Last Saturday the Socialist Workers Party flexed a small muscle. Twenty or so barracking teachers, most sporting SWP badges, trapped the blind Labour education spokesman, David Blunkett, and his guide dog Lucy, in a small room at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. He had come to address the National Union of Teachers. For 20 minutes the protesters kept Mr Blunkett penned in. And then, after pleas from Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, a furious Mr Blunkett was released. It was front page news in most of the Sunday papers.
Two weeks earlier, the papers had mostly ignored another outbreak of SWP opportunism. That time it had a rather different flavour. Even the police were impressed. It was an orderly rally to Hyde Park to protest at government education cuts. There were a variety of banners: there was a group of Oxford Quakers and some elderly representatives of the Pensioners Rights Campaign. One reporter noted, with interest, that there were no "dogs on strings". But almost everybody had an SWP placard - the parents, the teachers, the children. Few were members or even sympathisers; but the SWP managed to make the march appear as if they were.
The SWP has become a sort of omnipresent force: on every demonstration, on seemingly every television news programme; trespassing at Windsor, campaigning at Brightlingsea. It has never been more visible. It is making front-page headlines. It enjoys a presence on some of the highest profile protests in the land - anti-Criminal Justice Act; anti-nazi; anti-police; anti-government; anti-Labour. But why? Surely it should have disintegrated with the rest of the Marxist left after the collapse of Communism in the Eastern bloc? Yet in the past three years it claims (and most observers seem to accept this) to have doubled its membership.
The SWP is still tiny - around 10,000 members - but it has become something far more substantial than just another dotty newspaper-selling political cult. It does have influence. One third of the delegates attending the NUT conference consistently voted the SWP line. It wields power in one or two other unions. It was also behind the high-profile Anti-Nazi League which led protests against the British National Party last year.
"They have survived a difficult period for the left," commented Peter Hain, Labour MP for Neath, "partly because of the failure of the Labour Party to offer a radical appeal to trade unionists and the young. I fundamentally disagree with their politics, but they deliver on the ground in a way the rest of the left doesn't." Mr Hain, who was involved in the Anti Nazi League, wants his party to do more to counter the growth of the SWP: "There is a vacuum there, which was previously occupied by the Communist Party and the left of the Labour Party itself. Now there is a group occupying it which wants to expose Labour and win converts."
The SWP has survived where the Communist Party - which was a far more effective intellectual force on the Marxist left - failed, because its ideological fortunes were not umbilically tied to those of Soviet Communism.
There should be no mistake: the SWP wants revolution. It wants the working class to rise up and take control of the means of production. But it looked at Soviet Communism, according to the journalist Paul Foot, and found that it exploited its workers no less ruthlessly than the capitalists in the West. Mr Foot was among the founders of the SWP (known until 1977 as the International Socialists), motivated and united in equal contempt for Soviet socialism and American capitalism.
When the Soviet system imploded, the SWP emerged more or less unscathed. "We were, as a result, able to pull through the crisis of 1989 - the collapse of the Berlin Wall - with some confidence," he said. "After that the SWP became the only organised group which could argue for a socialist form of society".
Until then the SWP had existed without much distinction among a plethora of other left-wing groups, overshadowed particularly by the Communist party. During the Eighties and early Nineties, its knack for publicity and organisation (poll tax demonstrations, for example) showed that the SWP had staying power and a solidity which its rivals did not. Its founder - Tony Cliff, a post-war migr from Palestine - and his immediate colleagues, Paul Foot among them, still work for the SWP. Their party has not been riven by internal faction. It is remarkably stable. When the Communist Party collapsed, the SWP was more than ready to fill its shoes. When the Labour Party retreated from activism, the SWP was suddenly the only place to pursue radical, old-fashioned street politics.
The SWP is attractive for another reason: in a time of great uncertainty, it offers certainty. It has a fundamentalist, unshakeable conviction in the justice of its mission.
To survive and prosper, the SWP has shown considerable ideological flexibility - or, to be blunt, gross opportunism. Most surprising is its renewed readiness now to consider putting up candidates for parliamentary elections. The SWP denounces parliament as a vehicle of bourgeous capitalism. But it is, admits John Rees, editor of one of its magazines, something that is now being discussed. The SWP recognisesm that elections can at least generate useful publicity.
The problem, of course, is that its candidates will obtain dismal votes, that they can hardly claim to be the representatives of the working class. An election would confirm their marginal support. Mr Rees said: "In the end, to be successful we have to have the support of the working class. We are a long way from that but you can see a growing militancy among the working class - a willingness to demonstrate and protest."
The SWP is revolutionary, and, according to its critics, dangerous. It incites hatred needlessly, they say. Certainly it is unscrupulous. Its campaigns are less about altruism than self-interest. An example often cited is that of Joy Gardner, the black woman who died in 1993 while police tried to deport her. It was established that she had been bound and gagged. Among the first visitors to her hospital death bed was an SWP organiser. Five days after her death, the SWP had postered London: "Joy Gardner ... murdered by police." The following day, there was an SWP picket outside Hornsey police station and then a public meeting. Mrs Gardner's solicitor accused the campaign organisers of turning the death of his client into a black issue "which it is not".
The SWP is a phenomenon of British politics. It is the only far-left organisation to have survived the collapse of the Left. It has survived, even grown, however much one might dispute its membership claims. This in itself is no mean achievement. But it remains small, and conveys a sense - the revolution, the proletariat, the language itself - of something that is past. Noisily, it will continue to make its presence felt. But the workers it wants to persuade are unlikely to be listening.Reuse content