A guide to the mysterious world of the British far left.
From the anti-war movement to workplace struggles, wherever you find people struggling for a better world, you'll also find Leninists hanging around looking for a chance to build their "vanguard party". While, in many important respects, there's not much difference between these groups - crucially, we know that none of them will ever be able to deliver the liberation they promise - the sheer amount of different micro-parties can get overwhelming. So we've produced this handy guide to help you keep your International Committee of the Fourth International separate from your United Secretariat of the Fourth International.
This guide is not comprehensive, nor does it aim to be: if, after reading it, you're still disappointed that you haven't learnt the difference between Socialist Resistance and the Socialist Equality Party, then seek professional help immediately, because there's something wrong with you.
Socialist Workers Party:
Unique Selling Point: My front group's bigger than your front group
Description: The grand-daddy of them all. Like a democratic centralist chameleon, it can camouflage itself as a different front group for every occasion: the Stop the War Coalition, Unite Against Fascism (previously the Anti-Nazi League), Respect/the Left List (now deceased), Love Music Hate Racism, Another Education Is Possible, Campaign Against Climate Change, Globalise Resistance, Defend Council Housing, the People Before Profit Charter...statistics show that since I started writing this list, they'll have set up at least three more front organisations. Currently going through a period of crisis, since their strategy over the last few years of forming alliances with egocentric celebrity politicians and right-wing Islamists ended up falling spectacularly to pieces, so they're struggling to turn themselves around and work out a new plan. It remains to be seen whether this old vanguard is capable of learning new tricks.
Since they're quite effective at portraying themselves as the organised, effective face of revolutionary anti-capitalism, and they'll hassle anyone they can find into joining without checking whether or not they actually agree with anything the SWP says, there's a reasonably high proportion of decent, sane people in the membership; but they also manage to lose people as fast as they recruit them, largely because of the same lack of principles. One notable recent loss was the comedian Mark Steel, who spent decades as a dedicated party member, then messily broke up with them in 2008 when he realised they're batshit crazy, and they realised he had a sense of humour. More than any other left group, the SWP plays a vital role for capitalism by enticing new people in and presenting them with the most undemocratic, ineffective, dispiriting version of revolutionary activity imaginable. Some ex-members drop out of politics altogether, understandably enough; others get sucked into the orbits of the smaller groups discussed below; and in the worst-case scenario, some even become libertarian communists and end up writing dull sectarian articles slagging off the authoritarian left that nobody in their right minds would bother reading.
Do say: "Wow, the size of this ineffective, liberal, passive protest certainly shows that we're finding a mass audience for our politics. Um, what are our politics?"
Do say: "Anyone want to join the SWP? No? Well, how about buying our paper? C'mon? Anyone want a paper? Anyone at all? Please? Tell you what, call it half price? And I'll throw in a copy of our magazine as well? Anyone?"
Don't say: "So, remind me again what sucking up to religious fundamentalists has to do with socialism?"
Definitely don't say: "Remember that George Galloway bloke? Whatever happened to him?"
Trotspotting score: 1 point for an ordinary member, 5 points for a full-time party bureaucrat, 30 points for someone actually buying a copy of their paper.
Unique Selling Point: A rare ability to talk about stuff that normal people actually care about, like buses and jobs.
Description: Formerly known as the Militant Tendency. Reached their high point in the mid-80s when they managed to get a few councillors elected on a Labour Party platform. Then they got thrown out of the Labour Party for being too left and had to set up as a separate group. They're a bit lost at the moment, since their whole strategy was based on being the most left part of Old Labour; now Old Labour doesn't exist any more, they're left floundering around trying to rebuild it. While they do have their priorities relatively sorted in terms of concentrating on basic working-class economic issues, they're not immune to outbreaks of really terrible politics, such as after the great poll tax riot when they promised to "name names" and "root out the trouble-makers", or their belief that prison guards and border control officials are just workers the same as everyone else. Most recently seen embarrassing themselves in the European elections by launching an electoral front called "No2EU" which attracted pretty much no support whatsoever, probably because no-one could work out the difference between it and UKIP.
Do say: "This shows the need for a new workers' party"
Don't say: "So, is it UKIP who're the goodies and NO2EU who're the baddies, or is it the wrong way round?"
Definitely don't say: "If there's one thing I hate more than a fucking screw, it's a fucking grass."
Trotspotting score: 2 points
Alliance for Worker's Liberty:
Unique Selling Point: Saying the opposite of whatever the SWP's saying.
Description: Fancy themselves as the most libertarian of the Leninist groups. While groups like the SWP side with Islamic fundamentalists against the West, the AWL are much more consistent about feminism and gay rights (they also have a relatively healthy gender balance, and are less of a boy's club than most of the left sects), but are notoriously soft on Western imperialism, to the point of writing bizarre articles about whether Israel starting a war with Iran would really be that much of a bad thing. They're also considerably more direct action-orientated and willing to work with (read: try and recruit) anarchists than most of the other left groups. Also noteworthy for their passion for front groups, with Education not for Sale, Feminist Fightback, Workers Climate Action and No Sweat under their belts. Another oddity is their belief in a mystical creature known as the Labour left, which no-one has ever seen.
Do say: "Well, if the Israeli state wants to start a war with Iran, that's their business."
Don't say: "Wow, isn't a coincidence that all these people from Education Not For Sale are at this Workers' Climate Action event! What're the odds?"
Trotspotting score: 5 points
Communist Party of Great Britain:
Unique Selling Point: Unparalleled navel-gazing ability.
Description: Have you ever thought that you'd like to read a paper made up entirely of articles like this one? No? Well, the CPGB write one anyway - their paper, the Weekly Worker, is almost completely dedicated to stories about what the other lefty groups are getting up to. Since most workers have problems that don't involve being oppressed by the SWP or AWL, it's hard to see how this is meant to have any appeal at all outside the tiny circles of the revolutionary left, but they seem to enjoy it. Their criticisms of the other sects are often quite accurate, but the sheer amount of effort they put into it, coupled with their failure to do any real-world activity at all, is just baffling. Their lack of practical activity is shown by the fact that, while other Leninist groups tend to have as many front groups as they have members, they can only boast a single measly front, Hands Off the People of Iran. Oh, and despite not actually being proper Stalinists, they insist on having a name that makes them sound like proper Stalinists, and become wildly enraged whenever anyone finishes a sentence without invoking "Marxism" or "Communism" at least three times. Also claim that it's still a good idea for communists to vote for the Labour Party. In 2009.
Do say: "Wow, I was impressed by your extensive coverage of Workers' Power's reply to the Socialist Party's criticism of the SWP's latest statement."
Don't say: "Have any of you ever even met an actual worker? Do you even know what a fucking picket line is?"
Trotspotting score: 10 points
Revolutionary Communist Group:
Unique Selling Point: They think Che was, like, really cool, yeah?
Description: Pretty straightforward. They like Cuba. They like Cuba a lot. They also really don't like Israel, so a large proportion of their activity goes into trying to get people to boycott businesses that trade with Israel (which some observers might feel is slightly too similar to just saying people should boycott Jewish-owned businesses). Also, their newspaper is called Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, because everyone knows that people are more likely to want to buy a paper if it looks like it's shouting at you. To date, no-one has one-upped the RCG by producing a newspaper written in ALL CAPS, but it's only a matter of time.
Do say: "Hasta la victoria siempre! Viva el Commandante Che! Um, y tu mama tambien!"
Don't say: "So, this gay bloke, this anarcho-syndicalist and this independent journalist walk into this Cuban bar..."
Trotspotting score: 20 points
Unique Selling Point: They say they're the Fifth International, one up on all the other trots.
Description: Workers Power themselves are fairly dull, a standard orthodox Trot group. The main distinguishing feature is that, unlike most of the other Leninist sects, they actually managed to build up a fairly decent "independent" youth group called Revolution, mainly by stealing the imagery and language of the post-Seattle global anti-capitalist movement, and conveniently forgetting to mention the bit where that movement was solidly opposed to bureaucratic, hierarchical organisations like Workers Power and their Fifth International. Even today, there are a few cities where Revolution has a functioning section, attracting angry teenage recruits in with non-specific, anarchic "anti-capitalist" imagery and then expelling anyone who gets too critical of the correct line (as laid down by Workers Power, of course). Also notable for the fact that a few years back, this tiny group made itself even tinier by expelling a third of their members (and, hilariously, this bout of infighting in the British group meant that the entire Fifth International had to split, meaning that all their Australian members got expelled).
Do say: "Yeah! REVOLUTION!"
Don't say: "You know what was great about the anti-capitalist movement? The emphasis on autonomy and non-hierarchical organisation."
Trotspotting score: 30 points
Unique Selling Point: There is nothing interesting about Permanent Revolution.
Description: The minority faction expelled from Workers Power for reasons that no-one knows or cares about, they were either deemed a bit too mad or not mad enough. Like Workers Power, but without the youth group. Mostly, just too dull to bother with, but they did earn a moment of fame during a controversy over censorship in the movement against Israel's attack on Gaza, when they declared that criticising Hamas was the same as refusing to support the miners' strike, because defending trade unionists against a state that attacks them is the same as being a scab, and that anyone promoting real international working-class solidarity instead of just pushing Palestinian nationalism should be ready to "get defence squads together". Also known for saying that if the UK attacked to Iran, "Victory to Iran" would be the right slogan to use.
Do say: "That Workers Power, eh? What a shower of centrist counter-revolutionary bastards."
Don't say: "Why the fuck should I or anyone else give a shit about anything you have to say, you miserable little shit?"
Trotspotting score: 50 points
International Bolshevik Tendency/Spartacist League:
Unique Selling Point: The craziest of them all.
Description: Most of these groups are quite weird to some extent. But none compare to the glorious madness of the IBT and Sparts (as with WP and PR, they split some time ago in a heated argument about how many angels can fit on one of Marx's beard hairs.) There doesn't seem to be much difference between the two, except that the IBT call their paper 1917, which always makes it sound like a good place to read about the latest news from the First World War. Read those slogans again. They actually, genuinely believe they're going to win people to socialism by telling them to "DEFEND THE NORTH KOREAN DEFORMED WORKERS STATE'S RIGHT TO NUCLEAR WEAPONS!" (They've also been known to stand outside the SWP's annual Marxism event denouncing them for not supporting the glorious people's Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. I'm not making this up.) Truly, this is the face of madness: look on it and despair.
Do say: "Defend North Korea's right to nuclear weapons!"
Don't say: Anything at all. Just back away slowly.
Trotspotting score: 100 points
Super-secret bonus round: Socialist Action and Socialist Appeal
Unique Selling Point: We're not selling anything, guv. Honest. In fact, we don't even exist. Now vote for Ken Livingstone.
Description: The end of a relationship is always difficult, and we can all find it hard letting go at times. But most of us handle it better than Socialist Action and Socialist Appeal, two tiny groups that continue to cling onto the Labour Party long after it's officially abandoned any pretence of being socialist in any way. Socialist Action are notable for managing to turn themselves almost completely invisible, running the front group Student Broad Left, and being major supporters of Ken Livingstone, managing to get themselves several comfortable bureaucratic positions while he was Mayor of London. When not trying to worm their way into the Labour bureaucracy, they can also be found worshipping Hugo Chavez.
Do say: "Ken and Hugo's glorious names will live forever! Long live Marxism-Leninism-Livingstonism-Chavism!"
Don't say: "Well, now Boris has taken over, you lot are a bit fucked, aren't you?"
Look out for future Trotwatch publications including Tankspotting: Who still thinks the Soviet invasion of Hungary was a good idea and how come they're not dead yet? and The Hundred Greatest Trot Front Groups of All Time (as voted for by viewers of Channel 4).