Revolutionary organisation and the united front

Rob Owen writes criticising the SWP’s trajectory over the past few years, arguing that it has been based on a false assessment of the working class and is incubating sectarian attitudes to the movement. He writes:

The most important question for any revolutionary should be that of perspective. Without it we operate blind.  One of the reasons the recent crisis in the SWP saw such bitter divisions was an implicit acknowledgement that the organisation was suffering from a wider malaise.

This article tries to answer to some of the questions facing revolutionaries. It is not a purely internal document but by necessity will trace some of the recent history of the SWP. It is also largely focused on the UK, but recognises that the crisis in the UK exists in a global and European context:  The crisis has swept the globe, bringing revolution in the Middle East and with it the re-emergence of the powerful Egyptian working class – an inspiration to revolutionaries around the world.  We have also seen the crisis and resistance in Europe mediated through different national circumstances, with Southern European countries particularly feeling the brunt as more economically powerful nations try to manage their own crises. Whilst struggle has been lower in the UK, we can expect a continuation of both austerity and resistance.

The key question is what this struggle will look like. In answering this question, I believe there is far more continuity with the “era of mass movements” then we care to acknowledge. We used to talk a lot about the three levels of struggle: the ideological, the political and the industrial. We recognised that these levels could often be uneven and that a high level in one could either pull up the others or be pulled down to the lowest.  We emphasised how the radicalisation could manifest itself in movements that could increase self-confidence and advance the overall struggle.  As a result of disorientation after the anti-war movement and the Respect crisis we have increasingly defined ourselves against this previous period.  There are important lessons we need to re-learn.

This is not to deny the importance of the pensions dispute. We were correct to bend the stick towards escalating industrial action ahead of November 30th. We played an important role in giving political shape to a block of smaller unions that were the driving force behind the pensions strikes. However, we were unwilling to analyse the shape of that struggle or draw conclusions from it. These were strikes largely delivered from above, and particularly in the bigger unions were delivered despite weak or non-existent workplace organisation.  It was a dynamic driven forwards by a strong anti-austerity (and anti-Tory) politics rather than industrial confidence.  As Joseph Choonara correctly says in his recent ISJ article, because of the low level of struggle preceding the pensions dispute, there was not a level of union organisation on the ground that could prevent the sell-out of the trade union leadership.

The scale of the TUC demonstrations and the popular mood around NHS privatisation were further evidence of the continuing centrality of politics. After the successful build up to November 30th,  we failed to readjust our perspectives in the light of experience, and we increasingly left ourselves bereft of strategy and struggling to engage members beyond mobilising for the next big event or strike.

The political dynamic is changing in ways that reflect changes in government and the development of the crisis.  the fact that there is a recovery of the labour left in Britain and left reformism abroad both provides opportunities and dangers for the movement .  These forces can give confidence to and mobilise wider forces as well as exerting a pull on them to the right.  But the deepening crisis and impact of the Egyptian revolutions, the Indignados movement and occupy also demonstrate the growth of an anti-systemic radical movement which socialist revolutionaries can participate in, learn from and shape.

The SWP has at times grasped towards (particularly with Alex Callinicos and John Rees’ “Building the SWP in the age of mass movements”) but never really theorised our current role within the radical left or wider movement.

Trade Unions and the anti-austerity “front”

Since the split with Counterfire we have reacted against the excesses of the previous period and defined ourselves against the conclusions drawn by the Left Platform. We sensed the possibility of escalating public sector strikes and re-emphasised our analysis of the division between the rank and file and the bureaucracy.   The best of this turn was a push to rebuild the SWP as a revolutionary organisation – the worst a crude approach to working with others and a refusal to reassess perspectives in the light of experience. We recognised the need to shift our perspective towards industrial activity, but we did so without a sober analysis of the balance of class forces. This led to a disorientation that remains with us today.

The turn was bound up with an increasingly sectarian attitude. Political discussion became more internally referenced and dramatically over emphasised the role our activity and campaigns.  As we gradually retreated from the political front, in favour of the industrial, we refused to acknowledge we were doing so.  The failure of Right to Work was a result of its flawed inception and a constantly evolving understanding of its role.  When combined with comrade’s lack of enthusiasm it was destined to be a vehicle with which the SWP alone badged its anti-austerity activity.

Unite the Resistance (UtR) was a more credible attempt to theorise our turn. A strategy, loosely based on the minority movement, was one that built on the partys links to sections of the left bureaucracy. As a result UtR had potential as the struggle rose and was able to debate publicly with left officials as it fell. However as the divide between the revolutionary left and the left officials widened we attempted to substitute heavily to maintain a basic level of UtR activity. This was based on an analysis that a renewed fight over pensions was around the corner and that UtR could provide leverage in making it happen.

This flew in the face of any sober assessment.  What ability we had to influence the direction of key Unions lay in our fractions and their networks not an attendant “united front.” More importantly forces much larger than the revolutionary left were influencing the direction of travel that we could not counteract without a confident rank and file.   The counter pressure of “anger from below” that could spur the left officials forward existed primarily amongst groups of left activists.  The struggle was not throwing up individuals and groups in workplaces that could transform the situation, something we acknowledged without drawing the necessary conclusions.  The politics at the centre of our perspective was based on an analysis of the relationship between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. One of the insights of the IS tradition which drew on our understanding of the roots of reformism and the role of the unions as defensive formations. While it was useful for understanding our role within the industrial struggle it needed to be situated within an accurate assessment of class consciousness and confidence today, as well as the changing shape of the class. Our failure to situate it in this way led us to make mistakes on a variety of fronts.

I’m not going to try and offer an analysis of the shape of the working class today – others are much better placed.  But the shape of the workforce has changed from the impact of neoliberalism. This is not to say it has changed beyond recognition or that traditional forms of trade unionism are finished, but that it is now good sense across most of the movement to acknowledge we need to assess the impact of neoliberalism on the shape of the working class. While this argument is perhaps clearest in the private sector its impact is felt across much of the public. Insecurity, longer hours, harsher micromanagement and regimes of self-audit are well established in the privatised sections of health, education, academia and local government.

When combined with decades of low level defensive strikes this has had a significant impact of the level of class consciousness and organisation in the majority of workplaces. The exceptions tend to be areas where individuals from the revolutionary left have organised against the tide to develop and foster organisation and confidence.  The build-up to the mass strike on November 30th, while bringing in new reps, did not alter this trend. Rather, it cultivated a desire that the unions should deliver more from the top as well as increasing the audience for the radical left. This does not fit exactly into our notion of the rank and file and bureaucracy – rather what we have is an increasing divide between the bureaucracy and the radical left “speaking for” the membership.

Class consciousness today tends to display a greater continuity with the previous “era of mass movements” then we seem comfortable to admit.   While people lack confidence to organise industrially at work there is a desire to organise around broader political questions which continuously manifests itself.  This is not a retreat from industrial defeats or a new downturn but a reflection of the lived experience of those coming into struggle.

It is not that the objective power of the working class has changed but that the neoliberal attack on all working class organisations has weakened its subjective power.  This is not just demonstrated by changes to TU density in privatised sectors, but by the steady, continuous fall in the number of reps and functioning branches. To acknowledge this is not to write off the unions or their capacity to win. It does though point to the stalling of the strike movement being as much about the lack of workplace organisation as about the bureaucracy selling out.

In this situation, understanding the primacy of politics means using the links made through political campaigning to rebuild organisations of struggle across the class. This holds across the private and public sectors, for workplaces that are unionised or not, and also for organisations based around communities and localities.

This should have serious implications for our strategy. In practice we need to recognise the need to work with the widest forces, including the left officials, in building a broad anti-austerity movement.  A new mass demonstration in the autumn would be a step forwards if built alongside an engaged radical current. It would mean relating to initiatives like the People’s Assembly, not by starting with the failure of the officials to call industrial action, but by looking to strengthen and work with those who see a demonstration or political action as a means to develop confidence from below.  Inside the unions it means maintaining a political relationship with those officials who encourage the political struggle while developing a radical left committed to translating this into increased confidence and organisation at a workplace level. It is only in the context of a wider political challenge to austerity that we can hope to undercut the timidity that exists at the top of the unions, and begin to address the lack of organisation that exists at the bottom. To put it very crudely, if the next anti-austerity demo is smaller than the last one, we will have problems in the coming period. If it is vastly bigger, we will have opportunities.

What of the union leaders, such as Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, who have subtly (or unsubtly) counter-posed political action to industrial action at certain points? Well our job is not just to call them out over this, but to push the contradiction in their own position to the fore by being the ones who take up the political questions the most consistently and forcefully.

The United Front and the radical left

Because we refuse to acknowledge the political dimension of the crisis, we were slow to recognise the dynamic behind the People’s Assembly. For the same reason, we were slow to recognise the scale of the emerging student movement or NHS demonstrations despite warnings from comrades on the ground.

The People’s Assembly reflects a coming together of two forces. The first is a left reformism that recognises the broad political mood and wishes to harness the movement to push Labour to the left. The second is a more radical left which recognises that building a broad and political movement can raise confidence to fight on a variety of fronts and give a political framework to local campaigns.  We need to unequivocally throw our weight behind the second of these two forces.

The meetings of hundreds in several cities should demonstrate how this initiative has resonated with a wide audience.  It is clear that reformist consciousness exists on a mass scale despite the collapse of reformist organisation –  it is the common sense of workers under capitalism. As a result Owen Jones and his ilk are best able to relate to and articulate the concerns of a very large number of people. This is a movement revolutionaries should be a part of. We should not simply attend them in order to build our own initiatives, or see them as recruiting opportunities because there is a large audience, but because movements like this have an impact on class confidence.

The local events and national rallies may not be perfect, but their scale means we should be somewhat humble about our alternatives.  It is not appropriate to approach campaigns with demands not based on the dynamic drawing people into struggle.  Abstract propaganda for a general strike (or increased strike action) should not be foregrounded when it does not relate to the where people are.  At their best these events can increase confidence; at their worst they can lead nowhere In either case revolutionaries need to live these experiences alongside people and attempt to strengthen those elements committed to taking the struggle forwards.  Put bluntly, when Len McCluskey or Kevin Courtney call for mass mobilisations it strengthens the radical left’s ability to develop mobilisation at a grassroots level.

The term United Front has to be used carefully because it can be applied so generally as to become meaningless or so specifically that it makes a number of uncritical assumptions.  The most dangerous is misunderstanding the role of the ‘revolutionary party’ and material force it  represents.  It is very easy for a relatively small revolutionary organisation to alternate between believing it must lead organisationally and, if it can’t, believing it must intervene as an external force.  Both are reflections of a sectarian assessment of our strength, size and role in the movement, which puts immediate organisational priorities before political assessments about what is best for developing class confidence. During Stop the War we tended to vacillate between liquidationism and viewing ourselves as a smaller version of a mass communist party. John Rees’ “United Front of a Special Kind” was a clumsy attempt to square this circle.  But since we rejected it we have ended up drifting towards an increasingly sectarian model of revolutionary practice. We must break with this if we are to prove our politics, and our party, in practice.

The Smallest mass Party in the world?

The sectarianism means we increasingly operate on the assumption that the SWP is the revolutionary party – a smaller version of the German Communist Party. This fails to recognise the size of the revolutionary left, our implantation across the working class and the size of the audience looking to our ideas.  It also misses the fact that the Leninist concept of a vanguard is not one that is self-proclaimed based on its politics, but one which  contains the most advanced sections of the class, who are able to give a lead politically, ideologically and organisationally.

In the absence of one set of counter hegemonic ideas this role is played by an amorphous and often ephemeral array of forces. The best elements are often disorganised and influenced by a range of insights coupled to lose concept of class and an understanding of Marxist ideas filtered through academia and popularised in various forms. UK Uncut, the occupy movement, student revolt and radicals within the March for an Alternative all enjoyed an audience with the most political people in every workplace and community.  This is a grouping revolutionary socialists should see themselves as a part of – one that we can both learn from and have ideological and tactical discussions with.

We have to remember that each new generation learns lessons from their own struggles and the recent past provides revolutionary socialist ideas with no automatic authority.  Our main strengths are twofold – an ability to explain the world and relate general politics to specific circumstances but also alongside this the almost romantic idea of socialism from below and the possibility of human liberation.  We are a small group capable of offering a powerful vision of how we could change the world.

A failure to assess our role has been bolstered by a refusal to have a serious assessment of our strength and resources.  We have become accustomed to managing our membership lists to a frightening degree. The party maintains itself through a routine which is increasingly internally referenced and geared at maintaining an ageing membership with a lower level of political activity. Specifically, we jump from one centrally organised event to another in order to maintain momentum.  Our analysis and perspective show a corresponding divorce between ideas and practice.  We provide theoretical work which traces the contours of the global crisis while our immediate analysis merely elevates our own initiatives without linking them to a long term strategy or assessing how they relate to a changing world.  A warning sign of the growing sectarianism should be the alarming disconnect between internal party discussions and any genuine dialogue with the wider movement. We are increasingly isolated from the broader left and are unwilling to discuss why.  This is especially damaging when the forces we are isolating ourselves from are the same ones we who could be won, over time, to fighting for socialism from below and building a revolutionary party. This is justified by building up exaggerated points of differentiation with those around us.

The Centrality of Class

The SWP, and our sense of the ideas of those outside, it is heavily shaped by an experience of the 1980s. Nowhere is this clearer than our defensiveness over the centrality of the working class.  The logical underpinnings of our fear of “creeping autonomism” are that it reflects the same retreat from the centrality of class that the party experienced during the downturn.  That was a retreat based on significant defeats which manifested in a drift towards political campaigns and activity within the labour party.

Today’s radical left has a very different experience shaping their ideas. It is an experience that passes through the early anti-capitalist movement, via movements against imperialism, to the crisis of capitalism. This is an experience which is international, and starts from a global analysis of, and often a rejection of, the capitalist system.  It is also a radical left moving towards, rather than away from, an engagement with classical Marxist ideas, including an idea of class.  But it is a generation moving towards a concept of class after 30 years of low level struggle – one with little or no experience of what a powerful working class movement could look like.  The role of revolutionaries has to be to patiently develop and work on understanding the working class today and its role in changing the world.  Instead we are drawing up artificial divisions between us and a generation radicalising in response to a systemic crisis.

Campaigns and United fronts

It is not always within the grasp of revolutionary groups to launch and run the type of “classic” united fronts which the People’s Assembly represents. Nor should it always be our central strategic focus.  What is important is that revolutionaries remain routed in campaigns and workplaces while aiming to bring a totalised world view to bare on specific issues. We have to create political discussion where possible, increase self-activity and draw people towards our understanding of the world.  Local campaigns must involve others but will not always be “united fronts” in any classical sense; given the high level of politics, small but radical campaigns can have a disproportionate influence and draw wider forces around them.  These can then feed into the national picture, which in turn opens up new audiences and new possibilities at a local level.  We need to learn to recognise when we can work within a radical milieu to generate a political impact and when it is possible to play a part within far larger united fronts where we will often find ourselves in a minority.

Part of relating to the period effectively means transforming how we conceive of ourselves as a revolutionary organisation.  We often talk of a ‘party of leaders’ but rarely think about what this means in practice.  Before the recent crisis we had already developed a top down method of maintaining and directing the activity of party members. Primarily this has meant focusing on the next set piece event as a way of maintaining a sense of scale, which required a high degree of substitutionism from the centre.  A high degree of centralisation is often needed with a ruthless application of resources where they will have the most impact, but it must be balanced with well rooted local units rooted and politically engaged with those around them.  These discussions needs to shape the collective discussion that informs our practice – an experience very different from that currently employed inside the party where centralism to often means substitution by the full-time staff.

What should a revolutionary organisation look like today?

The model of Leninism defended by Alex Callinicos (Is Leninism Finished?) does not fit the current period because it is not based on an analysis of perspective but a response to an internal crisis.  It is a notion of Leninism geared to win over activists shaped by experiences of a previous period.  We are neither in a new down turn nor an industrial upturn but a sustained crisis marked by high level of politics and bursts of struggle.  Revolutionaries need to organise in such a way as to draw in the best new activists and synthesise their experiences. To paraphrase Trotsky, there are no settled questions when the revolutionaries are a minority, we need to seek to win over and work with all those who want to “tear the head off the system.”

To relate to the new period means a sharp turn away from the practices we are currently institutionalising. It means challenging the established political culture in the party and leadership.  The manner in which many responded to the recent crisis revealed an understanding of the party as an institution rather than a living tool in the struggle.  What was once a heterodox set of ideas marked by a heretical desire to face up to a changing world has become a new orthodoxy.  Our publications, meetings and Marxism timetable reveal an attempt to transmit a closed body of ideas to the faithful.  We are attempting to reassert a distorted version of our tradition in a way that seals us off from new ideas and experiences. We should be confident to face the world. To learn from, understand, and change it. Instead we increasingly ignore realities that do not fit our ideas rather than adapting our ideas to better explain the world

We need to start from our core beliefs: that socialism can only be built through the self-activity of the working class; that Marxism provides a framework to understand and act on the world; an uncompromising stand as the tribunes of the oppressed; and a commitment to building a mass revolutionary party. If we are to win a new generation of activists we must be a part of the struggle but also a centre of discussion on how to understand and change the world. Only through an open engagement with those around us can we hope to pull together the forces we need to build a mass revolutionary left. The SWP will not grow into a mass party through the gradual recruitment of ones and twos but a revolutionary organisation in the current period must be able to create a cadre capable to discussing and winning a wider audience for its ideas.

Youth is a marker of a genuine revolutionary group. Lenin, Trotsky and Cliff all focused on the need to build parties based on the most dynamic and youthful elements because of their energy and new ideas.  It is a disaster that we have lost almost all of our student groups.  We need to change course sharply to win back those who have left. We need to show that our ideas are not counter-posed to their experience, but that we can learn together through common work in a revolutionary organisation.

We also need to organise genuine discussion which does not presuppose we know all the answers. We should have public day schools on the shape of the working class, the role of revolutionaries, oppression and liberation, the shape of the radical left and an urgent attempt to rebuild the dynamic and critical culture that marked the best of the IS tradition.


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