SWP: Neither ‘rank & fileism’ nor ‘building the party’ beats Labourism

Andy Newman’s article on Rank & Fileism on the Socialist Unity blog is informative with a number of interesting quotations, but it restricts itself to the history of the International Socialist / Socialist Workers Party (IS/SWP) rank and file strategy and its subsequent demise under Tony Cliff’s new ‘build the Party’ line. We do not agree with all its conclusions, but it is a useful point of departure to develop the discussion.

In our view rank & fileism, was not only ‘under-theorised’ but utopian, and flew in the face of British working class history. The rise of the militant shop stewards’ movement was a hugely important phenomenon, but the IS/SWP failed to appreciate the political culture of economism and Labourism that has dominated the British working class movement. The result was an over reliance on spontaneous consciousness, combined with an ultra left strategy of attempting to bypass the existing, powerful unitary labour bureaucracy, which lies at the core of British ‘Labourism’.

In his essay Andy Newman explains the early thinking behind the IS strategy of the 1970s:

“The group (IS) argued that there had been a ‘changing locus of reformism’ away from parliament and town halls towards shop floor trade union self-activity.” This meant that, “the shop stewards’ movement could only be consistently defended by both breaking the law and transcending the limitations of the market.”

They developed a strategy against the employers’ offensive arguing that the shop stewards’ movement should escalate its demands, “until the question of state power was posed.” However, the IS focussed on promoting the spontaneously generated demands of the movement and as Andy explains, “rejected the form of raising ‘transitional demands’ or ‘transitional programmes’ . . . but posed the question in terms of a transitional social organisation. This is probably most explicitly expressed by Steve Jeffreys, “The Challenge of the rank and file” International Socialism #76. March 1975.” In other words a powerful nationally organised rank and file untrammelled by a reformist bureaucracy was capable of challenging capitalism itself.

Bypassing Labourism

There was no theorised concept of transitional politics requiring a party that developed a political programme. As Martin Shaw has pointed out, one of the consequences was that the IS strategy also gave insufficient weight to liberation and social movements, the women’s movement, anti-racism, the lesbian and gay movements, etc. (“The Making of a Party? The International Socialists 1965-1976”, Socialist Register 1978) It had no concept of building a broad social alliance under the leadership of the working class.

This semi-syndicalism, building a rank and file movement based on the more or less spontaneous demands thrown up by the struggle in the workplaces, downgraded the role of a party (until the SWP was launched), even refusing to take up positions in the workers’ movement, although not the role of leadership per se.

Alan Thornett, who was deputy Convenor at the Cowley car plant, writes that, “at this time Cliff’s rank and fileist conception of trade unionism . . tended to counter pose the shop stewards’ movement negatively to (real) rank and file workers.” (p. 242, Review article in Historical Materialism. Vol. 15/1, 2007) This method was combined with an ultra-left perspective of by-passing the existing apparatuses of ‘Labourism’, a powerful unitary labour bureaucracy – probably the most powerful and entrenched in capitalist Europe – and challenging for state power.

Even in the heady days of the post-1968 wave of class struggles, this rank and file strategy was hopelessly leftist and utopian. However, it did have a resonance among some militants, held big conferences and allowed the IS/SWP for a period to build a small base in the workers’ movement, from which it recruited.

Nor did the IS/SWP promote real self-organisation and workers’ democracy at this time. Genuine workers’ democracy was already a problem for the IS/SWP even then. Martin Shaw has written, “In fact, the National Rank and File Organising Committee (NRFOC) was established, and quickly became an all-IS body, with hardly any existence independent of IS’s Industrial Department.” (“The Making of a Party? The International Socialists 1965-1976” Socialist Register 1978, Quoted in Andy Newman.)

Large numbers of militants today will recognise this practice. A history of attempting to dominate the movement, which the IS/SWP confuses with political leadership, is why the SWP is so widely distrusted today. Despite the recent ‘turn to the united front’ and collaborative, pluralist functioning (with the Anti-war movement, Socialist Alliance, Respect, etc), experience shows us that the organisation cannot sustain this approach and breakdown usually occurs if other forces don’t toe the line, even on secondary issues.

In summary, rank & fileism for a period was able to engage with a broad militant shop-stewards’ movement, which in a very few places had a revolutionary leaderships (Cowley car plant, for example), but was mostly dominated by syndicalism or militant Labourism (economism). However, the IS believed that this movement could lead a successful revolutionary challenge to the state, by-passing the nationally organised Labour Movement, i.e. the Labour and trade union bureaucracy, which of course held back the class struggle. This simplistic strategy was doomed to fail, as Cliff understood. However, his answer was ‘build the revolutionary party’.

The other main perspective on offer to the working class at this time was the ‘broad lefts’, which mostly suffered from the opposite problem – engagement and unity with the left of the official movement, but with little action, or challenging and going beyond the labour bureaucrats. This was mainly due to the opportunist and reformist politics of the Communist Party that pursued a strategic alliance with left Labourism (the majority of the CPB still does, hence its abandonment of TUSC in favour supporting Labour in the upcoming general election). The majority of the broad left movement quickly ended up tail ending certain left bureaucrats and even supporting the Social Contract.

These were classic failures to actually take on the entrenched Labour bureaucracy and unify the vanguard of the workers’ movement in a fighting united front.

The task was to mobilise the shop-stewards’ and rank and file movements not only in unofficial strike actions, but to direct its social and political weight to take-on (not bypass) the monolith that is Labourism (in alliance with the social movements) – a task which also required the deployment of relevant political demands which could begin to challenge the system as a whole. As Trotsky advised, it was necessary to take on the bureaucrats in their asylums. Neither strategy did this: one was leftist (but mostly without transitional politics), the other tail-ending opportunism, in the real sense of the word. Some of the latter were, and still are, bag-carriers for left bureaucrats.

Launching the SWP.

Andy Newman writes that, “the SWP (launched on 1st January 1977 on a disastrously wrong perspective of huge, immediate growth) still had a lot of vitality. The internal culture, although increasingly undemocratic, still had an exemplary emphasis on getting out and doing things, and the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism were big successes (although it must be recognised that not only the SWP, but also the IMG, Big Flame, huge number of Labour Party members and also non-aligned activists were involved. Not just the SWP). Indeed it is a characteristic of the SWP that the informal lines of communication are often as important as the formal ones, and therefore a lot of the good traditions of the IS had been continued organically by the SWP’s long term cadre.”

“But Cliff’s emphasis on building the party based upon recruiting young people into large geographical branches in the centres of major cities inevitably undermined a serious approach to implanting the party among organised workers. Many large, well organised workplaces were outside the large cities, and most experienced militants already had well established ideas in their heads, and wouldn’t just follow orders from the SWP’s Central Committee.”

The new SWP had no strategy for working class power, transitional politics, or an understanding of the united front method. As Andy suggests, and this was our experience of the SWP at the time, its main objective was “getting bigger”, sometimes at the expense of the broader movement.

There were examples where rank and file organisations with their feet on the ground maintained an independent course, supported broad left candidates, etc. For example, SWP militants in Birmingham, but this could not overcome their wrong strategy. In any case by then Cliff’s new line was in the ascendant. Andy quotes Cliff, who argued that the Birmingham rank and file militants were making political accommodation to the lower levels of the bureaucracy. They were expelled.

Andy argues, rightly in our opinion, that, “In the most critical period in British trade unions, when the ideological and political battles over the social contract were in play, the IS expelled its main industrial base and deprioritised industrial work.” However we don’t understand Andy’s point that rank & fileism embodied a more transitional approach, because as he says himself, it lacked a sufficient political dimension.

Andy Newman writes that Alex Callinicos was also dismissive of the tendency of rank and file groups to transition into broad left caucuses . . . Quoting Lindsey Greig: “(rank and militants) frequently found themselves in positions of union responsibility as branch secretaries, delegates to stewards’ committees and higher union bodies. … … Victories and defeats are no longer counted in terms of struggle with employers but rather with the right wing trade union bureaucracy. … The actual composition of the rank and file groups, far from being a body leading struggles, becomes a meeting place for often tired ‘socialists’, … acting as little more than the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy. …. Political differences have been institutionalised into the background.”

But what was wrong with consolidating the left in the unions when the union movement was increasingly on the defensive and it was more difficult to build the rank and file? The problem was how to take on the right wing, raise one or two conjuncturally relevant transitional demands and/or take into the unions other social and international campaigns, as the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance in the National Union of Teachers attempted to do, often with some success. This more political trade unionism was not without difficulties, but most of the rank and file groups along with the broad lefts contented themselves with narrow economic issues with minimum demands.

Unity in struggle

Most importantly the SWP leadership should have encouraged the rank and file movement and other militants to build links with the growing Labour and TU left under the leadership of Tony Benn (the Bennite revolt – not mentioned by Andy), rather than encouraging it to ‘steer left’ into isolation and decline.

The central problem then with the IS/SWP current is that in both the rank and file movement and Cliff’s ‘build the party at all costs’ strategy that replaced it, tried to take the union and youth vanguard into a leftist outflanking of a resilient unitary Labour movement (Labourism) and failed. By the 1980 rank and file did not participate in the official trade union structures and was in decline, while the ‘build the party’ line moved from the strident pulpits, or maybe soap-boxes, into the trenches of Cliff’s ‘downturn’ theory. (See review article by Alan Thornett in Historical Materialism, Vol 15/1, 2007, pp243) This new line meant that they were looking in the wrong direction when the great Miners’ Strike was launched in 1984.

SWP members often say, ‘well, we did better than you’. The problem with the IMG tactics in the post ‘68 period, which beset it for the rest of its existence, was that it failed after 1968 to turn its not insignificant base among students and youth to building a base in the workers’ movement – until a little too late, so the IS rank and file, with all its problems stole an historic march on the IMG. The IMG was imbued with its own ultra-leftism, in this case derived from France, the so called, ‘dialectic of unity and outflanking’ (a very French idea), which the IMG mostly interpreted as a form of the united front. However, this was superior to the tactic of the SWP, because it involved sustained attempts to build unity in struggle between the broad vanguard (militant students, youth and workers) and the left official leaderships at all levels. It therefore rejected the ‘united front from below’, which attempted to simply go round, or by-pass, the reformist apparatuses.

Leaving aside the aberration of the substitutionist ‘turn to industry’, the IMG at this time did manage to make a sharp turn to unity in action with the Bennite left (1979/80), after a long and tough internal discussion, which involved going into the Labour Party, again a little late. However, for several years it placed that organisation in a good active relationship with the most politicised layers of the workers’ and socialist movements, and ensured we were well placed inside the actual movement to throw ourselves into solidarity work with the Miners Strike, during which we found ourselves in a convergence with the Socialist Group and Alan Thornett. It also led to the split in the IMG.

But where were the SWP in the first months of this historic strike? They were well battened down in the trenches of Cliff’s ‘downturn’ theory, looking the wrong way. They had steered left to distance themselves, insulate themselves, from Bennism (left reformism –ugh- too many political debates and not enough strikes) and other left forces, and found themselves looking at their navels when the Miners’ Strike broke out.

The aftermath of the defeat of the Miners’ Strike in 1985, though not inevitable, led to a real downturn in Britain at least. In our view it marked the end of the historical period opened in France, in May 1968. The recent banking crisis of October, 2008 marks, once again a new turning point – a new period – characterised by austerity, counter-reform, deepening social crisis and defensive class struggles.
The downturn theory was first introduced by Cliff in 1979: “The Balance of Class Forces” [ISJ] and resulted in a shift away from the strident optimism of the 1970s.

Andy Newman writes: “The culture in the SWP during the 1980s shifted considerably, to emphasising a routine of regular propaganda meetings by large geographical branches, and while selling the paper at work was highly encouraged, militants were expected to largely focus on the ‘rank and file’ workers in their own section, having propagandist arguments for socialism.”

In other words political work in the trenches of the ‘downturn’ was a form of sectarian abstract propagandism. It did have the merit of consolidating forces and a steady recruitment, although most passed through a revolving door, leaving many disillusioned on the wayside and mis-educating the rest.

The SWP never achieved the same political impact on the broad vanguard of students, youth or workers, or a significant national profile, comparable to the similarly sized French LCR. Despite the SWP’s relatively large size (although minute compared with the tasks), with one or two noteworthy exceptions, e.g., the ANL, Stop the War, it has nearly always boxed below its weight.

The SWP ‘rank and file strategy’ and its replacement by Cliff’s ‘build the Party’ line (from 1973-75), are both examples of what we described in our text as the Marxist left’s failure to engage with ‘Labourism’, the powerfully organised unitary Labour movement.

Dave Packer is a member of the Socialist Resistance executive. This article was written in reply to a reader’s comment on our recent analysis of the crisis in the SWP.

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5 Comments on SWP: Neither ‘rank & fileism’ nor ‘building the party’ beats Labourism

  1. Dave,
    Your taking the time to formulate a substantive response is most appreciated. Thoughts, comments to follow…

  2. Thought it was a really good article and with the earlier one and some other stuff would make a really good pamphlet for militants and those who have have left the revolutionary left but reamin revolutionaries. Reminded me of why I joined the FI when confronted by so many groupus in the late seventies.

  3. I have found this article quite thought provoking particularly as someone who was raised in the IS tradition. In particular, there is an implicit argument that the objective challenge -or dead-end – which the IS Rank and File strategy began to face by the mid-70s gave impetus to the Party Turn, which had its own ultra-left or abstentionist dangers. Leaving aside the particularity of the Miners Strike, I am left wanting to think more about the downturn thesis because on some basic level I believe that Cliff had a correct perspective about the need for consolidation in the face of an ebbing from the moment of 68-75 (or whatever is exactly the right periodization). Whether that could have been done while maintaining the industrial cadre that the IS is a question for me, though I am suspicious of (the substance of) what you quote as Callinicos’ thoughts on the matter (about the objective place of the union stewards)…

  4. Aaron, I think there’s a further challenge. With hindsight you could say that the period from 75 was one of ebb. However, there was a sustained wave of forward momentum and rising class struggle through to the early 1980s. In that context, one could turn in (to propaganda) to preserve the cadre or one could tun out (to united front work) to help preserve the broad vanguard. I came into activity during the miners strike and the SWP’s adherence to the downturn meant they played a passifing and demobilising role, and did not play the active and leading role that other socialists had from the start.

  5. Interesting aticle and especially apt at this particular juncture at this time of the historic SWP split. I think the article should HAVE gone onto discuss the SWP´s response to two crucial turning points, the Malvinas war and Poll Tax rebellion in the early and late 80´s, where, in my opiion both they and Militant were found seriously wanting in terms of offering credible political leadership and a credible longer term political strategy for continuing the offensive struggle and further building up the movement instead of demobilising the movement at the very moment when the tories were in trouble and were suffering serious credibility.

    In respect to the Poll tax, the tories were able to hurriedly set up the inevitable cover of a parliamentary select committee to “look at the matter” and buy time……

    The tories were in my view, serioulsy damaged, disorientated and confused by the massive opposition to the tax and the great outpourings of tangible hatred for their great leader. Thatcher was seriously tainted and damaged and was then rightly percieved by the tory leadreship and the ruling class as a serious liability perhaps for the fist time under her rule.

    Criminally, THE TORIES were allowed significant breathing space, in which they wasted little time to ruthlessly dump Thatcher, reorganise,massage and manipulate a new form of words and repackage and resell the tax in an other more “acceptable” form, which has since been re re packaged and sold and still leaves millions of people paying ridiculous amounts of hard earnt money on this unjust tax.

    I also think that it should be mentioned, the poor lack of judgment shown by the SWP and much of the rest of the Left, the Labour party and the Labour movement, both before and during “the turning point” (once again on the political agenda) of the FALKLANDS / MALVINAS issue(oil) and the 1983 war and when like now the government´s popularity and neo liberal programme was in deep trouble, the global capitalist economic crisis, which then like now, was arguably being used as part of a conscious and calculated political for creating mass unemployment and bringing about the restructuring of the global capitalist system. This was also the case in Argentina, under the Galtieri led capitalist fascist Dictatorship,previously supported by imperialism, Thatcher and Reagan and Chilean dictator Pinochet alike.

    The movement against the war was tiny when only months before hundreds of thousands of people had marched against US cruise missiles sited in Britain and the prosepect of nuclear war.

    The SWP was found to be seriousdly inept and ill equiped to respond to this eventuality and develop a credible and sound critique of the imperialist war, straddle and bring together both anti war movements and further develop a movement against it…no easy task given the mass imperialist mania and extrem fascistic pàtriotic bollocks generated at the times by the capitalist mass media.

    Thatcher´s “victory” in the Malvinas war allowed the tories to massively consolidate their ideological position and political support within both the working class and the country as a whole, bar Scotland and the occupied North of Ireland and go onto the political offensive further greatly strengthened with the defeat of the Miners in the historic Miners Strike of 1984/5.

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