The crisis in the party and the need for wider debate

Terry W from Edinburgh writes:

There are dangers in viewing the current crisis in the party overwhelmingly in terms of the dispute, though it has certainly acted as a catalyst. For five or six years major disagreements within succeeding central committees have taken conference by surprise. Even though almost all the individuals have changed, old habits persist of “not in front of the children”. In between conferences, the flood of calls to action, and at worst a Grand Old Duke of York leadership, has sustained the appearance of unity. This was not originally a party crisis but essentially one of governance. In fact, only the political quality of the party’s general membership and the legacy of trust held it together.

At Marxism a recognition of this wider crisis began to spread, articulated by both loyalists and dissenters. Indeed Alex Callinicos openly challenged the opposition to propose alternatives to the current version of democratic centralism. It is time for an open discussion on this, rather than simply equating the current SWP model with democratic centralism or Leninism per se. Our current structure leaves too little space to correct errors, which is ironic for a developed Trotskyist party; in practice Trotsky was hardly a good example of party loyalism and Lenin spoke out boldly against majority positions when necessary.

There is at the same time an ideological aspect to the crisis, exacerbated as some of the CC and its loyalists have sought to draw lines in the sand by grounding tactical differences in theoretical principles. Some of these lines have been drawn in the wrong place and the arguments have become dogmatic not dialectical. Examples include using feminism as a term of abuse, the argument about precariousness, an exaggerated polemic against union “bureaucrats”, and the overwhelming negativity of response to phenomena such as Left Unity and People’s Assembly. In combination these risk positioning the party as a disconnected sect.

We need this website as a place for ongoing debate around these matters. Dissenters had to set it up precisely because the CC didn’t, despite its call for widespread debate about a range of fundamental issues. This site is a vehicle for developing serious and honest debate across the party.

Some thoughts

1. The notion of a “precariat” as some kind of separate class is a serious and defeatist error. But it is wishful thinking based on one-sided research to pretend that many people’s lives have not become exceptionally precarious and that this makes struggle harder. While this is, in a general sense, endemic to being proletarian (nothing to sell but our labour power), Thatcher and neoliberalism have restored pre-1940s levels of insecurity for a large section of the class, both objectively and subjectively.

2. The inclination to back away from struggle is a tendency among top union officials, but tendencies may or may not be actualised, and how they manifest depends on other forces at work in specific situations. We need to distinguish treachery from cowardice from caution. If history is made (or not made) solely by officials, where is the working class? We might regret that the recent round of union conferences did not vote for a wave of strikes but the decisions were generally taken by lay members (democratically elected local representatives), not full-time officials. There is a danger of denying the agency of our class, but also underestimating the level of confusion sown by the “strivers not skivers” polemic, the attack on public sector workers, xenophobia and the economic “logic” of austerity politicians and media.

3. It is correct to recognize the dangers of electoral alliances (how could we not after the Respect fiasco?) but greeting the emergence of Left Unity with broadsides about reformism is too negative. Reformism does not, ultimately, derive from union officials and their association with left parliamentary parties. Workers demand reforms because we want a better life. The working class will continue demanding reforms until the revolution, and indeed after – remember the slogan “peace, bread and land”. The real problem is not reforms but the pretence that they can be gained by proxy and without mass struggle. This was the great error of many Second International parties. Labour MPs and councillors continue to tell constituents: “Leave it to me, I’ll sort it.” The real challenge is how we can link initiatives like Left Unity with action in the workplace and in the street.


  1. The key question is how do you build confidence in the class?
    Dave Prentis of UNISON spoke of sustained action to defend our pensions before he and the TUC sold out the 2 million workers. Having a vote months later does not mean it is not a sell-out. What it means is workers lack the confidence to act independently of the bureaucracy.
    The anger of workers can sometimes buck the trend, best example of which was the electricians smashing the BESNA bosses attacks a few years ago.
    The problem with using the word “caution”, is that it gives credence to the SWP line that the leaders want to fight but lack confidence.
    With Capitalism in crisis they don’t want to fight. Prentis is now a governor of the Bank of England. Under pressure Prentis has called action over pay. We should support this, but we should still tell workers we need an independent rank and file as he is likely to sell us out again at some point.
    The political degeneration of the SWP is directly linked to looking to become a pressure group to the Trade Union Bureaucracy.
    A decent pamphlet on the Sparks victory was produced, but I never heard the electricians mentioned once by the SWP at Marxism this year. We have to look below – not above.


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