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.

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