A Tale of Two Parties: The British and American SWPs

by Pham Binh on March 12, 2013

The SWP Spring is over, and it has gone the way of Prague instead of Tahrir. The SWP’s opposition demanded the downfall of the regime; they fought vainly and valiantly, and now over 70 members, including the party’s future brain trust, Richard Seymour and China Miéville, have issued a collective resignation statement after the opposition’s defeat at a rigged special conference.

The house that Tony Cliff built (on faulty foundations) has cracked irreparably. The husk that remains is destined to endure in a state of permanent decay only because no one cares enough to front the money for the bulldozing it deserves for systematically covering up rapes and sexual assaults by its higher-ups for many years.

The American SWP’s present is the British SWP’s future.

And what of the opposition? Freed from “Leninist” party discipline, the International Socialist Network (ISN) will use their blog, a new email list, and other 21st century methods to publicly debate, discuss, theorize, and organize supporters of the Cliff tradition in a recapitulation of the SWP’s predecessor, the International Socialists (IS).

btpIt seems that the apple never falls far from the tree.

The opposition’s fundamental criticism of the SWP is that they were doing it wrong (it being “Leninism”). “A healthy International Socialist tradition in Britain” in the spirit of the best of the old IS would fearlessly debate questions like why a workers’ party dedicated to overthrowing British capitalism or a network aiming to form such a party needs Cliff’s line on a non-existent USSR at all instead of accepting the IS’s 50-year-old shibboleths — state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, and deflected permanent revolution — as givens. Tony Cliff Thought and his little Lenin book are not a proper starting point for drawing political boundaries in the era of Chavismo, the Arab Spring, and SYRIZA.

The formation of networks of dissidents and ex-members is another commonality between the self-destruction of the British and American SWPs. However, the political basis of the ISN today and the former American SWP leader Peter Camejo’s North Star Network (NSN) couldn’t be more different. NSN explicitly came to grips with and aggressively rejected the political baggage (or “tradition,” if you prefer the polite term) of its founders, teaching, in Dayne Goodwin’s words:

We needed to avoid left jargon and reach out to people with clear language and reference to our own U.S. working class history and culture.

We needed to break from the fetishistic and philosophically idealist perspective that we were inheritors of “the correct” program; political program is developed, tested and affirmed in mass struggle.

There is no such thing as “the nucleus” of a revolutionary party because a revolutionary party is only created in the process of actual leadership of mass struggles of millions of people.

One of the worst manifestations of philosophically idealist sectarianism is the idea that if there is a political disagreement among revolutionary socialists then one view must be petit-bourgeois, because there can only be one truly proletarian, correct revolutionary working class view.

On this basis NSN members immersed themselves in Central American solidarity work while Camejo joined the Rainbow Coalition. Unfortunately, NSN did not develop into something greater since it was “primarily a deprogramming center for victims of the SWP cult” as Camejo put it, and at the end of the 1980s, he dissolved NSN.

“Leninists” might fault Camejo for failing to leave behind a revolving door of recruits peddling an awful party-line newspaper written by an expulsion-happy central committee, but that was a success, not a failure. In the absence of a mass-based radical party with a left dominated by the sect form, networks are the way to go.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

RedPleb March 12, 2013 at 3:36 pm

This analysis seems little better then the WSWS line, that the collapse of the SWP is because of an original sin through Tony Cliff. In addition its way too early (literally within 24 hours of its formation) to say what will come of the ISN or say definitely what the ISN even intends to do with itself.


Pham Binh March 12, 2013 at 5:43 pm

WSWS says the IST backs the Democrats. If you can’t see the difference between what they’re saying and what I’m saying, you need your eyes checked out.


RedPleb March 12, 2013 at 5:56 pm

They also have a habit of purposefully missing the point entirely, such as you just did. My point was that your analysis and theirs has a common “original sin” theme in placing all the blame on the head of Tony Cliff’s theory for the crash of the SWP, something that has occurred 60 years after the forming of the theory of State Capitalism. Though the two of you are coming at it from two different angles.


Pham Binh March 12, 2013 at 8:25 pm

The ISO’s analysis of reformist parties is also one of “original sin.”

I also didn’t “place all the blame” on Cliff for the crimes of his inferiors. That’s quite the strawman factory you’re running.


Brandy Baker March 13, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I place some of it on Cliff, Binh. Under his stead, the SWP had a fratboy mentality when it came to women..


Richard Estes March 12, 2013 at 3:56 pm

“The SWP’s opposition demanded the downfall of the regime; they fought vainly and valiantly, and now over 70 members, including the party’s future brain trust, Richard Seymour and China Miéville, have issued a collective resignation statement after the opposition’s defeat at a rigged special conference.”

I’m not sure Seymour and Mieville were the “brain trust”. The most publicly known dissidents, perhaps, but not the “brain trust”. It strikes me as doubtful that either had a future at the top of the SWP, and Seymour says that, back in December, he was behind the students in terms of a willingness to confront the CC, refusing, at first, to associate himself with a faction in advance of the January conference. He also praises their political aptitude. If anything, Seymour and Mieville may have been initially caught in the middle and forced to go out with the tide because of the student rebellion. Free from the fetters of the SWP, the dissidents may have more latitude to engage contemporary political currents. It will be interesting to see to what extent they go beyond questions of praxis and address the antiquated lines mentioned here as well as, of course, feminism in its myriad manifestations.


Pham Binh March 12, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Their future at the top was guaranteed by the fact that, after Callinicos, the SWP has no one left to do their thinking, theorizing, and justifying for them. Key word here being “was.”

Lou and I have been debating the nature and character of the opposition. He’s bull-ish and I’m bear-ish:


Richard Estes March 12, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Of course, you are assuming that, post-Callinicos, the SWP will want someone to do their “thinking, theorizing and justifying”. From what little I’ve seen, Callinicos was no shining light. But the key point is not so much Seymour and Mieville, but, rather, the students, the ones who really provoked the crisis and demanded that something be done. Will they drift away from radical left politics? Or, stay with it, and try to create something new? The past is not reassuring here, but, perhaps, this time, it will be different.


Louis Proyect March 13, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Richard Seymour on Facebook:

Matthijs, I think a number of things are clear at this point: 1) it would be implausible to form another ‘tiny mass party – we are not the basis for a big socialist party, but only one potential current or tendency in it; 2) it would be undesirable to try to build such a ‘tiny mass party’ even if we could – there are more than enough of them about; 3) we all come from the IS tradition, and as such are interested in figuring out how much of it is worth rescuing and how much is of antiquarian value, but we are by no means interested in establishing another sect devoted to the True Legacy of Cliff; 4) personally I want to see a long-term realignment of the left’s forces, and I think I’m not alone in this. It will require having a conversation with far wider forces than just IS people.


Pham Binh March 14, 2013 at 12:16 pm

So he’s prepared to have a conversation with “deviationists” like Laurie Penny and Owen Jones about the future of the British left? Splendid.


Louis Proyect March 12, 2013 at 4:09 pm

I have a bit more faith in the possibility of Richard Seymour and his comrades avoiding the mistake of the expelled SWP’ers in the USA trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in the shape of Socialist Action. For one thing, China and Richard have no background and no interest in being anything like Charlie Kimber. Also, the accusation that they were abandoning Leninism does have some basis, considering Richard’s support for SYRIZA against the SWP tops. I have a strong feeling that now that these comrades have had the shackles removed, they will be much more open to new initiatives.


David Thorstad March 12, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose? The issue prompting revolt by some believers in the faith may change, but the results are the same. Why the British SWP should end up giving birth to something any better than the grouplets that have perennially been spawned by American Trotskyism is far from obvious. Wishful thinking at best. The proof is in the pudding. Left sects come and go, and sometimes actually seem to accomplish something for a while, but, in the end, what that is lasting? The Russian Revolution was world-historic, but ultimately the Soviet people couldn’t wait to get rid of it. The Chinese Revolution has morphed into capitalism. Even if recent left-wing splits were to grow to the point of coming to state power (a prospect that seems remote, to say the least), why think they would be any different from few parties that have actually accomplished that and have vanished (e.g., the CP of the Soviet Union) or abandoned their principles (e.g., the Chinese CP, the various Social Democrats)? Their efforts may be valiant, in some cases, fatuous in others, but in the end they seem unable to connect to their presumed audiences, and those audiences seem uninterested in what they offer. Broadening their appeal is sensible, surely, but some fatal flaw always seems to show up sooner or later. Still, the effort may be worth it because what’s the alternative? Struggle is more worthy than surrender. But there’s something pathetic about people devoting their entire lives to building a revolutionary group only to see themselves expelled after decades without ever having detected the flaw in the whole endeavor. This has to be the result of more than bad apples in leaderships.


Louis Proyect March 12, 2013 at 5:09 pm

This has to be the result of more than bad apples in leaderships.

Their genes? When I used to sell the Militant door to door in Columbia dorms in 1969, they would tell me that human nature made socialism impossible. Sad to see David echoing them.


David Thorstad March 12, 2013 at 5:41 pm

That’s silly. I don’t believe in “human nature.” Nor do I believe socialism is impossible, and I do believe it is desirable. Socialism or barbarism was the name of the first socialist group I was involved with, in 1963: Socialisme ou Barbarie, in Paris. Genes have nothing to do with whether humans challenge the system or choose instead to make peace with it (as more leftists have done than continue to fight to overthrow capitalism). This is aside from the fact that most leftists these days confuse socialism with minor reforms to the capitalist system, even reforms that strengthen the system (e.g., militarism, same-sex marriage…). The issue goes beyond the false binary of nurture or nature. It is sad to see Louis dismiss other views so facilely, but that seems to be his style. My point is that there seems to be a flaw in the efforts of most revolutionaries, and that is that they project onto the “masses” (what they used to call the “proletariat,” as some still do) their own wishful thinking. Meanwhile, those masses, on their own, seem incapable of ushering in the socialist vision (e.g., Egypt, not to mention the “advanced” capitalist countries) without a guiding force (such as a revolutionary party). And so far, in the “advanced” West especially, nobody has figured out how to create such a force (including those who, correctly, have abandoned the “vanguard party” concept–which was a failure decades already before most of us work up to the fact). While I admire the efforts of those who pursue the dream, and myself continue to tilt at windmills, patterns of failure in the endeavor deserve a more serious examination than accusing those who hold a different view of surrendering to genetics.


Pham Binh May 3, 2013 at 1:44 pm

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