Back in March this year, I made a post on this blog asking where the SWP’s international group, the IST, was going, and pointing out that there had been a series of splits in most sections. This post caused a lot of debate, including contributions from Canada, France, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand from members of IST affiliates, and from the groups with similar politics but outside the IST.
The need for an open international debate about the IST is clear, given the fact that there seems to be little principled political difference between the groups within and without the IST, although there are differences of strategy and tactics, as you would expect in any living political tradition.
Earlier this month, the New Zealand affiliate of the IST, Socialist Worker(NZ), published a statement calling for the IST to have a more positive alignment towards the Venezuelan revolution, and querying some organisational changes proposed by the British SWP’s Alex Callinicos (pictured above reviewing the troops).
Today, the Socialist Worker(NZ) have issued the following call for a debate on their website, UNITYblog. They want “to start a debate among all serious socialists and revolutionaries, inside and outside the International Socialist Tendency, on how we should be responding to the Bolivarian revolutionary process in Venezuela. Please send your contributions to UNITYblog . All serious contributions to the debate will be published. Silly and/or sectarian stuff will be binned with a grin.”
This follows the reply by Alex Callinicos, which they have also published . In view of the fact that UNITYblog have issued this call for a debate about Venezuela, it seems much better that the debate is carried out there rather than here, so I will make no further comment about the specific issue of Venezuela.
However, one comment by Callinicos is especially illuminating:
“As we put it in our ‘International Perspectives 2005’ …the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism is in Iraq.’ It is the resistance in Iraq that is in the process of inflicting the most serious defeat American imperialism has suffered since the Vietnam War. By tying down the Pentagon’s military machine in Iraq, the resistance has made a decisive contribution to creating the space that has allowed the resistance in Latin America to develop and, in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, to develop a more explicitly anti-capitalist dynamic. Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’. Defeating the Bush administration’s imperialist offensive is critical to the success of every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism, including those in Venezuela and Bolivia. This is particularly important for revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world since it gives a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than merely leave us to cheerlead for Latin American revolutions.” (My emphasis)
It is entirely characteristic of the SWP to overemphasise the significance of the Iraq war, and to overestimate the degree of political radicalism which opposition of the war engenders.
In fact, the war is not even the most important issue on domestic British politics, as housing and job insecurities are the biggest cause of friction between New Labour and its traditional electoral supporters; and pensions and privatisation are the biggest friction between the trade unions and New Labour. A correct strategic orientation in Britain on how to reverse the neo-liberal consensus would therefore be concentrating less on Iraq, and more on the issue of public ownership, and council housing. The victory of the right over these issues has largely been because of the idea, as Thatcher argued, that “there is no alternative”. The significance of Venezuelan solidarity work is of course that it demonstrates that there is an alternative. The Bolivarian revolution has started to turn the tide.
Callinicos’s comments about the IST itself are also illuminating.
He says: “The SWP in particular has argued that Seattle opened a new period of anti-capitalist struggle that has created major opportunities to renew the revolutionary and radical left. We have accordingly been pursuing dialogue with other currents and exploring the possibilities of regroupment on a very extensive scale.”
Seattle was a long time ago. What is more, the social forum movement is becoming increasingly attenuated. An Italian friend of mine who attends the European Social Forum meetings (ESF) observes that the SWP’s policy of opposing the Social Forums in Britain, while simultaneously attending the ESF meetings as the British delegates, has now given way to there being no participants from Britain.
Furthermore, within Britain the SWP wound down the regroupment exercise of the English Socialist Alliance, in favour of a creature that excluded the rest of the activist left, Respect. This process was described succinctly recently by Charlie Pottins : “As for the Left, having gathered some strength (including former Labour Party actvisists) around in the Socialist Alliance, the SWP was quick to liquidate it so they could form a local Respect, though so far it has been almost a non-runner, and at best an also-ran. The sad thing is that some of the local SWP actvists are old-campaigners, better known and respected in the area under their own flag, whereas people just scratch their heads or look away when they turn up as Respect.”
In contrast, Callinicos describes Respect thus: “Our domestic experience has demonstrated, positively with Respect and more negatively with the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party, this process involves opening out to more than the established revolutionary left.”
I was recently discussing Respect with anti-war activists from Bristol and Oxford, both non-members of the SWP, but positively inclined towards them. They told me that in Bristol, none of the former labour lefts who were active in the SA have joined Respect, and the comrade from Oxford resigned from Respect because all decisions for the local branch were taken in advance by the SWP caucus, and if the Respect branch reached a decision about something that the SWP had not previously worked out their position on, then it would be overturned by the SWP at the next meeting. This is not what we mean by regroupment!
Callinicos then says: “The IST has a very simple structure. It consists of organizations sharing a common tradition and approach to revolutionary politics. Its meetings are devoted largely to political discussions, with very few decisions being made. These decisions are normally taken by consensus: the only real exception was the exclusion of the ISO (US) in 2001, which followed the ISO intervening to help to engineer a split in our Greek sister organization, SEK.”
We are entitled to ask, why was the ISO allegedly trying to cause a split in the SEK an offence requiring expulsion. Whereas Tony Cliff boasts in his autobiography that he split the German and French groups? And Callinicos himself sought to engineer a split in the ISO(USA). why is there one rule for the goose, and another for the gander?
We are also entitled to wonder whether this consensual model is true, given that Callinicos also says that one of the tasks of his proposed committee is “addressing problems in specific groups”. That is interfering in the internal lives of other affiliates, as Cliff used to do, and Callinicos did with the American ISO.
Callinicos claims that hitherto, the leadership of the IST has been run from London because “the British SWP … has far greater resources and partly because of the political authority its leadership has enjoyed in the Tendency.”
But on what basis has the SWP greater political authority? Surely not on the basis of achievement, as they are a fraction of their former size, with a much reduced influence in the unions and workplaces, and their activities in the Socialist Alliance, Respect and SSP have earned them enormous distrust from other socialist activists.
Indeed, the reduced authority of the SWP is one of the reasons why so many organisations that share their basic politics, such as the American ISO, the Socialist Alternative group in Australia, or the Socialisme Internationale Group in France are outside the IST.
The debate that is being opened up is an entirely welcome one.