The Socialist Workers Party’s ‘special conference’ convened last Sunday and the reports that have filtered out over the internet is that the leadership were able to withstand the oppositional factions and a vote of confidence in the Central Committee was passed. Various dissections of this can be found at A Very Public Sociologist, Socialist Unity and the CPGB/Weekly Worker.* In a previous post, I asked rhetorically whether this was the SWP’s 1956 moment (which was then highly debated here), but in the aftermath of this week’s events, many commentators are now declaring the death knell of the SWP. As a historian, I would not be so confident that this is the end of the SWP, although at this moment, the challenges facing the Party make it seem difficult to comprehend how it could survive.
So is this a turning point for the British far left? The SWP may not be the size of or as influential as the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1950s, when the CPGB underwent its massive rupture, (or more controversially, even in the early 1990s, when the CPGB dissolved itself), but up until now, the SWP would arguably be the largest and most prominent far left party in Britain. If the SWP does collapse, its absence will have an effect – although at this stage, it is hard to know what this effect will be.
In a work-in-progress paper, I have written:
What has characterised the SWP since 2007 has been a series of splits, occurring from expulsions and resignations, over the issue of the direction of the Party and the Party leadership’s use of the principles of democratic centralism. [and, of course, in the most recent controversy, how the Party has dealt with several alleged sexual assaults involving Party members] Like the CPGB in 1956, the SWP has lost a significant number of people, including some very high-profile members, but this has been staggered over a five year period. Unlike the Socialist Labour League, who benefitted greatly from defections from the Communist Party, each wave of members leaving the SWP has flowed into different smaller groups and it is unlikely that one organisation can say that they have benefitted membership-wise from the decline of the SWP. The Socialist Party remains the second largest far left organisation in Britain and has established itself to a certain degree within the trade union movement, but it has not made much advance on its position since the economic crisis of 2008 or taken advantage of the crises in the SWP.
Many commentators have pointed to the last few years as an era of revolutionary potential. The global financial crisis had seen a failure of neo-liberal capitalism and many had taken to the streets in the UK in opposition to the austerity measures of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, not to mention the widespread anger at ‘the system’ displayed by the riots that broke out across Britain in August 2011. The revolutions across the Arab world, as well as the Occupy movement, showed that people around the world were willing to challenge the status quo and these acts of rebellion from across the globe have inspired similar actions in the UK. While in many ways, this wave of political activism may seem similar to the anti-globalisation protests of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seems that the current wave is more sustained and localised, rather than people travelling from far away to certain cities where dignitaries have gathered, making the protest a spectacle of confrontation between the police and protestors for a few days before everyone leaves. However like the protests of the last decade, the far left in Britain has only been able to react to this wave of protest and not establish itself in any kind of leadership position. The Occupy movement in the UK, primarily in London outside St Paul’s Cathedral, was a space where the left had to tread carefully and many were wary about ‘Trots’ coming into the movement with notions of vanguardism. The left have certainly had a presence at the large demonstrations called against pension cuts and student fees, but mobilisation on a mass scale has relied on institutions such as the TUC and the NUS, rather than the clarion calls of the left. The history of the far left in Britain has shown that periods like this do not necessarily mean the decline of the far left, but the initiative often shifts to different groups and different areas of struggle. One of the constant features of the British far left is that it has oscillated between periods of unbridled enthusiasm and periods of profound pessimism and both have been seen in the left’s analysis of the current socio-economic and political climate. If the history of the far left is to be a guide, then both of these predictions are wrong, and while the organisations and movements may change, the far left in Britain is certain to remain a feature of British politics.
Matt Worley and I are currently editing a book on the history of the British far left (although the book, due to writing constraints, does not include discussion of events past 2011), and I think, the question for future historians of the far left in Britain will definitely be whether 2013 will mark a turning point for the British left in the same way that 1956, 1968 or 1989/1991 has. Or is this merely the end of a longer decline? (And for historians more generally – is there such a thing as a turning point?) Is it too soon to analyse the recent history of the SWP?
ps – on the topic of turning points for the British far left, I have argued elsewhere that 1989 may not be the turning point that it is often thought to be. Emily Robinson has a slightly different take on this here.