History of The Socialist Workers Party (Britain) - Socialist Workers Party (1977 Onwards)

Socialist Workers Party (1977 Onwards)

At the beginning of 1977 the Socialist Workers' Party was launched as the IS renamed itself in expectation of a wave of working class struggles against the Labour Government of the day. Immediately this move was rejected by Peter Sedgwick, a long time and much respected member who resigned in protest. Expecting an increase in struggle but with industrial unrest stalled the new SWP used its leadership of the National Rank and File Organising Committee to launch the Right to Work Campaign in protest at the rising level of unemployment. The RTWC was to lead large scale marches, first to the Trades Union Congress annual conference urging it to campaign on the issue, later in protest to the Conservative Party conference, from 1976 to 1981. In the localities however the RTWC had no ongoing existence other than as a front organisation for local SWP branches. In the meantime the parent National Rank and File Organising Committee disappeared.

During these years at times heated debates took place in branch meetings and in the pages of the, then regular, Internal Bulletin concerning a number of questions. For example during this period a debate emerged as to the groups understanding of the question of women's oppression in capitalist society and whether or not feminism was to be seen in a positive light. This debate centred on the role to be played by the groups publication Womans Voice. Eventually the conclusion was reached that feminism, as an ideology, could not liberate women from their situation as a social group oppressed by and in class society. By the time this position had been reached however opponents of the majority view had left the group and the magazine was discontinued as its sought-for audience had disappeared.

Running alongside the debate on the future of Womans Voice there was a discussion concerning SWP work among and the attitude of the group toward Blacks and Asians. From the early 1960s the IS had made clear its opposition to any immigration controls, work in which Paul Foot had played a prominent role. Another attempt to reach Asian workers had been initiated by Nigel Harris but had faded quite rapidly. There was then a considerable debate within the SWP around the role of the newly launched Flame - Black Workers Paper For Self Defence when it appeared in the late 1970s. edited by Kim Gordon the paper appeared for a few years before it, in its turn, faded away having failed to win mass backing and lacking the support of the SWP. The SWP support having been withdrawn as the internal debate within its ranks came to the conclusion that any paper aimed at Black people should be subject to direct SWP control. This clashed with the views of individuals such as Gordon, who returned to Jamaica to become a lecturer, who envisaged Flame as an autonomous grouping only loosely linked to the SWP.

Similarly a debate took place in these years concerning the question of the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales. In this instance the result was that the leadership would eventually change the entirely negative opposition of the group to devolution. At one point in this debate a Republican faction was formed with the support of a considerable part of the membership but with the change of line most supporters of the faction were easily placated. A few however, including Steve Freeman and Allan Armstrong, were to generalise their criticisms of the SWP and drifted out of it in 1980/81. Around the same time Steve Jeffries, an industrial organiser for the group and long time leading member, also left in disillusionment. In part his resignation was connected to the final disbandment of the remaining rank and file groups.

In many respects the period 1976 to 1981 can best be seen as a transitional period from the IS to the SWP. Not only was the rank and file strategy abandoned in practice, if not in theory, but there was in this period a massive change in leading figures within the group. By the end of this transition not only had figures associated with the ISO left but so to had a layer of intellectuals such as Steven Marks, Richard Kuper, Martin Shaw and Peter Sedgwick; industrial organisers such as Steve Jeffreys, Arthur Affleck and Bill Message had also left; in addition to which almost the entire toe-hold in blue collar industry won so laboriously had left or been expelled. And all this before the large scale restructuring of British capitalism.

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