Cross post - ACAS sit-in: the future of the Socialist Workers’ Party
Whatever justifications the Socialist Workers’ Party advances for invading the headquarters of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and staging a sit-in, one claim it cannot make in truth is that they did so because those involved in the British Airways strike wanted it to do so.
The irony is that several generations of socialists schooled in the IS tradition will be well aware of the dangers of what SWP founder Tony Cliff used to call ‘substitutionism’; the tendency of the revolutionary party to substitute itself for the working class. What we saw at ACAS last night was absolutely a (small-scale) case in point.
It’s not that anybody on the hard left has got a problem with direct action. If we were in a situation in which easy-lifer trade union bureaucrats on six-figure salaries were about to sign a shockingly unfavourable deal, despite the express desire of the low-paid rank-and-file to keeping on fighting, then such tactics might rightly be contemplated.
This time round, nobody in their right minds could accuse Unite leader Tony Woodley of behaving in this fashion. Sure, he is looking for a compromise; but then he’s a general secretary. General secretaries look for compromises. Let’s assume – for the sake of argument – that he was about to sell out the cabin crew. Even then, the initiative would properly rest with the strikers themselves, not the paper-sellers.
Sure, the press reports will inevitably be exaggerated. There are discrepancies between the various versions available online, but as far as I can make out, only around a dozen Trots got onto the floor where the talks were taking place.
They chanted for a bit and then – much like Elvis, I suppose – left the building. It will have been a minor league pain in the arse for all concerned, but no biggie in the wider scheme of things.
But what has rendered me bewildered is the sheer bloody pointlessness of it all. There seems to be no obvious rationale, far less any intelligent assessment of how such a move fits in with wider efforts to win the BA dispute. Unless I am missing something, the reasoning more or less comes down to ‘we are SWPers, this is what we do, innit’.
Perhaps the perpetrators are congratulating themselves on the publicity they have secured, in the hope that it will make them attractive to some layers of youth. Perhaps. But to most of the population they will come across as a bunch of berks determined to undertake occupations just for the sake of it. In the eyes of many ordinary union reps, the SWP’s standing will be even more tarnished than it is already.
As the terms ‘Socialist Workers’ Party’ and ‘revolutionary left’ are synonymous in many people’s minds, the rest of us can expect to get flak for this when we get back into our workplaces tomorrow.
In truth, I’ve still got a soft spot for the SWP. I have in the past been a member, and I think that the left as a whole would benefit from having a sizeable Marxist formation outside of Labour, with a base among the most combative sections within the working class.
But it is increasingly apparent that the SWP is not that kind of a party, and there is nothing in its current practice that so much as hints that it has the potential to become that kind of party. That ‘workers in struggle’ – to use the almost anachronistic jargon – are not attracted to the SWP in the way that they once were to the Communist Party of Great Britain tells you everything you need to know on this point. What is more, even at the level of theory, signs of disorientation are increasingly apparent.
During the era when post-war consensus social democracy dominated politics, strikes were an everyday feature of labour movement life, and international relations was characterised by the Cold War, the far left had answers on a postcard courtesy of the classic Marxist texts. Yes, the SWP tweaked those texts, but still operated within a recognisably Marxist framework.
We now live in a very different world, and the SWP has patently lost the plot. Since the death of Cliff, it has increasingly oriented away from the working class and towards both ‘the movements’ on the one hand and openly rightwing and bourgeois Islamist forces on the other.
Mutatis mutandis, this is the precisely the same sort of mistake that the Fourth International made in adapting to student vanguards and radical third-worldism in the 1960s and 1970s. The IS was among the FI’s sternest critics, and understandably so. But look, it’s way beyond my pay grade to act as keeper of the Cliffite flame.
Just as many Trotskyists who entered the Labour Party in the early 1980s ended up going native, so the SWP is increasingly infected by the quasi-situationist bad habits it has picked up from its latest turn. And to this day, the organisation remains in denial over just how much of a fiasco the Respect debacle truly represented.
International Socialism Journalism still sometimes carries impressive articles. But more and more it instantiates an internalised system of thought, in which positions are justified by reference to the writings of Cliff, Kidron, Harman and Callinicos rather than engaging with any ideas from outside this constellation.
It is difficult to engage the average SWPer in friendly informal Marxist-to-Marxist political discussion, as once might have occurred over a pint after a union meeting, for instance. Even those who would once have relished arguing for their politics against other leftist viewpoints now simply shy away.
There has been a lot of gloating on other blogs about the ACAS occupation. Socialist Unity speculates that the SWP is ‘finished’, which it very obviously is not. Harry’s Place is predictably jubilant at having its prejudices confirmed. I am not inclined to join in.
But can I just say – more in sorrow than in anger – that the comrades badly need to get their act together. There are many warning signs that the SWP is rapidly degenerating politically, and some of the obvious historical parallels leave me feeling more than a little uneasy.