Reflections on the “IS tradition”


During the recent crisis in the party a number of comrades (from both sides) have talked of “the IS tradition”, as if the whole history of the SWP and its predecessors has been an organic unity, marked by a consistency in terms of both high theory and practical politics. Yet any deeper familiarity with the actual history of the group would show that there have been sharp turns, rapid changes of personnel, etc, so that the SWP of today is in many ways unlike the party of 20 or 50 years ago.

You can see this by comparing the SWP of today to its predecessor of 20 years ago. In 1993 the party claimed a membership of 10,000. There were SWP branches not just in cities but in individual streets, and on council estates. Members of the SWP were the backbones of a dozen different campaigns, against the Criminal Justice Act, against the British National Party, in trade unions, in favour of publicly-funded health care and against privatisation. The party seemed large, well-rooted. A very common historical comparison that we tended to dwell on in our own literature was with the Communist Parties of Britain and France in the 1930s, parties already in their tens of thousands which were on the cusp of further, rapid growth.

Yet the SWP of 1993, for all its size, was characterised by underlying weaknesses. The publications of the SWP had been allowed to become dull. With a large staff of professional journalists, the actual numbers of people writing for Socialist Worker was very small. The SWP’s theoretical journal International Socialism devoted its attention to the ongoing crisis in Russia, the rise of Tony Blair, the extent to which Marxism is or is not deterministic, the responsibility of the West for the Balkan War and topics of this sort. The tone of the articles was the vindication of older Marxist concepts, such as state capitalism, reformism, and imperialism. The emphasis was on the truth of older ideas, their elaboration in a new context rather than their extension. There was a real nervousness about admitting the changes to the economy and society which live behind such abstractions as “neo-liberalism” or “globalisation”. The party’s size masked deeper weaknesses.

Or you could look back further to the SWP’s predecessor the International Socialists, of 30 years before. The IS in 1963 was a small organisation of around 200 or so members. This modest fraternity included a great variety of talents, established trade union militants such as Jim Higgins and Geoff Carlsson, the journalist Paul Foot, the philosopher, Alasdair Macintyre, writers Nigel Harris and Mike Kidron, Peter Sedgwick while Ian Birchall, Colin Barker and Chris Harman were among a younger generation of activists. The party was young, engaged, and intellectually fecund.

There was a strong bind of trust between leader and led. Every effort was made to involve as many members as possible in as wide a range of the group’s activities as possible. The publications of the IS were characterised by modesty and a great deal of self-deprecatory wit. The party’s small size masked a number of deeper strengths; the very same strengths which enabled the organisation to grow sharply over the next five years, and then more slowly thereafter.

So, alongside the relative continuities in the SWP’s core ideas, to understand the “tradition” you need to see the party as something dynamic, carried by people, in circumstances some of which have been more or less favourable.

The sharpest discontinuity in the history of the SWP was the political argument which led to the publication of the first volume of Tony Cliff’s book Lenin in 1975. Cliff portrayed Lenin as a mercurial figure, leading the party from the front and usually in the right direction. The leader might lose a vote here or there, and Cliff’s account of the crisis of the Bolshevik party in summer 1917 emphasises the positive role of internal democracy in enabling Lenin’s ideas to find their base, but armed with a higher sense of strategy, the party leader is shown to have directed his party successfully towards insurrection (and vindication) in October 1917.

The key phrase in Cliff’s book is ‘bending the stick’: Lenin is presented as having succeeded by means of a series of partial insights, whose truth was political rather than historical. Faced with Russia in the months leading towards the October revolution, any historian would conclude that there were elements in Russian society acting to make a second revolution possible, and processes acting also to hold it back. Lenin’s genius was to see the former and to emphasise them, thus convincing his party and enabling it to act in a single, unified fashion. The political truth of this method was demonstrated by its success: the epochal victory of October 1917.

The adoption of a Leninist party model transformed the political culture of the IS from one which was open and tolerant, to one which was results-oriented and has been incrementally ever less tolerant of dissident.

Two articles by the same writer, Peter Sedgwick, give a sense of the shift. In a piece published in Socialist Review in 1959, ‘The Pretenders’, Sedgwick satirised the culture within other Trotskyist groups of announcing their “Leadership” over the masses. “Socialists who think [that the main [problem facing the class is a lack of leadership] may be justly called The Pretenders. The throne of working-class leadership is, on this view, held by a usurper of some kind, of doubtful authenticity and probably bastard petty-bourgeois stock. If the true heir, equipped with the right royal birthmarks of “clarity,” “scientific Socialism,” “Socialist humanism” or whatever, were to occupy his lawful place, all would be well with the movement. The typical behaviour of a Pretender is to try to discredit the credentials of the usurping King (by means, e.g., of close scrutinies of Comintern history, or of plausible scandal-mongering) and to establish his own authority, particularly by tracing a connection of lineage between himself and, e.g., Keir Hardie, William Morris, Rosa Luxemburg, John MacLean or Leon Trotsky.” (

Compare Peter Sedgwick writing in 1976, in an introduction to Dave Widgery’s The Left in Britain. “For revolutionary Socialists it now has to be the Age of Majority: the majorities which have to be won in factory after factory, workplace after workplace, in every cell of social and economic organization. Socialist cadres must keep one step ahead of their constituency, two or three steps at the most, and generate their slogans from what can be seen as the next link in the chain of solidarity … The requirements of an age of majorities mean that every socialist must engage, as the first call on his or her time and energy, in mass work within a real rank and file…”

The old elan had not been lost altogether, the fear of self-proclaimed leadership could still be seen (“two or three steps at the most”). But you find a certain flattening of language, even a tolerance of socialist jargon (“cadres”… “rank and file” … ) which an earlier Sedgwick would have erased with his own in-built editor’s pencil.

The first document in which Cliff sketched out his proposals for the IS’s future democratic structure were some ‘Notes on democratic centralism’ written in June 1968. Cliff’s conception of the shift from a federal to a centralist structure assumed, contrary to the party’s recent practice, that the party’s conference would be its highest body: “A Delegates Conference – meeting once or twice a year – decides the policies – the principles and strategy of the organisation.” He took it for granted that there would be factions within the party, i.e. long-term groupings characterised by subtly different emphases of politics. “An Executive, Political Committee, etc., are elected by the Conference as individuals, or on a list of candidates” Where there were “factional groupings”, he continued, “each group of delegates is entitled to elect the number of people to the Committees in proportion to their share at the Conference.”

What justification could there be for Leninism; what connection could there possibly be between the Bolsheviks organising in clandestine conditions in Tsarist Russia and a legal organisation of socialists in post-war Britain? The key participants had got so much else right that, on this occasion, their ideas deserve to be treated with respect. The IS emerged from a Trotskyist tradition in which illegal conditions were not unknown. Cliff had worked under them, and certain figures within IS/SWP such as Duncan Hallas had organised in a clandestine fashion within the army.

More to the point, the core idea of democratic centralism was one that could be applied flexibly: in the context of a small party, most of whose members were known to one another, the idea of concentrating resources and working in a disciplined, united fashion, was attractive. People’s negative experiences of other parties that claimed to work in a democratic centralist fashion (the example uppermost in many of the comrades minds would have been Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League) could be explained away by reference to the personal foibles of a violent bully. The formula ‘democratic centralism’ by its very character tends to conceal the key question, which is how much democracy and how much centralism?

One problem with bending the stick, as Cliff’s critics pointed out, was that by investing the leadership of a party with a sole role in initiating tactical changes, the theory under-analysed the role of the majority of party members. It was a child of that old Comintern argument that Communist Parties were unique in history being the first parties in history to have existed without a rank-and-file and with no bureaucracy.

Now it is easy to show that at many key stages in the history of the SWP, Cliff himself acted with the consent of his comrades. Further, we can also show that at many times, his practical leadership was in fact an exemplar of democratic practice. Looking at the same period, in composing his two books about the workers’ movement in Britain, and the impact of the social contract and incomes policies, Cliff was able to mobilise large sections of the party to take part in the writing of these books, in interviewing workplace militants, in selling the books, in making both the texts and their audience. The books were the party’s as much as they were Cliff’s. Nor is this an isolated example. But what can you do if leadership is not expressed in a consensual, democratic or successful fashion, if new tactics are adopted without sufficient thought, or even on a whim; and what if they fail?

Hence it is wrong to focus merely on the form of democratic centralism without having a sense also of the different quality of the decisions taken by a leadership. Any structure which gives the leadership a key role in initiating tactical change, will inevitably depend for its success on the quality of the people in top positions, and not their general quality (their sense of humour, their tactical nous, their humility, their ability to write well or to think deeply) but much more specifically on their ability to lead in the immediate social crisis of the present, to act, to make fruitful decisions.

One feature of the SWP’s history is that at key moments the party was well-led: for example, in the period between 1960 and 1963 or 1968 and 1972, but these were moments when leadership was a relatively easy task, when the numbers of strikes and protests were rising, and any Marxist explanation was going to be more plausible with the people who were most likely to join the party: young workers and students.

The years 1990 to 1995 saw real growth, which was achieved, more strikingly, when most other left-wing traditions were in decline. Many of the other groups, internationally and in Britain, were shaken by the collapse of Communism. No matter how fiercely they had previously criticised the eastern bloc, there was a tendency towards what you might call ‘retrospective Brezhnevism’, a feeling that America was the real enemy, and that the existence of the Soviet Union had at least created a certain space in which dissidence could flourish – not in the East but in the West. The Socialist Workers Party, to its great credit, was largely immune to this disease.

In other periods, by contrast, the SWP was led badly: in 1974 to 1975, from 1995 to 1999, from 2005 to 2009 and over the last year. These were different moments: the former combined a rightward moving Labour government in Britain with a sharp economic decline, de-industrialisation, and the defeat of social movements around the world. Some party crisis was perhaps inevitable; if not necessarily on the scale of the Higgins faction fight.

The mid 1990s should have been more favourable: the emergence of Tony Blair enabled the Labour Party to hegemonise popular politics and demobilise extra-parliamentary protest. The SWP suffered from what was then the most rapid decline in activity and membership that the party had known in its entire history.

Why should leadership in one period achieve success in meeting the possibilities open to it – when much the same leaders later failed? Part of the answer, it seems to me, lies in the openness of party thinking.

By thinking I mean much more than tactical leadership, I mean the range of people employed on party publications, the quality of long-term strategic theory, the ability to spot changes in the world before other parties trying to recruit a similar audience. Thus one of the heroic moments in the SWP’s history is undoubtedly Tony Cliff’s formulation of the theory of state capitalism, which explained to members that Russia was not socialist, but an entirely hostile social formation. As a result of this policy, members of the SWP were armed against the successive defeat of the Russian bureaucracy: not just in 1989 and 1991, but in 1956 and 1968 also.

By its nature, such openness is not likely to be manifest right in the middle of defining political events, but in the periods before. Another example is Mike Kidron’s analysis of the long-term character of the post-war boom. If the analysis did not precede the fact, it certainly preceded most of the fact’s consequences: 25 years of affluence, which made other Marxist arguments for the inevitability of revolution seem utterly implausible. A third example would be Cliff’s claim in the late 1970s that the left in Britain (later, the comrades would say the left internationally) was entering into a period of political defeat. While the theory may even have hindered the SWP from benefiting from moments of undoubted opportunity (such as the poll tax campaign in Scotland ten years later) it operated largely to diminish expectations and to provide some explanation for the real losses ahead: not least the Falklands and the shattering defeat of the miners in 1984-5.

I have tried elsewhere to sketch a brief history of the socialist left since Marx’s death in 1883 around two key concepts: “classical” and “dissident” Marxism. The paradigmatic case of the former, was the German Social Democratic Party prior to the First World War. From Marx and Engels, through the popularisation of their work by Kautsky, that party inherited a formalised even ossified theory. All questions had previously been answered. Their solution was to be found in reading rather than in political activism, or in reflection on activism. Having reconciled Marxism to a purely parliamentary strategy, the party was unwilling or unable to restore the revolutionary content of its original politics when faced with the new situations of 1914, 1918, 1919 and 1923. Dissident Marxism was embodied for me in different situations: in the anti-war politics of Georges Henein, in the journalism of David Widgery, in the activism of Rock Against Racism, in the historical writing of Edward Thompson, and the anti-colonial agitation of Walter Rodney, in the contemporary anti-capitalist movement. These episodes were shaped historically, I argued, by the decay of both social democracy and then Stalinism, and by the urgent need to develop new revolutionary politics as some form of alternative to both.

Implied in this model is the idea that ‘Marxism’ always takes in elements of both dissidence and classicism. The contrast between them refers not just to periods, or to high politics, but to activist styles. Thus classicists are often involved in the heart of movements, building campaigns, organising then along set lines. Conversely, the dissidents have tended to be on the edge of campaigns: within the movement, but often critical of its leadership decisions, and arguing for alternative activist strategies. Employing the same model to the history of the SWP, we might say the party has been characterised by a consistent secular trend from dissidence to classicism.

Neither “classicism” nor “dissidence” is better than the other. A more dissident party may be less well-rooted in trade union and peace campaigns. A more classical party may be closer to the mainstream of the trade union movement. The less dissident SWP of the last 20 years was capable of leading the massive Stop the War movement of 2003-2005. Yet looking at the party as a whole it is barely disputable that the SWP has become more canonical and less interested in challenging basic assumptions, more prone to think ‘In Defence’, less likely to think anew.

A less open party will generally find it harder to deal with moments when the whole world changes. Thus to take some recent examples: the major new political movement of the later 1990s was the anti-capitalist campaign which could be seen at the J18 protest in London in 1999 or at Seattle a few months later. The SWP responded to the protests at Seattle by enthusiastically adopting this new movement, so enthusiastically indeed that when the American ISO, the second largest member of the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency, failed to endorse Seattle with equal enthusiasm, the SWP excluded the American group from the IS Tendency. Yet this hyper-enthusiasm sat awkwardly with the relative hostility of the SWP to the J18 protests just weeks beforehand: when SWP members did attend J18 they did do as individuals, they did not leaflet the demonstration nor did they attempt to sell Socialist Worker on it. They were effectively invisible.

Closed thinking can make an intervention harder, but it will not always have that effect. Contrast the tardiness of the SWP in summer 1999 with our speed two years later, after 9/11. Within three days, the party had called an internal meeting to debate our response. Within another week, a large public meeting had packed out London’s Friends Meeting House. By our speed, members of the SWP were able to initiate and then take a series of leadership roles in the Stop the War Coalition. By an act of political bravery, the SWP catapulted itself right to the front of the movement. We were not just the first organised group in Britain to grasp the extent of the American threat and the need to organise, and to do something useful about it, but one of the first in Europe or the World.

We can contrast this thinking again, however, with the party’s unwillingness to take up a raft of big political issues: globalisation, informal working, and the role of the working class in an economy in which production seems to be less important than it was. Articles in International Socialism Journal have responded late, if at all, and by explaining only that these processes are exaggerated, their social significance little if anything at all. Odd, incompatible positions have emerged as a result. Chris Harman told readers of the ISJ that globalisation was hopelessly exaggerated, nothing had changed. How then to understand the SWP’s involvement in an anti-capitalist movement the majority of whose public figures denounced not capitalism but globalisation?  They were anti-globalisation, and we … weren’t? There has been an intellectual lurching from one position to another which mirrors the incoherence of our industrial politics, our anti-fascism and so on.

To understand the history of the SWP you need to have a sense in particular of the consequences of Tony Cliff’s idea of state capitalism. Until Ian Birchall’s biography it often used to be said that this theory was first discovered (as if out of thin air) by Tony Cliff in 1948. Cliff characterised the Soviet Union and its satellites as state capitalist. The idea was political: it argued that there was nothing about the societies for socialists to defend. It was also analytical: unlike other theories of what was wrong with Russia (totalitarianism, new class theory, bureaucratic collectivism) Cliff’s argument portrayed Russia as a society amenable to an economic or sociological analysis. The rulers of Russia were like the rulers of the West, their workers were similar also. It followed that the Russian tyranny would not continue indefinitely, but would in all likelihood be overthrown from within.

Contrary to the claim that Cliff invented the theory, the idea had in fact many origins: there were anarchist critiques of the Soviet Union which characterised that society as state capitalist, as did some thinkers associated with some parties of the parliamentary left. Other Trotskyists also developed state capitalist analyses: the Socialism ou Barbarie group in France, CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya in America, most importantly perhaps the idea was discussed in the first gulags by groups of Russian dissidents.

But there was at least one way in which Cliff’s use of the term was different (say) from CLR James’ way of thinking, or the use of the term in the official circles of European Trotskysim. Cliff came to an analysis of state capitalism by way not of events in Russia but in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. The idea of state capitalism emerged in criticism of an earlier formulation, which held that Russia was a degenerated workers’ state. Once that same theory was applied to the eastern bloc, Cliff argued, it could no longer make sense: where was the workers revolution in Romania or Albania?

The sociological and historical comparison between Russia and its satellites raised an immediate question: how similar were these states? At the leadership level, and in their forms they looked not just similar but identical. Did that mean that there were no significant legacies in Russia of the workers’ victory in 1917? In Cliff’s original analysis, this problem was solved by a modest distinction between state capitalism of revolutionary and non-revolutionary origin. How about the societies that later sought to emulate Russia, that were attracted to a model of growth which emphasised urbanisation and industrialisation at the expense of a peasantry? China was self-evidently state capitalist. Many third world societies looked similar too: from Mozambique to Egypt or Algeria. The theory of state capitalism was linked to an idea of deflected permanent revolution: the national revolutions which had removed colonialism failed to enact socialism. In the gap, the society which emerged tended to be another state capitalist model.

If state capitalism could take in societies created by workers’ revolution (and its subsequent internal defeat), societies created by tanks, urbanised European societies and rural China, and much of the Third World, was there a danger that the concept had been extended beyond breaking? Or was there another danger in fact that the concept had still not been extended enough?

From the perspective of 2013, and looking back at the middle years of the twentieth century, what is really striking is the extent to which a generation of productive industries combined with the militarization of society, to create a condition in which almost every society saw a rapid increase in state spending. ‘State capitalism’ can be used to stand for a world characterised by Keynesianism, military Keynesianism, fascism and war. Even in liberal democratic Britain, with its surplus profits, colonial dominions and aristocratic traditions, a war-time government could sit down and discuss rationally the gains and losses of a proposal to nationalise the country’s land. For business, attempting a similar process of careful planning, state capitalism meant an epoch in which there were strong incentives to invest in certain forms of productions, certain scales of enterprise. Because arms industry required mass production, because the development of technology was partial and the productivity savings of miniaturisation were few, state capitalist societies also tended to be ones where workers had considerable potential power. Perhaps for the same reason, state capitalist societies were ones where the political control of labour tended to be carried out at an intense level. State capitalist societies were often dictatorships. When they were democracies, the economic power of labour was often considerable.

All of this matters for two reasons. It is important, first, because the Marxist explanation of society looks to the emancipation of labour. Society seemed to be developing along the lines that Marx predicted. But with one extraordinary contradiction: that many of the workers were organising against Soviet societies which ruled in the name of labour! The SWP, armed with a state capitalist analysis was well-placed to explain both halves of this contradiction: both the tendencies towards centralised production, and the betrayal of 1917 by state capitalist regimes.

It matters, second, because since 1989 our world has been in many respects different. An epoch of state capitalism has given way to one of private capitalism: a tendency that dates from at least the early 1970s, but was crowned by the events of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Large-scale militarised industry has given way to small-scale computerised industry. Planned and managed employment has given way to much higher numbers of unemployment, underemployment or casual employment. A system in which repression was frequently political is replaced by one in which repression is typically economic, the self-repression of people trained by the fear of poverty or by the discipline of over-work. In every country in the world, offensives of the rich have seen a transfer of wealth upwards. Key social gains of the earlier period are replaced by privatisation: privatised healthcare, privatised social services, privatised housing. Public space has been cut to a minimum. Profits are associated with reduced investment, with the closing down of large industries and the selling-off of their subsidiaries. The scale of the units of production is less.

Having emphasised the differences; there are of course major points of commonality between the global system now and twenty years ago; both, after all, have been capitalist societies, both have depended at their base on relationships of production between those who own or manage and those who work. But to stress the differences allows us to grasp one key point; that since 1989, Marxists have had an urgent task to develop new thinking to explain the ways in which the global power of labour seems to have diminished. Is this a partial loss? Is it an epochal defeat? What are the signs in the present that point towards hope? The right answers must be strategic rather than tactical: they must explain what has changed and point a way forward. The ideas to explain a way through the present could not be found in a single book or document, in one party or one newspaper alone.

Our ideas have tended to emphasise the continuities between periods, and in response to many partial arguments (flexible working, theories of the multitude or the New Poors, the Precariat as the new revolutionary class, etc), too many comrades have claimed that capitalism continues unchanged, exactly the same system as it was before.

The right task of defending Marxist orthodoxy becomes from another viewpoint a lapse from open to closed thinking. And a Marxist party which gives up on renewing its ideas is only storing up further crises for its future.

[first published here:


4 responses »

  1. Interesting how the author slips into the “in defense” mode he criticizes the SWP for adopting in the second half of his essay.

    Appeals to “the tradition” are essentially religious or faith-based in nature. I had to break with almost everything about it once I started looking at it critically instead of accepting it uncritically. Cliff’s “Lenin” was a mix of hagiography and historical falsehoods, his state capitalism an anti-Marxian hodge podge, the permanent arms economy predicated on the Ricardian reading of Marx’s alleged tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and deflected permanent revolution a vain attempt to rescue Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution from oblivion in the face of the 1949 revolution in China, the 1959 revolution in Cuba, and successful bourgeois-nationalist struggles.

    I can’t in good faith recommend much of anything that was written from “the tradition” to new activists.

  2. Yes, a lot of what you call ‘revisionism’ was really just a shunting off to one side of various elements of Marxist theory that were an embarrassment to the alliances that the party was trying to make. In the seventies (just as the crisis of accumulation manifested itself) Kidron’s Keynesian-inspired prognostications of demand-led growth served to justify the party’s ‘critical’ support for the Labour Party (‘Benn for Deputy’ [leader of the Labour Party] was the paper’s headline when I first bought it). The revision of the theory of imperialism (‘highest stage but one’) helped to account for the party’s general silence on questions of national liberation (dismissed as ‘deflected permanent revolution’). It is true as you say that the tenor of the SWP’s theory has shifted from revisionism to classicism. But in each case one ought to analyse what was the outcome of the revisionism, or classicism.

  3. If comrade Heartfield had read a little more than headlines he would have known that what distinguished the SWP from most of the left at the time of the Benn deputy leadership bid was the fact that we were highly critical of Bennism. Any reading of SW and Socialist Review for this period will show this. What we did NOT say, like cde Heartfield’s ex-co thinkers, was “a plague of both your houses”. There was a real ferocious arguement going on in the Labour Party between Bennites and the future SDP. We attempted to intervene in the argument rather than keeping ourselves warm with ultraleft slogans.
    As for the claim about our “general silence on questions of national liberation” this is total nonsense, as anyone who recalls our central role in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign will confirm. What I think cde. Heartfield may be trying to say is that we did not give total uncritical and enthusiastic support to the tactics of the Provisional IRA – indeed, if I recall aright (and such things are not a central preoccupation of mine) cde. Heartfield’s erstwhile co-thinkers at one point in the 1980s actually urged the IRA to step up its bombing campaign in England.

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