loache, John Pilger, Liz Davies and Tariq Ali into a new
improved SWP. The same is true for important trade union and campaign
activists that have come round the Socialist Alliance.

Let s put it another way. Callinicos says that people like Tommy Sheridan
and Alan McCombes in the ISM have recognised that unity with the SWP in the
SSP can help build a broader working class party in Scotland. Of course.
But why should a broader working class party be an objective in Scotland
and not in England and Wales? The Scottish comrades have repeatedly
explained that it was the transition from the Scottish Socialist Alliance
to the Scottish Socialist Party which enabled them to make the breakthrough.

Of course, timing is one thing, long-term objectives are another. It is
arguable that it would be premature to declare a new party directly after
the election. Maybe so. The key issue is where you are heading. The SWP
argument that Scotland is an exception won t stand. It s an exception only
from the viewpoint of the relative strength of the SWP and others on the
far left; it cannot be an exception from the point of view of method. If
the relative strength of the SWP cadre base is really the only criterion
for entering the SSP, this in itself should be a cause for some concern
among the other members of that party for obvious reasons. Relative
strengths can change.

The future of the Socialist Alliance is a matter of active debate and
current political positions can evolve. The longer the Socialist Alliance
exists, the more the dynamic in practice will be for it to become a party.

A few words on the IST. It is obvious from the context that in a preceding
letter to Callinicos, Daniel Bensaid had argued that the SWP had abandoned
its previous positions on how to build an International, and now had a
position of a politically homogeneous international. Callinicos replies:
no, we don t regard the IST as the basis for a new international, it is an
international tendency, which for historic reasons is relatively
homogeneous. Further, the increased profile and growth of the IST means
that it can no longer be regarded as simply the SWP and its satellites.

This clarification can only be welcomed, as regards possible scenarios for
the construction of a really powerful international regroupment of
revolutionaries. But the IST self-image is much more questionable.

The recent split with the ISO in the US poses some interesting questions.
On the evidence available, it seems that the SWP s characterisation of the
ISO as sectarian is correct. But the manner of their ejection from the IST
was bizarre. In effect, the ISO was thrown out of the International
Socialists tendency by decision of the SWP central committee. The SWP broke
off relations with the ISO, and by virtue of that an international split
was consummated. Obviously, who is in and who is out of the IST is decided
by the SWP itself. At the same time, Callinicos says the IST is not a
democratic centralist formation, each national group is autonomous.
Autonomous, but not exactly equal in terms of rights.

We now come to the matter of characterisations of other tendencies. Briefly
summed up, the ISM comrades are said to be centrist at best , the LCR has
left, and not so left, social democrats in its membership and the
Australian DSP is stalinist and has lots of money . None of this is serious
stuff; in fact it s laughable. Just to start with, a more general point.
When the USFI s section in Britain was the IMG, the general
characterisation of the SWP was centrist or left centrist . (This was only
ever questioned during the period of the IMG s unity offensive in the late
1970s, especially by the Birmingham-led tendency which wanted a bolder and
more explicit unity proposal to the SWP). The Socialist Party/Militant
regards the SWP (and the ISG) as centrist . Workers Power regards everyone
as centrist, and probably has some doubts about its own members.

The accusation of centrism has become merely abuse. Of course, it has a
scientific definition political forces wavering between reform and
revolution. It does not mean less than perfect on every question .

The idea that the ISM is centrist is just factual tosh. You could construct
some sort of argument on the basis of the Enabling Act position of
Militant. What would be much more difficult is to find anyone in the ISM
who supports the Enabling Act.

None of the DSP s positions, not even those of a two stage policy in the
third world, justify the accusation that it is Stalinist . (The DSP gets it
from both sides: the trade union and Labour bureaucracy still calls the DSP
the Trots ). Neither does it have pots of money compared with the SWP they
are paupers.

The SWP have a real obsession about making every possible criticism of the
LCR. Some of these lack modesty. For example, it is constantly repeated
that the LCR failed to mobilise adequately for Prague and Nice. But the
global justice movement didn t just come from out of the blue. Since the
beginning of the 1990s a constant round of mobilisations has taken place at
central capitalist meetings on the issue of the debt. The USFI (and the
LCR) was at the forefront of these mobilisations and made it a constant
theme of their work. When a representative of the USFI met privately with
Callinicos at the beginning of the 1990s, the issue of the debt
mobilisations was raised. Callinicos said the SWP regarded this as just a
propaganda campaign and wasn t interested. Now the people who discovered
this issue after Seattle appoint themselves the judges of everyone else.
None of this of course detracts from the excellent job the SWP have done
once they discovered this question.

Most of all, the SWP doesn t come close to really understanding the LCR. It
s criticisms are based on very partial knowledge probably refracted through
their French affiliate.

The LCR did well in the French local elections. Why? Of course we know the
objective reasons. But why does this organisation maintain itself and its
role in the left? Krivine s role and prestige of course plays a part, and
maybe the intellectual clout of Bensaid as well. That s not the whole story
though. The real core of the LCR s success is its role in the labour
movement, the dozens of respected union activists who animate minority
unions and left unions tendencies, and the hundreds of campaign activists
who have propelled the social movements against unemployment, in defence of
immigrant rights, and a dozen other questions. Without understanding that
you can never explain why it gets some good scores in elections, why it s
got two MEPs, and why it has more real weight on the left and in the labour
movement than LO. Neither can you explain why it is able to play an
important role on a European level in organising an alliance of the
militant left.

Of course criticisms can be made. But you have to know on what basis you
are making them. Otherwise you end up with real tosh like claiming it has
left, and not so left, social democrats in its membership. That kind of
thing just makes the SWP look stupid to anyone who knows the facts.

Finally, there is the issue of inner-party regime. Callinicos explains the
SWP s opposition to permanent factions and criticises the internal life of
the USFI and its sections, some of whom have been wracked by endless
internal tendencies and factions. He says that the SWP has vigorous
internal discussion, but only allows factions during pre-conference periods.

Callinicos is right: factions are a pain in the butt. The question is how
to avoid them. In any vigorous internal debate people tend to form camps .
That s not just true in revolutionary organisations, but in any
organisation whatsoever. It s normal and inevitable. If you prohibit
internal tendencies and factions there is an inevitable consequence. People
will group together in informal ways, through personal discussions and
dinner parties . Outside of any democratic accounting and control.

There is another consequence. Prohibiting internal groupings tends to
concentrate the real discussion solely in a small group of the leadership.
Internal debate then becomes the presentation of the decisions of the
leadership group to the membership. This in turn has inevitable
consequences for the type of cadres who are formed and for the overall
political level of the organisation. Generally a huge gulf is opened up
between the small leadership group and the mass of the membership.

The publication on the net of the SWP document on regroupment mainly just
confirms what everybody already knew about their direction and their
thinking. The question now is whether they will take this forward, or
eventually retreat to the old ways of thinking about party building and the
rest of the left. One thing is for certain. In the light of the regroupment
document, an open debate on the left about regroupment, and especially the
future of the Socialist Alliance, is necessary.

NOTE: RED SHIFT. The whole of issue 1 of Red Shift is now available in pdf
format (you will need Acrobat Reader) on Go to
Red Shift , then archives . One of the editorials from issue 2 is at the
same site, click info , then documents . NB this site is under
construction, we hope to have a lot more on it by the end of the summer.

Louis Proyect
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