Part Two – Building A Marxist International – Oppose Bureaucratism And Prestige Politics.
Examine the road over which the fault has passed. – Victor Hugo
“A Matter Of Prestige ” and “Marxist Method and Orientation to Mass Organisations of the Working Class (Part One)”, published in August 2019 and July 2020 respectively, examined the destructive role played by The Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP) in the United Kingdom civil service and out-sourced workers’ trade union the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) and the subsequent wider split in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI).
In this period the need for a genuine Marxist international in the Trotskyist tradition has never been more important. This article, the final in a three-part analysis of the processes that lay behind events in PCS and CWI struggles, contains comment on the SP/CWI role in the unions and outlines some characteristics of the groupings that have emerged from the split, particularly in relation to their orientation and method to the mass organisations of the working class.
1 – SP & CWI and the Trade Unions
As predicted, the SP/CWI’s surrender to prestige politics and abandonment of the united front strategy has driven an inexorable descent into destructive sectarianism, currently most evident in their continuing “rule or ruin” strategy in the socialist led PCS, one of the most militant, democratic, lay-led unions in the UK. Their abandonment of the principles and method through which the CWI played such an outstanding role in building a united left over many decades that defeated one of the most corrupt right-wing bureaucracies in the movement has left their now tiny forces isolated and alienated from even their erstwhile supporters on the left. Prestige politics inevitably results in a pursuit of “strategies” based on grudge-bearing, vendettas and self-abasing delusions of victimhood rather than a sound method of Marxist analysis. For them everything is now personal.
The SP/CWI will increasingly pursue similar destructive strategies in other unions. With prestige their sole pre-occupation they seek shortcuts to influence, political leverage and leading positions without the inconvenience of long-term, patient building in the workplaces and consistent united front work amongst the activist layers and in broad lefts.
UNISON General Secretary Election – Opportunism Before Unity
While the blame does not lie entirely with SP/CWI it is nevertheless true that their approach in the major public sector union UNISON has been a major factor in the failure to build a united left capable of effectively challenging and defeating the right-wing bureaucracy that has played such a backward role during decades of cuts and privatisation.
In the current run-up to a general secretary election in UNISON the SP/CWI are opportunistically placing their own narrow interests of prestige above the priority of building an effective left campaign to elect a socialist general secretary, an event that would have a potentially transformative impact on the movement. They announced their candidate prior to any discussion on the left and then, having participated in a debate and vote at the union’s United Left hustings in which their candidate was defeated by socialist activist Paul Holmes, decided to press ahead and seek nominations for their candidate.
The SP/CWI are now using the abhorrent methods of the gutter press. In a recent article in the Socialist they have “outed” Holmes by arguing that because he faces an investigation from both from his employer and union bureaucracy, with the threat of disciplinary measures being taken him, he is, in their eyes, not a fit candidate to stand.
The article says in relation to the investigation “This was even accepted by the SWP, who had publicly described them in the Socialist Worker newspaper as “allegations of bullying, that should be taken seriously and investigated.” But this fragment, quoted completely out of context, is a calculated distortion. The full quote reveals a very different perspective: – “It is necessary to deal with a complaint of bullying and harassment and it should be treated with the utmost seriousness. But this comes from a council that has not suspended any manager despite allegations of racist bullying on the bins department.” And, critically, it adds: “The action taken against Paul is clearly related to his trade union activities as head of a branch that fights cuts.”
So, there we have it, for electoral and factional purposes the SP/CWI, a supposedly revolutionary socialist party, in the full knowledge their comments will be viewed by management and the right-wing, think it is acceptable to ruthlessly attack a socialist activist under the threat of serious disciplinary action and before any investigation has even been carried out. As one activist wryly observed, however far an organisation degenerates there is always room for it to degenerate further.
Oblivious to how repugnant their attack on Holmes appears to activists the SP/CWI ironically demonstrated an almost comical sense of victimhood in crying “witch-hunt” when UNISON United Left removed SP/CWI election material from their website, presumably on the perfectly reasonable grounds they were standing against the elected candidate.
In Other Unions – The Pursuit Of Influence
A small group in Ireland remained with the CWI re-forming themselves as the Militant Left, mostly around the Northern Ireland Public Sector Alliance (NIPSA). These comrades justify their stand in part by claiming the ISA in Ireland (Socialist Party of Ireland) are characterised by the same intolerance and bureaucratism they appear quite willing to live with in the CWI. There are of course deeper reasons for this inconsistency. While the ISA is opposed to its union activists taking up full-time union positions the CWI fully encouraged and supported their leading NIPSA activists to do so. Whether Marxists take up full-time posts in unions is not a straightforward question. The ISA’s position sails too closely to ultra-leftism on the issue but the CWI operates on a wholly opportunist basis.
Militant Left comrades in NIPSA didn’t just prioritise securing full-time posts for key supporters they, in an act of adventurism and cynical opportunism actually, attempted a coup to remove the union’s general secretary, which failed. The SP/CWI in London fully supported and encouraged this reckless action. This move has caused deep disquiet in the union’s Broad Left, once highly regarded in NIPSA the CWI is now seen by many activists as a divisive force.
In UNITE SP/CWI are engaged in the same sort of petty intrigues in the debate to find a left candidate to succeed Len McCluskey by courting various candidates, prioritising their own influence and leverage regardless of the interests of both union members and the left.
Respect for SP/CWI on the trade union left was built up over decades and, incidentally, largely on the basis of the work and example of those rank and file former comrades in PCS who they now ridiculously slander as “ex-socialists”. Their distorted status driven method is now so ingrained it is ruled out they are capable of playing any consistent or positive role in building left unity or establishing themselves as a significant Marxist tendency within the mass organisations of the working class.
Socialists in the UK trade union movement are increasingly aware they have undergone a qualitative degeneration and change in approach in recent years. It is less clear that those who were expelled from CWI and went onto form the International Socialist Alternative (ISA) fully appreciate this.
2 – International Socialist Alternative (ISA)
How Far Has The Apple Fallen From The Tree?
In the most comradely terms we warned ISA leaders in the UK and Ireland if they did not look afresh and analyse the real issues in the PCS struggle their efforts to develop “consistent, principled united front work in the mass organisations of the working class would be hidebound from the beginning.” That analysis was intended as a constructive if forthright appeal, as is this contribution, for the ISA to seriously examine whether it is itself entirely free from the twin deformities of bureaucratic centralism and prestige politics. In other words – how far has the apple fallen from the tree?
Accusations made by the SP/CWI leadership in order to justify the bureaucratic coup and subsequent mass expulsions against those who went on to form ISA have been shown to be false and based on manufactured differences. The ISA’s campaigns have particularly given the lie to the charge they had abandoned trade union work. The ISA has within its ranks many good class fighters. But while its leaders in the UK and Ireland remained wedded to the SP/CWI’s discredited analysis of events in PCS they risk, to paraphrase, a “scratch” developing into “gangrene.”
Given the multitude of pressing priorities it is perhaps understandable other national ISA sections have uncritically accepted the position of the British and Irish ISA leaders on this issue. But the PCS dispute was not some abstract debate, nor an insignificant “local difficulty”. On the contrary, it was a struggle about method, sectarianism, bureaucratic centralism and prestige politics. It was a defining event in the International’s history, rich in lessons for any Marxist serious about developing a correct method and principled strategies in the development of united front work and a correct orientation toward the trade unions.
No one should dismiss the considerable potential of ISA to play a constructive role in building a genuine revolutionary group based on the original principles the CWI was formed. It is therefore deeply regrettable that the response of ISA leaders in the UK and Ireland has been to shut their eyes, cover their ears and refuse to re-visit and analyse these events. The ISA should debate this issue and if its leaders are not prepared to do so rank and file members should ask them, why not?
Preparing For The Future By Confronting The Past
What underlies the ISA leaders’ failure to examine their own role in the events in PCS? It could well indicate the twin infections of bureaucratic centralism and prestige politics are more deeply written into the character of the ISA than its leaders and rank and file understand.
Two key factors underly the ISA’s leaders’ failure to address this issue. Their current leaders in the UK and Ireland were, in the main, full-timers or former full-timers, and part of the SP/CWI leadership itself. They uncritically disseminated the leadership’s same rotten analysis, repeated the same smears and consciously ignored clear and irrefutable evidence of the abandonment of core CWI principles around the workers’ wage, election of officials and the united front. Serious mistakes certainly, but nothing compared to their ongoing refusal to re-assess and re-orientate in face of hard evidence and harsh experience.
No-one works and develops, either politically and personally, in the type of bureaucratic, status obsessed culture that developed in the SP/CWI without ingesting to a greater or lesser extent its more unhealthy aspects. The CWI under Peter Taaffe’s decades long leadership became more and more incapable of recognising, let alone admitting or correcting their mistakes and this led to a deep intolerance of even the slightest challenge to its authority. This mentality sprang from an underlying lack of political confidence and in part explains their abandonment of a healthy Marxist method for the intrigue and manoeuvring of bureaucratic “power” politics.
This mentality was echoed in the attitude shown toward the PCS activists by those who subsequently became ISA leaders. For them breaking the party line was as much a heresy as it was for the SP/CWI leadership. Rather than recognising in certain situations the only option open to principled Marxists is “breaking the party line”, their underlying impulse was to fear the implications of such future challenges to their own authority. They instinctively drew the conclusion that however badly the SP/CWI had behaved there is no greater sin than opposing a “party line”. This ”enlightened self-interest”, which is the very essence of bureaucratism and reflects a mindset that will never tolerate a challenge to leadership authority. It has nothing in common with genuine Bolshevism.
With a remarkable lack of irony and self-awareness these same comrades only months later belatedly discovered the very same methods they supported against the lay activists in PCS were being used against them. It takes an almost heroic act of denial to wilfully ignore the blindingly obvious, not to join the dots or even recognise or attempt to understand and address the connections. But these comrades are no fools, their reluctance to tackle the hard questions arising from their supine support for the “party line” was based on political self-interest. They had a firm motivation in avoiding scrutiny on this matter, particularly the scrutiny of ISA members themselves, to whom they still peddle the same rotten, discredited SP/CWI analysis as good coin. Such mistakes have material consequences and will not be easily air-brushed from history.
Consequences Of Denial
In politics, as elsewhere, truth is concrete – so too is error. Failure to confront these errors has already had serious consequences. Incredibly, the handful of ISA supporters in PCS and one or two fellow travellers are still in unholy alliance with the SP/CWI in PCS. They supported SP/CWI’s manufactured “differences” with the democratically decided policy of the union in a reckless attempt to discredit the leadership on the eve of a national pay ballot for electoral and factional advantage, a shocking betrayal of the union’s low paid workers. They remained silent on the SP/CWI’s candidate’s election address in the PCS general secretary election that told members not to vote for all Labour candidates in the general election and they uncritically lift wholesale from the SP/CWI their entire “analysis” on PCS. This includes the infantile smear that PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka and the union leadership argued that all major union demands should be set aside during the pandemic when in fact the union has been in the very forefront of protecting members’ interests in this difficult period. The ISA have also followed the SP/CWI in their “rule or ruin” split from Left Unity, which over decades has been the most successful and effective broad left in the trade union movement to form a left “Network”.
The ISA’s support for SP/CWI’s “rule or ruin” split from PCS’s broad left formation Left Unity is a particularly serious error, the very opposite of a serious orientation to building left unity on a principled basis. No amount of abstract “lead-offs” or discussions on “Trotsky and the Trade Unions” will correct such errors. In failing to apply an honest Marxist method they weaken the struggle to confront sectarianism, insularity, prestige politics and inevitably compromise their own ability to orientate toward the most important mass organisations of the working class, the trade unions.
The ISA’s failure to distinguish themselves from the SP/CWI has left their comrades isolated and estranged from the union’s left activists and regarded as the latter’s “Little Sir Echoes.” This is regrettable. ISA leaders need to appreciate this is not a game. In concrete terms it means they are failing to develop principled united front strategy and tactics, in living conditions, in a major trade union.
It would be a serious mistake to regard ISA’s and SP/CWI as just two sides of the same coin but this view is gaining traction and is a direct result of the ISA’s tail-gating of their former SP/CWI comrades who regard them with embittered loathing and contempt. No arena of human activity is more unforgiving of error than politics. Continuing this unprincipled alliance with the SP/CWI in PCS will deliver nothing but disappointment, division and failure for the ISA. The ISA can be better than this, but they must confront their past errors, address their current mistaken approach and engage in an honest and comradely way with the union’s left and break with the SP/CWI or risk being dragged down with them into a spiral of sectarianism.
3 – Splits And New Formations
What lessons have been learned by those expelled from the CWI? What are the prospects for these forces to go on and build a principled International based on the principles the CWI itself was originally formed?
Significant fractures in ISA have already occurred even at this early stage of its development. Various factors may drive these developments but two core questions stand out: – how to orientate toward the mass organisations and how to develop a healthy internal regime based on the principles of democratic centralism. On the latter the central question is how to develop a regime that allows independent thought, free debate with a conscious shift toward democracy while maintaining the ability to act in unity.
Splits and expulsions are the organisational consequences of a sharp struggle of ideas, perspectives and method. But can also be the product of a bureaucratic regime. The serious revolutionary is obliged in such circumstances to reassess and re-orientate, and always from a position of revolutionary optimism and confidence, free of the demoralising pathologies of cynicism, bitterness and self-interest that characterises the sectarian and the bureaucrat alike. The capacity and space for independent thought is critical to such a process. Leaders must listen as well as lecture, actively encourage open debate, particularly on difficult or contentious issues, and allow rank and file members to raise differences without the fear or worry they will be identified as “trouble”. Trotsky himself stated a revolutionary must have a good ear, and only secondly a good tongue.
In Ireland Paul Murphy TD and supporters have left ISA and set up RISE. In the United States some leading comrades and their supporters have likewise left and moved toward the Reform and Revolution formation that advocates joining with the Democratic Socialist Alliance (DSA). While it remains to be seen how these new formations will develop in terms of method, perspective and orientation it is clear these comrades are asking the correct questions arising from the CWI’s implosion.
Marxists And The Struggle For Political Representation In The US
In the US the question of whether Marxist revolutionaries should enter into the DSA is clearly a matter of tactical judgement not principle and based on a whole variety of factors. Above all, it is a concrete question. How DSA develops cannot be mapped out with certainty. Millions are being radicalised in the United States as never before, many clearly outside the ranks of the DSA. Many are drawing revolutionary conclusions. Given the tiny forces of Marxism the task is how to reach the best elements.It is clear though that the presence of a Marxist tendency operating within DSA on the principled basis of the united front and also, critically, consciously seeking to educate and win over the amorphous anti-capitalist forces that constitute that formation can potentially bring large numbers toward a revolutionary Marxist programme.
There are those in DSA so infected with the poison of “lesser-evilism” they will never leave the Democratic Party. This is the case with the Jacobin leadership. But many more will be receptive to the idea of forming a new workers’ party, certainly if Biden is elected. DSA may well be a transient formation, it is not like the British Labour Party with its long history and strong connections to the trade union movement but neither does it have the enormous weight of the bureaucratic deformities and conservatism that developed in much of the British labour and trade union movement. Although even a small group can develop a bureaucracy, as we have seen in the CWI.
In the tumultuous period opening up the possibilities for developing a mass organisation that would be a major force in forming independent working-class political representation through the formation of a new workers’ party cannot be under-estimated. In these times a bold approach has the potential to reap considerable rewards for the ideas of Marxism. However, without clear ideas, perspectives and confident, educated cadres, it will be clutching at straws – there are no short-cuts.
Events in The US will propel the working class toward a new workers’ party, as was the case in the 1930’s, but the process then was cut across by the Second World War and the post-war boom. Building such a party is the biggest task for socialists in the coming period. How a Marxist tendency orientates to mass organisations, whether of a transient, or more established character, like the trade unions, will be critical, and it will not be a risk-free process. Abstract demands for a new workers’ party from organisations that have not freed themselves from the insularity and bureaucratic deformities of the CWI will not attract activists or workers in significant numbers.
A Democratic Culture – Opposition to Insularity and Sectarianism
The bureaucratic centralism that characterised the CWI resulted in an insular and defensive mentality in which its leaders, fearful of maintaining their own authority, obsessively monitored members for the slightest sign of heterodoxy. In the SP/CWI in Britain there was no serious education of the rank and file, who were regarded simply as activists. It is therefore genuinely welcome comrades from RISE and those in the US are making significant efforts to develop a more open and inclusive approach to debate in the democratic traditions of the Bolsheviks. Those who have left the ISA and are taking steps to honestly confront these issues are correct to do so. In the final analysis though there is no substitute in developing a healthy political culture and regime other than building a membership steeped in an understanding of Marxist theory and equally steeled through consistent engagement within the wider organisations of the working class.
Paul Murphy and other socialist TD’s like ISA’s Ruth Coppinger and Mick Barry have played outstanding roles as working-class representatives in the Irish Republic. But in standing against Murphy in the most recent Irish general election the ISA in the form of the Irish Socialist Party showed the same petty-minded, personalised vindictiveness that characterised the CWI leadership toward anyone who dared disagree with them. The ISA claim that standing against Murphy and compromising his chances of re-election was based on principled political difference is not credible. The real reason is clear as day, it was because he was seen as a rival and the ISA reaction was based on the rotten Taaffe formulation “he is no longer one of us.”
Open Debate And Dialogue, Testing Ideas And Unity In Action
The immense tasksfacing our class have never been more evident. Capitalism, along with the major existential crisis of climate change, faces triple crises of enormous proportions, the Covid-19 pandemic, the anti-racist uprising in the US that is now an international phenomenon and an economic crisis that will dwarf that of the 1930’s. Never has the need for a revolutionary party based on Marxist principles and method been more necessary.
With its many capable and self-sacrificing comrades the ISA could play a consistent and effective role in building such a party. However, no revolutionary organisation can build a successful, principled movement unless its leaders and members are prepared to wage a relentless and uncompromising political campaign against the same twin tendencies of bureaucratism and prestige politics that led to the failure of the CWI.
Part and parcel of this would also require an honest reappraisal of the 1991-92 split of Ted Grant and Alan Woods, which has been deliberately distorted by the Taaffe leadership. This split was principally driven by the same bureaucratism that developed in a far more recognisable form over the years, the issue of the approach to the Labour Party was an important but secondary factor.One thing is clear, whatever other differences ex-CWI comrades have with the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) the latter’s emphasis on Marxist theory, education and open discussion has borne considerable fruit. Their youth base is very impressive, the recent IMT University that attracted over six thousand from 120 countries around the world is a deeply encouraging sign of interest in the ideas of Marxism. There is reason to believe that the consistent work in developing an educated and confident cadre will reap rewards if IMT develops a deeper engagement in its trade union work. In the past, the leaders of the CWI heralded the demise of the IMT and ridiculed its concentration on theory, but it is the CWI that has suffered the shipwreck.
Political splits by their very nature expose sharp political differences and can produce deep personal antipathies as a result, and the negative impact of the latter can poison attempts at constructive political engagement. But in a period in which the stakes for our class have never been higher and the need for the wide dissemination of Marxist ideas has never been more evident the insular mentality that drives those, like the leaders of the CWI, to treat even the slightest deviation as heresy deserving of hysterical denunciation is the road to nowhere. Unless tackled ruthlessly the deformities of bureaucratism, prestige politics and formalist orthodoxy will initially impede and eventually act as an insurmountable barrier to building an international capable of meeting the unprecedented challenges facing our class and movement.
This does not mean a political “love-in” but open dialogue and democratic debate, testing of ideas, developing perspectives, constructive cooperation and, in the best Marxist tradition, principled unity in action.