Is 2013 the Socialist Workers Party’s 1956?

Marx's famous dictum from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon
Marx’s famous dictum from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

After the SWP convened its ‘special conference’ in March this year, I posted a blog positing the question whether this was a turning point for the far left in Britain. I wondered whether the number of people turning away from the SWP and its diminishing stature within the wider leftist, labour and progressive circles in Britain would mean that the SWP would head towards oblivion or start the long road towards regeneration. I used the example of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the years following the events of 1956 to contrast with the contemporary scenario of the Socialist Workers Party. Although I disagree with Marx and would argue that history does not repeat itself, maybe past events, such as the CPGB’s wilderness years between 1956 and 1964-68, might highlight some things that may occur in the fallout of the SWP’s schisms. A number of people questioned whether the events of 2013 were analogous to those of 1956 for two reasons. Firstly, quite a few people stated that the schism in the CPGB was much more momentous, losing about 8,000 members from around 24,000, compared with the much smaller numbers involved in the SWP fallout. Secondly, some of those more inclined to the SWP suggested that while this controversy was a source of friction, it was not on the same magnitude as the CPGB’s crisis – that this, in their eyes, was a minor problem more akin to the fractures which occurred over Respect and over the Rees/German split.

Now that the SWP’s annual conference has passed and this has led to a much wider exodus of prominent SWP members, including Pat Stack and Ian Birchall, I would now argue that the crisis facing SWP now is similar to the crisis faced by the CPGB in 1956. The old leadership has remained (fairly) intact and seems to suggest that it considers adherence to democratic centralism is more important than reflection and substantial reform. The SWP leadership seem to believe that its self-proclaimed role as the revolutionary socialist vanguard of the working class must be maintained at all costs, and that sincere re-evaluation and reform might jeopardise this.

Alex Callinicos, leading figure of the current SWP
Alex Callinicos, leading figure of the current SWP

Can we look at the period between 1956 and 1968 and make any reasonable assumptions about the next decade for the British far left?

If we look back to the British far left after 1956, there are a few points that could be made about the situation of the far left in 2013. In 1976, Peter Sedgwick described the period between 1956 and 1968 as a time of ‘political adolescence’ and it is fair to say that this period was one of rejuvenation and a shift in political focus. While still numerically the largest group to the left of the Labour Party, the CPGB could not maintain its position as the most influential far left group and was rivalled by the figures of the new left and the Trotskyists. Former CPGB members such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville and Raymond Williams, along with a whole bunch of fellow travellers, such as Stuart Hall, Perry Anderson and Ralph Miliband, advocated socialism mixed with humanism and encouraged a non-party aligned milieu between the Communist Party and the Labour left. Initially buoyed by its interaction with social movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, these people helped to inspire a new era of left-wing thought, but the early 1960s, it was evident that this did not necessarily lead to practical action and there was a swing back towards Labour, now under Harold Wilson. On the Trotskyist left, Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League reaped the initial benefits of the exodus from the CPGB, with a few people, such as Peter Fryer and Ken Coates, moving from the Communist Party to the SLL, but this was not because they were suddenly converts to orthodox Trotskyism, but because the SLL was the only other game in town at this stage. But Healy’s leadership caused much friction and most former CPGB members left shortly after joining. By the mid-1960s, most of those who had left the CPGB between 1956 and 1958 ended up in the Labour Party or abstaining from activist politics.

A similar situation might be in store for those who have left the SWP. Although a number of those who have resigned have stated that they would continue to be involved in activism and left-wing politics, it is much more likely that this will be in various social movements and single-issue campaigns, rather than joining another party (with the exception of possibly joining the Labour Party). The Socialist Party (formerly Militant) might be the next biggest left-wing group at the moment, but they probably won’t benefit from the SWP’s losses membership-wise, and the same could be said about the various other groups who have had long standing disputes with the SWP. One of the differences between 1956 and 2013 organisationally is the emergence of the Left Unity project. This might create a more actively involved space between the Leninist far left and the Labour Party, and this might draw the ex-SWP crowd, but how sustainable this project will be is still up in the air.

But while Left Unity is a new organisation, it is made up of many of the old faces from the far left as it has stood over the last decade. The other major process underway in the period between 1956 and 1968 was a generational change. Apart from Gerry Healy (and possibly other figures from the 1940s Revolutionary Communist Party, such as Ted Grant), most of those who formed the nuclei of the emerging Trotskyist groups were from a younger generation, predominantly joining after spending time in the Labour Party Young Socialists or in the CND. The non-party aligned new left also proved attractive to a younger generation, coming into contact through the CND, as well as new left publications such as The New Reasoner and Universities & Left Review. Even the Communist Party experienced a shift in political focus as a younger generation came up through the ranks. By the late 1960s, most of the Party’s leadership that had presided over proceedings during the crisis of 1956 had either retired or died and this allowed a new generation of CPGB members to flourish (and eventually challenge the Party’s long-term strategies), although some old-timers, such as John Gollan, James Klugmann and Bert Ramelson, remained in leadership positions until the mid-1970s.

Nowadays, the SWP leadership is predominantly made up of an older generation, recruited into the Party in the 1970s and 1980s, and now firmly entrenched in their positions. Many have claimed that the SWP had become stratified between this older leadership and a younger base of recruits, primarily university students, and that there was not much in between these two extremes in terms of membership. After this present crisis, one wonders how difficult it will become for the SWP to recruit younger people into the party and whether younger people will deem the SWP to be ‘out of touch’ and avoid them, just like many did in the 1960s and 1970s with the CPGB, eschewing the outmoded Communist Party for the newer Trotskyist groups, such as the International Socialists or the International Marxist Group.

The current SWP leadership cannot hold on forever and the real question may be whether there is still a party to revive once they are gone. Taking the example of the CPGB, after 1956, it took more than a decade to really rejuvenate, recruiting a new, younger (and more diverse) cohort of members, but also coinciding with a wider social and political upswing. Until the late 1960s, the CPGB was sustained by its presence in the trade unions and its efforts to build a ‘mass party’ started to bring some limited rewards. The SWP does not have the same level of integration into the trade union movement and many of the union leaders that it had been associated with over the last decade have now drifted towards the Left Unity project. It may be that a different generation of people will take over leadership roles within the SWP and steer it in new directions, but this would be a long process and the SWP might not be in a suitable condition to be revitalized by then. If this is the case, 2013 might not be the SWP’s 1956, but its 1989.

The CPGB leadership in the late 1940s or early 1950s (pic from People's History Museum collection)
The CPGB leadership in the late 1940s or early 1950s (pic from People’s History Museum collection)

As I said earlier, I don’t believe in Marx’s maxim that history repeats itself, but it might allow us insights into what the present holds. The SWP’s current crisis is not the same crisis faced by the Communist Party in 1956-57, but the aftermath of the CPGB’s crisis may provide some food for thought for those interested in what might lie ahead for the SWP and for the wider British far left in 2014 and beyond. From the eye of the storm, this seems like a turning point for the British far left, but only with the ability of hindsight can we really tell.


  1. “Until the late 1960s, the CPGB was sustained by its presence in the trade unions and its efforts to build a ‘mass party’ started to bring some limited rewards”

    Nonsense, I joined the CPGB in 1965, the year of party building when membership reached 35,000. The membership losses sustained in the post 1956 were replaced quite early on.

    This attempt to draw parallels between the mid 50s political situation in world communism (a movement exercising state power in a third of the world and encompassing millions of adherents working in clandestinity, armed insurrections and illegaility as well as in conditions of bourgeois legality) and the present day travails of a minor middle class group on the fringes of British politics is risible.

    It was admirably summed up in Andrew murray’s telling paragraphs
    “The experience of Leninism is the story of the world’s first successful socialist revolution, of working-class state power, of the construction, defence and ultimate disintegration of world socialism in the twentieth century, of parties which led masses in the struggle against capitalism, fascism and imperialism, and of millions who died on the battlefields and in the dungeons of the bourgeoisie as partisans of a world movement for a communist future, all with its historic achievements and imposing crimes and errors. To imagine that anything can be added to the analysis of this experience (essential for any serious socialist organisation) by studying the goings-on in small and marginal groups mainly peopled by the petty-bourgeois is merely testimony to the capacity of some of the left to depart from the real world into their own self-referential Truman Show. Pace Professor Callinicos, there is absolutely nothing that can be adduced for or against Leninism from the arguments inside the SWP, any more than the results obtained by the Large Hadron Collider need verifying by observing the Duracell Bunny.”

  2. 1) I don’t think Ken Coates was ever involved with the SLL, let alone joining it. Jim Higgins lists their new recruits from 1956:
    “In 1955, there were fewer than 100 members of the Club. By 1956 there were 150 and by 1957 there were more than 400, the increase coming almost exclusively from the CP This is no great number, it is true, but among them were some very talented people – John Daniels, Brian Behan, Tom Kemp, Brian Pearce, Alasdair MacIntyre, Cliff Slaughter, Frank Girling, Peter Fryer and quite a few others.”

    Cliff’s Socialist Review Group, fared less well: “Against this the SR Group could count just the one recruit. Dudley Edwards was an engineering worker who retained a powerful affection for The British Road to Socialism, the CPGB’s programme, first produced in 1952, with the personal endorsement of JV Stalin. It was not much but I suppose it was something.” (same source)

    A source that would address the question, Ken Tarbuck’s autobiography, ‘Ever Hopeful – Never Sure’, unfortunately doesn’t seem to be accessible at the moment:

    According to an obituary of Pat Jordan, a Socialist Forum was set up in Nottingham by CPers who left in 1956, & these included Jordan, Coates, & Tony Topham. One may infer from what is then reported that Coates was among the Nottingham people who soon joined the Ted Grant group in the Labour Party, leaving it in 1961 to establish, again in Nottingham, the International Group, which re-named itself the International Marxist Group in 1968.

    2) Speaking of where those leaving the SWP may do political work, you say, “it is much more likely that this will be in various social movements and single-issue campaigns, rather than joining another party (with the exception of possibly joining the Labour Party).” Given the antipathy of SWP members towards the LP I would be surprised if even five joined.

    3) You mention Left Unity as a possible destination. However there has been hardly any consideration of LU within the SWP, especially within its base. It is likely that those leaving the SWP see LU as largely formless, with no roots anywhere in anything, & left reformist with a likely electoral focus. Hardly attractive to those schooled in the combat party.

    4) I don’t have access to Somerset House, but the bulk of the SWP Central Cttee. was probably recruited in the 1980s & 90s rather than the 70s & 80s, with the full-timers post-1990 if not the late 90s. Occupying cttees. from Branch thru District to National will presumably mostly be those from the 80s (some from the late 70s). The wit would say that soon enough, the march of time, the organisation soldiering on, these numbers will be the ages of the future incumbents.

    Obviously we aren’t privy to age structure data, & it’s unlikely Delta Towers has gone to the trouble to generate them from the raw info it has. Even so, the talk has been that the present SWP lacks people recruited in the 1990s, with lower numbers still from the 80s. That leaves the pre-Thatcher cadre & the post-Seattle indies. Evan, I feel you can compile suitable vinyl lists for all these decca-comrades.

    (I haven’t been able to find age structure data on the British LP, whereas it’s publicly available for all electoral parties in Germany, perhaps coz of a Federal subsidy requirement. There the data are worrying, even worse than for the SWP: for example, Die Linke at its founding in 2007 had this age structure: 4% under 30 (2 900), 28% between 31 and 60, leaving 68% over 60. By Sep 2013 membership has fallen an eighth to 63 000 – which presumably made it younger. By comparison SWP active membership is likely to be less than 900 at the time of the next annual conference, smaller than Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party.)

    5) I was surprised you said, “many of the union leaders that it [SWP] had been associated with over the last decade have now drifted towards the Left Unity project”, as one thing notable about LU has been the absence of support from either TU branches or TU personalities. But it’s early days & that may indeed change.

    6) Something else became publicly available, & of historical note, perhaps the very first footage of a far left faction meeting. It shows Neil Davidson speaking at Edinburgh, 3 Nov, on behalf of the SWP’s Rebuilding the Party faction. It was uploaded 23 Nov by Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century to both YouTube (over 1 600 views) &

    7) The organised home for the departees won’t be an old folks’ one but probably the new abode expected to be announced in January on the above tumblr site. It’ll attract some of the IS Network peeps as well. Hopefully it will include an appeal for revolutionary regroupment, but the three SWP pre-conference discussions in the last 15 months have never mentioned the need for such an initiative. What proportion of departees will stay in their own homes is open to speculation, maybe 200 of the 700 who will leave in 2013 & early 2014.

    8) I don’t know what criteria one would use to quantify active CPGB membership in 1956 but I would be surprised if the CPGB suffered a greater proportionate hit than the SWP is reeling from now, a party that hitherto had got used to punching above its cliches. For them it’ll be of the order of a third, 400 from 1 250. A lament by Old Major. Denial by Napoleon. A wherefore art thou, Squealer? Wherefore?

    Where does the 1 250 come from? The March faction lists total perhaps 1 000, & the CC said just over 1 000 attended the district-level aggregates. Being generous, say another quarter, 250 activists, sat on the fence, not knowing what to do, in the greatest crisis faced either by the organisation or by the hallowed two-thirds-of-a-century IS tradition. Meanwhile, back in SWPfantasyLand, learning from Chichikov, the CC reported this Oct that membership was 7 180, but that 70% of these never give a regular penny to the Leninist combat party they are a member of. Guess they don’t buy each other drinks – or a bag of crisps. But then they are dead souls.

    9) Given the paucity & poverty of alternatives available to the disaffected masses there will always be opportunities for the SWP to recruit. It will soldier on, manning the plough, not the barricades, but not using the furrows in a systematic ‘war of position’. Like the revelations of Ed Snowden those about the SWP will blow over too. Their reputation is undoubtedly harmed but who else offers so many placards to hold & provides so much energy? It’ll still recruit, still fail to keep them, & so it’ll age. There seems little prospect of ‘resistance’ or ‘fightback’ in the face of the onslaught by capital & its state managers, so the SWP will enter the 2020s lacking 20/20 vision & with far fewer than 2 020 active members. And one thing we can be sure of is that, yet again, there will be more than another 2 020 ex-members created in that time. The British far left is in a cul-de-sac, finds itself unable to turn round, & keeps banging its head up against the end wall. It has created its own end times. The one thing it lacks is a strategic vision, it’s walled itself in, it’s cut off from the light. Meanwhile the rest of the world carries on regardless. For the militants of the SWP the future is neither akin to 1956 or 1989 but Groundhog Day, albeit one of ever-shortening days, one in which the night triumphs.

  3. Ok, guess it went straight to ‘published’! No prob.

    Update: there’s been a move on the tumblr site I mentioned. Late Monday evening, UK time, it posted ‘Open statement: Resignation from the SWP’, asking people to add their names. 141 are there already, ordered alphabetically by personal name.

    Ian Birchall is amongst them, & in his resignation letter he said he won’t be joining a new organisation, so others may be of that view. Also listed are Neil Davidson, Linda L, Jonny Jones, & prominents who had announced their resignations before yesterday, Colin Wilson, Dave Renton, Gill George, Ian A, Jonathan Neale, Pat Stack, Shanice M, Soren G, & Viv Smith. Perhaps 46 (33%) are female.

    Prominents not listed are Colin Barker, Hannah Dee, Jim Wolfreys, Mike Haynes, Mike Gonzalez, & Megan Trudell. (It wouldn’t make political sense for the listed “Colin” to be the first-named.)

  4. 1) Ken Coates was in the SLL. See the footnote to Ken confirmed this when I interviewed him shortly before he died.
    2) Of course the current crisis in the SWP is not an event of world historical significance like the remorseless decline (with ups and downs) of world communism between 1956 and 1989. Since that isn’t the point Evan was making, Nick Wright’s comment is fairly stupid. [And when Andrew Murray invokes “millions who died on the battlefields and in the dungeons of the bourgeoisie” he might remember that quite a few died in the dungeons of Stalinism as well.]
    3) Wright believes the SWP is one of various “small and marginal groups mainly peopled by the petty-bourgeois”. Leave aside the totally unMarxist use of “petty-bourgeois” – the overwhelming majority of SWP members have no significant source of income other than the sale of their labour power. Even Wright might concede that the Anti-Nazi League and Stop the War (both initiated by the SWP) played some role on the British left.
    4) I think there is another important difference between CPGB 1956 and SWP 2013. Those who left the CP over Hungary realised that one of the main planks of their politics, the advocacy of the model of eastern-bloc society, was (whatever specific explanations and labels they adopted) deeply flawed. Serious rethinking was required. Hence the ferment of the New Left. I don’t think any of us who have just left the SWP are rejecting our political traditions in that way. Over fifty years I have spoken to many meetings and written many articles. Certainly I made many detailed mistakes and misjudgements. But have no regrets about the general political line [for working-class self-activity, against identification of socialism with state ownership] that I was promoting. Indeed I am happily putting many of my past writings on a website. [Commercial break –
    5) Of course there are reasons for the SWP’s current crisis. I think these probably lie in organisational practices which we adopted and accepted over the years, and about which we were too complacent. When my present anger had dissipated I may try and write more about this.
    6) Can the SWP recover? I’ve made my decision – as I wrote in my resignation letter “I fear the damage is now irreversible.” But other comrades, whose judgment I respect, disagree with me and think the party can be reformed. Actually I hope they are right. Until the last year the SWP has played a creditable and useful role on the British left, and it would be good if it could continue to do so.
    7) Evan doesn’t “believe in Marx’s maxim that history repeats itself”. [Actually I think it was a clever literary flourish rather than a maxim.] I tend to agree. The whole history of the socialist movement since at least Babeuf is one of ruptures and continuities. We cannot revive the SWP of the 1970s any more than (thankfully) Stalinism can be revived. New movements of resistance against exploitation and oppression will emerge, in forms which old-timers like Nick Wright and myself, who will both soon be dead, cannot envisage. But I remain proud of what the SWP achieved, sad and angry at the circumstances that have so damaged it, and hopeful that a new generation will achieve what we failed to do.

  5. Apologies, but I got Die Linke age distribution slightly wrong (my point #4). The figures I gave were for 2006, the year before the party was formed, & were of the Party of Democratic Socialism, 7/8ths of whose members were in the East.

    The figures for Die Linke, 31 Dec 2012, are 9% under 31 (5 700), 40% between 31 & 60, leaving 51% over 60. This compares with the Social Democrats’ 7-42-51%, & the healthy Greens’ 15-69-16% (with slightly less than Die Linke’s membership). Not surprisingly, average age of party member is Die Linke 60, SPD 59, & Greens 48. Females are 38%, 32%, & 38% respectively.
    (Source: a PDF, Oskar Niedermayer, 2013, at the German wiki pages of the political parties.)

  6. For such a sophisticated historian of the British Left I am slightly surprised Evan has succumbed to this rather lazy analogy of SWP 2013 vs CPGB 1956.

    The CPGB in 1956 could still boat something arpund 40,000 members a decent spread of councillors, its 2 MPs had only been out of office what 5 years, an absolute domination of Left-wing intellectual life, a substantial base in a variety of local communities, an impressive infrastructure of local offices, bookships, full time workers, a substantial and influential core of trade union miltants.

    The SWP , whatever it strengths, can boast in 2013 nojthing close to this, nor at any point in its history.

    The schism in the CPGB in 1956 was a resukt of events in Hungay of glbal importance, wih consequences through to 1968 and the crushing of the Prague Spring through to ’89 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Again nothing in the SWPs crisis, however horrific the alleged behaviour of a leading member, resembles any of this.

    Some 10,000 left the CPGB in 1956 to form the nucleus of the New Left, EP Thompson, John Saville and miners leader Lawrence Daly in particular. Again it is hard to imagine the SWP exodus forming the basis of any such next Left.

    The most telling point surely is that the SWP, founded in many ways on its critique of the CPGB and all it represented, in shorthand ‘Stalinism’ boasts a internal regime that the CPGB had in large measure corrected post 1968 to create a far more open democratic version of inner-party democracy. And the demands that the SWP oppositionalists have been making to democratise their party are almost identical to those the much mocked CPGB Euros argued for from 1977 onwards. A little credit, a little humiliy wouldn’t go amiss.

    The SWP at its best was – and none in or recently out of that party will thank me for thos description – a pioneer of a postmodern version of the Popular Front, the Anti-Nazi League and Rock against Racism. And when politics demanded an anti-war movement they were there again to create the popular front Stop the War became. The future lies in a dialogue and space where that tradition can be fused with new movements and politics, by the ex SWP and a wide range of other forces too. That is the challenge for 2014, it won’t look much like the post 1956 I’m afraid but that doesn’t mean its not worth trying.

    Mark Perryman

  7. I don’t agree with Nick’s assertions regarding the rebuilding of the CPGB in the 1960s. On the surface, the losses were replaced in a numerical sense and it’s clear, as Evan implies, that the party was not killed off in 1956. However, I have spoken to a good few veterans involved in the rebuilding of the 1960s and 1970s (ranging from oppositionists to former district secretaries); and they point to the distinct lack of quality in this recruitment and the CPGB’s inability to offset an ageing membership. This stage of the party essentially repeated something identified by the CPGB’s opposition of 1945: militants were being swamped by a deluge of paper members and the servicing of these paper members was a weight around the active member’s neck (which has been an issue in the SWP). I have even heard horror stories from Wales in the 1970s of people being signed up for the CPGB on the doorstep on Sunday afternoons. I don’t think we should just take figures at face value.
    Lawrence P

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