The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) annual conference last weekend saw major debates on how the party should respond to the global economic crisis and the political instability that it is generating.
The conference brought together more than 500 delegates and observers, including more than 100 students.
People spoke about some of the momentous struggles that they had taken part in over the past year – including all-out strikes and factory occupations – and reflected on the changing nature of resistance.
Alex Callinicos of the SWP’s central committee, the party’s leading body, introduced a session on the economic crisis, imperialism and resistance.
He said that the crisis was “a reflection of long-term, chronic problems of profitability that the capitalist system has suffered since the 1960s”.
Alex argued that the recession is far from over – that although some countries’ economies are no longer shrinking, they are only seeing modest and limited growth, which is reliant on state intervention.
“We have seen an absolutely massive state rescue of global capitalism,” he said.
“And governments are attempting to displace the cost of stabilising the economy onto working people.”
But he pointed out that the ruling class was caught in a dilemma. The bailouts of the banks generated immense popular anger.
They have already led to some of the same activities that triggered the crash in the first place, such as speculation.
Furthermore there are limits to state intervention – as individual states lack the power and resources necessary to overcome the crisis.
“A deeper problem is that states collectively are too divided to have a collective solution,” Alex said, pointing to the debacle of the Copenhagen climate talks as an example of this.
“Inter-imperialist rivalries continue to shape the trajectory of global capitalism,” he added, noting that Barack Obama has continued George Bush’s aim of trying to maintain the US as a leading power, but with the co-operation of other states.
Alex argued that the anti-capitalist movement in Europe had experienced a “drastic decline” but that it was no surprise.
The SWP has always argued that, unless ideological radicalisation translated into higher levels of class struggle and a stronger political left, the radicalisation would not sustain itself.
But he pointed out that anti-capitalist ideas remain strong, particularly among young people, and that the movement may revive, most likely around the issue of climate change.
He took on the idea that the left has failed to capitalise on the crisis, pointing to recent elections in Germany, Greece and Portugal where radical left parties had done well. He argued that a political polarisation is taking place.
Alex said that there was “a new tone of militancy” among the working class and compared this to the recession at the start of the 1980s, where the surge in unemployment led to a collapse of resistance.
He said that the party’s sharp turn towards building resistance to the crisis had been vindicated.
The discussion focused on the scale of the crisis, the ideological fall out, and the opportunities for resistance and to increase the strength of the SWP.
Many delegates who had been on strike highlighted the militant mood among many groups of workers.
John Rees spoke from the Left Platform, an opposition faction that had been operating in the pre-conference period.
He argued that fighting the effects of the recession was the first priority for the party, followed by combating war and fascism, and that the political aspects of the economic crisis are becoming more important.
He argued that the party had “responded well to individual industrial disputes but has missed some of the political aspects” such as the MPs’ expenses row.
He said that the SWP’s failure to initiate a united front organisation against the recession last year had left the party, and the left in general, in a weaker position than it should be.
Some delegates were critical of this position.
“There’s nothing wrong with imagining a left response to the recession but you can’t suck it out of your thumb,” said Simon from north London.
Others pointed out that initiatives such as last year’s Right to Work conference came from, and was led by, people who had been involved in big struggles, such as at the Visteon car components plants.
They argued that this was the way we had to build resistance.
A commission document was produced following the session, summarising the key points. Delegates overwhelmingly voted to accept it, with eight votes against and six abstentions.
Delegates voted against an alternative commission produced by the Left Platform, which was supported by 17 votes with nine abstentions.