National Sections of the L5I:

Faction fight in the IST

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At a membership meeting in London on 13 May, members of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) assembled to discuss the results of the London Socialist Alliance election work. But for most of the meeting they were treated to a long attack upon the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) by Alex Callinicos – leading member of SWP central committee and international organiser for the International Socialist Tendency (IST). The ISO is the SWP’s long time fraternal organisation in the United States, with around 800 members.

This was the first time that most of the SWP’s the membership had heard of this dispute. They were handed a 53 page Bulletin, whose contents proved that “serious differences” had been developing between the two organisations for around a year. They dated from the period of Nato’s war against Serbia and erupted at the IST’s meeting held around the SWP’s Marxism event in July 1999.

Then SWP Central Committee criticised the ISO for erecting sectarian obstacles to building a broader and larger anti-war movement in the US and of failing to focus sufficiently on the “main enemy at home”. Why? Simply because the ISO continued to advocate the right of the Kosovars to self-determination – as well as mobilising against the Nato war – after the war had started.

The SWP believes that it was impossible to build a broad mass movement if revolutionaries “confused” the masses by supporting both the Kosovars against Milosevic’s attempted genocide and supporting Serbia against Nato’s bombing. In Alex Callinicos’ view this would be a concession to Nato’s “humanitarian” pretext for the war.

The Greek section of the IST (Sosialistiko Ergatiko Koma – SEK) strongly supports the SWP position. In a resolution for an IST meeting due to be held on 8 May they stated that during the war, “the key issue was opposition to Nato and the war; disagreements over secondary issues such as the United Nations and Serbian nationalism were diversions from building a dynamic and united anti-war movement.”

The League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI) pointed out at the time of the war that in most countries the enormous and fully justified working class sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Kosovars driven from their homes and homeland was not a “secondary issue”. In many cases a dynamic and large anti-war movement was created around support for the Kosovars and opposition to Nato’s brutal bombardment of Serbia.

Indeed in Britain the failure of the Stalinist and SWP dominated Committee Against War in the Balkans to take up the question of the defence of the Kosovars played a major role in preventing the building of a mass anti-war movement. The confusion among normally “anti-war” and “anti-imperialist” activists in the labour and student movement was precisely because this was not a “normal” situation (the oppressed, exploited people on one side and imperialism on the other).

Many such activists were confused because they could see, prior to the Nato war, that the Serbian regime’s attempted ethnic cleaning mass of the Kosovar Albanians was unjustified. Therefore to ignore or cover up this issue played right into the hands of Blair and Clinton and the “Nato socialists”. It did nothing to help rally activists to the anti-war movement, a fact demonstrated by the relatively small size of the demonstrations as compared, for example, to those during the Gulf War of the early 1990s.

Serbia was oppressed, only insofar as imperialism attacked it directly. But winning support for Serbia against this attack could not be achieved at the expense of abandoning a principled, revolutionary defence of the rights, and lives, of the Kosovars.

A non-Nato interventionist solution to this problem had to be argued for. This could be nothing other than the support of the Kosovars’ right to independence and support for their armed resistance to ethnic cleansing. The fact that the anti-war movement in Britain and the USA failed to even approach a mass character was in no small measure due to fact that it turned a blind eye to, or actively minimised, the ethnic cleansing and the pogroms of Serb chauvinists in Kosova and uncritically marched alongside those Serb nationalists who supported these abominations.

Not that the ISO actually supported those Kosovars actually resisting the ethnic cleansing. In this sense their support for self–determination was entirely platonic. They seem to have been scared off such a position by the SWP’s argument that the KLA was in league with imperialism.

To this there is one answer. What about the SWP’s enthusiastic support for the Afghan Mujahidin in the 1980s? Not only were they arch reactionary Islamists, based on the tribal-feudal landowners, funded by Saudi millionaire princes: they were supplied with stinger missiles and trained by the CIA, on a scale that makes the US support for KLA look grudging in the extreme.

It is not true that support for the Kosovars’ struggle somehow prevented opposition to “our own” imperialism. Indeed the LRCI (unlike the SWP) openly and publicly supported Serbian resistance to the Nato bombing of their own country (both the popular mobilisations and the “Yugoslav” Army’s attempts to down Nato aircraft). We openly declared that we were for the defeat of Nato’s offensive and for the unconditional withdrawal of all its forces from the Balkans. Such a position was not at all confusing. It met a warm response in many of the trade union and student organisations where we put resolutions and rallied more people to an anti-war position.

The SWP’s position meant that many of the anti-war meetings and demos in Britain were dominated by Serb chauvinists and British Stalinists. These people openly and repeatedly supported the forcible retention of Kosova, denied that the Kosovars were suffering ethnic cleansing, etc. They did so without any serious criticism of these reactionary and ridiculous (because anyone with a television set could see what the Serbs were doing to the ethnic Albanian Kosovan population) arguments by the SWP. The SWP even refused to “make the question of the refugees a central question” (SWP Letter to ISO July 1999).

This shows how desperate the IST majority were to maintain their block with the Stalinists and Serb chauvinist riff-raff.

There was, as we said at the time, a self-defeating character about this for the SWP. The Morning Star Stalinists in Britain are a declining and desperate bunch. Few British workers would trust them. Their claims that “Kosova is Serbia’s”, that the Kosovars were actually pogroming themselves, or were leaving “in order to provoke a Nato attack”, should have been denounced for the foul chauvinism and racism and that they were. Comrades who cannot denounce Nato’s crimes and Milosevic’s together clearly cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

In Greece there was a mass movement, but one dominated not only by Serb chauvinism but by Greek anti-Albanian chauvinism, masquerading as “anti-imperialism”. The defence of the Kosovars was far from being a “secondary” issue as Sosialistiko Ergatiko Koma says. In Greece, even more than elsewhere, defence of the national rights of the oppressed Kosovars was a litmus test of internationalism. It was a principled necessity. It was a test the IST failed.

Nevertheless the ISO did, in Alex Callinicos words, “make strong criticisms” of the SWP’s politics in the war, namely its failure to defend the Kosovars right to self-determination, its weakness in fighting Serb chauvinism and its failure to take up the free entry of the Kosovar refugees. On this the ISO clearly maintained a more principled position than the SWP.

This brought down upon its head the wrath of the SWP CC and Alex Callinicos. Why? Because the position of the US section was obviously far from a minority one. In an SWP Central Committee letter dated 2 July 1999 we read:

“Quite early in the war it became clear that a number of European [IST] groups had responded in a confused and abstentionist way. They were influenced by the general tendency of the far left, in Europe at any rate, to adopt a ‘curse on both your houses’ position towards Nato and Serbia, and even to support the KLA. Even the German group [Linksruck] was deeply confused and partially paralysed for the opening weeks of the war.”

At an international meeting, and under pressure from Callinicos and Tony Cliff this “confusion” was crushed – except in the case of the recalcitrant US leadership.

Despite an agreement at the end of the international meeting in July 1999 “to disengage and reduce tensions” the next cause of conflict seems to be what the ISO claims were attempts – by means of one or more of the famous Tony Cliff phone calls – to persuade some ISO leaders of the need to oust the most troublesome members of the ISO leadership (the Steering Committee), notably Ahmed Shawki, from that leadership body. A letter of protest was sent to SWP on 19 November by the ISO leadership, calling on the SWP Central Committee to clarify if Cliff had spoken for them and to “desist from such interventions”.

The response of SWP leadership – in a letter dated 13 January 2000 – was to launch a full frontal political attack on the ISO leadership over its attitude to the Seattle demonstration of 30 November. It criticised the ISO for its poor turn out (around 20 members) in Seattle at the huge anti-WTO protests. This, it claimed, meant that the ISO was hesitant about involvement in, and too critical of, the developing mass anti-capitalist movement.

For the SWP the Seattle movement represented “the emergence of a new anti-capitalist consciousness at the very core of the system”, a mood already witnessed in Britain by “the closure of the City of London by a ‘Festival against Capitalism’ on 18 June last year.”

The LRCI and its British section Workers Power are not likely to downplay the importance of this. But for the SWP to place such heavy criticism on the ISO is remarkable given the near total absence of the SWP from the J18 mobilisation and their limited mobilisation for the N30 events in London which coincided with Seattle. We therefore read with some surprise the boast, quoted from the SWP’s Party Notes, that, “the SWP was alone on the Left in relating to this anti-capitalist mood.”

Given that Workers Power and the youth organisation fraternally linked to it, Revolution, were the only visible, organised far left presence at J18, and that one of our comrades is now in prison as a result of his actions in defending that demo against police attack, the SWP’s claim is entirely hollow.

It reveals that the SWP’s conversion to the centrality of these movements post-dates Seattle. It may be legitimate to say that a group in the US should have been more aware of what Seattle would mean, but a principled criticism by the SWP Central Committee should at least have contained a self-criticism of their own failure to recognise the new mood in their own country. But for the SWP to cite even one serious failure on its part on one mobilisation is clearly dangerous – the leadership must always be right. In fact the ISO has made a grudging self-criticism, admitting that “our turnout…was small by our own standards”, that they were not happy about it but that for an organisation based in Chicago and the Midwest, mobilising any more was impossible.

Tony Cliff and Callinicos decided this wasn’t good enough and decided an all-out polemic was required. In a letter dated 20 February they stated, “it was a tragedy that the ISO leadership failed to take the Seattle demonstration seriously”, that it mobilised “only a tiny number of comrades” and that “the ISO leadership had failed the test of Seattle” on top of the fact that in 1999 it had “failed the test of the Balkan War”. This was a declaration of factional war on the ISO.

The ISO, naturally enough, observed in its reply that this was ratcheting up the conflict from, “demanding the removal of two members of our leadership to demanding the removal of the entire leadership.”

The assault on the ISO was further broadened to the charge that the ISO was stagnating, refusing to open its doors wide to the masses of anti-capitalist youth etc. Their “stagnation” was compared unfavourably with Linksruck, the German section of the IST which had (despite its early bout of “deep confusion” and “partial paralysis”) in fact passed the test of the Balkan War. Linksruck has grown rapidly (from about 400 to 800) because it is not “sectarian” about mass movements, does not demand that members be cadres (sell papers attend branch meetings) and – barring that brief confusion – takes its cue from London without too much argument.

This is a boomerang argument – had Cliff and Callinicos but realised it. If success with recruitment is the proof positive of correct perspectives and political line then what should be said of the SWP? In the early 1990s the SWP more than tripled in size, at one point claiming nearly 10,000 members. In the late 1990s the SWP have not merely stagnated, but declined to around 4,000 members. Nor can they plead objective circumstances since this is “ the 1930s in slow motion”; capitalism is/was “on the edge of the abyss”; and society had moved to the left with a “new mood” of opposition to capitalism growing all the time.

This decline does not seem a very sound empirical proof of the SWP’s superior method.

Callinicos claims it is a sign of hopeless propaganda circle mentality if an organisation updates its membership lists regularly (i.e. discounts as members those who have not been seen or heard of for months, if ever). The polemic reveals that the SWP’s Party Notes (31 January 2000) has to urge the branches to ensure that “every member gets Socialist Worker every week”

This conflict throws the spotlight on one crucial fact. The IST is an international tendency which has neither a common programme nor a democratically elected international leadership. It is, essentially, a grouping of co-thinkers of the British SWP. Its 462 word “Where We Stand”, which makes do for a programme, defines it as: “An international grouping of socialist organisations founded on the principles of socialism from below. We stand for the direct and democratic control of society by the working class and are taking the first steps towards the building of international revolutionary socialist parties able to provide political direction within the working-class movement.”

The principles of “socialism from below” include Cliff’s theory of state capitalism, support for trade unions, the need to abolish capitalism and anti-racism. No wonder that such a limited set of principles cannot hold the IST together. For two decades the SWP and the IST mocked the very idea of having a programme. As Tony Cliff repeated ad nauseam, “who needs a picture of a machine gun: what you need is the bloody gun ”. Had he never heard of the use of a blue print when it comes to designing and manufacturing guns?

Then over the last few years not only the SWP but its German and Australian sections adopted national “action programmes”. In a sense this was a step forward from Cliff’s view that no general strategic document was necessary. But the limitations of these programmes were that they deliberately excluded the goal of the struggle for workers’ power and consequently they could not show how the struggle for immediate and partial demands (in other words reforms) leads on to the struggle for power. They were not linked to an international programme.

This failure to understand what a programme is has brutal consequences in the here and now.

It leads to a constant feature of the SWP leadership’s method. Every time there is a need to change perspective, when something else becomes the “Main Thing” (today it is the spirit of Seattle), all previous perspectives and other issues get shoved unceremoniously into the background – indeed become obstacles. Those who continue to defend them are hopeless conservatives and have to be shoved aside (or out), usually by organisational manoeuvres and the restructuring of branches and leadership bodies rather than by a democratic internal debate and decision making.

These political somersaults used to be known as “bending the stick”. But they have little in common with Leninist democratic centralism. It is a bureaucratic centralist way of operating. And it is a profoundly wasteful method – losing masses of members, demoralising and losing independent minded and critical cadres, encouraging subservience and a culture in which the “best” members are the unquestioning hacks.

The ISO leadership itself shows a similar national centredness. While recognising that “the SWP is the leading organisation of the tendency” it goes on to ask, “why should we reflexively accept the British Central Committee’s views.”? It indignantly asserts – “Our organisation has its own elected leadership which sets the ISO’s priorities – which are best decided in the US not in London.“

This of course misses the point. Some of the priorities of an organisation are international – ones they hold in common with their comrades around the world. Some “national” political events have a worldwide significance. So even if Seattle was – as the ISO says – only one of several important campaigns (such as the Mumia and the anti-death penalty movement) its impact across continents, its linkage to similar anti-capitalist mobilisations, its role in what many commentators are calling the “new internationalism” all mean that the IST as a tendency has the right, indeed the duty to make this a priority for all its sections.

This does not at all mean that all a sections’ perspectives should be decided in London, but rather that national perspectives – decided at their own conferences – should be set within the framework of international perspectives. These should be decided when and wherever the delegates of the IST can best assemble.

This is nothing other than the dreaded international “democratic centralism” which the ISO, like the SWP, thinks is out of the question. They demand – today at least – strict adherence to federalist principles. But life should have taught them that if you don’t have democratic centralism in an international tendency then either you will get bureaucratic centralism or your tendency will just fade away as national divergences and peculiarities get more and more pronounced with time.

What bureaucratic centralism means can be seen in the present dispute. Sudden denunciations, e-mail shots to all the members over the heads of the national leaderships, phone calls and whispering campaigns, sending SWP members to the US to join in the fight. In short, it means an undeclared factional struggle – dishonestly concealed behind declarations of respect for the complete autonomy of the fraternal organisations. In practice it means that one organisation – in this case the SWP and its leadership – is above criticism from any other sections.

In the ongoing fight a “third faction” has emerged, made up of ISO members who are critical of the ISO leadership as well as the SWP intervention. They identify the origins in the rift between the ISO and the SWP in Ahmed Shawki’s request a year ago for information on the money raised in the US and other sections for IST groups that have subsequently “disappeared” (the South African and unspecified Eastern European sections). Evidently no satisfactory explanation was forthcoming from Alex Callinicos.

This opposition set up a public e-group through which anyone could read the documents and participate in the discussion. Due to pressure from the ISO leadership on the server this was closed down. Relaunched, it was subjected to the same “repression”. Interesting as its material was, it seems to us unwise in the extreme to make such a discussion public. Any uncommitted but loyal members of the ISO must have found this alienating. In any case, an organisation has the right to an internal life. This allows for, and encourages, the free expression of differences without harming the external work of the organisation.

Of course if an organisation does not allow for democratic internal debate, via regular national and international internal bulletins (and today internal discussions sites via the web) it encourages disloyalty. A leadership which suppresses internal debate is itself behaving like a permanent and privileged faction against its own members. It will – sooner or later – reap the whirlwind it has sown.

The most important issue this third faction has raised is precisely the question of democratic centralism which is entirely absent in the IST and is at the root of much of the repeated bureaucratic abuses of the national sections in the 1990s, and before, that have led to purges and splits. The website contained a characterisation of the dispute and proposed measures to deal with it which seems to us elementary and correct:

“Why don’t the ISO/SWP leaderships call for a delegate meeting of all sections of the IST to discuss and resolve the differences? Why not organise such a conference to allow both the ISO and SWP leaderships and the dissident factions in each organisation to make their cases in meetings with the leadership and members of the different sections? While we agree that the Tendency is not an international, democratic centralism (both sides of it) is a principle that should be observed.”

The LRCI does not view these disputes with malicious factional pleasure on the grounds that anything that is bad for the IST must be good for the working class in general and for us in particular. We agree with the SWP leadership that the recent upsurge of anti-capitalist mobilisations are to be welcomed, participated in and promoted. That is why we have worked to build a mobilisation for the IMF-World Bank jamboree in Prague in September. We are very pleased that the SWP and the IST sections support this mobilisation.

But we believe that bigger possibilities exist as result of this new internationalism. Globalisation and the struggle against it poses the need for greatly increased co-operation and indeed joint actions between all workers’ organisations as well as those of youth, women, the racially oppressed etc. We believe that what this poses is the question of concrete steps towards the founding of a new revolutionary International.

We believe all international tendencies considering themselves to be revolutionary should be playing a vanguard role in this. To do so requires a co-ordinated, centralised expression of their strategy and tactics and a democratic decision making process. If the IST adopts such a procedure then its present internal conflicts need not be negative or destructive in their outcome. If it fails to, then the danger is further splits and fragmentation will follow and the method of “internationalism” revealed by the current dispute – bureaucratic centralism and the domination of one national group over all others – will become entrenched.