ISN: Not waving, but dying
All the hype has come to nought, says Daniel Harvey
The International Socialist Network, which broke away from the Socialist Workers Party in 2013, has been in a process of seemingly terminal decline ever since it came into being. With Richard Seymour at the helm at first, it planned a major regroupment on the left, pulling in Socialist Resistance and the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, and then later the second SWP split, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century. Workers Power was involved too. The ISN also wanted to “reach out” to anarchist groups - Plan C, Solidarity Federation and even the Industrial Workers of the World.
At the time various members claimed that the new organisation could become the biggest on the left, ahead of the SWP. But the eclecticism was dazzling and there was a lot of hype. The near incessant rhetoric about overcoming the deficiencies of the rest of the left groups, only ever referred to as “sects”, whether that was deserved or not, has been constant.
Richard Seymour and the rest of the right wing then peeled off earlier this year over the infamous ‘racist chair’ controversy. In reality, a split was probably inevitable, as the politics of the tendency he represented had lost key decisions within the organisation and was unable to unite the ISN. Since then comrade Seymour has been denied membership of RS21, and basically seems to have left organised politics in pursuit of a media and publishing career.
The ACI, meanwhile, managed to abortively liquidate itself into the ISN (although its Manchester branch refused to go along with this) and now none other than Simon Hardy (ex-Workers Power, ex-ACI) is national secretary. The title sounds quite grand, but the steering committee he heads has little authority to do anything - although less than diplomatic comrades might remark that this hardly matters, because comrade Hardy’s politics are so indecisive anyway.
However, in the latest ISN internal bulletin he has come up with a few pointers as to where he thinks the group should be going.1 Although his article is supposedly a joint piece with another comrade, Mark Boothroyd, it is all written in the first person. The first subheading is, “What’s the point of the IS Network?” A question many have been asking from the start. Comrade Hardy notes: “The IS Network hasn’t clearly elaborated what its point is.” Quite. He goes on: “Irrespective of what labels are used, the IS Network clearly needs a purpose.” Once again, you cannot help but agree. It needs “a clearly understandable raison d’être to mark it out from other left projects; otherwise it’s simply duplicating organisation and work - all tactics and no strategy - which ultimately is a waste of activists’ time and energy”.
None of this is exactly a ringing endorsement of the project in its current state. It is safe to say that if a leader of any other left organisation was making these kinds of statements to their members, we would assume it was pretty close to collapse. Anyhow, comrade Simon (and not forgetting comrade Mark) have got some ideas: “Our task is to rebuild working class organisation, whether in the form of trade unions, community organisations, mutual-aid organisations or campaign groups,” they say. Leaving aside the platitudinous nature of this statement, that sounds like an awful lot of work for such a tiny group to me.
But they do manage to recognise that they cannot do all of that on their own. They need to work in “broader formations” like the People’s Assembly and Left Unity. The latter is marked out as a key site of intervention at present. We agree, but the question has to be, what politics do you fight for in a group like LU? “The IS Network can and should play a key role in cohering the radical and revolutionary left of the party,” says comrade Hardy - after all, “socialism is key”. So should the IS Network support the LU Communist Platform, refound the Socialist Platform or set up an entirely new tendency in Left Unity? We are not told.
That may seem quite bizarre, but the fact is the vast majority of the group want it to remain a loose network of activists, in which everyone can do their own thing. The advice from Kris Stewart may be extreme, but in a way is typical - “embrace the network,” and in that spirit he says “smash the steering committee”.2 In view of such anarchistic sentiment, any attempt by anyone to come up with a line of march for the ISN will be just pissing in the wind. But Simon and Mark ultimately collapse back into the default mode of the declining left: seeing as actual politics is divisive and no-one takes it seriously any more, what the ISN really needs to be doing is building campaigns, and working to ensure Left Unity is primarily a campaigning organisation - on austerity, living wage, the bedroom tax ... No sign of “duplicating organisation and work” there.
In reality, what remains of the organisation has been doing no more than taking part in these sorts of ‘grassroots campaigns’ alongside Socialist Resistance and RS21. It is acknowledged in the bulletins by some that prospects for regroupment have mostly collapsed. SR is apparently no longer very interested in merging with the ISN - presumably it has become too mouldy-looking even for Alan Thornett and co. At the same time, RS21 has coolly rebuffed all the increasingly desperate advances that have been coming out of the ISN.
So there will not be any regroupment this year - and it could be that some of the intended participants in a merged organisation will no longer be around by 2015. Even Workers Power has been looking decidedly sickly of late. Judging by the latest edition, Workers Power (dated “summer 2014”) looks like it could be reduced to a quarterly, and the organisation itself has not been very visible lately - even outside Marxism, where it has always had a stall previously.
So all this leftwing flotsam and jetsam has predictably failed to come together on any kind of firm political basis. But now it could be that a lot of them, at least methodologically, are returning to the mother ship, the SWP. It has been said before in this paper many times, but the SWP splinters never really escaped the political shadow of their parent body. Their politics were basically the same, only with added moralism in relation to feminism and intersectionality, which supposedly are the key to explaining the SWP crisis that followed the attempted cover-up of allegations of rape and sexual harassment directed against ‘comrade Delta’. Now it seems this is taking on much more concrete forms in both the ISN and RS21.
In the former, the ‘leading intellectual’ is now - god help us - comrade Steve Freeman, who only a couple of weeks ago implied in our letters pages that those on the left who do not support a ‘yes’ in the Scottish referendum were colluding with MI5 and the British ruling class to save the union.3 Now he is leading the campaign for the ISN to take up SWP-style separatism4 - the SWP and its splinters north of the border have collapsed wholesale into support for Scottish nationalism. Even some of the relatively more leftwing members, such as Paris Thompson and Javaad Alipoor, have gone along with him.
The same politics are in evidence in RS21. Neil Davidson gives a ringing endorsement of James Foley’s and Pete Ramond’s Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence in the RS21 magazine. Comrade Freeman’s platform in Left Unity is called the Scottish Republic Yes tendency, and in the ISN Bulletin he says there is a three-way fight in the referendum between unionists, nationalists and republicans. For their part, Foley and Ramond put forward all sorts of radical proposals to be adopted by an independent Scotland (including a republic), but comrade Davidson asks in his review of their book, “Who’s going to implement them?” But then continues: “I understand why Foley and Ramond have not raised the issue here: to do so before the referendum would be divisive.”5 In other words, keep your mouths shut before the vote, comrades, because clearly a separate imperialist, neoliberal Scotland under the leadership of the SNP, which remains in Nato, and retains the pound and the monarchy, is worth maintaining a diplomatic silence for.
On the other hand, some comrades may be aware of the SWP’s latest cynical attempt at a ‘united front’, Stand Up To Ukip (Sutu), which is designed to keep its activists busy and distracted chasing some of the retired colonels in rhubarb and mustard ties around for bit, while the Delta scandal blows over. There seems to be some support for that political approach from Martin Ralph in the ISN Bulletin, as well as all over the website of RS21. Except that in both cases there appears to be a marked reluctance to even mention Sutu, presumably because aping the SWP is considered embarrassing. In the case of RS21 it seems almost mendacious, seeing as a whole section of its website is now dedicated to “Ukip Watch”.
Another SWPism that jumps out is Freeman’s insistence in the ISN Bulletin that Left Unity should be a “united front of a special type”, to use the phrase of John Rees in reference to Respect. For comrade Freeman the Communist Platform (and the Socialist Platform previously) are/were examples of “ultra-leftism” and “actually a form of economism (liberalism)”. Political illiteracy aside, a glance at either platform exposes this as ridiculous. Nonetheless I am sure some of those around comrade Hardy will tacitly support this position, whilst claiming to “cohere the radical and revolutionary left in the party” - a typical centrist manoeuvre in practice.
But really the political inheritance is given away most obviously in Ian Birchall’s article on Leninism in RS21. Birchall’s comments on Lenin himself are fairly generic at best, but he concludes:
That Lenin made the problem of organisation central is undeniable. But to reduce ‘Leninism’ to the truism, ‘We’ve got to get organised’, is a bit thin. And on the question of how we should be organised he was extremely flexible. The whole of Cliff’s study of Lenin is a sustained polemic against the myth of the Leninist party. There is no such thing; Lenin’s party varied enormously in form according to circumstances.
Comrade Birchall praises Lars Lih, which is now more common on the left, as he “has enriched our understanding of Lenin”, but at the same time in a footnote states in a very Cliffite tone: “In my view, Lih overstates the continuities of Lenin, and does not bring out sufficiently his ability to learn from the class”.6
Here you have both sides of the bureaucratic economism of the SWP. On the one hand, we have Cliff’s practice, passed down to the succeeding generations, of undemocratic leadership, precisely justified on the basis of tactical flexibility, making hair-pin turns to keep up with ‘the flow of the class struggle’. This is what sent activists rushing from one hare-brained scheme to the next over the years, causing so many to eventually give up on politics altogether. But, on the other hand, you have the self-serving justification for this, supposedly ‘learning from the class’. But who interprets what the class wants? It was always Cliff, and then Harman, Rees, Callinicos, etc after him.
Even the most basic and cursory reading of Lenin, especially in What is to be done? (which Lars Lih discusses so brilliantly in his magnum opus, Lenin rediscovered), will show that this is utterly contrary to what he was advocating when polemicising against the backward, trade union-type consciousness of the Russian revolutionary left. Following the spontaneous actions of the class, rather than offering inspiring political leadership, was the opposite of what Lenin stood for.
But, using this method, you can justify almost everything. The ISN’s collapse into horizontalism and anti-partyism is all justified in the same broad terms of listening and learning, and living in ‘new times’, in the same way as the Eurocommunists led ‘official communism’ toward liquidationism in the 1980s. The result is always the same: more dead groups, more demoralisation, and more shrinkage of the organised left.
And it looks fairly safe to assume the IS Network is not long for this world. For its part, RS21 has kept a moderate level of organisation, so it may limp on a bit longer, but the comrades might as well rejoin the SWP before they collapse into political irrelevance themselves.
The fight for a positive Marxist programme cannot be bypassed. No amount of living wage campaigns, anti-Ukip protests or anti-austerity demonstrations can substitute for this. At the same time, fighting for Marxist politics means fighting for it inside existing ‘united fronts’, not creating such fronts yourself in order to tail people to your right.
Left Unity is not a united front, simply because it involves no section of the working class, but it does provide a site for that fight for Marxism. Those who agree with this perspective should join the Communist Platform forthwith.
1. ‘Perspective for the IS Network’ Summer Bulletin No2.
2. ‘Thoughts on where the IS Network should be going’ Summer Bulletin No1.
3. Letters Weekly Worker July 10.
4. ‘Revolutionary Marxism and Left Unity’ Summer Bulletin No2.
5. ‘Yes, the radical case for independence’ RS21 summer 2014.
6. I Birchall, ‘Lenin yes! Leninism no?’ RS21 summer 2014.