Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers’ Movement

Why Paul Foot Should Be A Socialist
The case against the Socialist Workers’ Party


Paul Fool’s pamphlet, Why you should be a socialist, published by the Socialist Workers Party last year (1977), has drawn quite a bit of favourable comment not only from SWP members and sympathisers but also from other people who are beginning to come into contact with socialist ideas. This is no cause for surprise. At a time when ever-widening sections of British society are being confronted ever more forcefully with the insoluble contradictions of capitalism, a book which claims to break with the reformism of the Labour Party and outline a revolutionary road to socialism is bound to find a ready market. And there is no doubt that PF’s pamphlet gives an impression of clarity and forcefulness. Those who have been given to understand that Marxism is a subject shrouded in obscurity and arid dogma will certainly be pleasantly surprised by his racy style, full of the familiar mythology of daily life in Britain today (the high price of the Sunday joint, ITN news broadcasts, washing machines, Centre Point, Ronan Point, Bessie Braddock, Lady Beaverbrook, Frankenstein, skin-grafts, etc.). And with humour provided by Phil Evans’ cartoons, what more could one want?

Unfortunately, it is possible to be a gifted writer and yet to put forward a poor case, and that is what PF does in his pamphlet. It is true that he writes with conviction of the senselessness of capitalism, and shows what a wasteful and oppressive system it is; and, conversely, he practically falls over himself to paint a rosy picture of the socialist alternative. However, he does not have anything in the least bit useful to say about how we are to get from one to the other, which is supposed to be what socialists are for. In fact, he like the SWP in general, helps to foster illusions that genuine socialists have long warned against.

But aren’t SWP kids out organising against racism and fascism, against unemployment, and against many other evils of capitalist society? Do we wish to do capitalism a favour, cause confusion in the ranks and demobilise those among them who are sincere? No. We think, on the contrary, that demobilisation and disillusionment are precisely the kind of thing that is generated by confused political groups like the SWP and other Trotskyists. We believe that by raising some points of Marxist-Leninist strategy and tactics we can contribute to consolidating and deepening the mobilisation that has already taken place against the evils of capitalism, and to carrying it forward to a higher stage – the struggle to overthrow capitalism.

In writing an all-round criticism of the SWP, we are indeed confronted with a tricky task, for its characteristic style of work is to avoid actual discussion of political issues: on the one hand, it goes in for feverish practical activity on specific issues; on the other hand, its extended written productions consist of vague generalisations totally unconnected with this activity. With most political organisations, one can point to their policies (normally formulated in a programme) in such a way as to show what each organisation stands for. The mercurial SWP, however, is impossible to pin down in this way. Its basic policy seems to be to try to hold its membership together by leaving everyone to adopt any standpoint they wish. If it produced a programme, the ’party’ would presumably fall to pieces. In publishing PF’s pamphlet, therefore, the SWP was taking an uncharacteristically bold step, for now there was, for the first time, a readily available publication which could be taken to say what the SWP stands for. PF mentions (p.5) that his “friends and comrades Chris Harman, Tony Cliff, Margaret Renn, Laurie Flynn, Geoff Ellen and Jim Nichol have all read .. . and improved” the pamphlet. It is also clearly stated (p.4) that it is “published by Socialist Workers Party”, and it has been widely used by the SWP as a recruiting document this year. Of course, an actual SWP programme would have been an even more suitable document around which to unfold criticism of the SWP, but, failing that, PF’s pamphlet, with the SWP imprint and with Harman, Cliff and Co. in it up to their necks, is the nearest thing that we are likely to have at least for some time. The first edition of the pamphlet (20,000 copies) sold out in a matter of weeks, and a reprint issued soon afterwards maintained rapid sales. These are high figures indeed for a book to the ’left’ of the Labour Party these days, and we can assume that, for tens of thousands of readers, PF’s pamphlet shows what the SWP stands for. There are, of course, hidden away in IS Journal and suchlike places, items that perhaps carry more weight inside the SWP, but their readership is restricted to devotees, and PF’s pamphlet is in any case adequate for the criticisms we wish to make.

Why don’t we leave PF and the SWP to do what they are doing, and if we are so clever, go ahead and write our own version of ’why one should be a socialist’ so that people can judge for themselves and see if it’s any better? The answer is that getting things right always happens in the struggle against those who get things wrong. This accounts for the fact that one of the main forms of political writing used by Marxists has been the polemic. Marxist philosophy is a philosophy of the Struggle of ideas. It holds that correct ideas do not just land out of the blue. It is unlikely that PF’s pamphlet will do much immediate damage to the tens of thousands of people who read it. It consists largely of vague generalisations, rhetoric and witticisms that drift gently past like wisps of cloud in a blue sky, so that probably few of its readers will remember anything very specific from it the next day. What we aim to do is something quite different. We aim to encourage people not to let vague generalisations just float by half-noticed. We aim to give people something to think about and help them deepen their grasp of socialist ideas. We aim to encourage people to enter the hurly-burly of ideological struggle, the world of Marx and Lenin, the world of working-class politics.

We have noticed that sympathisers and even members of the SWP often, for all their dedication to the cause, have at the back of their minds some gnawing anxiety about the SWP’s claims to represent the best interests of the working class – something jars: it might be, for instance, some contradictions between SWP methods of organisation and what they may have read of Lenin’s line on organisation; it might be the SWP’s opposition to the Chinese revolution; it might be the SWP’s recommendation to vote Labour; it might be some unfavourable personal experiences of SWP members – say of their tastes, ways of life, attitudes of men to women, etc. – which lead one to ask oneself if these are really the heirs of Marx and Lenin. It is to this wavering impulse that our critique is dedicated. We hope we can help those with some vague doubts to formulate more precisely in their own thinking what is wrong about the SWP.

We shall be arguing that the SWP peddles confusions and that, more importantly, these happen to be the very kind of confusions that capitalism most desperately needs to propagate at this time. For they are confusions which allow bourgeois thinking and policies to pass themselves off as progressive thinking and policies; they blur the outlines between capitalist thought and socialist thought, and leave one incapable of distinguishing one from the other. This kind of confusion is called, in Marxist-Leninist terminology, ’opportunism’, and, as Lenin used to stress, those people active in the working class movement who propagate opportunist ideas are better defenders of the bourgeoisie than the bourgeoisie itself could ever be. We shall be arguing that the SWP are precisely such opportunists, such “better defenders”. We shall show that PF’s pamphlet, though it looks OK at first glance, is poisoned bait.

It is probably clear already that PF’s pamphlet and our criticism of it do not take the same form. His pamphlet is a work of political journalism, while our critique of it is polemical in form. Nevertheless, we are pretty sure that anyone who got through his pamphlet will get through our critique of it as well. This doesn’t mean you can actually read our critique and let your brain rot at the same time the way you can with PF’s pamphlet, but we do reckon to have written something that is an “easy read”. For instance, we have tried to avoid loading our text with learned references to Marxist classics, etc.

We have said that few of the readers of PF’s rather insubstantial pamphlet are likely to be damaged by it. For sure it can be said that very few workers will be. The actual realities of day-to-day working-class life, and in particular of the workplace, are barely touched on in the pamphlet, which is far more concerned with Labour Party and trade union intrigue, settling old scores to do with Russia, etc. There is consequently not much danger of any worker being duped into seeing anything in the pamphlet for him; PF’s mind moves in another world. Where the SWP, and by extension perhaps PF’s pamphlet as well, does cause confusion is rather among students and other sections of the middle stratum of society who are interested in finding out about socialist ideas; as is well-known, these constitute the overwhelming majority of SWP membership. Now Marxist-Leninists in Britain today are agreed that at the present early stage of party-building, mass work should be overwhelmingly concentrated on (some would even say restricted to) recruiting industrial workers. However, insofar as mass work among students and others of the middle stratum is undertaken, a thorough criticism of the SWP is urgently required. It is thus envisaged that this critique of ours will largely be for this audience; workers won’t need such a detailed critique to convince them that the SWP is not a proletarian phenomenon.

The layout of PF’s pamphlet is as follows: he begins with a harrowing description of the effects of the capitalist crisis; he then attempts (and fails) to explain the nature of this crisis; there follow some hazy generalisations about how much lovelier socialism would be (he is particularly hazy about how we get there); and so he passes on to the Labour Party; the trade unions; “What about Russia?”; the great potentialities of the “rank and file”; and, finally, “Wanted – a new socialist party” (i.e. the SWP of course), at which point the reader can turn off his light and settle down to a calm night’s sleep after his leisurely bed-time reading. This layout is dictated by PF’s journalistic presentation, which is best served by an opening chapter that gives full scope to his talents, and also by his touching belief that all his rambling reflections are brought to a grand culmination in his concluding paean to the SWP; indeed, he seems to think his readers will be so carried away by the end that they will immediately write off for information on how to join – a tear-off application form being attached at the end for those who cannot restrain themselves. Our critique, however, is in polemical form throughout, and we have ignored his layout and presented our arguments in two parts: in the first part, we discuss strategy and tactics of revolution in Britain today; in the second part, we discuss some general principles of socialism.

Many of our criticisms of the SWP were in a pretty advanced stage of formulation before the publication of PF’s pamphlet, which merely provided a suitable peg to hang them on. We were thus in a position to write our critique fairly quickly, and we decided to take advantage of this and finish it as quickly as possible before the original pamphlet had been forgotten. Ours is therefore not a very polished or ’definitive’ study, though we are confident that our criticisms, in broad outline at any rate, come over loud and clear. For all its apparent insubstantiality. PF’s pamphlet, and indeed SWP experience in general, provides a valuable compendium of errors, and there are probably as many points again that we could have taken up: we have tried, however, to select what is most topical and significant at this stage.

Our project to write a critique of the SWP was begun not only before PF’s pamphlet appeared, but also before the Communist Workers’ Movement was formed. We took it up as one among a number of projects which our members had in hand before they became members. It will be clear to those who read it that it is not an ’organisational statement’ in the sense that, say, our programme is – it contains discussion not only of general tactical and strategic questions, but also of political and ideological matters on which our organisation is still working out a more detailed line. In other words, this critique of PF’s pamphlet does reflect our overall political perspective, though in scope it also goes into many matters on which our organisation does not have a firmly settled position – and in the case of some (e.g. certain aspects of literature) it may never have.

In PF’s pamphlet, there are discussed three main versions of would-be socialist ideology – ”three main contenders for the title of genuine socialist. He writes much on the Labour Party, and finds it wanting, as we do. Secondly, the claims of the CPGB and today’s Soviet Union to be socialist are rejected by PF, and we agree with him there too. The third contender, which he himself backs for the title, is Trotskyism (of a rather unorthodox variety). Most people in Britain today who come into contact with socialist, or would-be socialist, ideas, do so through coming up against one or more of these three main contenders. We hope our critique of PF’s pamphlet may contribute to bringing to more people’s attention the fact that there now exists in Britain, though still on a comparatively minute scale, a feature on the socialist scene which we are confident will strengthen, grow and ultimately prove decisive: Marxism-Leninism, the fourth contender.

Communist Workers’ Movement
January 1978