Another round of splits
It is a case of ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ for Peter Taaffe’s beleaguered sect. Anne McShane and William Sarsfield look at the mounting problems in the CWI
The Committee for a Workers’ International is facing a severe crisis and looks certain to fracture, with its Irish and Greek sections in revolt against the perspectives and methods of the tendency’s London-based leadership.
Peter Taaffe - top gun in its core organisation, the Socialist Party in England and Wales - has fired off an angry diatribe against the rebels, in which he reminds comrades that the CWI has been here before. He refers to Panther, the black section set up in the 1990s, which quickly adapted to black nationalism and split from the organisation. He also points to the Scottish split in the late 1990s, when his former comrades morphed into Scottish nationalism and set up the ill-fated Scottish Socialist Party. However, the man is a little modest, in our view, as there are plenty of other examples of trends within the Militant tradition adapting themselves to transitory political developments, going ‘native’ and precipitating splits.
After all, this is how we have today’s SPEW. In 1991 the organisation’s central committee was divided 43 to three over the question of effectively cutting links with Labour and standing its own independent candidates. In the event, Lesley Mahmood fought the Walton by-election stood against the official Labour candidate, Peter Kilfoyle. This - along with the experience of Militant leading the mass anti-poll tax movement - resulted in a drastic exaggeration of the extent of Labour’s degeneration under Neil Kinnock, which culminated in the leaders of Militant pronouncing that Labourite parties internationally were now no longer working class entities of any sort.1 This is an idiotic stance that their comrades still defend today, despite the crushing reality of Corbyn’s victory and the membership surges he inspired.
The organisation - much depleted now, of course - appears to be losing political coherence and a potentially devastating split seems inevitable.
Internal documents leaked in January revealed the groundswell of opposition from international sections to the core leadership in London. SPEW general secretary Peter Taaffe has published a tetchy internal polemic against the Irish and Greek sections - groups he accuses of a “petty bourgeois” retreat from working class politics.
There is no question that he has a strong point here, as we will see below. However, this ‘accommodation’ methodology now seems rooted in the programmatic DNA of the CWI. So, unsurprisingly, Taaffe’s polemical rearguard action has not stemmed the rot: while details are sketchy, Taaffe seems to be in a minority in the ‘International’ and he and his supporters on the international secretariat (IS) have formed a faction with the slogan, ‘In defence of a working class, Trotskyist CWI’. Stripped of the bombast, the operative political core of this grouping is ‘in defence’ of the Taaffe leadership and its perspectives in the run-up to a CWI special congress, currently scheduled for early 2020.
The political issues in the leaked discussion documents are very important ones. With three TDs (MPs) and 11 councillors, the Irish CWI organisation is a small, but politically significant, trend and there is no question that it has been on a rightist trajectory for some time. It is perfectly correct for this drift to be confronted and fought - but Taaffe and the political circle around him are not the people for the job. The IS has consistently encouraged its sections to not simply take account of the prevailing moods around them, but to adapt their political strategies and initiatives to them.
Thus, in 2012 the Irish section was fearful that too radical a stance on abortion would lose it votes and/or members. Anne McShane wrote at the time that she had “been accused of wanting to impose a ‘maximalist’ position on the pro-abortion campaign”, because she called for the basic minimum right to choose to be included in the election literature of the United Left Alliance. Socialist Party (Ireland) leaders were quite shameless in their opportunist stance that it was “better to ride with the tide of public opinion and go for the middle ground”, as they starkly put it.2 This entailed passively tracking opinion polls, instead of trying to actively forge a new ‘common sense’ amongst the working class. At the time, this meant that support for abortion was to be limited only to cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality. This passive methodology has been at least partially culpable in the decline and parlous state of the CWI today. There are more examples of its destructive role in other political arenas.
First, we will deal with the argument within the CWI’s Irish section itself over its relationship with Sinn Féin. Historically, the Militant trend has been extremely antagonistic to Irish republicanism, which it habitually branded as ‘sectarian’ and, occasionally, even ‘fascist’. In short, it had a shameful and opportunist record on the national question in Northern Ireland, continually calling for the whole messy business to be ignored and unity secured on mundane trade union issues. This wilfully ignored the fact that the national question - of course - also divided the unions in the Six Counties, with the clear, discriminatory dominance of the Orange Order.
The Catholic working class communities were habitually condemned for not abandoning the republican movement and becoming good, British-style workers. In fact, it was clear that Militant/Socialist Party believed that republicanism was a greater problem than British rule. This, of course, was the economistic template of Peter Taaffe, then and now. However, Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy is now seeking to overturn this stance for his own opportunistic reasons.3
What has sparked this change is the growing prominence of Sinn Féin as a political force in the south. SF has now 21 TDs, four Members of the European parliament, six members of the Seanad (unelected second chamber) and 125 councillors south of the border. It strives to promote a progressive image of itself and, under its new leader, Mary-Lou MacDonald, has made clear that it has the appetite for government.
In 2015 the Socialist Party’s electoral front, the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA), was formally asked by the Right2Change campaign (which included Sinn Féin) to give minority backing to an SF government if the opportunity arose. Murphy states that, despite his opposition, his comrades were very wary and initially took “a denunciatory approach”. The statement from AAA included an insistence that
The transformation of Syriza, in only six months, from being an anti-austerity party into leading a pro-austerity government shows that real change can only happen if a government is made up of parties or TDs who are prepared and committed to break capitalist rules. We have a political responsibility to point out these problems in advance and not allow a situation where the movement is encouraged to look to another new dawn that would unfortunately turn out to be false.4
However, for Murphy these principles evidenced inflexibility and sectarianism. The statement was “correct theoretically, but it is not enough to simply ‘tell the truth to the working class’: we must explain it and where possible go through the experience with them.” He boasts that his position won out eventually - “but only after KMcL [Kieran McLoughlin] went to a meeting where JH [Joe Higgins] spoke and the more ‘blunt’ approach towards Sinn Féin and the idea of an ‘alternative government’ went down badly”. Resistance to going into government with SF was far more muted for the remainder of the campaign leading up to the 2016 election.
In the current debate a significant number - perhaps even the majority of the Irish section - continue to oppose an alliance with Sinn Féin. They argue that it is not just a “nationalist pro-capitalist party”. In fact, “of fundamental importance to any political description of Sinn Féin is that they are a sectarian party”.5After outlining various examples of SF’s bourgeois ideology and sectarianism towards Northern Irish Protestants, the writers assert: “We have to be able to demonstrate that there is a fundamental conflict between a capitalist economy driven by the ruthless drive for profit and meeting the needs of working class people.” On Brexit, this means a discussion on how working class action can be taken “to ensure that there are no cuts to pay, attacks on conditions or shedding of jobs …” However, that approach is far too limited for Paul Murphy, who argues that, while trade union work is important, some thought must be given to “an alternative customs union proposal”.
Murphy disputes the claim that a capitalist customs union cannot be proposed by the Irish section. He refutes the assertion of his critics that it “is incompatible with the demand for a state monopoly on foreign trade” and “would involve a left government in a trade bloc which is imperialist in nature”. He is derisory about his comrades’ insistence that there was a “need to be ‘honest’ with the working class” on the nature of such a trade bloc. Of course,
We always tell the truth to the working class. But we present the truth in the way that is most digestible to the working class at a particular time, bringing to the fore demands which address the pressing needs of working class people and connecting them to the need for revolutionary socialist change and to activating the working class in struggle.6
In other words, the party’s formal opposition to capitalist trade agreements must be hidden when trying to build a united front with the pro-imperialist, pro-European Union Sinn Féin. Such uncomfortable facts would not go down well.
Murphy is adamant that it is necessary to form a united front with SF. To resist such a proposal is purist - “We cannot come across as simply doctrinaires, morally opposed to anything but revolutionary change.”7 Political principles, such as being honest about the political nature of Sinn Féin, must be sacrificed in order to edge nearer to political office.
As we said above, in formal terms Taaffe has a point …
The other equally vexed question at the centre of the CWI crisis is the role of the Irish section in the 2018 abortion referendum and its relationship to the #MeToo campaign. The problem here for Peter Taaffe is the failure of his comrades to make any kind of effort to build a campaign within the trade unions - a reflection of his stated belief that they have fallen victim to “identity politics”.
The IS document, ‘Women’s oppression and identity politics - our approach in Ireland and internationally’,makes clear that there must be a common approach in all sections of the CWI: “We are striving to build the embryo of a world revolutionary international, not a series of national organisations linked in name only.” The Irish section “have overstated the importance of the victory on abortion rights”, wrongly portraying the success of the ‘yes’ campaign and the introduction of abortion on demand up to 12 weeks as an unparalleled historic breakthrough.8
Indeed, some see “all struggles through the prism of the women’s movement, rather than seeing how it interconnects with other struggles”. They have adopted the language of intersectionality and “petty bourgeois feminism”, and consequently have taken an uncritical attitude to the #MeToo movement. The IS gives two examples to prove its points - a meeting organised under the title, ‘Housing is a Feminist Issue’ to coincide with a demonstration against homelessness; and the preponderance of meetings and events on abortion and gender issues, including events called by Ruth Coppinger TD under the slogans of the #MeToo movement. These issues must be dealt with and rectified, the international leadership insists.
There was an angry response from the majority of the Socialist Party (Ireland) to these criticisms. Clearly, the Irish comrades are very proud of the work of its front organisation, ‘Reproductive rights against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity’ (Rosa), and do not accept the legitimacy of the IS/Taaffe censure.
Rosa was formed in 2013 as a vehicle for the SP to engage with and recruit from “a growing section of young people, who were identifying as feminist who were open to left and socialist ideas”. Instead of engaging with organisations like the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) and the Cork Women’s Right to Choose group, the SP created its own front organisation. It presented itself as the most radical abortion rights group. But unlike the ARC and the Cork campaign, which always argued for the right to choose, Rosa consistently advocated more limited demands, taking the approach that it needed to chime with existing public opinion rather than be too hard-line in its demands. It even presented the limited rights won in the recent referendum as a victory, when in fact it is only during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy that women can legally obtain an abortion pill without the need to prove a serious health risk.
There is much boasting in the document signed by the national executive of the Irish CWI section about the role of Rosa in the referendum. Of course, it is true that Ruth Coppinger TD was an outspoken and active voice in the ‘yes’ campaign. But so were other leftwing TDs, including the Socialist Workers Party’s Brid Smith and ex-Socialist Party TD Clare Daly. However, these comrades do not get a mention in the review of the campaign presented by the Irish section. Evidently, the world of the CWI revolves around its own organisational successes, including the recruitment of 35 members in 2018, mostly from its work in Rosa. Thus, Rosa is presented as a fundamentally important means to build the party.
The Irish section defends its decision not to concentrate work in the trade unions because of the conservative nature of those bodies. Instead it had decided to turn to the “radicalised youth and women” to build the SP. The comrades charged that the IS had underestimated the importance of the new women’s movement and was still harping on about the past - “The tendency for the comrades to reference campaigns and initiatives from a quarter of a century ago, albeit important ones like the Campaign against Domestic Violence, underscores this point.”9 It viewed the struggle against women’s inequality in purely economic terms and did not acknowledge its social and cultural importance.
The Irish section also defends its role in calling demonstrations against “victim-blaming by the courts and media”. This has involved demonstrations against high-profile rape acquittals in Cork and Belfast. The criticism advanced by the IS is that the Irish section has not presented working class or socialist politics at these demonstrations - and in reality has uncritically adopted the slogans of identity politics. The response of the Irish section is that, while “we agree that there can be no automatic acceptance of guilt and that we need to be careful”, on the other hand, “Being careful also means being careful not to be insensitive to women, precisely because the facts speak so overwhelmingly to the general lack of justice for victims of sexual violence.” The emphasis for the Irish section must be on not alienating women who feel strongly about these questions. This new “radical movement” needs to be addressed in a way “which chimes with the mood of the most militant layers”.10
The problem is that the CWI tradition does not have a Marxist approach to the woman question or to gender identity. There is no discussion at all about the role of the family in class society or the role of the working class - men and women - in overcoming oppression through collective action. The idea of the proletariat as a universal class with a programme to liberate all of society just does not occur to either side. It is either trade union politics or liberalism. The Irish section is right that the IS sees the woman question in purely economic terms. But the they have junked economism in favour of feminism. Neither of the two are of any use to the working class.
Where will it end?
Judging from past experience, a split seems unavoidable - although we should keep in mind that the material that has so far made it into the public domain has been selectively leaked by different sides in the factional fight. Despite its claims to follow in the tradition of democratic Bolshevism, the CWI’s approach to democratic transparency is far more akin to a 19th century conspiratorial sect à la Bakunin than a Marxist trend. (Sadly, this degenerate political culture remains the norm on the contemporary left.)
Thus, the content of debates between conflicting trends within the organisation are regarded as issues of security and closely policed by the groups’ leaderships and their enforcers in the full-timer apparatus.
It is worthwhile underlining that this ‘secret squirrel’ clowning does nothing to guard against the massively well resourced, highly professional security services of the capitalist state. They know all our business: it’s what we pay our taxes for. No, these sensitive and controversial discussions are deemed not for the consumption of the working class movement, of which the CWI is meant to be the servant.
This process entailed a split of a minority that included Ted Grant, Alan Woods and Rob Sewell - the original core of today’s Socialist Appeal organisation.↩
See Weekly Worker December 20 2012.↩
Paul Murphy is a Socialist Party TD for the Dublin South-West constituency.↩
P Murphy, ‘The united front method and putting across a socialist programme today’, November 20 2018.↩
Laura F, Stephen B, Kevin M, Joe H, ‘A brief contribution on some political points mentioned by PM’, October 10 2018.↩
P Murphy op cit.↩
International Secretariat, ‘Women’s oppression and identity politics - our approach in Ireland and internationally’ (undated).↩
NEC in Ireland, ‘A response to the IS document, “Women’s oppression and identity politics”’ (undated). All NEC comrades, bar Paul M, voted for this document.↩