A brief history of the SWP

Capital—a vampire at work

The self-emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class

—Karl Marx

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) stands in a tradition of socialism from below, which stretches back to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

This tradition, which emphasised the idea that the self-emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, was later developed by figures such as Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg in the early 20th century.

It saw its high point in the Russian Revolution of 1917, which ended the First World War, brought down three empires and opened the door to a ­socialist society based on human liberation. Workers set up workers’ councils (soviets) and began running society without any need for the bosses, landowners and old order. 

By the 1930s this tradition was largely eclipsed by Stalinism. The isolation of the Russian revolution and the decimation of the working class in the civil war that followed, allowed Stalin, standing at the head of the Soviet bureaucracy, to impose himself as the new ruler of Russia.

He carried through a counterrevolution that destroyed the flowering of democracy and liberation that 1917 had represented. Stalin’s main opponent, Leon Trotsky, who sought to defend the tradition of 1917, was killed on Stalin’s orders in 1940.

By the end of the Second World War, there were, in many countries, small groups of Trotskyists. However, these groups tended to hold to the idea that the Soviet Union was a “degenerated workers’ state” and that a change in political leadership would be sufficient to set it back on the course of building a genuine socialist society.

Tony Cliff—whose real name was Ygael Gluckstein—was a Palestinian Jewish Trotskyist who arrived in Britain in 1946. He realised that the ideas of mainstream Trotskyism faced a major dilemma, which would lead him to found the SWP. 

After the Second World War, societies were created in Eastern Europe almost identical to the Soviet Union. These societies were not created by workers’ revolution, but by Russian tanks. If no workers’ revolution was required to create a workers’ state, Marx’s concept of workers’ self-emancipation no longer had any real meaning. Cliff had a quite different understanding of the Soviet Union and the similar regimes that were now springing up.

He argued that they were “bureaucratic state capitalist” societies in which the ruling bureaucracy presided over the economy as if it were one giant capitalist factory. Furthermore, these “state capitalisms” had to compete with the Western powers, particular through military competition, and, as they did so, they developed many of the features of capitalism in its traditional form.

So, workers were deprived of all control of the workplace, consumption was subordinated to the need to accumulate capital and a minority, who directed the process, began to enjoy enormous wealth and prestige. It was on this basis that the SWP and its forerunners adopted the slogan during the Cold War: “Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism!”

Based on these ideas, Cliff would found the Socialist Review Group in 1950, drawing round him some talented collaborators such as Duncan Hallas and Mike Kidron and publishing a monthly paper.

In the early 1960s the group was able to grow, in particular picking up student members through its involvement in movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and by entering the Young Socialists—a newly formed Labour Party youth group.

The new recruits included Paul Foot and Chris Harman, who would both play an important role in the history of the organisation. By 1962 the Socialist Review Group become the International Socialists, based on the name of its theoretical journal for which the group was now best known. The group also launched a newspaper, Labour Worker, aimed at trade union activists.

The year 1968 was an important turning point. The International Socialists went into that revolutionary year with a little under 500 members—most of them under the age of 30. Now large numbers of young people, many of them mobilised against the Vietnam War, began to gravitate towards the revolutionary left. Labour Worker was renamed Socialist Worker, reflecting the fact that the group was no longer oriented on recruiting people within the Labour Party and was now an independent organisation. It also developed a tighter internal structure, adopting “democratic centralism” as its model.

This reflected a shift from a loose grouping spreading socialist propaganda to an interventionist party that could hope to influence real struggles. By the end of the year, the group had expanded to around 1,000 members.

The priority in the years that followed was for the largely student-based organisation to recruit working class militants to the party. Over the next few years, as class struggle grew explosively in the early 1970s, the International Socialists were able to win over groups of union activists, reaching a membership of a few thousand.

Much of the focus in this period was on creating rank and file networks in the unions—based on workers on the shop floor who could organise independently of union officials—and creating factory branches of the organisation.

As the 1970s drew to an end, the workers’ movement in Britain was contained. The role of the incoming Labour government in 1974 was crucial. As Labour imposed wage controls, with the tacit agreement of the union leaders, the movement began to face serious reversals, and the International Socialists found themselves too small to decisively transform the situation. 

Nonetheless, the group, which was renamed the Socialist Workers Party in 1976, was soon to find itself at the centre of a major political movement. One of the beneficiaries of the decline of struggle and the demoralisation that set in during the late 1970s was the far right—in particular the National Front.

The Anti Nazi League (ANL) and Rock Against Racism were founded in response to this threat. This hugely imaginative and dynamic movement, which included two massive open-air concerts in London. These events, alongside mobilisations of anti-racists to prevent the fascists from marching or gathering, played a central role in stopping the National Front from achieving the breakthrough for which they yearned.

However, the general retreat of the workers’ movement continued after the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government in 1979. In this period, the SWP combined efforts to avoid the general drift to the right through serious political education of members with attempts to engage in activity whenever opportunities opened up. 

This included, for example, the organisation throwing itself into the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. In the early 1990s there were movements of opposition to the first Gulf War of 1991 and the campaign against Thatcher’s deeply unpopular poll tax.

The ANL was also relaunched in 1992 as racist attacks began to rise, due in no small part to the growth in support for the British National Party (BNP), which won a council seat in London in 1993.

After the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered by racists in London, the ANL organised a demonstration at the BNP headquarters in Welling, attended by 60,000 protesters.

By the late 1990s, the space for radical ideas was again opening up. The SWP, along with its sister organisations in the International Socialist Tendency, threw itself into the anti-capitalist movement that erupted in 1999 as protesters shut down the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle.

A whole series of European and international mobilisations followed in which the SWP was a participant.

A major challenge was posed to that emerging movement by the response from the US and British governments to the 9/11 attacks on America. Very swiftly the SWP moved to create a coalition of anti-war forces, the Stop the War Coalition, which aimed to prevent military interventions abroad, to stop attacks on civil liberties at home and to challenge the inevitable Islamophobic scapegoating that would be deployed to seek to justify war.

This coalition, supported by CND and Muslim organisations, organised one of the largest protest in British history, on 15 February 2003, when an estimated two million took to the streets of London.

Around this time, the SWP was also engaged in trying to fill the space created by the rightward shift of the Labour Party—participating in both the Socialist Alliance and, later, the Respect Coalition. Although the SWP does not believe that real power rests primarily in parliament, or that the world can be transformed simply by electing well-meaning politicians, it does see elections as an important way of presenting its arguments to large numbers of workers.

Unfortunately, these projects were ultimately unsuccessful, largely because they failed to break off a sufficiently large section of the Labour Party’s base, and, in the case of Respect, because of the growing tensions as it sought to build on its early electoral success. More recently, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn within the Labour Party limited the scope of any left electoral challenge to Labourism.

The SWP remains strongly associated with anti-racist work. It played an important role in Unite Against Fascism, which was formed by a merger of the Anti Nazi League with the National Assembly Against Racism. It mounted a number of important campaigns against the BNP, which was again experiencing an electoral breakthrough, and later the street movement known as the English Defence League (and its Scottish and Welsh counterparts).

As the threat from fascist movements was pushed back, a broader organisation, Stand Up To Racism, was formed, aimed at tackling the more generalised racism against Muslims, migrants and refugees—and again the SWP has played a role in building this organisation, alongside other activists and organisations.

The renewed growth of fascist and far right forces requires active resistance again.

Today the SWP is a modestly sized party, with a few thousand members. Whatever else has changed over the decades, we remain committed to building broad, radical movements—and the idea that ultimately revolutionary change is needed to create a world based on meeting human needs, rather than the greed of a minority.