Issue 1 feature: A new chapter for revolutionary socialism in Britain
This political statement attempts to explain to readers, in particular those aware of and active in the labour and social movements throughout Britain, the context in which a new formation organising members of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in England & Wales has been born. We, and the CWI internationally, will publish more in-depth and specific material in the coming days and weeks, including some of the key documents from the internal debate in the Socialist Party and CWI which led to our expulsion and decision to continue the struggle for genuine socialism and internationalism as a new organisation.
Voting to found Socialist Alternative
A damaging and criminal split
On 21st July 2019 the Socialist Party of England & Wales voted at a specially-organised Congress, in favour of a motion to effectively expel over 100 members of the party for their opposition to the leadership’s drive to break away from the CWI. The CWI is the international socialist organisation, present in over 40 countries on all continents, which the Socialist Party (and Militant before it) has been affiliated to since its inception.
Days later in Camden, around 200 members supporting this decision, overwhelmingly from England & Wales, declared that they were to “re-found the CWI on the basis of a Trotskyist programme and method”, with affiliation only open to those prepared to accept their leadership.
This effectively ended 7 months of debate, a debate which all sides had agreed would run for a year, leading to a World Congress in early 2020. 7 months before, the majority of the Socialist Party’s England & Wales Executive Committee (EC), which also dominated the day to day leadership of the CWI (the ‘International Secretariat’- IS) had formed the unfortunately-named ‘Faction in Defence of a Working Class Trotskyist CWI (IDWCTCWI). From its inception, this faction made up a minority of the International Executive Committee of the CWI (a higher leading body which elects the IS).
As the debate went on, this faction not only failed to win over a majority of CWI members to its central positions, but lost support more and more rapidly. By the time they had pushed through the split, their faction had the support of less than 25% of the CWI’s active membership.
The leaders of the IDWCTCWI claim that the reason for this crisis is the development of a “petit bourgeois opposition” in the form of the IEC majority which, “has taken a right-ward opportunist turn, buckled to the pressures of identity politics, turned away from conducting a systematic and consistent struggle in the trade unions and blunted the revolutionary socialist programme that the CWI and its sections have fought to defend.” They assert that this political divergence justifies them ignoring the democratic structures which elected them, and boycotting the democratically convened meetings of the CWI IEC and World Congress.
We are confident that any independent observer will judge for themselves the lack of validity in these statements taken from the CWI website (which the IDWCTCWI now controls, against the will of the majority of CWI members). The truth is that those leading this faction had decisively lost the debate on a world scale and were cutting and running from the debate to prevent any further haemorrhaging of support and credibility, or the loss of their leading positions – “regime change” as they termed it. How can it be that in any kind of democratic and Marxist organisation a minority can take the decision to “re-found” it to the exclusion of the majority?
The majority of the CWI, which we are a part of, strove from the very beginning of the debate to avoid a damaging and counterproductive split in the ranks of the CWI and Socialist Party. While the debate centred around fundamental political issues – essentially relating to how to face up to a new situation and mass movements around the world, applying socialist ideas in an up to date and flexible, as opposed to a conservative and dogmatic fashion – we consistently made the point that the dimensions of the real political differences at stake did not justify the spectre of an organisational break.
In the current stormy world situation, the working class and its organisations cannot afford to be weakened unnecessarily. From the moment of the faction’s creation, we opposed the over-polarised method of debate which was being employed, which seemed to be more designed to build a case for a split through denunciation and exaggeration of everything, than to politically strengthen the organisation.
A democratic socialist organisation must be able to have constant democratic debate, with a culture of free discussion and criticism, which in no way undermines its unity in the struggle for socialism. Indeed, the CWI has a proud history of democratic and measured debate.
So how did we reach the point of this damaging split?
Reckless drive for a split
The IDWCTCWI was formed at the end of just 4 days of discussion at the meeting of the CWI IEC in November 2018. This meets to discuss international political developments and elect a day to day leadership for the CWI, the IS.
At this meeting, a series of controversies broke out around the work of the Irish section. Essentially, those who went on to form the IDWCTCWI claimed that in their bold intervention into the Repeal referendum on abortion rights in 2017, the Irish comrades had capitulated to “Identity politics”.
Instead of attempting to engage in a genuine debate on these issues the IS sought to railroad through a split with the Irish section. In the weeks leading up to the IEC, leading members of numerous national sections reported that they had received phone calls lobbying for a quick split. It was this that IEC members objected to and it was on this issue that the IS was outvoted at the IEC meeting itself. The majority of comrades said yes to a full political debate, but insisted that this take place in line with our democratic traditions, and not with the threat of a split hanging over our heads.
Instead of listening to concerns of the comrades and adapting their approach the IS majority started along the path to the crisis that now envelops their organisation. They formed their faction, announcing the existence of “fundamental differences of principle” before any discussion had taken place within the ranks of the CWI to clarify the issues and to seek unity in a principled basis.
It was this method of rash organisational measures taken before any discussions had taken place that was to be a hallmark of their approach throughout this dispute, marked by their rapid bureaucratic degeneration.
In place of political arguments, the IDWCTCWI instead concocted conspiracy theories to justify its existence. The IEC majority was dubbed the ‘Non Faction Faction’, a supposedly shadowy undeclared grouping that had been operating within the CWI for years to undermine its leadership.
Marxism in reverse
One by one, as sections’ leaderships opposed the approach taken by the IS to the Irish section, a list of political crimes was attributed to them. Sections such as the US, Greece, Belgium and Hong Kong/China/Taiwan were accused of turning away from the working-class and not carrying out systematic work in the trade unions. Others were accused of watering down their programmes, and bending to opportunism and reformism (fighting for reforms without fighting to replace capitalism with socialism).
We do not have the space in this brief statement to go into all of these accusations in detail. Suffice it to say that even a cursory look at the work and material of the majority of the CWI speaks for itself. From the IDWCTCWI, in place of serious analysis we have quotes selectively ripped out of context to prove a conclusion already drawn before pen had been put to paper. They first decided that a split needed to occur, and then set out to make the case politically. This is Marxism in reverse.
Many of those in England and Wales who refused to go along with this approach were accused of another crime – “conciliationism”. It was claimed that we had put unity before politics. The truth of the matter was that we simply didn’t agree with the faction’s analysis of the work of the majority of our International’s sections and were not prepared to follow the IS and EC majorities towards an unnecessary split and sectarian isolation.
Like the IDWCTCWI, we agree that only the working class, through its collective strength and economic power, can bring about an end to capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. We agree that this necessitates patient work building in the workers’ organisations, the trade unions. But we also disagree with a rigid and dogmatic approach to that work.
The exact nature of the work of a healthy socialist international organisation in trade unions will vary from country to country depending on a vast number of factors. These include level of unionisation and attitude of workers toward their union, the level of bureaucratisation in the union, etc. The question is of course, not if but how we carry our work the unions and how best to organise amongst the working class to rebuild a fighting, socialist labour movement. Throughout the crisis the response of the IS majority to anyone raising this question was to point to the work in England and Wales, where very good trade union work has been done by the Socialist Party, and call on comrades to simply replicate that.
The dispute also sharply revealed the IDWCTCWI leaders’ conservatism on issues around women’s and LGBT oppression. The Socialist Party in Ireland has played a pioneering role in women’s movements particularly around the Repeal referendum on abortion rights in 2018. They have been at the forefront of the movement emphasising the collective role that the working class must play in the struggle and the demand for real abortion rights. They launched the Socialist Feminist movement, ROSA, in 2010 which has become an important point of reference for radicalised young women in particular.
What was the first intervention which the leaders of the IDWCTCWI made in relation to this movement? Was it in the run up to the campaign to offer advice and help on how the section should orientate to the movement? No. It was when the referendum was done and dusted, to question whether the Irish section was devoting too much time and resources to the women’s movement and criticise them for allegedly “turning away from the working class” in the process.
In practice, they developed an increasingly rigid distinction between classical working class industrial struggle over economic issues, and mass movements against specific forms of oppression (gender, race, sexuality etc). The genuine approach of revolutionary socialism sees the connection between the two in the fight against capitalist misery, a connection which is demonstrated in strikes against women’s oppression, an increasingly important feature of the worldwide class struggle.
The same tendency was revealed in relation to LGBTQ+ rights. In one of the debate’s key documents, IDWCTCWI leader, Peter Taaffe, wrote “we also support the legitimate rights of the LGBTQ+ movement, so long as they do not conflict with the rights of others, and can be resolved by democratic discussion”.
We reject this approach to any liberation movement. We do not buy into the claims that there is any “conflict of rights” between trans people and other sections of the working class. The effect of adopting such an approach would be divide our class along gender, sex, race and other lines and would be an impediment to building a united working class movement to change society.
That the leadership of the IDWCTCWI seem to have conceded to such an approach is a worrying development and shows a tendency to bend to the consciousness of a small, more backward layer of the working class.
Socialists oppose all forms of prejudice, oppression and bigotry. We fight to achieve the immediate aims and demands of movements fighting for liberation.
Most importantly, the role of a revolutionary socialist organisation is to patiently explain how all oppression is rooted in class society. And that they can only be defeated on the basis of a mass movement, led by the working class, that can fight to replace capitalism with a socialist society.
The transitional approach
Another key difference was on the issue of the “transitional method”, which refers to how socialists put forward our programme for revolution today. Leon Trotsky wrote “the transitional programme” in 1938 at a time of acute capitalist crisis. He explained that “transitional demands” should link the day to day struggles of working class people to the need to a fight for the socialist transformation of society.
Over the past year, across the world hundreds of thousands of young people, particularly school students, have taken party in climate strikes protesting against capitalism’s inability to prevent a looming environmental catastrophe. In this movement we saw how the approach of the Socialist Party leadership was often reduced to the repetition of abstract slogans, centrally “socialist change not climate change”, which was posed as a socialist alternative to the “system change not climate change” slogan which predominated in the movement.
While of course we agree with this slogan, the central task of a socialist organisation intervening in this historic international mass movement is to patiently and skilfully explain why effectively fighting for “system change” requires embracing a socialist programme. This, and not focussing on competing abstract slogans, is the essence of a really “transitional method”.
A genuine socialist approach would give socialism real content, for example by calling for the nationalisation of big fossil fuel companies and for the nationalisation of the automotive industry which on the basis of a democratic planning could be retooled to produce environmentally sustainable public transport and other vehicles. It would explain how chaotic and conflict-ridden capitalism is incapable of the international cooperation and economic reorganisation and planning necessary to really avoid a global climate catastrophe.
Instead of such an approach, focussed on patiently explaining the need for a socialist programme, the Socialist Party leadership became more focussed on how many times the word “socialist” appeared on placards and leaflets as the sign of a healthy intervention.
Perhaps the biggest expression of the Socialist Party leadership’s political degeneration is in the increasingly bureaucratic and undemocratic approach it took to the debate, which accelerated at an alarming speed in the last months.
Their original message to Socialist Party members was that all they wanted was a debate which would be “clarifying” and “educational” for the whole of the International. At the National Congress of the Socialist Party in March a motion was unanimously passed committing the party to undertake a year-long debate and participate in the CWI World Congress in 2020. Just weeks later, in May, that had all changed. We were told that a split was now inevitable and it was better that we “go our separate ways”. Why this change of heart 5 months into a debate that was supposed to last a year? Was it because we had achieved clarity? Or because the IDWCTCWI faction had conclusively proved their case to the membership? No, quite the opposite in fact.
At a IDCWTCWI faction meeting in London in April, a rupture took place between the principle protagonists of the faction. The leadership of the Spanish state section ‘Izquierda Revolucionaria’ not only walked out of the faction but out of the CWI altogether, taking with them small groups in Portugal, Mexico, Germany and Venezuela to found a “new international”. We had warned from the start that the faction was an unprincipled lash-up, and that there were important contradictions within it, not least between the IS majority and the Spanish leadership.
The main significance of this for the IS faction was that it meant there was no way they would be able to win a majority at a World Congress or IEC meeting of the CWI. They had lost the debate in the International, now finding themselves in a minority in Germany (where most of the leadership had supported them) and were facing significant and growing opposition in England and Wales. This is when they decided to cut and run.
While any comrade or group of comrades has the right to decide to leave an organisation, in this case this was combined with an undemocratic grabbing of the collective material and financial resources of the entire organisation, despite a majority of it clearly disagreeing. In preparation for this, a democratically-elected CWI financial auditor was refused access to the accounts of the CWI, to find out how members’ money was being spent.
At a May Socialist Party National Committee (NC) meeting in London, we were told that the debate was over. This NC meeting voted to remove the two members of the Socialist Party EC who had opposed the faction’s drive for a split. Slurs and slanders were directed against them and others who opposed the leadership faction. The newly elected 100% IDWCTCWI Executive Committee then refused to circulate an open letter signed by over 130 Socialist Party members protesting at their approach. When eventually forced to circulate the letter, they only distributed it with the signatories removed. These are not the actions of a leadership confident in defending its position in an open and democratic debate.
Before May the two dissenting members of the IS had already been told they were not welcome to work in the International’s office, and their wages were later withheld. Attempts were also made to withhold the wages of Socialist Party full time workers who opposed the faction.
All the while, the day to day leading bodies of the party and the international were not meeting, being exclusively dedicated to factional struggle. As a result of the actions of a tiny group of leading members, the work of the entire party and the work of the international leadership ground to a halt.
Enter the FRI
The Faction for Revolutionary Internationalism (FRI) was formed in the aftermath of the May NC to uphold the democratic rights of all members of the party. We also fought for a thematic democratic debate to take place throughout the whole of the party and to re-commit the party to a year-long debate, taking the threat of a damaging split off the table. This call fell on deaf ears. We also formed in opposition to the sectarian and conservative political trend which the Socialist Party leadership was embracing. We were, and are still, fighting to uphold the real ideas, programme and methods of the CWI.
The FRI successfully built support throughout the Socialist Party, and won the support of a majority of active members in several key cities including Manchester, Salford, Merseyside, Leicester, Sheffield, Huddersfield, and Brighton.
A new chapter, based on revolutionary internationalism, socialism and democracy
While we were ultimately unsuccessful in preventing this damaging split, we remain determined to build a strong Marxist force in Britain and internationally, together with the CWI which remains united and is fighting in over 30 countries worldwide. We are united with comrades who are fighting for socialist revolution as we speak in the mass revolutionary movement in Sudan and the popular rebellions taking place in Hong Kong and Puerto Rico.
The leadership of the Socialist Party, in launching a new ‘mini international’ of small satellite groups in which one national organisation dominates, has turned away from the approach of genuine Marxist internationalism. We are determined to continue to struggle to make working class internationalism more than just a nice abstract idea, and work in Britain as part of a cohesive whole on a world scale, politically and organisationally taking our world revolutionary party – the CWI, in which no one national organisation can dominate – as our starting point.
Capitalism is a system of crisis, endemic inequality and insecurity for the vast majority of the globes population – the working class. We seek to build a united movement of all working class people and the oppressed to defeat that system and build a socialist world.
In order to achieve this it is absolutely vital that we build a party and an international organisation with a socialist programme, which is based on the democratic participation of all of its members. A top down approach with exalted leaders calling all the shots, as became the internal reality of the Socialist Party, will not be capable of building a healthy party among the new generation, who are instinctively repelled by bureaucratic methods.
We seek to be present wherever the working class and oppressed move into action. Be it in trade union struggles against the bosses, movements against all forms of oppression, or community campaigns to defend services against austerity. We seek to point out the strategy and tactics necessary for those struggles to win.
Movements around figures like Sanders in the US, Corbyn in Britain and Mélenchon in France show that there is a deep hunger among working class and young people for change and for a way out of the crisis and instability which is all capitalism can offer. They also show that there is now a huge clamour for socialist ideas.
We support all of those movements. But we also say that the only way we can ensure their victory is by standing for an end to capitalism, taking the wealth out of the hands of the tiny number of bosses that currently control it.
We say that the big corporations and banks that control the vast majority of the world’s wealth and resources should be nationalised and placed under the democratic control and management of working class people. On that basis, a democratic plan of production can determine how that wealth is used for the benefit of all not just the few.
It is on that basis that we can finally liberate the whole of humanity from poverty, exploitation and oppression and build a genuinely socialist society.
If you wish to be part of that fight then join us today!