Owen Jones, the SWP, and Networks

by Andrew Coates on January 25, 2013

First published by Tendance Coatesy.

The SWP is “imploding”. The fall out from the Martin Smith affair, and perceived hostility to women’s rights has been devastating. “Activists are reported to be in open rebellion at their autocratic leadership, or are simply deserting en masse,” writes Owen Jones in the Independent. This, he continues, is of importance to the whole left. Not only has the SWP been behind political movements, such as the Stop the War Coalition’s giant marches against the Iraq war, but that many, “thousands” have passed through its ranks over the years, “only to end up burnt out and demoralised”.

Intellectuals such as China Mièville and Richard Seymour, and grass-roots activists, are now publicly challenging their party’s leadership. It would seem that the days of the SWP as Britain’s largest “Leninist sect” are drawing to an end.

There are some similarities with the late 1970s dissolution of European far-left groups. The much more intensely “revolutionary” French Gauche Prolétarienne (GP) wound itself up in 1973. Tales of arbitrary central rule, the domineering ways of Benny Lévy, bullying and personal traumas emerged later, which resemble some of the stories emerging from the SWP. The Italian Lotta Continua (LC) broke up by the late 1970s over the avant-garde role of any ‘party’, and issues of personal politics and feminism.

But these groups were ideologically fluid. Their ideas were part of a world of unsettled alignments and doubts, fuelled by the changes in mid-1970s China and the horrors of Cambodia, or, in Italy, with the emerging ‘armed struggle’, about the nature of ‘revolution’ and Marxism.

Supporters and opponents in the SWP by contrast look to the ‘International Socialist tradition’ that held them together for decades. Solidarity and the Weekly Worker report a continuing battle by opponents of the Central Committee’s “bureaucratic centralism”. Their objections are framed within a common set of assumptions.

There are other differences. Britain is, to say the least, is also not a natural home for ‘revolutionaries’. Yassamine Mather in the Weekly Worker describes the dedication and stringent organisation of the Iranian left in the wake of the Khomeini Islamist take-over and the contrast with the SWP’s centrally directed, but less welded together membership. Those familiar with the Continental European left, where violent clashes with the state and mass movements on a scale unknown in the United Kingdom are not unknown even today, find the SWP’s ‘revolutionary’ claims, for all of the legacy on the 1980s miners’ strike, hard to swallow.


Owen Jones observes, rightly, that the ‘Leninism’ of the SWP is “obsessed with replicating a revolution that took places in a semi-feudal country nearly a century ago”. Yet the SWP emerged from the post-1968 events, not the foundation of the Third International. That is, like the Gauche Prolétarienne and LC, and the whole “new vanguard” (as the International Secretariat of the Fourth International called it), they were shaped by mass strikes and student movements, dividing the left, and without any clear central leadership, that did not resemble 1917. Close to the GP André Glucksman argued in 1968 that there was not a Bolshevik” model for the “party”, in the widest sense, of the revolutionary left to adopt (Stratégie et revolution en France 1968. 1968). The forerunner of the SWP, the International Socialists (IS), was of a similar mind.

It was only during the 1970s that a wide section of the post-68 European left began to ‘Bolshevise’. Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin is said to mark a key moment in this process. It was resisted by an important section of the old IS, who broke away as the SWP was founded in 1976. Lars T. Lih, has argued that for Lenin the proletariat was ready for Marxism, that there would be no division between teachers and taught, and that socialism and the working class would ‘merge’ (Lenin. 2011) For the IS, there was always a distrust of “substitutionism”, that the party would suddenly announce that it was the unique bearer of Marxist truth. Critics (including former members) of the new SWP were not slow to say that this was exactly what it was doing.

The SWP theoretical view of the ‘party’ resembles that out forward by the Fourth International’s (FI) Ernest Mandel, that it “proves its right to exist only through it connection to the real class struggle and by its capacity to transform potentially revolutionary class consciousness into actual revolutionary class consciousness of broad layers of workers.” (The Leninist Theory of Organisation 1975) The party is linked to these conflicts and interests by a wide network of activists, through listening to people’s grievances, to discussions, through participation in self-organised revolts. In Leninist terms the party then organises during a revolutionary situation, or “dual power”, to conquer power and ‘smash’ the existing bourgeois state.

Sometimes the SWP’s role as a ‘Leninist organisation’ can almost seem to disappear. You would be hard pressed to find any reference to the Party in SWP leader Alex Callinicos’ Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (2003). Callinicos addresses the ‘anti-capitalist movement’ (which he prefers to alter-globalisation and other expressions). He offers a defence of the critique of capitalism based on justice, efficiency democracy and sustainability and a “transitional programme’ to pave the way for a democratically planned socialist economy, without mentioning the Party’s role. The “revolutionary process” he outlines, that might lead to this end, does not even include the words ‘dual power’.

smithBureaucratic Centralism

The SWP can tolerate a wide range of theoretical diversity, as Callinicos’ often brilliant writing illustrates. But rather than waste time looking for references to the party in the writings of SWP intellectuals (which would include Chris Harman, John Rees’ appropriation of Lukács, and many others) it is their practice that is most relevant. The SWP operates what it would no doubt call “revolutionary centralism”  Barry Biddulph goes back to the pre-1914 Marxist left to find the origins of what is widely called, rather differently, ‘bureaucratic centralism”. (2)  He asserts, correctly in our opinion, that ‘democratic centralism’ is always centralist never democratic. Certainly the SWP does not prove the contrary. Their organisation if marked by the following: the Central Committee’s (CC) debates are not revealed to the members, only its decisions are, the CC is elected at the annual conference by the ‘slate’ system (similar to the old Communist Party of Great Britain’s ‘panel system’), which offers delegates a list of candidates which cannot be a amended, all party members are bound by the decisions of the CC, internal party factions, or groupings, are only permitted, within defined limits, during the run up to the conference, members can be expelled for breaking these conditions.

This ensures “unity in action”, or more accurately, “doing what you’re told.”

Ernest Mandel’s model of democratic two-way party process between members and leaders left the way open for party ‘factions’. This has been the practice in the FI he was part of. It may be compared to the French Parti Socialiste, which is made up of a permanent, and shifting, set of tendencies, or ‘courants’ whose views are put to the party conference and form the basis of a proportionally elected leadership. In the FI aligned International Marxist Group, which also underwent 1970s ‘Bolshevisation’, this was the norm. It remains the case in the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA). The NPA has been criticised by the SWP for this democratic system. ‘Permanent factions’ Callinicos has frequently observed, waste party energy, and turn it inwards.

Factions can also lead to splits – as the NPA has recently experienced. Nevertheless, it could be argued that it was the inability of the NPA to adapt flexibly to the new conditions – the formation of the Front de Gauche (FdG) which its former tendencies have joined up with – that casts doubt even on this more open ‘Leninist’ model. The French FI hearkened back to their Trotskyist origins and simply refused to join up with the FdG “reformists”.

However, factions, tendencies and other aspects of permanent democratic debate have roots in the nature of politics, particularly important for the left. The left works within ‘stasis’, that is the upsetting of existing political arrangements. It is a means to break up the consensus – today around neo-liberalism – and, as Owen Jones notes, the “crisis” of capitalism.

Jacques Rancière argues that it is only through “dissensus” (Dissensus 2010). This has many aspects but one is relevant to this debate, “Political struggle proper is therefore not a matter of rational debate between multiple interests; it is above all, a struggle to have one’s voice heard and oneself recognised as a legitimate partner in debate.” Denying members of a political party this “right to be heard” as a partner, is to “police” them, to make them less than equal. It is dissensus which enables new issues to be raised, to make a party a place where people do not just exchange their experiences while the carry out orders, but somewhere where people come out with new ideas, ‘outside the box’. Bureaucratic centralism is not just bad practice; it is an attempt to wipe out politics itself.

The SWP operates on the assumption that people radicalised ‘by the struggle’ will turn towards it. Its own activity with other groups, unions, campaigns, political parties, is directed on this basis. Its vehicles are no secret. Vargas Llosa once described Trotskyists in South America as all about standing around selling papers. Apart from Socialist Worker the SWP organises meetings, preferably large public ones. It’s what they do. They then recruit, and if people get sucked in they can enjoy the life of a party run by bureaucratic centralism. And have their activities on Facebook overseen.

The End of an Era?

The SWP since the 1970s has been one of the factors that has prevented the British left from offering a coherent challenge to capitalism. Beginning from the late 1970s, when it tried to impose the Anti Nazi League over a network of local anti-racist and anti-fascist groups, it participated in another network, the Socialist Movement, (the Chesterfield Conference) with the intention of ‘exposing’ the ‘left reformists’ of the Labour left. It joined in, but can hardly be said to have shaped the strategies (never put into effect) that emerged, which combined democratic reforms, green policies, and a pan-European version of the 1970s Alternative Economic Programme.

After that it was back to the usual round of campaigns, frenetically taken up, and then dropped, opposing. The most successful were on international issues, the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia and the first Gulf War. Following the electoral successes of French Trotskyists in the 1990s and the emergence of the Scottish Socialist party, the SWP looked more favourably on ‘electoralism’. It came to dominated the late 1990s electoral front, the Socialist Alliance, operated without regard for democratic norms inside it, and then dumped it in favour of a hook-up with George Galloway in the communalist RESPECT. An attempt to capitalise on the successes of the Stop the War Coalition’s marches was the foundation. The SWP then left Respect (no doubt largely because large egos couldn’t stand Galloway’s even bigger one), got rid of its most Islamophile ‘anti-imperialist’ wing around Lindsey German and John Rees, and, cutting a long story short, is now trying to split the anti-cuts movement with the…Unite the Resistance campaign.

SWPSWP campaigns work in a cycle. There is intense effort made to build then – or to take over existing bodies – there are meetings, demonstrations, and, they hope recruitment. A hysteria takes hold. Then they largely disappear, or are shunted aside for future use. This is somes called the ‘united front as tactic’.  Each intervention has left casualties in the party and outside of it. Once they have secured support the SWP goes on its way without bothering too much about what anybody else thinks. This leaves casualties, or, more often, just distrust and indifference to the next all-important mobilisation. People are wary of co-operating not just with the sellers of Socialist Worker but with other activists, divided against each other in each successive wave of ‘unity’ and then, ‘dis-unity’.

The SWP, like all political parties, treats people as instruments, means to an end, not ends in themselves. It is distinguished from most political bodies nevertheless by the degree to which it does this, casting people aside – expelling them if they are members – and acquiring a cadre prepared to carry out this with ‘Bolshevik ‘ ruthlessness. Towards those they don’t have a direct grip on they can be alternatively charming, glacial or hectoring. The threat of violence is not unknown.

Owen notes that the failings of the SWP are not unique. Nor is its lack of success. Members of his family have participated in previous ‘party-building’ attempts.

Is, as he argues, the Labour Party offers a way of connecting with the working class and ordinary people? There are doubts on this. Labour is a professionalised party, with links to voters that are pretty obvious, as we have ballots to show them, and ties to trade unions which are less secure. There are strong arguments to be involved in the Party, though its internal structure offer little way of influencing policy in depth. The serious left does not want to be an “echo chamber” – talking to itself alone, as Luke Akehurst argues. In the meantime, we are not likely to stop criticising the Labour Party, not least because it fails to live up to being even a social democratic party.

If it is so far from being a socialist organisation what do we do? New left parties seem, as Owen says, to be a non-starter. Jones argues that the left, labour and non-labour, should get together in networks. Toby Young in the Daily Telegraph ironically states that Jones want to “his fellow travellers to form a new political movement – a sort of non-sexist version of the Socialist Workers’ Party.” It is indeed tempting to be ironical about the SWP but I doubt if even Young  laughs much when we have an effect, in anti-cuts groups, or in trade unions. Because, as Owen  knows, we already have our networks, established by a degree of trust and respect, including his own umbrella group, the Labour Representation Committee (of which I am a card member). These are ‘broad networks’ dealing with bread and butter politics.

The ‘Bolshevisation’ of the 1970s was followed by successive waves of activists leaving parties like the SWP, or fragmenting, as happened with the IMG, into a variety of small tendencies. A majority of the erstwhile ‘far-left’  operates in flexible networks and journals, like Chartist, the Commune, and Labour Briefing, or small Marxist groups like the Weekly Worker or the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Red Pepper, the descendent of the Socialist Movement, offers reports on networking campaigns, most recently on the Indignados and the small American movement, Occupy Wall Street. Although we may differ on many things a democratic commitment perhaps marks us off from the SWP. It would not be too much to say that this is reinforced by the possibilities offered by the new information technologies, technologies which appear to drive the SWP to distraction.

Owen concludes, “The era of the SWP and its kind is over; a new movement is waiting to be born.” Perhaps we should be thinking of organising something like the May Day Manifesto, the Beyond the Fragments conference, or the Socialist Movement. This will be hard, there is a lot to overcome. But please, this time, SWP Central Committee – stay away!


1. “Revolutionary centralism is a harsh, imperative and exacting principle. It often takes the guise of absolute ruthlessness in its relation to individual members, to whole groups of former associates. It is not without significance that the words ‘irreconcilable’ and ‘relentless’ are among Lenin’s favourites. It is only the most impassioned, revolutionary striving for a definite end – a striving that is utterly free from anything base or personal – that can justify such a personal ruthlessness.” Page 167 My Life. Leon Trotsky. An Attempt at an Autobiography. Penguin 1975.

2. Barry Biddulp states, “Democratic Centralism is not democratic; leaders decide on how much democracy there should be, depending on their interpretation of the circumstances.  The concept has been compatible with authoritarian personalities and top down undemocratic parties. Simon wants to fill an undemocratic form with a democratic content, but the usual undemocratic content was demonstrated recently in a scandal in the British SWP.  The content is tied to the form of a small central leadership mimicking the centralization of state decision-making.  A post capitalist society can only be established by the self emancipation of the working class, not a handful of leaders invoking the values of so-called democratic centralism and substituting for the class.

Update: This post, from the dissident SWP site Interrnational Socialism (Hat-Tip Shiraz) , about how the ‘party’ cadres moan about people writing on the Internet is worth looking at for amusement value alone.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nathan Rao January 28, 2013 at 9:46 am

Thanks for this interesting piece. Just one comment on what you have to say about the NPA.

You write: ‘Factions can also lead to splits – as the NPA has recently experienced. Nevertheless it could be argued that it was the inability of the NPA to adapt flexibly to the new conditions – the formation of the Front de gauche (FdG) which its former tendencies have joined up with – that casts doubt even on this more open ‘Leninist’ model. The French FI hearkened back to their Trotskyist origins and simply refused to join up with the FdG “reformists”.’

You probably know this already, but “the French FI” has a large number of members in the groups that split from the NPA to join the FdG. In fact, the largest and most recent split (summer 2012), the Gauche anticapitaliste (GA), is made up primarily of people who were strong FI supporters and members of the former LCR from the 1980s (and often earlier) onwards. I haven’t seen the latest figures regarding FI supporters in France, but there are proportionally (though probably not in absolute terms) fewer supporters of “the French FI” in the NPA than there are in the individual groupings that left the NPA to join the FdG.

So the relationship to “Trotskyist origins” is more complicated than you suggest. It’s important to recall that significant swathes of Trotskyism in France and elsewhere prioritize an orientation to the “traditional organizations of the working class” — whatever the actual policies and record of these “traditional” organizations, however diminished in size and activity they have become, and no matter how much actual links to the “working class” have weakened and integration into the capitalist state has deepened. This external openness (if you want to call it that) is paradoxically often coupled with internal rigidity, in order to maintain cohesion in the face of the pressures of orienting toward larger organizations offering greater perks and opportunity for career advancement. I definitely don’t think any of the splits from the NPA toward the FdG are rigid (let alone repressive) in the way you suggest the SWP or other far-left organizations have been, but even leaving aside what one thinks about the FdG, where they are in any event bit players, I think these splits from the NPA will hit a glass ceiling in that their very existence is overdetermined by pretty homogeneous adherence to a fairly narrow historical and organizational identity (the old LCR; a specific variant of Trotskyism that was already getting a little long in the tooth quite some time ago; etc).

Part of the NPA’s strategic gamble was to move beyond this project and identity, more clearly breaking with the increasingly groundless “traditional-organizations-of-the-working-class” orientation while creating a common home for anti-capitalists broadly defined. Clearly the project ran into difficulties on a number of fronts, but I think the strategic and organizational thinking behind it remains completely relevant. In any event, it’s too early to say whether those who left the NPA or those who remained were “right”, but the SWP crisis is just the latest proof that anti-capitalists of all stripes are facing a serious crisis — and that applies equally to the NPAers who have joined the FdG, which should go without saying.


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