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Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
Socialism and Left Unity - A critique of the Socialist Workers Party
The clash between the central leadership of the IST - notably the Socialist Workers Party - and their one-time American 'section' the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) also highlighted the deficiencies in their intervention in mass movements. In relation to this, Callinicos stated in 2001:
"We wrote to the ISO leadership: 'You make concessions to the misconception that the way in which revolutionaries differentiate themselves within united fronts is by "putting the arguments" which set us apart from other forces within the united front. In our experience, it is more often through being the most dynamic and militant force in building the movement in question that we distinguish ourselves and draw new people towards us.'"
He then misuses Marx on the character of a 'sect':
"Sometimes differentiation is essential if a revolutionary organization is to survive in an unfavourable political environment. This had been true during the Reagan-Thatcher era in the 1980s where the ISO and the SWP alike had taken refuge in the Marxist tradition as protection against the right-wing climate in society and the collapse of the left. But such a defensive attitude was no longer necessary, as in the second half of 1990s the long downturn in class struggle drew to an end." [Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left.]
The ISO, in reply to this, belatedly echoed the criticism that we have made of the SWP's theoretical blunders on the character of the post-Stalinist period:
"But it now can no longer cover for its repeated and systematic failure to accept or understand the 1990s - or the present. The perspective developed by the SWP over the latter half of the 1990s - summed up in the phrase the '1930s in slow motion' - and the political and organisational conclusions that were derived from this view, have been a disaster in Britain and internationally. Rather than face up to this fact, the SWP has zigzagged blindly. Instead of encouraging a debate on these questions which would have strengthened the [IST] tendency, it has pursued a policy that has created split after split. Each split is justified by an immediate tactical turn."
Writing about the situation in 1997 with the election of Blair, the ISO wrote:
"Of course there is disillusionment and bitterness with Blair, reflected in part by the abysmally low voter turnout. This created the opening for an electoral challenge from the left. But the situation bears little resemblance to the explosion in struggle repeatedly predicted by the SWP leadership in 1997. Then, SWP branches were instructed to hold branch meetings on the June 1936 mass strikes in France that followed the election of the Popular Front government. There was an explicit prediction of similar developments in Britain. Can anyone seriously argue today that this perspective was correct? More to the point, has the SWP leadership ever bothered to reassess this mistaken perspective?... [The SWP's] catastrophist perspectives led to a massive decline in its membership. The SWP years ago stopped its claim to have 10,000 members (such figures are no longer given, not even in internal tendency meetings)... The SWP leadership has proven that it is incapable of working with others in the tendency with which it has a shred of disagreement." [Open letter to the IST, ISO steering committee, 2 July 2001.]
The way in which the leadership of the SWP/IST deals with those who are critical of it - particularly in the case of the ISO in the US - and now with those who stayed with George Galloway's wing of Respect brings into focus the internal regime of the SWP. Organisation flows from politics and not vice versa. A politically self-confident, clear leadership of a party, which enjoys authority on the basis of its political standing in the eyes of its members - rather than on 'statutes' - in general, has demonstrated in practice the correctness of its perspectives, tactics and organisational methods to the members. It therefore turns to organisational sanctions only as a last resort. Only when political argument and persuasion fails and there are clear breaches of organisational norms should disciplinary measures be resorted to. While politics is primary in a healthy revolutionary organisation, this does not mean that organisation is secondary or unimportant. Marxist theory is a guide to action: "Philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world; the task, however, is to change it." [Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach.] The internal character of a party or organisation - and particularly the question of democratic rights of the members vis-à-vis the leadership has always been vital in the history of the Marxist movement.
The oft-quoted organisational example of Bolshevism demonstrates this. Lenin was confronted through virtually the entire history of his organisation with groups, tendencies and factions which disputed and argued against his ideas. On occasions, Lenin himself was in a minority. The special circumstances in which the Bolshevik party worked - it was forced to operate throughout most of its existence in the underground - has led to an entirely one-sided view - by the Stalinists, for instance - of Lenin's ideas on 'democratic centralism'. These were a continuation and deepening of Marx's ideas on this issue. Yet they have often been completely misunderstood and interpreted in a one-sided fashion. The existence and then collapse of Stalinist regimes meant that the ideas of 'democratic centralism' have been viewed suspiciously, particularly by a new generation emerging into political life. Moreover, the mirror image of Stalinism is also revealed in the bourgeoisified former workers' organisations such as New Labour in Britain - with a politically repressive and intolerant regime. This new layer of workers could therefore sometimes confuse and conflate the idea of 'democratic centralism' with the 'bureaucratic centralist' ideas of Stalinism and its offshoots.
This is partly because of wilful distortions by the enemies of Marxism. But, unfortunately, it is also the practices of organisations like the SWP and the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia which have reinforced this. The latter organisation, which is anything but 'Democratic', also uses top-down, bureaucratic methods against dissent and organised opposition in their ranks. The SWP has displayed the same features in the high-handed rapid expulsion of leading dissenting members over the dispute arising from the split in Respect. But this is not the only example of the bureaucratic approach of the SWP leadership. In 2001, incredibly, they expelled the US ISO en bloc - with a claimed one thousand members - from their international organisation, the IST. Nothing could be more calculated than examples like this to give Marxism and alleged Trotskyism a very bad name - in fact, a taint of Stalinism - of intolerance towards opposition, including summary expulsions.
The roots of the mistaken approach of the SWP on this issue lie in their mistaken notion about how internal democracy works within a Marxist/revolutionary party, the purpose of internal discussion, tendencies, factions, and the relationship between the leadership and the members. And yet the SWP and particularly the IST was set up, allegedly, in an entirely different fashion to other so-called 'toy Internationals', which were described by the SWP as 'undemocratic' and high-handed. They were referring to organisations like the USFI and the CWI. This was actually a smokescreen to hide the fact that the 'numerically superior' SWP dominated the IST from the outset. The claim that the IST was different was effectively debunked by the ISO when it fell out with the SWP in early 2000. The ISO pointed out that the IST "claimed that it was not an international, but a tendency composed of autonomous groups united around the politics of international socialism, [it] has become a mere shadow of its former self. It is now characterised by a high degree of commandeerism and political amateurism."
They go on to contrast this to the tolerant approach of the 'hard' Bolsheviks during a revolution by quoting Trotsky: "The chronicles of the year 1917, the greatest year in the history of the party, is full of intense internal struggles, as also is the history of the first five years after the conquest of power; despite this - [in Russia] not one split, not one major expulsion for political motives..." And yet, both in the case of Respect, and the earlier major international split with the ISO, there were expulsions, as their internal documents show, for political motives.
The pretext for the expulsion of the ISO from the IST was the initial 'expulsion' of six supporters of the SWP from the ISO. The ISO leadership - their 'steering committee' -explained the reasons for this: They "expelled these members [SWP supporters] because they continued to factionalise after they were outvoted at the [party's] convention". This approach is entirely wrong from a Marxist point of view but arises precisely from the rigid 'banning of factions' outside of the 'convention' or what is known in Britain as the pre-conference period. While it is sometimes advisable that factions be wound up once the issues under dispute have been settled or pushed to the sidelines, it nevertheless cannot be achieved by fiat of the leadership from above. In this dispute, both sides were wrong and undemocratic. The ISO, it seems, resorted to expulsions of their pro-SWP members for the crime of 'factionalising'. But the IST/SWP leadership was a mirror image of the ISO. They summarily expelled a thousand ISO members! Moreover, according to the ISO:
"Ahmed Shawki of the ISO was given only 10 minutes to present the ISO's response to the motion of expulsion [on 5 July 2001]. SEK [the IST's Greek section], the group motivating the expulsion with the SWP, did not even bother to send a representative." ['The IST voted to expel the ISO on 5 July in London', at infoshop.org]
The alleged political pretext for the ISO's exclusion from the international organisation of the SWP was insufficient energy in organising for Seattle and failure to recognise the importance of the anti-globalisation movement! But even if this was the case - which was highly disputed by the ISO - are these sufficient grounds for the expulsion of members from your party? It seems that it is in the galaxy of the SWP. And this is not an exceptional example in the history of the SWP/IS or their international organisation, the IST. In fact, it is a common theme throughout their history, beginning with Cliff himself, who separated party critics from the ranks of the SWP who did not immediately fall into line. The split in the US - including the expulsions - was mirrored in Greece, France, Turkey, South Africa (where they had very small forces) and the earlier virtual disappearance of their organisation in Belgium, with the best members passing over into the ranks of the CWI. These disputes highlighted the false methods, and the unhealthy internal regime, as well as the utter bureaucratic confusion on how an International, from a Trotskyist tradition, should operate.
The ISO, in answer to the SWP's criticisms of them, undoubtedly scored a bull's eye when they wrote: "Only one group in the Tendency is exempt from such scrutiny - the SWP itself... Since reports on various groups stopped being issued at Tendency meetings years ago, comrades in various organizations are expected to pass judgement on us - and one another - with virtually no information other than the [Central Committee's] version of events." Again, contrast this to the abundance of internal material on disputed issues issued by the CWI in the 1990s. Take just one example; the dispute over the changing of the name of the party from 'Militant Labour' to 'Socialist Party', mentioned previously. The internal written discussion was circulated not only in Britain but internationally, and not just in our ranks. It was so voluminous that the Australian DSP, who received the documents, complained that they "could not read them all". This did not stop this organisation from denigrating us - when they fell out politically with us because we criticised their positions on a series of issues - as "undemocratic"!
Undoubtedly, these written and extensive verbal exchanges were excessive but we were prepared to bend over backwards in order to allow a full discussion and demonstrate in practice the correctness or otherwise of our proposals as well as the democratic character of our organisation. A 'tendency' was formed - some of whom but not all left our organisation subsequently - but they were not expelled. Others remained and continued to play a vital role in our party. This will not be the case for the SWP in the coming period. They will continue to fracture - not just in Britain but internationally - because of their mistaken belief on how international collaboration - never mind formal international structures - should take place in this period.
Tony Cliff himself criticised Trotsky's approach to the original development of a new international organisation in 1938 and its programme, the Fourth International. Trotsky urged members of each group to follow and intervene, if necessary, in one another's internal life. Cliff wrote:
"The problem with Trotsky's approach was that it is very difficult to draw immediate tactical lessons from one branch of a national organisation for another. How much more difficult is it to do the same on the international scale? Compare this idea of one section intervening in the tactical disputes of another with the practice of the Comintern under Lenin and Trotsky where it was quite uncommon." [Cliff, Trotsky, vol 3.]
This is wrong from beginning to end and is, moreover, a distortion, wilful or otherwise, not just of Trotsky's approach but also that of Lenin in the 'practices' of the Comintern.. Both were in favour of the maximum 'involvement' and discussion of the different important tactical questions by all sections of the Comintern, the rank and file and not just the leadership. Of course, it was 'uncommon' mostly for material reasons - shortage of time available for workers with full-time jobs, etc. - for the ranks of the Comintern to intervene with written contributions on the tactical question of the 'united front', for instance, as it was applied to Italy and France, where it was a contentious issue. But the members of the newly-formed Communist Parties in those countries did participate, largely through public written material and verbally. But at that stage, the technical resources were not at hand for the full participation of all in the internal life of all sections of the Comintern. But that was the general aim in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, contrary to the impression given by Cliff. Trotsky developed this method with a much smaller organisation in the International Left Opposition in the 1930s. He stressed that it was the right of every member from the leadership down to the rank and file to acquaint themselves with international questions and to intervene, to have their say, whether they were correct or not. Only in this way would real internationalism take hold, a real internationalism vitally needed in the modern era of globalised capitalism.
Cliff's arguments, and those of the ISO leadership who echo him, reflect some of the arguments of the reformist lefts in Britain and elsewhere on key international questions. For instance, at the time of the Chilean revolutionary movement of 1970-73, some argued in Britain that 'no-one' outside Chile had the right to politically intervene with their opinions or to intervene materially in Chile. Yet so crucial were the events in Chile that it was not only the right but the duty of all workers' organisations to contribute to the debate on the strategy and tactics for victory. Victory for the Chilean workers would have transformed not just the Latin American political landscape but the world as a whole. Similarly, the Chilean and other workers have every right to intervene to criticise, make suggestions, etc, about the tactics to be employed in Britain. Of course, this should not be done in a lecturing manner, as unfortunately do many SWP members in approaching and attempting to bulldoze workers on a picket line, workers on strike, etc. Trotsky was attempting to foster real international participation, thereby raising the level of understanding on vital questions, which may seem 'remote' at first glance but can have a relevance to the work elsewhere, including at 'home'.
His approach towards 'intervention' of the members of each national section in the internal life of others had nothing in common with that of Zinoviev. The latter was noted - even under the Comintern where he was the formal head of the organisation - for intervening in a manoeuvrist and bureaucratic fashion. He sanctioned the removal of leaders who had made mistakes instead of adopting Lenin and Trotsky's policy of criticising mistakes but retaining the leadership who could then hopefully learn and improve. This method of Zinovievism was, unfortunately, taken over by the leaders of the 'Fourth International' (now the USFI), particularly after the death of Trotsky himself. They made a number of wrong analyses on perspectives in the very complicated post-second world war period. When this generated opposition, they sought to deal with this through 'Zinovievist' methods, seeking to undermine every leadership that they disagreed with politically, rather than convincing by argument and the march of events.
Contrast the party regime of the SWP-IST with the history of the CWI and its handling of internal disputes. We also faced internal political conflicts, something which was inevitable in the changed world situation following the collapse of Stalinism. In fact, we faced splits and defections. The documents relating to these disputes have all been published openly (see Marxism.net). This was done in order to allow anyone in the labour movement, particularly the left and the new generation of socialists, to examine the different standpoints within the CWI and to examine the record of the leadership of the Socialist Party in Britain and our International and those who opposed us on the political issues under dispute.
The only times we have resorted to disciplinary measures - for instance, a case of corruption in the CWI section in Pakistan in 1998 - was when the organisational norms of the party had been grossly violated, not just once, but consistently. A similar case of fraud and corruption arose in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union. After careful examination, we separated the CWI from some very dubious former 'comrades'. The CWI has never expelled any organisation or individual for 'political differences'. For instance, in the case of Scotland and the dispute with the leadership of our then Scottish organisation, we refused to expel our comrades or even to accede to their request that we agree to an 'amicable divorce'.
The fairy tale that the CWI in Scotland and internationally opposed the setting up of the SSP has been effectively debunked on a number of occasions in our documents, fully open to public scrutiny. What we did was to oppose vehemently the beginning of the liquidation of a distinct revolutionary organisation - Scottish Militant Labour as it then was - and the resources we had built up over decades into this project. Our warnings that this would subsequently lead to political degeneration inside the broader formation which took shape have been completely borne out by subsequent developments. But never did the CWI leadership - in numerous discussions, both in Britain and internationally - threaten our then Scottish comrades with disciplinary action or expulsion. In fact, we rejected their request for an 'amicable divorce', not for 'altruistic' or 'super-democratic' reasons but because we were convinced that, on the basis of further experience and debate, we would convince the majority of our point of view. Some of those who opposed us in those debates and left the CWI in 2001 returned to the ranks of the CWI. Others, like Tommy Sheridan, collaborate with the CWI in Solidarity. Other ex-CWI comrades have gone back so far politically that they have ended up giving evidence for the notorious anti-working class newspaper baron, Rupert Murdoch, in the court case brought against Tommy Sheridan.
A politically confident leadership always acts in the fashion that the CWI has done. Lenin never resorted to disciplinary measures in the first instance nor did Trotsky advocate such a course in the International Left Opposition in the 1930s, for instance. Gross violations of organisational norms and discipline are another question. But in the case of the dissidents in the SWP - the ISO in the US and those who opposed the leadership over Respect - did not, as far as we can see, either separate themselves from the history of the SWP or violate the existing constitution. There is, in any case, misunderstanding on the issue of 'factions'. The SWP, for instance, states in its constitution the following:
"If a group of party members disagrees with a specific party policy, or a decision taken by a leading committee of the party, they may form a faction by producing a joint statement signed by at least 30 members of the party. A faction will be given reasonable facilities to argue its point of view and distribute its documents. These must be circulated through the National Office, to ensure that all members have the chance to consider them. Debate continues until the party at a special or annual Conference reaches a decision on the disputed question. Permanent or secret factions are not allowed."
In this, they have the same position as the DSP in Australia, who also banned factions apart from in a 'pre-conference period'. Of course, permanent 'factions' - on the pattern of the LCR in France - are not a 'good thing' in a revolutionary organisation.
They were certainly not the 'norm' in the Bolshevik party, with trends, tendencies and even 'factions' occasionally developing but then dissolving when the issues under discussion were resolved by the march of events or some left the ranks of the Bolshevik party for either opportunistic or ultra-left reasons. It is true that, at the Tenth Party Congress in the exceptional conditions of civil war, Lenin proposed a temporary ban on factions. However, it was then and remains today, a highly contentious issue. This action of Lenin undoubtedly became a starting point from an 'organisational' point of view for Stalin and the rising bureaucracy to legitimise later its lasting and formal ban on all 'factions'. But the burgeoning Stalinist bureaucratic counter-revolution utilised this 'precedent' - in a completely dishonest and disloyal fashion - to not only ban factions but stamp on all dissent, particularly of the Left Opposition, within the 'party'. Lenin believed that this temporary measure of 'banning' factions would be lifted as soon as the immediate danger of the civil war had passed.
To be sure, the existence of 'permanent factions' is not a reflection of a 'healthy regime', à la Lenin and Trotsky, as some in the Mandelite USFI believe. In fact, it denotes a lack of confidence in the leadership, an inability once the immediate issues under dispute recede, to then reunite the party. If you are in 'permanent opposition', which is what a 'permanent faction' means, why then remain within a party? Sometimes, it is better for a separation to take place in order that different ideas, programmes and tactics can be tested out before audiences of workers and young people. This, of course, then presupposes collaboration, an element of the united front discussed previously, is employed by separate organisations. Trotsky pointed out that the French social democracy was quite willing to tolerate tame 'permanent factions' because it gave the false impression that it was 'democratic'. However, as soon as a serious organised political oppositional current developed from the left, it was invariably shown the door.
The same applies to the experience of Militant in the Labour Party in Britain. We were tolerated while we were the 'door knockers', the canvassers in elections, the 'carriers of wood and hewers of coal'. But once we began to challenge politically for councillors and MPs, and with greater and greater importance at all levels of the Labour Party, summary expulsion - beginning with the five members of the Militant Editorial Board in 1983 - was resorted to. All of this means that while 'permanent factions' may be undesirable, at the same time they cannot be 'prohibited', either in a rigid 'constitution' or by the edict of an 'infallible' leadership.