Real attempt to learn the lessons

The 'Towards a New International Tendency' statement marks a step forward, notes James Turley

The International Marxist Tendency - which in 1992 split from the Militant Tendency and its Committee for a Workers’ International over the issue of whether to continue entry work in the Labour Party and other mass social democratic organisations - has run into its own organisational difficulties of late.

The IMT existed from its inception under the primary leadership of Militant founder Ted Grant and his lieutenant, Alan Woods, and then the latter after Grant’s death in 2006. In rapid succession, the IMT lost a thousand-strong faction in Pakistan, and the majorities of flagship sections in Spain and Venezuela, along with minorities throughout their Latin American sections.

A sad tale, then, but business as usual for the post-war left so far. What is more interesting is that some of the resulting fragments have begun to re-examine seriously the political basis for this calamity. One such grouping has taken the name, Towards a New International Tendency (Tanit), which seems to have come together from the ‘collateral damage’ of the recent convulsions - individuals and groups whose tangential relationship to the major splits resulted in expulsions or resignations.

The Tanit website (http://tanit.co) lists comrades in a great number of countries, although most of these will be individuals or handfuls at best (the only IMT group I know of to go over wholly to Tanit is the Iranian section, whose comrades were alienated by Woods’s vacillations over the 2009 protests after Chávez came out for Ahmadinejad). A statement of the group’s basic orientation, by comrade Pat Byrne, is currently in circulation (although not apparently on the internet), and it avoids a salutary number of the usual pitfalls of such ‘declarations of independence’.

Tanit’s view

Firstly, comrade Byrne notes that the name adopted is “temporary” for a reason: “no firm decisions have yet been taken on what programme Tanit should have and how it will be organised. This is not accidental or to be regretted. In contrast to most international socialist left organisations, we have no desire to rush into creating yet another narrow and marginalised group.” He owns up to the group’s roots in the IMT, and notes that “the problems of sectarianism and bureaucratic centralism in the IMT were not unique. In essence, they were present in almost every other socialist organisation.” Quite so.

There then follows a short summary of the world situation - the economic crisis has undermined the basis for neoliberal ideology and indeed shaken confidence in capitalism itself. Shoring up these ideological defences is a task made immeasurably more difficult by the explosion in global communications represented by the internet in particular; yet “every opinion poll demonstrates the growing discontent and pessimism of the vast majority of the world’s population. They are looking for answers but they can’t find them. Why is this?”

Byrne’s answer is the “legacy of the left”: where, a hundred years ago, we could promise a democratic, rational society, an end to despots, the chaos of the market and war, the intervening century of defeat has left socialists in a bad way. We “have either abandoned [our] aim of transforming society, or are reduced to small, isolated bands of the faithful”.

The first part of his response to this issue is to try to break the classical Marxist taboo on mapping out some details of the socialist future. This is treading on thin ice, but Byrne nevertheless makes some useful criticisms of the traditional emphasis on public ownership (most marked in the Militant tradition) without substantial comment on the problem of bureaucracy; and also on the limits of ‘workers’ control’ as a corrective to this.

He also provides a section on “real democracy”, which makes the point that ‘democracy’ under capitalism is in fact subject to considerable levels of bribery and suppression of genuine political debate. Most concretely, he calls for a radical change in the media, which must be “transparent and accountable to democratically agreed standards and institutions”. Democracy should be about giving the masses “direct control over every aspect of their lives”.

Byrne moves on to criticise the ills of revolutionary hero worship and related errors; the bottom line is to involve as many comrades as possible in theory and research, and “bridge the divide that now exists between progressive intellectuals and political activists”.

By far the longest part of his document is focused, unsurprisingly for an ex-IMT grouping, on “work in the mass organisations”. For Byrne, such work is necessary because real organic links persist between the class and its mass organisations, and to ignore the latter is in practice to abandon the former.

This is an understandable error, given the rightward drift of social democracy and the unions; nevertheless, “we believe that the intervention of conscious socialists can make a decisive difference. All wings of the mass movement need rebuilding and renewing on the basis of unity, democracy and struggle. Central to this, the labour movement needs to revive its historic mission to end capitalism and achieve the democratic socialist transformation of society. This mission cannot be just in words, but must become an integral part of its day-to-day thinking and practice.”

Byrne does criticise entrism; however, his critique is limited to the narrow definition of entrism as a clandestine ‘recruitment raid’, and does not take into account the ‘entrism sui generis’ formulated by Pablo with regard to the communist parties, and taken up in substance by Grant for his Labour Party entry project. However, he does disavow secret organisation on more positive grounds, too: after all, this is our movement: “We have no need of any secret organisation. We claim the right to be an open campaigning group within the labour movement. No more and no less.”

Finally, he argues for a change in the organisational practices of the left, emphasising freedom of debate and exchange of ideas. Unity in action is important, but not at the expense of debate. For Byrne, this means replacing the term ‘democratic centralism’ with ‘democratic unity’; we disagree here, but there is no point quibbling over wording.

Advances and problems

There is much in this short piece that is encouraging. That the comrades do not appear to have set out to turn themselves directly into the 700th embryonic Fourth International is an important break from typical Trotskyist self-aggrandisement in itself; while the material on the socialist future is generally vague, it at least takes seriously the question of democracy, although clearly much more work needs to be done here.

The material on mass organisations and entrism is partly a restatement of old-fashioned Grantism, and is the point at which Tanit’s roots are most obvious. Yet even here the comrades break in important ways. They assert their right to participate in the Labour movement and decry the lack of democracy characteristic of mass workers’ organisations today. They also declare themselves prepared to cooperate with all those willing to participate in the building of a force for ‘democratic socialism’, which is certainly an enormous advance on the rigorous sectarianism of Militant, for whom other left groups seemingly just did not exist.

That said, there are important ambiguities. Byrne makes too much of the advent of the internet and mass communications. These have their limitations, too: web traffic is no less reliant on ‘gatekeepers’ than the rest of the media, and building trust in our media - be it online or printed material - means gaining serious penetration into the movement, such that we are respected as a force within it, rather than relying on technical fixes.

The attempts to put together a vision of the future do not collapse into utopianism, but there is a confusion in the background here on the matter of programme. It is certainly necessary for Marxists to be very detailed about the regime with which we want to replace capitalism: that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the means by which capitalism can be finally overcome.

This is not the end point, however - the anti-utopian taboo is about setting up a grand vision of the end goal - communist society. It is good, as he says, to “imagine” authentic democratic control over all our lives, but that both requires much more detail in terms of the state and democratic forms necessary for the workers to rule, and acknowledgement that such forms are transitional to something we cannot yet map out except in the broadest terms.

On the question of the mass organisations, it must be noted that if - in Britain - Tanit comrades gather serious strength and insistently proclaim themselves a legitimate platform in the Labour Party, they will find the iron heel of the bureaucracy coming down on them. The long-term tendency of Marxist entry groups (broadly defined as groups wholly immersed in Labour work) is for them to become programmatically accommodated to social democracy; this is not just a subjective degeneration, but a bad response to the need to evade bureaucratic domination.

Work in the mass organisations is critically important; and, indeed, the perspective of raiding for recruits is simply obsolete in the current conditions of severe relative weakness of the revolutionary left, and probably counterproductive anyway.

Yet that leaves us a tricky path to pick out - on one side, there is the danger of the liquidation of any independent Marxist profile, and on the other there is a naive tactical purism unsuited to what amounts to a long-term ‘war of position’ against the bureaucracy and capitalist right in the labour movement. To put it bluntly, sometimes Marxists in the Labour Party will have to lie, but in such a way that the substance of our politics comes before a wider audience, as must our argument for democracy in the movement. That means organised fraction work rather than total immersion, which results only in the Hobson’s choice outlined above.

Party regime

As for the internal democracy of the revolutionary left itself, Tanit’s emphasis on mutual research and democratic debate is salutary. Comrade Byrne, however, is guilty of sins of omission, and one potentially dangerous red herring. The omissions: there is no suggestion that minorities should be allowed to express their opinions - not just before the membership, but also the wider movement and the class. There is no problem with engaging wider layers in ‘internal discussions’; in fact, this is merely an acknowledgement of our wider participation in the movement.

Secondly, in criticising the leader-cults of the left, no mention is made of the fact that an elected and accountable leadership is necessary to carry out the will of the membership between conferences and congresses. Accountability is key here; leaders should be recallable. Without a leadership, however, bureaucratic degeneration is paradoxically more likely; in practice you end up with each arm of the division of labour using its own particular turf as a staging post for factional warfare. Pity the poor fool who takes up cudgels against the webmaster in such a scenario ...

The red herring is the intention to produce a ‘code of conduct’ in order to keep debate comradely. Given the tongue-lashings the various comrades are likely to have suffered at the hands of Woods and his cronies, it is quite understandable that they should seek to keep discussions to matters of substance. In practice, however, someone has to enforce any ‘code of conduct’ - and that someone is going to be a leadership body or full-timer. The potential for bureaucratic abuse is a far more serious danger than the potential for personal abuse. The fate of the Unison four - Socialist Party comrades suspended from Unison on trumped-up accusations of racism - is a clear example of where this can lead.

In any case, our movement is faced with a seriously damaged society, in which slander and bad faith are endemic. It is better that poisonous elements should vent their spleen openly, so we can see them for what they are, than it should manifest as passive-aggressive backbiting. Byrne is right to criticise the bureaucratic turn of the Comintern in the early 1920s, but he should also note that in earlier times, where the Bolsheviks operated more democratically, extremely fierce polemics were common. It was not necessary for everyone to be ‘nice’ to each other for serious and substantial debate to take place - indeed, hard lines clarify as often as they obscure. The venomous war of words between Lenin and Trotsky did not stop the two giants coming together at the crucial moment to make a revolution.

I have spent much of this article criticising many of Byrne’s conclusions. Yet it should again be stated that his view represents a real attempt to learn the lessons of the fate of the IMT and the revolutionary left more generally. A serious Marxist pole of attraction in society has never been more necessary, and thus the abiding sectarian culture of the left has never been more dangerous. As such, for all our reservations, we welcome this contribution and hope to continue these discussions.