The SWP's ‘radical’ language - to lead workers’ struggles into a dead-end

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 During the strike wave of the past year the organisations of the extreme left of capital (Trotskyists etc) have been everywhere. They have intervened on the shop floor, at picket lines, in demonstrations, and union meetings in order to raise their slogans, sell their press, and distribute their leaflets. And they always claim to be defending the interests of workers against the government, the bosses, the political establishment and, sometimes, even the union leaders. Should we take them at their word?

To answer this question we will take a look at the practice of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It is possibly the largest, and certainly the most important leftist organisation in the UK, and has built up decades of experience since it was founded in the Labour Party in 1950 as the Socialist Review Group, before becoming the International Socialists in 1962, and renamed the Socialist Workers Party in 1976. It does not openly refer to itself as Trotskyist anymore, but it is solidly in the Trotskyist tradition.

What you can read about the strikes in Britain in the various publications of the SWP is sometimes quite ‘radical’ and might well catch off guard people who are interested in discovering something from a working class perspective. At a very early stage in the strike wave it published two articles on the mass strike (the first on 2/7/22, the second on 27/8/22) and “what workers building the fightback today can learn from this”. The mass strike in 1905 in Russia showed how “this workers’ economic struggle can develop into a political struggle” and how this “is a key component of a modern revolution”. In another article, also at an early stage in the strike wave (11/9/22), the SWP underlined that workers’ democracy such as “strike committees and self-activity are key”, just as happened in 1917 in Russia where “workers began to organise into workers’ councils - or soviets. Soviets showed workers’ ability to build and carry out revolutions for themselves”.

Were these articles really meant to call on the workers to develop a mass strike, to establish real workers’ self-organisation and to engage in a political combat against the bourgeois state, as happened in 1905-1917 in Russia? The answer is no, the SWP will never fight for these goals because, as we have said in earlier articles, fundamentally “the SWP is a capitalist organisation”[1] (…) “Its basic loyalty will always be to British capitalism”[2].The following examples demonstrate this.

Reinforcing the trade unions

A concern the SWP put forward in the course of the strike wave was Let’s recruit, organise and keep new members in militant unions”, criticising the unions for mainly providing services to individual members. The SWP's appeal was far from a fundamental criticism of the trade unions as it did not seek to expose their nature as part of the bourgeois state. The SWP criticised the unions for the fact that, if they would not become more militant, they might lose control of the most radical expressions of the movement. Behind the criticisms of the SWP was a call to the unions to radicalise their language and reinforce their impact on the struggles.

The SWP holds the position that the unions are organisations of the working class, which is a deception: although they used to be organisations of the working class over a century ago, they are not any more, as has already been amply demonstrated by revolutionary organisations in the past.

With the onset of the 20th century the conditions for workers’ struggle had fundamentally changed, and in the revolution in Russia in 1905 and in 1917 the newly discovered forms of the workers’ struggle was no longer the trade union but the mass strike and the workers’ councils. The above-mentioned articles of the SWP themselves show that the role of the unions in these revolutions was insignificant. In the German revolution the unions played an openly counter-revolutionary role, something which brought Anton Pannekoek in 1920 to the conclusion that “in the epoch of imperialism, the trade unions have become enormous confederations which manifest the same developmental tendencies as the bourgeois state in an earlier period”[3]. And this statement has since been amply confirmed after the Second World War by the positions of the different political organisations of the Communist Left: Gauche Communiste de France, Partito Comunista Internazionalista, the ICC itself.

Unions use pickets to divide workers

A second theme taken up by the SWP has been on the role of the picket lines, showing that they can be “a place where rank and file union members get a chance to ­organise themselves and plan how to make their strike more effective - and ultimately, wrestle control of their dispute away from the union leaders.”

Picketing in front of the factory or office where you work is aimed at persuading the workers entering the workplace to join the strike. But in the UK the official picket line is restricted by a whole set of rules that have to be overseen by a union representative. It prevents, even prohibits workers from expressing their solidarity with the struggle of workers in other workplaces. Moreover, it outlaws “flying pickets”, delegations of workers moving from one workplace to another in order to persuade the workers at other locations to join the strike. The union picket line has in fact turned from a weapon of the workers to extend the struggle into an instrument of the unions to put up boundaries between striking workers. But for the SWP this is not a problem, for “pickets can also help grow the union.”

For revolutionaries the picket lines are nevertheless a chance for workers to come together, but not just “chanting, singing and dancing their way through strike days”. The picket line is an opportunity to discuss, certainly when many more than 6 workers are gathered. Being together in front of the workplace, the first task is to question the legal restrictions these picket lines are subjected to. Because they prevent the extension of the struggle and the search for solidarity at other workplaces. It is of the utmost importance that workers break out of this union cordon and prepare the organisation of real general assemblies.

The need for real workers’ self-organisation

A third preoccupation of the SWP has been the formation of strike committees. It even devoted a whole article specifically to this phenomenon, to which a whole range of properties are attributed, ranging from “spreading the decisions of the union leaders” to going “beyond the existing union structure discussing, running and taking forward a strike”. But the SWP drowns the proletarian nature of the strike committee in a multitude of functions, of which some lead directly:

*into the framework of the unions by advocating a criticism of the union bureaucracy: “Debate and raise criticism of the lead from the top”; “to put pressure on the union leaders”.

*and others onto the bourgeois terrain of the defence of single issue campaigns: “strike committees can kick off discussion about climate change or anti-racism or trans rights”.

A genuine strike committee is not a self-proclaimed group of workers, not the basis for building a rank and file trade union movement, and is not there to spread the decisions of the union leaders. A genuine strike committee is completely independent from the unions. It represents the striking workers between two general assemblies and is only accountable to the workers that elected it. One of the clearest examples of such a strike committee was created in 1980 when “the proletariat in Poland went into action outside and against the unions, creating its own organs of struggle, the MKS -- strike committees based on general assemblies and their elected, revocable delegates[4].

By propagating strike committees, even outside the union structure, the SWP are claiming to defend a ‘radical’ position. When strike committees popped up in union branches at the universities and in the education sector in February of this year, the SWP gave them full attention, presenting them as being “important in allowing ordinary union members to take the initiative”. These strike committees were not a threat for the unions, which were able to coop them up in corporatist ideology, namely in the specificities of one’s own sector or trade.

But faced with the “unofficial” strike of the North Sea oil and gas workers in September of last year the Offshore Oil and Gas Workers Strike Committee (OOGWSC), which organised this strike, was only mentioned in passing. But this committee was not created in a union branch, and its activities took place independently from the unions. In International Socialism 177 (January 2023) the SWP say that the OOGWSC “should not yet be seen as a permanent body of militants with deep roots”, but of course that is what the SWP wants: permanent bodies, that function like rank and file unions.

Why did the SWP write articles on the mass strike, workers’ councils and the proletarian revolution? The answer is that it aimed to get ahead of a real fermentation in the class, to show that it was prepared to go very far in its support of workers’ demands. This was its way to be able to channel the most radical expression of workers’ combativity and to keep them within the boundaries of the unions. It’s telling that since the publication of these three articles, between July and September 2022, the SWP has not written again with one word on the lessons to be drawn from this historical experience in Russia for the strike wave in the UK. Its daily propaganda was mainly limited to expressing its support for the union policy, “critical” of course. The “radical” language in the first months was only meant to take the wind out of the sails of the most radical expressions in this strike wave and to empty their potential towards a self-activity independent from the unions.

Dennis, 2023-06-29






Strike wave in Britain