Blog of the AMM

Where Did the SWP Go Wrong?

A reply to Daphne Lawless of Chaos Marxism. This is a personal response from Ben - among other things, some of us here at AMM HQ disagree with his claim that Cliff bears no responsibility. More on this later.
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Chaos Marxism
Where did the SWP go wrong? It’s an interesting question, and one that needs answering. I don’t think you can blame Tony Cliff. Sheila Lahr, my mother-in-law, was a member of the Revolutionary Communist party in the 1940s, which included Cliff, Ted Grant and Gerry Healy, who all went on to form revolutionary organisations (SWP, Militant, WRP). Long before Gerry Healy was brought down by his sex-abuse scandal, Sheila was describing Healy as an inhuman thug. The particular story she told concerned a bad traffic accident in the newspapers, a holiday charabang had gone off the road, tens killed. She felt upset. He sneered, “Are you still bothered by bourgeois emotions at things like that?”. Given power, Sheila said Healy would have enjoyed having people shot.

The AMM asked Sheila to review Ian Birchall’s biography of Tony Cliff, and she describes him as an impassioned revolutionary but also a decent person. Indeed, the way Cliff mixed his personal and political life – arguing about state capitalism while changing nappies – recalls the bohemianism of Karl Marx rather than the professional, bureaucratic mentality of reformist politicians. Cliff inspired a generation of revolutionaries, as the example of Peter Sedgwick and his radical concept of Psycho-Politics should make clear.

When I encountered it, the SWP’s theory of revolution – Stalin was a counter-revolutionary, capitalism is destroying us, Marx belongs to activists not academics, we CAN fight back – was both mind-expanding and relevant. They were the only politics a punk who objected to Nazis could relate to. So when did it all go wrong? Every one of us has a different story to tell. In my opinion, the rot started with the move to ‘respectability’ during the 80s. First, the ejection of the street-fighting contingent (described as ‘squaddists’) as ‘inappropriate’ in a period when the National Front was no longer winning elections. This meant losing comrades I’d worked with in Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League and who were better socialists (and more fun) than the political-studies graduates who the CC sent to boss us around (‘full-timers’). The Miners’ strike and the campaign against the Poll Tax brought such ‘uneducated’ socialists around us again, but today I think the ejection of the squaddists was more to do with the CC protecting itself against more charismatic leaders than any political principle (come to think of it, the manager of my council estate here in Somers Town was ejected from the SWP as a ‘squaddists, I must ask him for his story). Cliff had embraced Gay Liberation in 1979 and recruited John Lindsay (founder of the Gay Switchboard). But in the 80s we were suddenly told ‘cottaging and camping’ (hanging round toilets for sex, behaving extravagantly) were sins and would ‘alienate workers’. This is straight out of Stalin’s textbook.

Since reading an article in Rosetta Brooks’ ZG magazine in 1983, I was an avid reader of Pat Califia, the radical S&M lesbian from San Francisco. In 1989, I bought her book Macho Sluts. It included a badge with the title on it. When I wore it to a SWP branch meeting, I was told to take it off because ‘sluts’ was an abusive word for women. I tried to explain that wearing such a badge on a leather jacket when you were attending punk gigs was about psychic and sexual liberation, but I lost the argument. Many of criticisms of the SWP in the press at the minute (‘misogyny’, ‘use feminist as a word of abuse’, ‘male-dominated’, etc) fail to tell the full story, which is that, in politics, ideologies can become their own opposites.

The big historic reversal is of course Stalinism, when people waving banners with Marx’s face emblazoned on them, became active counter-revoloutionaries all round the world. Cliff looked at the economics of Stalin’s Five Year Plans and declared that surplus value was still being extracted from the working class: Russia was capitalist. In America, C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya (the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’) took the emergence of counter-revolution from within the camp of revolution as an example of dialectics: in the real world, things can become their own opposites. Our concepts need to reflect this. Likewise, Lindsey German and Sheila McGregor brought a brand of ‘feminism’ into the party which was the opposite of Sheila Rowbotham’s. It was moralistic and oppressive. It fostered authority rather than subverting it. It demanded an eternal vigilance about ‘sexism’ on the part of male comrades which actually enforced a humourless respectability. It wasn’t liberation, it was a front on hypocrisy. Manipulative humbug. It had no inkling of a radical sexual politics, and could tell you nothing about your dreams and urges. If you talked about sex in this context it was ‘sexist’. It droned on about ‘farzends and farzends of working-class wimmin’ in strangely-unlocatable ‘working-class’ accents, but it didn’t actually allow the oppressed to speak. We were being lectured.

Two of the great defenders of Marxism as a revolutionary doctrine have been women: Rosa Luxemburg and Raya Dunayevskaya. They did not ‘improve’ bureaucratic centralism with a slew of prohibitions derived from identity politics (a politics which begins and ends with the bourgeois individual). They fought for the dialectic: the merciless criticism of everything that exists and of every injustice by free and open discussion. Marx begins with the man/woman question, argues Dunayevskaya, citing Marx’s wonderful tracts against the sexual hypocrisy of ruling-class politicians. Instigating women-only meetings did not produce a genuinely anti-sexist culture in the SWP, but the reverse: a brake on members communicating each other managed by fulltimers. Despite the embrace of punk, reviews of mass culture in Socialist Worker were utterly embarrassing, judging records and films by a tick-off list of ideological tenets. When Andy Wilson decided to take on bureaucratic centralism and the CC’s misguided veneration of Georg Lukacs as a ‘great revolutionary’, he picked on their weak point: culture. He gathered around him a group of members who wanted to launch a cultural journal.

When I wrote a book on Frank Zappa and declared myself an SWP member on the blurb, it wasn’t just because I liked his music (though I do), it was my own way of fighting this rubbish, of emphasizing Trotsky’s point that art “must be judged by its own laws”. My friend Martin Bennel, the hospital porter militant who recruited me, had a phrase about comrades who were recognised by the leadership as special, went to London and were courted by the CC: “they’ve had the electrodes put in”. Then it happened to a friend of mine, Sam Ashman. Sam was great. I remember drinking at parties and watching a Johnny Thunders video together. I met her at the Welling ANL demo. She pooh-poohed my struggle to improve the party’s line on culture. All culture is bourgeois!” she told me “The working-class only have politics.” So the thing to go and see was operas by Verdi. “But Sam, you’re a Johnny Thunders fan … you remember watching that video together?”. She looked at me as if I’d mentioned to a Born Again Christian that she’s once done drugs … “Ben, how could you bring that up?”. The electrodes had gone in. Scary.

But, even in the 90s, if you had a good bunch of people in a branch, you could protect yourself against the CC and their full-timers, sell the paper (which was often pretty good) and have a good time. I did it for ten years in Camden branch when I first moved to London. But finally, an organisation where the leadership is frightened of new cadre because they might replace them, is going to wither and die, and that’s what is happening now. In a scandalous cataclysm! Either the Democratic Opposition replaces the current CC, or it forms something better outside the party and the SWP (like the WRP and the Spartacists) becomes an example of how not to do it.

Back in the day, Cliff said he’s do the economics, Raya Dunayevskaya could do the philosophy. This never happened. As Jim Higgins argued, Cliff’s Lenin was not the historical one. Cliff’s ‘party’ became a machine for accumulating people and money (standing orders!). It created a caste of hacks and bureaucrats skilled at ‘managing the membership’, not a generation of revolutionaries rooted in the working class. Dunayevskaya’s Lenin, on the other hand, based on historical fact and dialectical philosophy, saw beyond the party to the masses themselves. In 1923, she pointed out (letter to Marcuse, 11 June 1957), Lenin was saying that unless party work is checked by the non-party masses, the bureaucracy will bring the workers state down and regress to capitalism. Continual reference to What Is To Be Done as the blueprint for orthodox Leninism is a Stalinist tic and erases the flexibility and intelligence of the historical Lenin. As the global revolt against the attack on Iraq in 2003 proved, these masses are ten times more cynical about bourgeois power (bankers and war) than they were in the past. It’s the duty of revolutionaries to use the communicative means at our disposal to join this struggle. It’s going to be achieved by action and sociality – real socialism – not by deals made in backrooms or publishing books which sway with each fashion sweeping academia.

Ben Watson (AMM)


  • The rest of the AMM note that this article represents the views of its author. The rest of us certainly think Cliff takes a big share of the blame. More on this later.

  • Out to Lunch says:

    Thought my last paragraph WAS a criticism of Cliff! There's a real problem in politics of assuming that an -ism based on an individual is necessarily consistent. I experienced Cliff as a public speaker, and he was inspiring and spontaneous and funny. If I was a full-timer expelled during the "downturn" analysis which created Bureaucratic Centralism I'd be as jaundiced as you

  • Oskarsdrum says:

    Some very pertinent observations, it's clear that there's a big battle on to convince members that the structural inanity of much that goes on the in party is the central thing to dismantle. I guess you could say this has a dialectical relationship to the psychology/institutional features that are inseperable from bureaucratic centralist approaches. I also like the contradictions

  • battersea says:

    &quot;It demanded an eternal vigilance about &#39;sexism&#39; on the part of male comrades which actually enforced a humourless respectability.&quot;<br /><br />Nah. Humourless respectability *was* part of their essence I&#39;ll grant. It was allowed to slip after a few, but even then, only at the level of a giggle behind the bike sheds [at best]. But that puritanical streak wasn&#39;t targetted

  • Out to Lunch says:

    I expressed myself badly. What I meant was: The re-packaged pseudo-feminism of German and MacGregor created a vigilance about &quot;sexism&quot; which (just like political correctness in local government at the time) stifled open democratic (honest) debate. I didn&#39;t mean that male comrades in the SWP were eternally vigilant about sexism (they were … um … huamn/animal); what I meant was

  • battersea says:

    &quot;It recreated the patterns of authoritarian morality familiar from school and work.&quot;<br /><br />Yes, that&#39;s it!<br /><br />But, while I&#39;ve got you, here&#39;s another HOWLER!:<br /><br />&quot;Cliff said he’s do the economics, Raya Dunayevskaya could do the philosophy.&quot;<br /><br />Can you think of anything more dreadful, as divisions of labour go? It would have resulted in

  • Out to Lunch says:

    Er, by actually reading Dunayevskaya. Very ignorant of News &amp; Letters as activists. I attended a meeting of the IMHO (International Marxist Humanist Group) convened as a fringe meeting of the Historical Materialism Conference by Dave Black (Hobgoblin) in November last year and found myself very at home. Marxists with a sense of humour, a sense of class/political realities etc. I&#39;m not

  • Anonymous says:

    Sorry to be holding the sauna door open, Ben… but there&#39;s a question that is unavoidable in reading this article. There&#39;s no criticism of the author&#39;s own position. <br /><br />You note the fun to be had in the SWP (fair enough!), the company, and a sort of part-time relationship, albeit strong enough to be noted on your study of FZ… and this is pitted against what you diagnose,

  • Out to Lunch says:

    I don&#39;t think most people leave (or become inactive in) a revolutionary political party because they decide it has the wrong &quot;perspective&quot; – that would mean setting up your own organisation or joining another. They just can&#39;t find anything &quot;political&quot; which appeals to their real desires. In the 90s/00s I had a split between a &quot;career&quot; (it never paid me enough

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