Lesley Day analyses the political differences behind the recent splits in the SWP (Britain) and its sister organisations worldwide
The First half of the 1990s saw the rapid growth of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain and its sister organisations worldwide, grouped in the International Socialist Organisation (ISO).
While rival far left currents collapsed or fell into disarray, the SWP’s membership mushroomed. The political confidence of its activists soared as events seemed to confirm their organisation’s main political tenet—the theory of Russia as a form of state capitalism.
In Britain as Major’s Tory government was rocked by the ERM crisis and the revolt against a new round of pit closures in 1992, the SWP’s leaders saw the possibility of a turn to dramatic growth.
In the last two years, however, success has turned sour for the SWP. Virtually every one of the ISO’s sections has suffered bureaucratic expulsions or splits—not just of disgruntled members but of leading cadres. The SWP itself has begun to decline in active numbers. Town branches which were split into dozens of local area branches, in anticipation of mass growth, are now being regrouped into a single, often shrunken, branch again.
The reasons for the turn in the fortunes of the SWP/ISO are profoundly political. They are:
• The exposure of a thoroughly centrist political method to the test of events in Britain and worldwide
• The leadership’s bureaucratic response to the problems this threw up.
Today there exists not just the SWP-led ISO but a parallel international organisation of those who have been expelled or who have split.
In Australia, South Africa, Germany and Canada, the International Socialist groups have suffered serious losses of cadre. These include one of the ISO’s leading theorists, David McNally, from the Canadian grouping and, in South Africa, those most experienced in the struggle against nationalism in the workers’ movement. A new international opposition grouping has been formed adhering to the basic tenets expounded by SWP leader Tony Cliff—the theory of state capitalism and “socialism from below”—but critical of the regime and party building methods of the SWP and its domination of the ISO.
A number of criticisms are voiced by the new opposition but the one shared by them all is the suppression of democratic debate both inside the British organisation and between the associated groups (oppositionists took to the Internet and were promptly instructed to stop talking to each other). Another common complaint is the “interference” by the British leadership in the affairs of others, specifically the imposition of “mass work” as the method of party building. The new critics look back nostalgically to the days of the original federal association.
Thus many of them now reject not just the bureaucratic bullying of the leadership of the ISO, but the principle with which the SWP leaders defend their actions: Leninist democratic centralism.
For their part, the SWP’s leaders, in particular International Secretary Alex Callinicos, have been able to portray the splitters as “conservatives” (against the mass turn), “middle class intellectuals” (i.e. capable of putting their oppositional thoughts into print) and “Mensheviks” (incapable of following discipline).
To understand the recent splits in the ISO, and to rescue the critical thinking, subjectively revolutionary militants trapped both within the SWP/ISO and the split opposition groups, we have to go to the root of the political problem. Something which none of the leaders of the split groupings have as yet been capable of doing.
We have dealt elsewhere with the mistakes embodied in the SWP’s various conflicting theories of state capitalism, and in its understanding of the anti-imperialist struggle.1 In this article we will deal with the SWP’s attitude towards building the International, perspectives for the class struggle and the practice of democratic centralism.
The International and its programme
From its inception, the International Socialist Organisation set itself against building a democratic centralist international organisation. In key texts which set out to explain the SWP’s policies, such as Alex Callinicos’ The Revolutionary Road to Socialism (1986) and John Molyneux’s Arguments for Socialism (1987) its leaders argue for internationalism but against trying to build a revolutionary International—a world party of socialist revolution.
Building revolutionary organisations is a task for the national terrain, they say.
The SWP does not omit the need to build an International from its perspectives and propaganda. But it argues for postponing this task until national parties rooted in the working class have already been built.
In short it sees national boundaries as an insuperable barrier to building a single disciplined revolutionary organisation. This involves rejecting (implicitly) the lessons of Lenin’s struggle for the Third International and (explicitly) Trotsky’s work to build the Fourth International (FI). It requires a re-interpretation of the history of all the workers’ Internationals.
Trotsky’s struggle to found the Fourth International in 1938 is seen variously as premature, without proper “roots in the working class”, or as the product of a perspective which, when it proved false, invalidated the whole attempt.
In the earliest substantial explanation of this position, Duncan Hallas wrote in 1972:
“The foundation of the New International in advance of the recruitment of significant forces rooted in the working classes was a desperate gamble . . . that could be justified only on the basis of a particular perspective.”2
Hallas repeats these arguments in his book Trotsky’s Marxism (1979) and again, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the FI.
Hallas argues that the preservation of the revolutionary heritage was a vital achievement but that the organised expression of this on a world scale was a mistake. He takes Trotsky to task for forgetting the lessons of past revolutionary events which demonstrate “the indispensability of parties rooted in their national working classes through a long period of struggle for partial demands”.3
Trotsky and the most experienced cadres who founded the FI in 1938 had experienced the attempt to build such parties, by such methods—not once but twice. The convulsive nature of the capitalist crisis in the 1920s and 1930s had destroyed the mass parties of both the Second and Third Internationals as instruments for revolutionary struggle.
The FI leaders did not despair, but saw in the generalised instability and revolutionary upheaval a necessarily different route to the mass party and the International. The idea of building parties on a programme (strategy) centred on a slow and steady struggle for partial demands is doomed to failure in such circumstances. It is the perspective of the Second International, of the maximum and minimum programme.
Trotsky founded the FI despite the weak roots of its sections in the working class. He founded it so that, in the storms that were about to break over the heads of the small number of revolutionary militants, there would be some guide to action, some centralised command structure, some way of relating one partial, national experience in extreme conditions to another.
But the SWP/ISO rejects not just the foundation of the FI but the programmatic method it embodied.
Hallas in his later article, “Trotsky’s Heritage”, accepts the correctness of building an international current, but depreciates its programmatic basis. He disapproves of the attempt to ensure that the members know the general outlines of the life and struggles of these different sections. Above all sees the foundation of the Fourth International as a grave mistake. It:
“helped to generate delusions of grandeur in the ‘International leadership’ that managed to establish itself in the middle forties and hindered its ability to make realistic assessments of the new post war situation”.4
This argument is extremely simplistic. It amounts to the claim that the work of the post-war FI was hindered by its own existence!
The case for building a revolutionary Marxist current internationally was most clearly set out by Trotsky at the start of the 1930s:
“If the Communist Left throughout the world consisted of only five individuals, they would have nonetheless been obliged to build an international organisation simultaneously with the building of one or more national organisations.
“It is wrong to view a national organisation as the foundation and the International as a roof. The interrelation here is of an entirely different type . . . It is of course possible in the epoch of imperialism for a revolutionary proletarian tendency to arise in one or another country but it cannot thrive and develop in one isolated country. On the very next day after its formation it must seek or create international ties, an international platform, an international organisation, because a guarantee of the correctness of the national policy can be found only along this road. A tendency which remains shut in nationally over a stretch of years condemns itself irrevocably to degeneration.”5
This passage, aimed at the Italian Bordigists, is a rebuttal of the main arguments of the SWP as well. Duncan Hallas finds himself obliged to answer it.
Trotsky had “no alternative”6 but to make the attempt to build an international organisation, but that in founding a democratic centralist “world party of socialist revolution” he had “produced a confusion . . . between ideas and organisation”.7 The ideas were fine: the attempt to embody them in an organisation was a disaster.
A common thread in the approach of the SWP to the struggle for the new International is an impatience with ideas of democratic internal debate. Hallas argued8 in 1977 that while Trotsky wanted to break out of isolation amongst a circle of intellectuals, he himself compounded his difficulties by urging that main questions of strategy and tactics should be debated by the whole membership of the Left Opposition.9
This is too much for Hallas:
“This approach inevitably strengthened the ‘intellectualist’ tendencies to which the petty bourgeois nature of the movement gave rise and made effective involvement in the workers’ movement more difficult.”10
Worker militants are, it seems, precluded from internal discussions on political issues, especially international ones. It will obviously distract them from “the class struggle”. What a caricature of the working class and its capacities!
In the most recent treatment of the question, Tony Cliff expresses more sympathy for Trotsky’s efforts at building the FI. He says that, while the proclamation of the FI was “almost certainly a mistake”, the attempt to build it was “absolutely necessary”.11
This shift mirrors a change in the SWP’s attitude to its own “International”—from the period of an extremely loose federal association to today’s bureaucratic structure. But closer inspection reveals a continuity of approach. The idea of building a thoroughly democratic centralist international is still anathema.
Cliff, like Hallas, remains fundamentally opposed to the idea that sections or affiliates should “poke their nose” into other sections’ affairs. While Trotsky continued to urge discussion and debate throughout the international tendency, to develop the political culture, to encourage independent thinking, Cliff concludes that “in practice the result was mayhem”.
He draws both specific and general lessons:
“The problem with Trotsky’s approach was that it is very difficult to draw immediate and tactical lessons from one branch of a national organisation for another. How much more difficult it is to do the same on an international scale.”12
Wherein lies the “difficulty” in drawing lessons from one branch, in London for example, that may apply in another—say in Leicester? The difficulty clearly exists if there is an attempt to make false generalisations, to woodenly apply successful practices from one area to another.
But at a national level, democratic centralism is designed to overcome such rigidity. It is there to allow the pressures of the different experience of the working class to be mediated through democratic debate: “You say fascism is a major threat in your area, but it’s not in ours. You say that mass paper sales work in your area, but in ours we’ve tried it and hit these problems. You say we could be being conservative, well fair enough but we’ve got more roots in more stable workers’ organisations than you: we don’t want to risk losing them unnecessarily.”
These are the kind of arguments that should be the staple diet of internal discussion in a revolutionary organisation. In reality, inside even the national SWP, they are the staple diet of pub discussions after national demos, never of the national conference, the branch or the internal bulletin.
As for the party, so too for the International. The purpose of international democratic centralism is to correct national one-sidedness, to exchange successful experiences, to pass on the experience of the different sections into a “nerve centre”.
In Greece, for example, the leaders of the ISO grouping emerged from a Maoist state-capitalist current virulently opposed to the official mass Stalinist party, the KKE. To this day it steadfastly refuses to engage in electoral tactics aimed at this party, which remains the mass party of the Greek working class. Instead it critically votes for PASOK, a left bourgeois liberal party affiliated to the Socialist International, with few active roots in the organised working class.
It would be like voting for Ashdown’s Liberals in Britain, instead of Labour. To the growing number of SWP members who visit Greece it does seem strange. But there is no mechanism for discussing it other than the odd pointed question at the annual Marxism event. Yet the absence of such a mechanism is not an oversight: it is a basic tenet and precondition of the existence of the ISO.
As many ISO members have found out in the last few years this absolute prohibition of “meddling in matters they cannot understand” is aimed (a) at the membership of all sections and (b) at the leadership of all sections except that of the SWP.
The London based leadership of the ISO (Cliff, Callinicos, Lindsey German etc.) has made it its business to impose a major perspectival and tactical change on the sections of the ISO. The resulting splits are only the latest in a long list of examples of the failure of the method of building the International spelled out in Hallas and Cliff’s critiques of Trotsky.
Building the ISO
The ISO defines itself as “an international grouping of socialist organisations” and currently has 16 participating organisations. In the 1960s and 1970s it sought international links with other organisations which were in one way or other hostile to the major “Fourth Internationalist” tendencies.
Some of these shared its attachment to the key planks of IS politics—state capitalism and the permanent arms economy, but others were marked merely by a shared economism or were simply considered the largest, most working class, or simply the most dynamic. Thus as well as the “Trotskyist” Lutte Ouvriere (LO) in France the IS oriented to the semi-Maoist Avanguardia Operaia (AO) in Italy and the Guevarist PRB-BR in Portugal. With each of these it established fraternal relations. After the 1973 IS National Conference, International Socialism reported:
“Some of the reports, notably from the French Lutte Ouvriere and the Italian Avanguardia Operaia indicated a progress similar to, or greater than, our own. Discussion indicated both the need and the possibility for greater international co-operation. For all participants recognised that progress to meaningful international collaboration depends on progress in achieving influence in national workers’ movements.”13
There was no mention of proceeding toward a common programme or a common method. Roots in the national workers’ movements would fulfil this task automatically. This was the implicit stance the IS took, and it was in accord with its economistic approach to the class struggle in general. In the same issue of ISJ, two IS militants Dave Hughes and Dave Stocking took advantage of the journal’s “Controversy” column to criticise that method. Hughes and Stocking went on to form the IS Left Faction and were expelled in 1975 to form Workers Power. The “Controversy” column never appeared again. And as for relations with LO, AO and the PRB, it was the very pressure of their national conditions of struggle which soon wrecked the attempt to construct an international organisation between them and the IS.
These organisations may have been “nationally rooted” but they were also, like IS/SWP itself, nationally centred.
LO turned out to be unrelentingly attached to a peculiar brand of abstract propagandism well suited to an organisation that could not and would not challenge the Stalinist PCF for leadership of the class struggle.
The PRB-BR, praised as a revolutionary party contesting for power by IS at the time of the Portuguese revolution (1975), was orientated to the left wing of the Portuguese military. It held in common with IS a failure to understand the nature and hold of reformism. Thus it allowed itself to be provoked into participating in an abortive, and adventurist coup. After this the IS dropped it like a hot potato.
The IS leaders engaged Avanguardia Operaia in a lengthy public discussion which revealed near total divergence of politics, methods and perspectives, which accelerated even as AO “deepened its roots” in the class struggle.
The IS deliberately kept these relations on a bi-lateral basis. If there were disagreements, they kept the relationship going until the tensions became too great. Because there was no attempt to create a common programme or a common organisation there was little struggle even over tactics. Thus opportunities for clarifying and developing ideas were squandered as was the chance of educating the membership through these debates.
By the late 1970s the SWP had retreated from its perspective of building the International through a loose alliance with big, national centred, centrist groups. But it stuck to its belief that the International could only emerge from mass organisations rooted in their own national terrains.
It reverted to building a more homogeneous coalition of small SWP “clone” groups, sometimes by exporting members of the British section, sometimes—as in the case of the Greek section—by recruiting from rival “state capitalist” currents, chiefly the fragments of Maoism.
In all cases the mortar that held together the individual bricks was loyalty to the SWP’s politics at the most abstract level: state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, deflected permanent revolution, economism in the class struggle. This period coincided with the “downturn” perspective for the SWP in Britain, where the party reined in its aspirations to grow and contented itself with patiently recruiting the “ones and twos” through campaigns and workplace activity.
Since the small size of all the rest of the ISO sections dictated that propaganda tasks were most important, there was never a major conflict over party building between the centre and the leaders of the national sections.
South Africa provides a good example. During the revolutionary upsurge the SWP rightly argued that a revolutionary party was needed. But it could advance only one model for building that party: the stage in South Africa was that of the “primitive accumulation of cadre”.14
Callinicos rejected outright the possibility of using the “worker’s party” tactic to intervene in the situation of political flux in the workers’ movement in the late 1980s. Even when legal work became possible in the early 1990s, the IS grouping was advised to stick to the search for cadre on the university campuses. With all the advantages of a regular press and support from Britain, the IS/SW was effectively told to keep away from the working class!
The accumulation of initial cadre from amongst students is not in itself wrong. It is sometimes dictated by a group’s small size. But in the case of South Africa it served to insulate the IS grouping from the real questions facing revolutionary worker militants. The slogan “Black Workers to Power” sounded plausible enough if you heard it in London, or even on the campus of Wits university.
But when you asked the question, “how?” and confronted the problem of Stalinism, of the need for a mass party in the midst of the crisis, of tactics towards the South African Communist Party, it was revealed as inadequate. But there was no need to confront these problems in practice if it was only a case of convincing a few students, in the midst of the revolutionary upsurge, of the historic correctness of Marxism.
The turn to mass work in Britain
Contradictions between a wooden schema for party building, a loose federal structure and political perspectives intensified from the late 1980s onwards. The mother party was expanding and increasing its prestige. Without an internationalist culture or a common programme or set of programmatic positions, this inevitably led to “interference”.
There was no way that a serious challenge could be mounted to the Cliff leadership and no way inside the British SWP that the actions of its own leadership could be challenged. International matters were not the membership’s concern. Reports to the Central Committee were few and far between and even then were not in the spirit of a report from an accountable international leadership. International guests were wheeled out at the annual event of Marxism in London, but the membership never heard about losses or criticisms.
The workings of the international organisation remained a mystery to most members. Indeed, not only are international developments not reported to the SWP members in Britain in any detail, but they have been actively stifled. In one case, the members of the British SWP were not given access to a document by Alex Callinicos, for the ISO sections’ leaders, describing a crisis situation in the SWP in the late 1980s. Callinicos told the international organisations that “manic activism” was threatening the organisation, But the document never saw the light of day for the British SWP.15
After the growth surge of 1992 the SWP embarked on a phase in their international work marked by an increasing tendency to export the SWP’s party building methods and perspectives.
One feature of SWP success that could be exported wherever possible was the ANL Mark 2 tactic. Of course it was absolutely correct to take seriously the growing fascist threat in Europe, but the reconstructed Anti-Nazi League was marked by a sectarian attitude to other anti-fascists and in particular, a refusal to work with those committed to unity in action on the question of physical confrontation of the fascists.
Thus, oppositionists in the German IS section, the Sozialistische Arbeitergruppe (SAG) protested:
“The SAG unconditionally aims at official participation of trade unions or SPD in antifascist alliances and consequently, in a right wing opportunist way, gives up any direct physical confrontation with the fascists in favour of merely demonstrating far away from the fascists meetings”16
These comrades, who went on to form the GIS, looked back fondly to the days of the original ANL which they believed (wrongly) was committed to building alliances based solely on the need for physical confrontation. They are also wrong to think that an orientation to the main organisations of the labour movement is the problem. But their description of the consequences of a failed opportunist tactic will sound familiar to anti-fascists who experienced ANL MkII in Britain:
“Being ignored by the SPD and DGB (German TUC) most of the time, the SAG permanently runs tiny anti-fascist alliances consisting solely of SAG comrades and treating them like a satellite organisation”.17
The “upturn” wreaks havoc
The late 1980s in Britain saw the SWP moving away from the “downturn” perspectives that had been accompanied by abstention from leadership (giving up shop steward positions), and extreme pessimism over the outcome of struggles.
A “new mood” in the class was announced. By late 1992, this perspective had developed into a full blown catastrophism, reminiscent of Healy and the British SLL for whom the crisis of capitalism was always imminent. In the midst of a mass campaign against pit closures—which reflected the new mood but was in no way as deep as the mass movement during the year long miners’ strike of 1984-85—SWP leader Tony Cliff literally “woke up one morning” and decided to commit the SWP to the call for an immediate general strike.
Given that SWP members had honed their arguments against this slogan to a fine art during the miners’ and printers’ strikes of the 1980s it came as a shock to many. But the whole party quickly swung behind Cliff.
In a series of articles in Socialist Review and International Socialism, the leadership spelt out the change. (“Can there be a revolution in Britain?”, ISJ 2:57; “An Unbroken Stream”, Socialist Review December 1992; “No Going Back”, Socialist Review January 1993, “Before the Flood”, ISJ2:61 among others)
Gone were the years of the downturn—in fact for a while it almost disappeared from history. When some of the SWP’s long standing members tried to suggest that reality did not quite match up to the descriptions, they were labelled a “conservative block” to building the party.18
The particular catalyst for this change had been the mass revolt against the pit closure programme, which, massive and angry as it was, was easily diverted by the trade union leaderships with the co-operation of Scargill.
The SWP leadership thus incorporated its old failure to understand the material and ideological hold of reformism with a view that its own growth would make all the difference.
For a period this could be kept up. The party was reorganised from the top down:
“The SWP made a sharp shift in the last three months of 1992. That meant scrapping much of our existing routine. The result has been a growth in our membership of over 2000, the setting up of over 40 new branches and a substantially higher sale of Socialist Worker”.19
But reality did not match the SWP’s perspectives. In the first place, trade unionism continued to suffer setback and retreat. The years of the new “upturn” were to log some of the lowest strike figures on record. A youth radicalisation around the Criminal Justice Bill came and went. While it lasted the SWP transferred virtually the entire apparatus of the ANL MkII into the leadership of the Coalition against the CJB and took it over. Most of the independent forces: young reformists, liberals, anarchists and single issue humanitarians, simply left and formed a rival Coalition.
Cracks began to show in the new perspectives. Party cards were literally handed out like dance-club flyers. But when some of those who joined tried to bring in their existing methods of work, libertarian, essentially Menshevik methods imported from single issue campaigns, they found themselves on the receiving end of a bureaucratic purge.
Thus the first elements of an organised breakaway from SWP in this period began life as a grouping within the party which wanted the SWP to launch a non-party cultural magazine. For suggesting this, and that party members would be free to put non- party lines in that magazine, one cadre, Andy Wilson, was summarily expelled and his supporters told they had no future in the party.
Increasing numbers of the middle cadre found themselves out of sympathy with the leadership’s orientation although there was only a small organised break away, led by Wilson, to form the IS Group(ISG) in 1994.
A genuine international tendency could have corrected the mistakes of the “mother party”. But in the ISO this is impossible. The structures and channels do not exist. There is no codification of the principles, strategies and tactics that mark out the International Socialist Organisation: it has no programme, let alone any substantial set of public positions, resolutions, documents against which the membership or the outside world can test the politics and practice of the organisation. There is not even an international discussion bulletin.
In the absence of proper documented discussion and codified positions, then the articles written by the inner core of the SWP leadership are “the line”.
The “upturn” perspectives were exported to the fraternal organisations with even more difficulty than they were implemented in Britain and with an even greater amount of bureaucratic manipulation.
In Australia, the ISO suffered a serious split after a lengthy period of internal friction during which the Melbourne membership resisted the organisation’s wildly “upturnist” perspective. The previous concentration on the student milieu led to the organisation being ill prepared for such a shift. Bureaucratic expulsions led to the formation of an alternative Cliffite group, Socialist Alternative (SA).
SA is an unstable formation, prone to the pressures of the milieu in which its members mainly work (student work). Both SA and the Australian ISO section are on record as stating that there is no real reason for the existence of two Cliffite groupings in one country. But their leaders have been draw into creating reasons nevertheless, which inevitably focus on the minor, the petty and the cultural (including a graffiti campaign against each other on the walls of left wing pubs!).
In South Africa, after a period when the ISSA comrades concentrated almost exclusively on the universities, and were led by a relatively conservative leadership, the arrival of SWP leader Julie Waterstone brought a sharp change. Now as in Britain, branches were to be divided up into absolutely tiny nuclei, dedicated to mass street agitation, and there was to be mass recruitment. Those who resisted this overnight change—who were not for the most part the old conservatives but did include those with most experience in the South African workers’ movement—found themselves the victims of manoeuvre and denunciation and left in 1994 to form the ISM.
In Germany, the leadership announced in 1993 that there were pre-revolutionary conditions. This led to new party building methods and, according to the opposition, the line that “educations in general mean sectarian internalisation, internal controversy now comes down to sabotaging our fabulous opportunities, membership conditions for the activists expected to join now not simply as single individuals but as whole ‘milieux’ have to be kept very low . . . etc.”20 The turn, combined with the failure to seriously address the question of political perspectives, sent the German group spinning into fragmentation.
Since then, in its search for growth, the SAG has made another turn, into Social Democracy. In fact the most extreme disorientation has occurred in Germany where there are now (as of April) five Cliffite groupings.
The original SAG plunged into the SPD Youth in 1994 becoming the Linksruck-Netzwer. Here it is carrying out an extremely opportunist entry tactic, which would make the British Militant Tendency in the 1980s look principled. It fails to raise revolutionary politics, concentrating instead on criticising the SPD for its parliamentarianism rather than orienting to the factories.
One must stay in the SPD, however, according to the SAG, because it is the only party which “can bring about the necessary reforms”. It claims it wants a merger of all left wing parties and opposes “the development of the SPD away from its tradition as a workers’ party”.
This may sound unusual to SWP members accustomed to greeting Workers Power sellers with the moronic catcall: “You’re in the Labour Party”. But it is not an aberration from Cliff’s method. The tactic has been fully endorsed by the SWP leadership. The episode should serve as a warning that the Cliffite tradition is capable of a move to gross opportunism and an opportunist application of the entry tactic. That was, after all the original practice of the IS group inside the British Labour Party, from its inception until 1966.
Meanwhile however, the SAG’s adaptation is to the major current of German reformism in the leadership of the trade unions and SPD. For instance their attitude to the Pact for Work proposed by IG-Metall leader Zwickel—in which wages would be held down in exchange for job creation—was opportunist. Instead of clearly and unequivocally rejecting this class collaborationist policy and constructing demands on how to fight unemployment and build a rank and file movement, Linksruck complained only that the proposal could be wrongly interpreted to imply that high wages caused unemployment. The paper concluded that: “IG Metall must take up the struggle to push through the concrete conditions proposed by Zwickel.”21
All this does not mean that the ISO has become a rigid monolith. Those familiar with the SWP’s position on state capitalism and the ex-Stalinist parties in Eastern Europe—which are seen as representing a wing of the capitalist class—will be surprised by the position taken by the ISO Polish group, Socialist Solidarity. In the last elections they called for a “Vote for Zielinski without any illusions”22—a position completely at odds with the attitude of the SWP. Zielinsky is a bourgeois liberal! The SWP in Britain meanwhile advocated abstention.
Elsewhere the pressure for growth produced the hybrid SWO in New Zealand, formed from a fusion of the old International Socialists and the ex-Stalinist Communist Party of New Zealand. The CPNZ, a decades old pro-Albanian Maoist party was, as late as 1990, denouncing the collapse of the Hoxha regime as a “Trotskyist coup”.
Casting around for explanations for the catastrophe it transmuted its Hoxa-ite state capitalism into a Cliffite version and set about “adopting” as its policy the collected works of Cliff, Harman, German and Callinicos. This was too much even for the London based leadership, and Callinicos conducted a fighting rearguard action against the fusion. But, since it did not challenge the SWP leaders’ hegemony—indeed it represented the abject belly crawling of a dead end Stalinist sect with nowhere else to go—the New Zealand IS group was not subjected to Callinicos’ bureaucratic ire.
Thus while the New Zealand group was carrying out an unprincipled fusion with impunity, over 40 of the Australian IS group were receiving letters from Callinicos in London informing them of their expulsion because of a debate over party building tactics!
However, if there are still examples of profound national adaptation amongst the ISO’s affiliates, the overall trend within the tendency is towards greater homogeneity—but a homogeneity achieved through the domination of the other groups by the SWP rather than by democratically accountable international leadership, drawn from the different sections, and working on an agreed a programmatic foundation.
The Canadian split is the most recent. Here part of the historic leadership of the Canadian IS objected to the international perspective of crisis and its application to the Canadian situation which was particularly misplaced:
“Just before the Liberal government brought out the most anti-working class budget in post-war history Socialist Worker ran the editorial headline ‘Liberals on the run!’ Then, after the defeat of railworkers’ strikes by back-to-work legislation, Socialist Worker celebrated with the headline “the fightback has just begun!”
Forming the Political Reorientation Faction (PRF) to fight for a change, they found themselves subject to the usual bureaucratic manoeuvres. According to the PRF, no serious measures to overcome the differences or debate them out were taken. Instead:
“the IS leadership has shown further contempt for its members and the debate by ridiculing the PRF’s positions, treating the debate as a ‘diversion’ from the ‘real work of the organisation’, openly sniggering during PRF interventions, attacking the records of PRF members and name-calling.”23
We might not give credence to all this if it were not so familiar to anyone who has ever challenged the SWP leadership—or now, the leadership of any of the satellites.
Without a serious debate over an international programme and perspectives, without real education of its cadre, and without real democratic centralism, the ISO will continue to store up problems for itself.
While the “mother party” remains the largest far left group in the world then crises can be postponed, but meanwhile layers of good revolutionaries are being lost. And even more will be lost when reality catches up with the SWP and blows it apart, unless, that is, they can be won from Cliff’s method and politics in their entirety, and not just repelled by the bureaucratism which that method necessitates in building parties in Britain and internationally.
1. “The Crisis of Stalinism and the theory of state capitalism”, Paul Morris, Permanent Revolution 9; “The SWP, Imperialism and the ‘real Marxist tradition’”, Paul Morris, Trotskyist International 17
2. “Against the Stream” ISJ1:53
3. D Hallas Trotsky’s Marxism 1979
4. IS2:40 1988 p63
5.L Trotsky Writings 1930 p285
6. D Hallas op cit
7. D Hallas,op cit
8. D Hallas, “Trotskyism Reassessed” ISJ100
9. See L Trotsky Writings 1930 p297
10. D Hallas, “Trotskyism Reassessed”, op cit
11. T Cliff, Trotsky 1927-1940 London 1993 p306
12. ibid p303
13 ISJ 57 April 1973
14. A Callinicos, South Africa; Between Revolution and Reform, 1989
15. See A Taste of Honey, “Building the SWP” IS Group 1995
16. “Document of the Group for International Socialism”, in Democracy and the SWP ISG 1994.
18. See SWP Annual Conference Report 1992
19. Socialist Review January 1993
20. GIS document, in Democracy in the SWP 21. Linksruck, March 1996
22. Solidarnosc Socjalistyczna, October 1995
23. Resignation letter of the PRF