If Tony Cliff had arrived in Britain in 2013 rather than 1947, what might he have seen? The bosses have been winning, with outsourcing, casualisation and zero-hours contracts all on the increase. A weakened, but still large union movement, sustained by around a quarter of a million wirkplace reps. The largest of the unions, UNITE, turning to politics to solve its weaknesses and recruiting left-wing activists in large numbers to sustain recruitment campaigns, such as at Crossrail – a strategy which has resulted in both defeats and victories. Small, sectional but militant strikes by groups such as out-sourced housing workers. Where the unions weren’t striking, there were attempts by activists to inspire breakaway unions (the SOAS cleaners), or, the different phenomenon of “dual unions”, as at Sussex University. The government’s austerity project was unpopular, but still successful. Various left projects were launched in response: the People’s Assembly (bureaucratic but an attempt to organise) and Left Unity (a smaller, but more democratic project with a clear underlying ambition of challenging Labour electorally to its left).
All these processes, Cliff would have considered as opportunities, because that was his instinctive approach to life. He did not see theory as a series of castle walls, designed to protect a perfect version of the 1917-era revolutionary party in its relationship to an idealised 1972-era working class, saving both from the potential onrush of history, which in the strange version of “Marxism” that our leadership is now trying to promote is always, by definition, hostile to us and therefore better ignored.
Cliff would not have sent Joseph Choonara to Marxism to tell his audience that casualisation was exaggerated; he would not have asked Alex Callinicos at the same event to flatter our members in the NUT and PCS unions by calling them the vanguard of the working class.
Cliff would have begun rather by trying to evaluate how significant casualisation really was. Grasping the reality that tens of millions of workers are now employed in some combination of self-employment, part-time, fixed-term, agency or zero-hour contracts, he would have thought about how these workers could combine and sought to generalise their struggles whenever they fought.
For a year, the party’s de facto analysis of student and women’s politics is that both represent hostile, alien forces, quite as opposed to the socialist project as anything else ever dreamed up by the right. I have had to listen to well-meaning comrades tell me how good it was we have always “fought” Slutwalk (two years ago, we were not opposing this campaign, we were building it), and how terrible it must be for student activists to organise where feminists are present (two years ago, some SWP members were Women’s Officer sabbaticals!). In so far as we have a theory of the internet, it is summed up in Alex’s complaints about its “dark side” (and this in a piece which was posted – online – ten days before it appeared in print).
At the same time as the leadership has been promoting a supposed vision of the SWP as “an interventionist party” (aka stop complaining about Martin; sell the paper instead), the party’s horizons have shrunk in, and the world we imagine outside our ranks has become as small as the telephone line connecting Kevin Courtenay and Mark Serwotka’s offices. Should a message cross between their two desks “plans enclosedcfor a joint 1-day strike”, that would be, more or less, the advent of the classless society itself. But should anything else happen, anywhere else, our default position has become this predictable. “Something happens … we are against it”.
In “My Life” Trotsky tells a story of being shown around London by Lenin. “From a bridge, Lenin pointed out Westminster and some other famous buildings. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but what he conveyed was: ‘This is their famous Westminster,’ and ‘their’ referred of course not to the English but to the ruling classes. This implication, which was not in the least emphasized, but coming as it did from the very innermost depths of the man, and expressed more by the tone of his voice than by anything else, was always present, whether Lenin was speaking of the treasures of culture, of new achievements, of the wealth of books in the British Museum…” This was Lenin’s approach to life, as it had once been Marx’s and Engels’ and later it was Cliff’s: to see the world as a series of opportunities, to imagine the treasures of capitalism and to envisage them as capable of being shared by all.
There is a way to save the SWP, of course, and its contours have been tolerably clear for a year now. The old leadership needs to apologise to the women complainants (and, through them) to the membership and to our supporters outside our ranks, for the three-year campaign they fought to protect Martin Smith. Those on the CC who fought to block the second investigation into his activities should never work full-time for the party again. Neither can the CC member who spent her first three months on the CC bullying hundreds of students out of the party. Nor can we keep in the leadership the comrade who repeatedly minimised Martin Smith’s activities and sought to intensify the conflict between the party’s two wings by declaring “war” on those who grasped what Martin had done. Plenty others have stood down from the leadership before and returned to the ranks; now it is their turn.
The party’s industrial politics have been changing through the last year. As well as the barren old, we see hints of something better struggling to emerge (two day-schools for new members or those in unorganise workplaces, the beginnings of an analysis in Socialist Worker of Unite’s industrial politics and of zero hour contracts). It is just about possible to see this part of the party’s work being rescued and becoming healthy again should the worst-contaminated parts of the leadership of the party change. Other parts of what we do (UAF) or used to do (LHMR) have become so bureaucratised, and the decision-making has been taken so far away from the members of the party, that they could be only be rescued by being completely disassembled and rebuilt afresh under new names.
The party’s survival will depend more than anything else on losing our present sense that the SWP is 1,500 people capable of hiding from a changing world for all of our lives until the revolution should come from somewhere else to save us. Cults can hide for years; Marxists can’t.
Philosophy is not mediaeval Christianity, it has a wider purpose than to protect the Believer from a hostile world. Social movements (eg the AntiNazi League, Stop the War) are not the capitalist class – Marxists are allowed to take part in them. The faction, unlike our leadership, has never pretended they could stand in place of an insurgent working class. History does not exist to be cheated. A social revolution does not break from nowhere, but must to some extent be prepared by its makers living through and learning from previous tumults.
We want to be the sort of party that people enthused by the People’s Assembly, Pop-up Unions, and any other opportunity out there in the world – might consider joining. To make the party something which new members might inhabit in any serious number, we must stop seeing the entire world as something gone wrong, and start admitting that new possibilities are opening and new people are organising. People are moving; we must be with them.