The Struggle for Socialism Today
A reply to the politics of the
Socialist Workers Party
A 1999 document by the Socialist Party
The Socialist Party welcomes the opportunity to debate publicly the
differences between the Socialist Workers Party and us. This is not a
matter of sterile point scoring or dogmatic hair splitting.
Our objective is first of all to clarify the points of difference and,
by doing so, hopefully to resolve them. The existence of a number of
organisations on the left complicates the task of building a Marxist
party. Where differences are not fundamental, the needs of the class
struggle must override secondary and sometimes petty divisions that may
have built up through years of separate existence.
When we engage in discussion with other organisations that claim to
stand in the revolutionary socialist tradition, we engage in debate, first
and foremost, to see if it would be possible to reach principled agreement
on both ideas and method, and then to see if this agreement could be
successfully tested in action over a period. Where this can be done, we
would be in favour, not just of co-operation, but also of fusion into a
We have to say frankly at the outset that, given what we have witnessed
of the past and present role of the SWP, we are not confident that this
discussion will take us in that direction.
Even if we do not end with agreement, the exercise will not have been
wasted. A public setting out of differences in method and in ideas will be
of benefit to our own members and to activists on the left generally. We
have to justify to working class people, who instinctively seek the
maximum unity of organisation, why there exists more than one organisation
which lays claim to the Marxist tradition. If there is no basis for fusion
we have to be able to demonstrate that these differences are both serious
and irreconcilable, and that a fusion would merely blunt the revolutionary
instrument, not strengthen it.
Your initial approach to the Socialist Party was, of course, not about
fusion or about the clarification of differences, but was a proposal for
electoral co-operation up to and including a joint platform setting out
areas of political agreement. But in our correspondence points have come
up which we feel further debate can clarify. For our part, we are in
favour of joint campaigning work — and electoral agreements — with
other genuine forces on the left. Unity in action — the drawing together
of the maximum forces at the point of attack — is an essential
ingredient of the class struggle. Broader campaigns are needed where these
allow greater forces to be drawn into action than would be possible under
the banner of a single organisation — provided, that is, that the
content is not diluted to the point where a campaign is broad but too
politically blunt to have an impact.
United action allows us to raise a broader banner and to reach layers
of the working class we might otherwise not have been able to penetrate It
also permits us to demonstrate in practice to others that our ideas and
methods are principled, practical and effective, that we are the best and
most consistent fighters for the interests of the working class.
The Socialist Party has always sought to work with other activists and
with other organisations, notwithstanding the fact of ongoing political
disagreements. In the trade union field we have worked with others in
numerous broad left/activists organisations in order to present the
strongest challenge to the right wing leaderships. Our campaigning work
— on racism, on water charges, against sectarianism in the North, and on
innumerable other issues — has often been conducted together with
individuals who are not Socialist Party members, and with other political
In the 1997 Forum elections in the North we very successfully allied
with other groups to form the Labour Coalition and won two seats as a
result — an achievement which would not have been possible under our own
banner. This victory created an opening for a new working class political
force to be built. The seats at the talk’s table could have been a
platform for a public challenge to the establishment and to the sectarian
politicians. This did not happen only because a right wing rump, which
effectively broke away from the Coalition, took the seats and was
recognised by the Tories and by New Labour.
This does not mean that the experience was not worthwhile. In the
struggle with the Labour Coalition, we were able to win all but a tiny
handful to our arguments. We won over important sections of the Coalition
— for example West Tyrone Labour ultimately dissolved itself into the
Socialist Party creating a firm base for Marxism among the working class
of that area. During this time, the Socialist Workers Party stood on the
sidelines criticising us for our electoral involvement and for working
with others in the labour tradition.
This was not surprising given the fact that the SWP was at the time
shifting from its position of many years which had been to advocate a vote
for Sinn Fein in all Northern elections. Previously, when we have stood
candidates, both as "Labour and Trade Union" and as Militant
Labour, SWP members were actively supporting Sinn Fein.
As far as the South is concerned, we fought the 1997 general election
as part of a broader alliance that came very close to winning two seats.
We had already established ourselves as an electoral force through the
1996 Dublin West by election and were hopeful of winning a seat. Yet, we
still saw the importance of working with others and of presenting the
broadest possible alternative for working people.
By contrast, the Socialist Workers Party stood separately. If your
concern is for left unity why did you make no approach to us at that time?
Why did you remain outside the left alliance of which we were part? The
truth is that you responded to our vote in the 1996 Dublin by election by
doing a somersault on the question of standing in elections. You made a
headlong rush to stand in 1997, even running a candidate against us in one
Dublin constituency. This sectarian attempt to challenge and cut across us
on the electoral front failed. It is out of this failure that you have
newly discovered the "merits" of unity.
We are for unity — because it advances the general interests of the
working class, develops the class struggle and points to increased
participation by broader layers of workers. We are for unity where it is
possible to link with genuine forces that have a real degree of influence
among the working class and which are prepared to work in an honest,
principled and democratic manner.
But there are provisos. In entering broad campaigns and alliances we
weigh seriously the potential. Do the other forces within them have a
genuine basis for support? Are the structures genuinely democratic? Would
such agreements enhance our standing among class-conscious workers and
within the working class generally? Or would the fact of standing too
close to others whose activities do more to repel than attract workers
leave us tainted by association, and more isolated as a result?
And so, while embracing the idea of unity and united action, we will
not automatically embrace every appeal we receive. We will be especially
cautious about approaches from the milieu of ultra left groups, because
our experience of such groups, the Socialist Workers Party included, has
been almost entirely a negative one.
Take an extreme example, merely by way of illustration. Were we
approached for united action by some bizarre grouping as the tiny
Spartacist League, we would politely decline the invitation and pass
quickly on. We think the Socialist Workers Party would probably do the
same. In the first place this is a tiny organisation that represents
absolutely nothing in the working class movement. They have no record of
mass activity and their intervention in any movement is marred by a
uniquely vitriolic sectarianism. And on top of all this there is the fact
that their whole past approach to us has been to denounce us as
"reformists," "electoralists" and in the North, as
soft on "oppression," "conciliatory" towards the
Orange Order and so on.
United action with a group, the sum total of whose influence is zero,
adds nothing, but attaches to us a quite unnecessary brake that could only
have the effect of slowing the momentum of our own organisation. Saying no
to such approaches is not sectarianism; it is an expression of our refusal
to immerse ourselves in the same sectarian swamp as them.
We do not think the Socialist Workers Party is exactly akin to the
Spartacists. But if we were to set out a spectrum of left organisations,
placing those with a real basis in the workers movement and a democratic
approach to co operation at one end, and ingrained sectarians like the
Spartacists at the other, we would have to place the SWP, by virtue of
method and history, at a point closer to the sectarian end of the
spectrum. There are obvious parallels between the political criticisms
levelled against us by the Spartacists and the SWP. There is also a
similar method of debate, which is to misquote what we say, distort our
views and then to tilt at the windmills of arguments we do not put
In saying all of this we do not intend to denigrate individual members
of the SWP. We acknowledge that most people join your party attracted by
what at first glance appears to be a vibrant revolutionary force. They do
so out of a genuine desire to change society. Most will come to discover
that their first impression was superficial. The most serious will quickly
conclude for themselves that there is more to revolutionary politics than
slogans and emphatic pronunciations; that the working class movement does
not so easily divide into the SWP "revolutionaries" on one side
and various shades of "reformist" and "traitor" on the
Moreover, we cannot hold your present membership responsible for ideas
you once put forward — on the North for example — ideas which you
strenuously, but dishonestly, now deny. We think that your membership —
and even some of your leading members — are kept quite deliberately in
the dark about old positions you once held on a number of issues,
positions which are now a serious embarrassment given your recent
When considering your proposal for an electoral agreement it is your
actual ideas, past and present, our actual record in campaigns that we
take into account. We cannot consider joint work in elections in isolation
from how you work in other areas. You cannot be for left unity in one
field, where it happens to suit you, and continue to behave in a sectarian
manner in campaigns, in the trade unions and other areas. Wherever possible
the Socialist Party has tried to work with Socialist Workers Party members
on specific campaigns. Along with others on the left we have found this a
difficult, if not impossible, task.
Generally, the record of your party is one of refusal to engage in
genuine co-operation. How many times have genuinely broad campaigns called
protests or activities and then found that some new "campaign"
has been launched which is holding its protest a few days or a few hours
earlier? The new "campaign" almost invariably turns out to be a
fig leaf for the SWP, some fictitious "organisation" or
"committee" which is "sponsored" by SWP members in
The problem with SWP "committees" and "campaigns"
is not that you have initiated them. We applaud bold initiatives in
launching mass activity where these can tap into a mood among the working
class and the youth. The real problem is that they are never given any
life — there are no structures, no internal democracy — they are
simply an implementation device for decisions taken elsewhere by the
Political Committee of the SWP.
The Anti Nazi League is a case in point. The name had an attraction for
some young people who genuinely believed it to be an open broad-based
organisation. On closer examination they found no such thing. It had no
internal life, no structure, and no substance; in short it was a
deception, a phantom called into being and then placed in storage at the
whim of the SWP leadership.
Most recently, your behaviour in relation to the movement against NATO
attacks in the Balkans has shown that, despite your verbal appeals for
"left unity" in other areas, your whole approach remains
hopelessly sectarian. As soon as the NATO bombing began, Socialist Party
TD Joe Higgins called a meeting of representatives of six parties, the SWP
included, to set up a broad campaign of opposition.
Instead of throwing its weight behind the "Coalition Against the
War" the SWP decided to put its real efforts attempting to build a
separate "No to War Campaign" — while at the same time still
keeping one foot in the broad Coalition. The "No to War
Campaign" insisted on running rival activities to those of the
Coalition and at times refused requests for joint activities.
This was not justified on the basis of any political difference between
the two campaigns. "No to War" was not a "socialist"
or "revolutionary" campaign. It had three vague and quite
liberal demands. Speakers at public events include pacifists, advocates of
UN intervention and others.
The intention was to create the impression of a "broad"
campaign when the reality was very different. "No to War" like
other SWP "broad" campaigns was just an extension of the SWP.
The non-SWP speakers invited to appear on platforms have no input into the
campaign. There was no democratic structure, only a sham committee which
meets to ratify decisions which have already been taken elsewhere by the
This campaign exposed the inability of the SWP to work in any situation
where they are in a minority. In Belfast, Socialist Party members and
people from other groups joined the "No to War" group. Without
exception all of these people very quickly became completely frustrated by
the undemocratic manner in which the SWP tried to run it. When activities
proposed by the SWP were rejected in favour of other activities, the SWP
simply ignored the votes and went ahead to implement their proposals,
using the "No to War" title. Effectively, when they lost control
they simply split off and set up a rival "No to War" campaign
based around themselves. The result was the ludicrous position of two anti
war campaigns, both called the "No to War Campaign," advertising
rival events. Your sectarian behaviour repelled all those who initially
took part in the hope that, through united action, an effective anti war
movement could be built.
If the SWP were interested in building a broad anti-war movement, there
would have been no question of setting up a second campaign. The fact of
two campaigns with a similar, almost identical programme only sowed
confusion and weakened the opposition to the war. If the SWP were really
for left unity why did you not agree to merge the two campaigns, agreeing
a minimum programme but giving every participating group freedom to put
its own explanation and programme inside? Your refusal to do so only
exposes the inability of the SWP to enter into genuine co-operation with
Work in the Unions
Your work in the unions tells the same tale. How many times do
activists in "broad lefts" or other opposition groups within
unions find themselves suddenly confronted with new "rank and
file," "activist" bodies which spring up as rivals, behave
in a hopelessly sectarian manner, and which, upon closer examination, turn
out to be a cover name for the SWP members or member in that union?
Your letter (11.1.99) attempts to justify this sectarian approach. You
attack what you call "a Broad Left strategy" which you
caricature as "replacing the current trade union leaders by others
who claim to be more militant and left wing." To this, you
counterpoise a "rank and file strategy." It is ironic that a
letter appealing for a "left unity" in elections should include
a theoretical explanation as to why such unity is undesirable in the trade
We are in favour of setting up "rank and file" structures in
the unions, but only where these have a genuine basis of support. In
general, we would try to orient these back towards the official
structures. The ultra left position of trying to develop alternative
structures or new unions has, outside of a few exceptional cases, only
resulted in the creation of phantoms.
Instead of discounting the official union structures, we fight with the
membership to transform them. We are for the democratisation of the
unions, for the election of full time officials, subject to recall by the
membership, and for the limitation of their salaries to the average of the
members they represent.
The Socialist Party has always worked with others on the left in the
unions and will continue to do so. We are for the establishment of left
groupings, rank and file structures, broad lefts etc. where there is a
basis to do so. We do not see these bodies simply as electoral
blocs – although challenging the right wing in elections for union
executives and senior positions is an important aspect of their role. Our
attitude is to try to develop them into campaigning bodies, actively
mobilising their membership on issues.
In the struggle to transform or "reclaim" the unions, it is
necessary to work alongside other lefts where we can reach agreement even
on limited objectives. We do so in order to present the strongest possible
challenge to the right. That those we link with today for specific
objectives we may disagree with tomorrow is neither here nor there.
Co-operation does not mean that we abandon our ideas, sink our differences
or, for that matter, that we hide our criticisms.
There is nothing of "left unity" in the way the SWP tries to
intervene in unions. There is unrefined sectarianism dressed up as a
"rank and file" approach. To understand what this formulation
actually means when brought down into the real world we have to see how
your approach to trade union work has evolved. In the past, you dismissed
all full time trade union officials, including full time workplace
representatives, as "bureaucrats."
Your letter, in attacking the work of the Socialist Party in the trade
unions, echoes this approach. Our "mistakes" stem from "a
notion that capturing bureaucratic positions can change unions."
Compare your attitude on this to that of Trotsky who, in criticising the
ultra-leftism of the Communist Party in Germany at the start of the 1930s
argued that: "Everything depends upon the interrelation between the
party and the class. A single employed Communist who is elected to the
Factory Committee or to the administration of a trade union bears a
greater significance than a thousand new members who enter the party today
in order to leave it tomorrow." (Germany 1931 1932 [New Park
Publications, 1970], p. 180).
You opposed your members running for full time positions or bothering
much about official union structures. In practice, you discounted the
possibility of transforming the unions. Instead, you adopted the classic
position of the "infantile" ultra left, demanding "rank and
file" action and the setting up of "rank and file"
As often happens, reality at a certain point rose up and hit you in the
face. The phantom alternative structures did not materialise. Meanwhile,
real developments were taking place in the unions. Some SWP members who
were active in the unions had had more sense and had already instinctively
followed the line of the class struggle by taking union positions, or, in
your old parlance, becoming "part of the bureaucracy."
You then did an abrupt about face on this question. A document
presented by your Political Committee to your 1996 Conference not only
stressed the importance of the official union structures; it berated your
members for doing what you had previously urged them to do — that is to
pay little or no attention to these structures: "The area where we
have been traditionally weakest in our strategy has been taking the
official union structures seriously. In the past our members even
neglected to put in resolutions at their branch meetings and co ordinate
their efforts between each other."(!)
We have no difficulty with an organisation that makes mistakes and
corrects them. By evaluating mistakes openly and honestly we can enrich
our understanding and strengthen our ideas and tactics. That is not the
way of the SWP — on the change of direction in the trade union field, or
on the political and organisational somersaults that you perform with
acrobatic regularity in other areas.
In the case of your trade union turn, you stumbled to the formally
correct position that it is necessary to challenge for positions in the
official structures, where there is the basis to do so. But you came to
this conclusion blindly, empirically, and not through any reappraisal of
your old analysis or perspectives. The new course you set was and is based
on old ideas which point in a different direction. The result is a
mishmash of sectarian confusion.
In the past, you argued that anyone who becomes a union official would
become an organic part of the bureaucracy. Your 1996 document and your
recent (11 January) letter continue with this theme. These dismiss left
currents within the unions as splits "within the bureaucracy."
They counterpose the same old "rank and file approach."
The idea that the emergence of left currents at the top of the unions
can be dismissed as splits "within the bureaucracy" is a crude
underestimation of the importance of such developments. Even in cases
where initial divisions are confined to the top, the opening of these
cracks can be a signal to the membership to act from below. We will
support every step to the left, every move to greater democracy. Your
position, which is to say "no you shouldn’t support these
‘lefts’ because they will betray you sometime in the future," is
completely sectarian. Its only effect is to disarm activists in the face
of the real divisions and real struggles that open up in the unions.
All that is new since your 1996 about turn is that whereas before all
officials were bureaucrats, now there is a caveat — all officials are
bureaucrats, unless they are members of the SWP! All who stand for
positions are still budding careerists unless they are in the SWP! Your
new position is the same old ultra leftism, now overlaid with a
particularly heavy coating of sectarianism.
It attacks the union leadership and counter-poses a "rank and file
perspective." For "rank and file" read "SWP." In
your 1996 document there is not a single word about how a left may
develop, about other forces on the left, or about the need for any degree
of co operation to present a more effective challenge to the right wing
bureaucracy and a collapsing left on the one side and on the other — the
In a world where this is only the black of betrayal and the white of
revolution and where there are no shades of grey, no layer of activists
who went to struggle but who do not, at this stage, have a revolutionary
consciousness, questions such as how to work with these activists, how to
cooperate in changing the unions and how to demonstrate the need for an
organised revolutionary presence, not in theory but in practice, simply do
not arise. Trade union work, to the sectarian, is like all other work, a
straightforward matter: attack everyone else, unfurl your own banner and
build. The final sentence of your 1996 document encapsulates the sectarian
simplicity of your approach. "The basis of our strategy therefore in
the unions can be summed up in five words: sell the paper and
Unfortunately, this is the strategy which you have attempted to
implement, with disastrous consequences for your own reputation and,
inasmuch as others on the left are associated or confused with you, for
the reputation of the entire left. On more than one occasion, your methods
have given the bureaucracy the excuse to launch attacks on the left as a
Civil and Public Service Union
Your work in the Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU) in the South,
which you defend in your 11 January letter, is an example of your
sectarian approach in practice. Socialist Party members have carried out
patient work over a number of years: building the left, and organising a
network of activists in this union. As a result, the left gained a
majority on the executive three years ago.
In order to consolidate this victory it was necessary to challenge the
right wing control of head office including the senior full time
positions. The ultra left "rank and file" approach of ignoring
the bureaucracy would have meant marking time, allowing the right to hold
on to the key levers of power in the union and to use these to undermine
the left on the executive.
The significance of the struggle to control the apparatus of the CPSU
went far beyond this union. The threat that would be posed if an important
union were to be run by the left was understood by the ICTU bureaucracy
who intervened in the CPSU to try to bolster the right. ICTU desperately
used its influence to persuade some of the softer lefts on the executive
to draw back. Eventually, there was a differentiation on the left and the
majority on the executive became a minority.
Although the SWP played no role in these events, you use them to
justify your sectarian refusal to work with other lefts. Why stand
alongside others who will only sell out? In fact, it is the nature of
broad groupings of the left formed for specific purposes that a
differentiation will open up between harder and softer elements at a
certain stage, and especially if they succeed in ousting the right.
Only a sectarian purist would conclude from this that it is wrong to
form such blocs. The task in the CPSU now is not to retreat into a
sectarian cocoon but to regroup the left activists while at the same time
trying to strengthen the left politically so that there is a greater
understanding of what a new left executive could achieve. This is the
serious work which the Socialist Party is engaged in the CPSU.
During all the upheavals, which rocked the CPSU and sent shock waves
through ICTU, the leading member of the SWP in the CPSU flitted in and out
of the left network. Rather than work alongside this genuine left grouping
he tried to set up a rival "rank and file" group and produced an
occasional bulletin in the name of this body. As is most often case with
such "revolutionary" body. As is most often the case with such
"revolutionary" phantoms the distinguishing feature of this
"rank and file" body was that it had no rank and file.
Your intervention was, in effect, a sectarian attempt to split the
left. Had you been more successful the only people who would have gained
would have been the right wing leadership. Fortunately, your efforts drew
no support. All you have managed to do is further isolate the SWP from the
left and from the "rank and file."
The most recent election for the General Secretary of UNISON, one of
the key unions in Britain, provided another example of SWP sectarianism in
action. Socialist Party members have worked with others in this union to
build a left opposition in the form of the Campaign for a Fighting
Democratic UNISON (CFDU). This body ran Socialist Party member, Roger
Bannister, as its General Secretary’s campaign and working to build the
left vote, the SWP ran its own candidate, Yunus Bakush.
Appeals for agreement on a single candidate were brushed aside. The SWP
insisted on its own sectarian campaign despite the obvious need for unity
in order to maximise the left vote. In the end, Roger Bannister won 18%
while Yunus Bakush won 5%. As in the CPSU, the only people who can gain
from such SWP sectarianism are the right wing.
The case of Ireland’s largest union, SIPTU, shows the damage which
the SWP can do on the very rare occasions where you do gain some
influence. The SWP decision to run Carol Ann Duggan for a senior position
in SIPTU was a well-timed initiative, coming as it did after 43% of SIPTU
members had voted to reject Partnership 2000.
During the partnership ballot Socialist Party members worked along with
other left activists to build the No vote. When Carol Ann Duggan’s
candidature was announced we did not do as the SWP had done in UNISON and
stand someone against her. Rather we welcomed her decision to run
recognising that she could tap into the anti Partnership vote and could
deliver a real blow to the bureaucracy.
Along with other lefts, we made approaches to the Carol Ann Duggan
campaign, in other words to the SWP in SIPTU seeking a broad campaign.
Unfortunately, but we have to say, typically, these approaches were
ignored. Although we worked to maximise Carol Ann Duggan’s vote we were
excluded from the campaign, as was the rest of the left.
Having gained a significant vote which did shake the bureaucracy there
was an opportunity to use this to build a powerful left within the union.
It would have been possible to call an open conference of rank and file
activists from all over the country, to launch a reinvigorated left
grouping and to build real support in branches and workplaces. Instead,
the SWP refused to enter into discussion with the other forces and
ourselves on the left. You adopted a "go it alone" stance, in
line with your general position which is only to work in
"broader" formations over which you have absolute control.
As a consequence of your sectarianism the opportunity was missed. After
three election campaigns Carol Ann Duggan’s vote has fallen to 20%. No
rank and file network has been established. These elections have done
nothing to extend the base of the left. In fact, the right wing is now
more firmly in control than they were three years ago.
The sectarian strategy — "sell the paper and recruit" —
is particularly disastrous when it is used to guide your intervention in
strikes. Two years ago your organisation in Ireland made a particular turn
towards the strike at Montupet outside Belfast. You correctly recognised
the importance of this struggle which united Catholic and Protestant
workers in a bitter battle not just against the company but against the
leadership of their own union and of ICTU, both of whom played a
We have no doubt that those of your trade union members who responded
to your call for solidarity did so genuinely out of a desire to help
fellow workers in struggle. But the crude and, we come back to the word
sectarian, manner of your intervention only succeeded in alternating the
strikers. Inasmuch as you made any contribution, it was to add to their
disorientation and speed their demoralisation.
Your interventions mainly consisted of visits to the picket line to try
to persuade workers to go on solidarity trips which had been organised by
the SWP in Ireland and in Britain. Your members made outlandish promises
of what these trips would achieve both in terms of money and in practical
support. In Dublin, a group of your trade union members, as ever
exaggerating their influence, persuaded three of the strikers that you
would raise £9000. The leading SWP member in Glasgow claimed the SWP had
raised £100,000 for the Timex strike–and the same could be done again!
A phone call form the SWP in Wales promised that Montupet parts in the
Ford plant in Bridgend would be blacked.
Given these promises the workers accepted invitations to send leaders
of the strike on these tours. Without exception they came back bitterly
disappointed. Invariably nothing was properly organised, the strikers were
asked to turn up to factories on spec, on more than one occasion to find
the plant closed. After a trip to the West and East of Scotland the four
strikers returned with a firm decision that they would take part in no
more SWP trips and that future solidarity work in Scotland would be
handled by the Socialist Party/Scottish Militant Labour.
In Wales, the promised blacking by Bridgend turned out to be a visit on
spec to the factory where the SWP had no influence and a meeting with the
convenor who promised all help possible "within the law." The
strike leader who had gone over came back disillusioned and also
embarrassed that he had to explain to a mass meeting that the promise of
blacking which had allowed hopes to be raised was only a fiction.
The truth is that these visits were part of the SWP trade union
strategy; not to help with the day-to-day aspects of the dispute, but to
"recruit." How better to recruit than by luring workers away
from the picket line for days at a time so that they could be
"discussed with" in Dublin, Manchester, Glasgow or wherever.
This was done without regard for the effect on the strike. Tours and
fundraising have their place in any dispute, but in the case of Montupet,
these trips, even if they had been poorly organised, were premature. The
picket line at the factory was not solid. There was a daily haemorrhage of
scabs back to work. Reinforcing the picket, maintaining morale, building
the confidence of the workers — all these things fell on a few
shoulders. Taking these key workers away from the factory gate two or
three at a time, and for trips lasting days, only weakened the picket at
critical moments. The strikers were beginning to learn the art of
fundraising. They needed to develop a serious attitude to raising cash in
local factories, and to involve as many strikers as possible in bucket
collections all over Belfast. Instead they were mislead for a brief time
— by false SWP promises that the cash would descend like manna from
heaven after a few trips.
First consolidate the picket, then build support among other workers
locally — and then the solidarity trips further afield — and then the
solidarity trips further afield could have been carried out on a firm
basis. Instead of this, the SWP priorities were first recruit into the SWP,
second recruit into the SWP and third recruit into the SWP. As to tactics
to win the strike, your members had absolutely nothing to say.
For the sectarian, the class struggle is little more than an
advertising platform conveniently put in place to "sell papers and
recruit"; the sectional interests of his or her group override all
other interests. Socialist Party members, by contrast, intervened at
Montupet on a day-to-day basis, advising on the immediate tactical issues,
fundraising and organising practical support. Through this work, but only
by disassociating ourselves from the haughty and damaging intervention of
your members were we able to gain the confidence of the strikers and
played a leading role throughout. By the end of the strike, the presence
of the SWP was unwelcome to most of those still on the picket line. The
Socialist Party was the only political organisation to be formally thanked
for its role.
Montupet is an extreme example, but the same features have been present
in most recent SWP interventions in strikes. When you complain, as in your
1990 document, about efforts to keep your members away from picket lines
you need to distinguish between attacks launched by the bureaucracy and
instances where workers involved have been exasperated by your crude
methods and have made clear that they would prefer you to stay away.
When it comes to other mass struggles of the working class you have
displayed the sectarian approach and have been unable to make any
impression. It is a characteristic of a sectarian that he or she can quite
comfortably wade in the shallow and generally quite stagnant pool of left
political activists. But when it comes to the fast flowing currents of the
real workers’ movement they tend to find the water too cold, too
During the long and arduous struggle against water charges in Dublin
your party was found totally wanting. Throughout its history, the SWP has
never led any social struggle. As with your work in the unions your
general approach to mass movement like the anti-water charges campaign has
been to intervene from the outside, participating when you sense fruit in
the form of recruits, but then disappearing to other "campaigns"
Working class people will never take seriously an organisation which
plays hopscotch with real struggles, leaping from one issue to the next
with an agility only possible for those who make no impression and carry
no social weight.
In order to establish a basis of respect among workers in struggle it
is necessary for socialists to demonstrate in practice their commitment to
that struggle. This cannot be done with an attitude of taking up and
dropping issues at will. If we begin a battle we have to see it through,
to go through the highs and the lows alongside all those who become
involved. A revolutionary organisation is not an evangel from on high
which comes with words of encouragement and support — given out
alongside application forms and placards — but is a living part of the
day-to-day struggles of the working class.
The problem with the SWP is that it tends to be involved at high
points, but to avoid the painstaking, detailed and laborious work which
allows these highpoints to be reached. It is like trying to traverse a
mountain range by jumping from peak to peak. A serious approach means
working in the foothills of the class struggle, not just the most visible
During the anti-water charges struggle Socialist Party members built
the non-payment campaign by going to thousands of doorsteps, by patiently
explaining the issues, by calling dozens of meetings large and small, by
building up networks of activists, by creating a thoroughly democratic
structure for the campaigns, by organising to prevent people from being
cut off, by making sure every court threat was answered and resisted, by
dealing with the thousand and one detailed problems which arise with a
mass movement such as this. Without this work, there would have been no
The Socialist Workers Party, by contrast, flitted in and out of the
campaign. As we have come to expect from your party, there were attempts
to set up rival anti-water charges bodies in areas where our campaign had
not yet penetrated. Invariably, these ran out of steam or else the
activists within them saw our work and became part of the real campaign.
For most of this period, your party did little more than dip its toe into
the struggle, keeping a watching brief for any big mobilisations which
might provide you with the chance to recruit some people.
Your absence from the real campaign did not prevent you from turning up
at demonstrations and other mass mobilisations and offering instant
"advice" as to how a real "militant" campaign should
be conducted — before you disappeared to whatever other
"struggle" or activity had caught your attention. Nor has it
prevented you from claiming credit quite falsely for your role in helping
defeat water charges.
It is an unfortunate trait of the SWP — and other groups who hold
back from day to day involvement in struggles — that when you do appear
you are always more "militant," more "revolutionary"
and always "know better" how to take the struggle forward than
those who are fully involved. Generally, the SWP prescription for success
is to escalate, "occupy," "call a mass picket," etc.
These are powerful and legitimate weapons of the class struggle. But we
need to know more than what weapons are at our disposal; we need to know
how to use them and when. The class struggle does not reduce to a matter
of either "escalate" or "betray."
It is a poor general who knows only the command to charge. It is also
necessary at times to know how to side step the enemy, how to conduct an
orderly retreat. So in the mass struggles of the working class it is at
times necessary to draw back from battle — when our forces are not
adequately prepared or when there are overwhelmingly superior forces
arraigned against us. It can be necessary to retreat, to make compromises,
to offer concessions, even to accept defeat, in order to preserve what we
can for future struggles.
The line between a principled concession and an unprincipled,
opportunist compromise is not always distinct. It can only be determined
by a detailed knowledge of all the forces involved in a struggle, the
mood, the degree of combativeness, and the nature of the leadership. It
follows that it is very difficult to trace this line from the outside of a
struggle. We have a responsibility to consider and advise on tactics in
struggles in which we are not centrally involved. But we need to do so
carefully, always attempting to establish the facts, and, as far as
possible, in a dialogue with those involved. This is not the manner of the
This method of applying ritualistic prescriptions for every struggle
irrespective of the facts or the consciousness of those involved amounts
to nothing more than revolutionary posturing and only serves to alienate
workers. Your comments about the dispute in the Packard plant in Dublin,
accusing us of failing to advocate an occupation, only show how removed
you were from the reality of that battle.
The background to the eventual defeat and closure of Packard was the
defeat of an important strike in the plant in 1987. Following this defeat
there was criticism of the poor role played by the convenor. A Socialist
Party member was able to challenge for and win this position. In 1994,
when the crisis and threat of closure emerged, the mood in the factory was
mixed. Only about one-third of the workforce were prepared to take
This mood was reflected on the shop stewards committee where there were
divisions not just on how, but whether to fight. Our position was to
advocate a struggle that would have included an occupation of the plant.
We argued that the company’s intention was to shut the plant and that an
immediate occupation was necessary to save the jobs. But it was extremely
difficult to build the mood for this. The fact that Packard was a
subsidiary of General Motors and that its production was for GM’s
internal market, was a consideration which could not be just dismissed. If
nothing else, it added to the sense of helplessness felt by the workforce
and made it harder to gain an echo for action which most workers felt
could not succeed. Under these conditions there was no choice but to make
some concessions in negotiations in order to gain more time to prepare the
workforce for battle.
We presume from your comments that the "revolutionary" SWP
would have acted differently. You would have insisted on an occupation,
simply dismissing the arguments about globalisation. You would have
launched into a battle with General Motors with a workforce divided and
ill prepared and with many on the shop stewards committee either reluctant
or outright opposed. Such an adventure would have guaranteed defeat and
freed the hands of the company to close the plant on whatever terms they
In the end, we were unable to build a mood for struggle. Our comrade,
in his position as convenor, argued on the shop stewards’ committee
against the final package. When the final vote of the shop stewards voted
against action, but for acceptance of this package, he resigned from his
position as convenor. The shop stewards’ stance was unfortunately upheld
by the membership who still lacked confidence to fight. Victory is never
guaranteed in any struggle. The Packard workers were ultimately defeated
— but had they listened to the infantile ultra-left advice of the SWP
the defeat would have come earlier and would have been more complex.