WeeklyWorker

04.04.2019
Organiser of defeats: Peter Taaffe has led SPEW and the CWI from one disaster to another

Taaffe goes for the throat

It is increasingly obvious that the crisis in the CWI is a lamentable attempt to force a split. Paul Demarty wonders who will fall for it, and whether the ‘tradition of the Militant’ is strong enough to survive

As documents continue to leak, the outline of the factional battle in the Committee for a Workers’ International is becoming clearer.

But it is still necessary to go further than taking the broadsides at face value. That is clear enough merely from the fact that the two sides seem to disagree almost entirely on what is at stake. The trigger events themselves, moreover, remain shrouded in secrecy. It seems that a senior member of the Irish Socialist Party - the CWI’s section - was suspected of some “reprehensible action”. The investigation into this matter, however, was not reported outside Ireland, and it seems that people in the international leadership in political alliance with this mystery member were outraged at this “breach of protocol”.1

Unfortunately (but, given the factional intrigue clearly already going on, unsurprisingly), things did not end there - despite the fact that all concerned seem to accept both that the original infraction was unjustifiable and that the handling of the investigation was less than perfect. Here it will be necessary to bring some names into the discussion.

The CWI has two permanent leadership bodies: the international executive committee (IEC), a large body which is elected by occasional congresses and meets infrequently; and the international secretariat (IS), elected by the IEC. The IS is firmly in the grip of the tendency’s historic leadership in Britain, most prominently Peter Taaffe; and disagreements have clearly been simmering between comrade Taaffe and the leaders of the Irish section for some time. As the argument over the “reprehensible action” escalated, so the IS majority’s criticisms broadened. A long meeting of the IEC, held over several days last autumn, turned into a showdown, which Taaffe lost. In the wake of that vote, he and his allies formed a faction.

The ostensible political basis for the faction is for the defence of ‘Trotskyism’, in its particular Taaffite form. The Irish comrades are accused of downplaying the importance of trade union work, and bending in the direction of bourgeois feminism in relation to the struggles over abortion, etc - “a tendency has also developed of some leading Irish comrades seeing all struggles through the prism of the women’s movement,” Taaffe’s faction writes.2 Apart from these specific political matters, the Irish section is accused of failing to build itself as a party. It is claimed by Taaffe supporter Philip Stott that the SP has

25 full-timers - soon to be 27 - and half of the full-timers are linked to the work in the Dáil, council positions. This means we are dangerously over-reliant on whether we can keep the elected positions to fund the party. Moreover, our subs-paying base is only just over 100 comrades in the south of Ireland.

It is instead in danger of merely remaining an electoral machine, tied umbilically to the Irish political establishment by dint of reliance on the disbursement of its funds.

Method

All of this adds up to a crucial difference of fundamental political method. For the Irish - and moreover, not only them, but representatives from many sections, particularly Greece and America - the issue is rather different. Taaffe and co have set their minds on a split; the political basis of their faction enormously overstates political differences in order to make it happen.

On the basis of the available evidence, it seems very likely that the IEC majority is more in the right. Many IEC members have reported meetings with Taaffe, in which the latter prepared them for a split with the Irish section in the lead-up to the crunch meeting last year. As per the common run of comrade Taaffe’s political judgment, this seems to have backfired spectacularly, and led his once loyal troops to prepare to outflank the split. The IEC defeat mentioned above consisted in the fate of two very similar motions. One - proposed by the IS and defeated - firmly stated that there were differences of principle and set the date for a special congress to sort them out in July. The other, which passed, condemned the idea of a split, and delayed that congress by a further eight months.3

The picture, then, is certainly of an attempt to drive through a split, which has so far failed. Not so clear is the motive. Ireland is one place where the CWI has enjoyed a decent level of success and influence. The Socialist Party has three members of the Dáil - under the name ‘Solidarity’ (formerly the Anti-Austerity Alliance). One other TD, Claire Daly, is a former member of the SP. It also has a few councillors. All told, it is a record of electoral success quite unmatched by any other extant CWI section since the high watermark of the Militant in the 1980s.

It is perhaps this that rankles - apart from mere envy, there are reasons why this might make a rush to a split more amenable. If small political differences emerge between the historic leadership of a tendency and a particularly prestigious section of it, the leadership may well fear that it will find itself in a minority on ever more issues, and even replaced altogether. Certainly, as things have panned out, the vulnerability of Taaffe loyalists stands exposed, though Taaffe did not keep control of this organisation by giving up easily. Control, indeed, is the question. If the CWI has a unique contribution to international socialist strategy, as it rather dubiously claims, it is the result of fairly centralised political control in London.

The IEC majority protests, as noted, that the political differences at work are pretty marginal, and in large respects fabricated. All concrete examples relate to the Irish section, they complain; and the ‘evidence’ against the Irish is tendentious. For example, Taaffe’s IS majority claims that the Irish SP feminist front group, ‘Rosa’, did not place demands on the trade unions in relation to abortion rights, and therefore is adrift from working class politics; but it is argued in response that Rosa had gone straight to working class communities, judging the exact means of approaching workers as a matter of tactics. So far as the party-building stuff goes, the Irish accept that their organisation is unforgivably top-heavy, but that they have been successful in recruiting new layers recently; and, while there is a danger of becoming too reliant on Dáil staff allowances, it is hardly a solution to simply refuse them.

There is a more profound sense in which the differences are overblown, however, which is highlighted by a certain prickliness on the part of the Irish comrades so far as Spain goes - excuse me, ‘the Spanish state’, as it is called as a matter of CWI policy. We detect a distinct undertone of frustration that the SP’s dalliances with Sinn Féin are condemned as an adaptation to bourgeois nationalism, whereas the CWI’s exultant enthusiasm for the cause of Catalan nationalism goes unremarked (the CWI’s Spanish section is loyal to the IS and London in the current fracas).

It is objected that Spain - ahem, the Spanish state - is not Ireland. Indeed it is not, but it is very difficult to see what the great difference of principle is. Catalan nationalism is thoroughly bourgeois in its leadership. Effervescent CWI assertions that the movement was escaping that leadership’s control during the referendum crisis at the end of 2017 were firmly contradicted by the victory of the bourgeois separatists in the subsequent regional elections and the squeezing of the radical left-nationalist vote. IS loyalists are left relying on the lame differentiator of there having been some separatist-leaning strikes in the region.

In truth, this is not a matter of subtle political distinctions, but rather differing strata in the fossil record of Taaffite opportunism. The Irish SP’s frosty policy towards the Irish national struggle dates from the Precambrian era of the CWI, when the British section was still the Militant Tendency and led by Ted Grant, whose wholesale adaptation to Labourism led it to some fishy positions where British imperialism was concerned, and thus a hostility to the Provisionals and Sinn Fein. Grant’s backward attitude to the gay and women’s movements also led to a wholesale sectarianism towards them as ‘petty bourgeois’ concerns, even as the labour movement began decisively to take the lead on them.

Second time farce?

When Taaffe broke with Ted Grant in the early 1990s, the issue was whether to continue work in the Labour Party. Once the split was completed, however, the Militant Tendency - soon to become Militant Labour - flipped violently into launching initiatives on issues of oppression. It launched a front for black youth called Panther UK, which succeeded only in converting various Militant members to black nationalism; and the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, which had much the same effect - with second-wave feminism in place of black nationalism.

It was under Taaffe’s leadership, meanwhile, that the Scottish part of Militant Labour split off to form Scottish Militant Labour and adopted a position in favour of Scottish nationalism. Initially a matter of tactical appeal to sections of the Scottish working class, it soon became thoroughly internalised. It was only when Scottish Militant Labour slipped beyond the control of the CWI centre, however, that a split was engineered - issues of principle have rather been retrojected onto the dispute. Certainly the CWI has not abandoned its support for separatism (and recently, as I have noted, has generalised it to ‘the Spanish state’).

In short, most criticisms of the Irish section from Taaffe and the IS majority have the peculiar character of being formally correct, but outrageously hypocritical. If the Irish SP does end up too close to Sinn Féin, especially if the latter ends up as a junior partner in government, the result will indeed be a disaster; but not a worse disaster than was suffered in Scotland, where the end result of opportunist tailing of Scottish separatism was the rise, and rise, and rise of the thoroughly bourgeois Scottish National Party and its success in posing to the left of the labour movement. It is a valid criticism in the cosmic sense, then, but the IEC majority is right - it is not a difference between the two sides, but an excuse for a split. If Taaffe and co persist in trying to split their organisation, however, it is very likely that real political differences will result (and unfortunately, the splits in the movement’s history that improve political clarity are greatly outnumbered by the ones that result somehow in greater confusion on both sides).

It is impossible for either side of the 1991 split in Militant to suffer serious misfortune without the other crowing about it, and so it has proven this time around. The International Marxist Tendency, which descends from those parts of the CWI that sided with Grant back then, has published a lengthy open letter on the matter of the present contretemps, which certainly grasps what is going on to some extent:

The declaration of a faction … is clearly due to the old leadership de facto losing control. Rather than accepting the decisions of a body that stands above the IS, they are determined to hold on to control, ride roughshod over the sections of the CWI and impose their will, even if this risks a massive split.4

The explanation, according to the IMT statement, is simple:

Taaffe’s method has been one of seeking quick, easy results, in a word: short cuts … He forgot long ago that there is no substitute for building patiently from the bottom up, with meticulous attention to the theoretical education of the cadres. Without consolidating a solid cadre base, there is not the framework around which a much larger and more influential tendency can be built. Short cuts can give what seem to be quicker results in the short term, but it is like building on sand. As soon as the winds of the class struggle blow on such a structure, it starts to crack and eventually collapse. That is what is happening now to the CWI.

A whistle-stop tour of the post-split history of the CWI ensues, and it is not pretty reading; and readers of this paper will well know where that story ends - with the Socialist Party in England and Wales (and the tiny Scottish rump organisation, which for all we know consists of Philip Stott talking to himself in the mirror - when, that is, he isn’t acting as Taaffe’s hired goon in Ireland) taking its utterly disastrous sectarian line on the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, and its treacherous role in obstructing the affiliation to Labour of militant unions in which it has some influence.

The conclusion, of course, is that “the authentic ideas, traditions and policies of the Militant Tendency have been consistently preserved and defended by the IMT”. If by that is meant the abjuration of short-termist flightiness, however - never mind a resistance to the charms of bourgeois ideas - alas, the comrades doth protest too much. It should be said, first of all, that Grant’s - and later Alan Woods’ - persistence with Labour entry was a highly formal exercise, and certainly by the early 2000s Labour Party work was hardly dominant in the diaries of British IMT members.

I remember talking to a young comrade of theirs, just before the Corbyn election, and he explained to me that the rest of the world had got them all wrong. The Labour Party was really more of a bet about the future - that is, when there was an upsurge in class struggle, people would join the Labour Party rather than little Trot groups. But there was little point picking around in the ruins of the Labour left as it was then, and so Socialist Appeal did not; it continued to focus on other activities.

Those other activities numbered two main ones: firstly, delivering a ‘meticulous theoretical education’ to interested students (if there is a “Marxist society” on your campus, it’s them); secondly, enthusiastically promoting the left-Bonapartist regimes of Latin America, especially the Venezuelan regime of Hugo Chávez. This is not, to put it mildly, the traditional politics of Militant (even if the latter was freer with the Trotskyist formulation, ‘deformed workers’ state’, than many other followers of Lev Davidovich). It seems that the ‘meticulousness’ of that education (which, by the by, is quite real; IMT members really are schooled comprehensively in an admittedly rather scholastic interpretation of Marxism, and are generally better at offering robust theoretical defence of their positions than CWI members) did not, in fact, prevent a capitulation to left-talking bourgeois nationalism. Whatever one wants to say about the Irish SP, at least it does not claim that Sinn Féin is a revolutionary socialist force, which is more or less what Grant’s epigones said about Bolivarismo.

But that is not all: the rather abstract commitment to Labour Party work I had described to me by that comrade could not, in the end, go the distance. It is one of the cruellest ironies of recent far-left history that, on the very eve of Ted Grant’s predictions about Labour’s eventual left shift and locus at the centre of a mass movement coming true, his followers basically abandoned ship. Suddenly readers of Socialist Appeal were treated to glowing articles about the Scottish left nationalist, John Maclean, and the opportunities for work in the Green Party. The IMT’s Scottish members bizarrely prepared to join the Scottish Socialist Party, which was then - and remains - more or less defunct. To Socialist Appeal’s credit, it rapidly corrected course when its folly became evident. Yet I can find no honest account of this shift of line, which makes a mockery of its otherwise salutary warning to Taaffe:

an honest leadership … has no fear of admitting its mistakes, explaining why they were made and correcting their position. If, however, it does not admit and correct its mistakes, then it is destined to make more mistakes and to cover the previous mistakes with even bigger errors.

Where next?

So what is the balance sheet of all this, then? Firstly: there are serious concerns about procedural democracy. There is the officially ‘internal only’ nature of the dispute, forcing the rest of us to make do with a smattering of leaked documents and Kremlinology, which is an old disfigurement of the Militant/CWI tradition (the Taaffe/Grant split ended up farcically being fought out in the letters pages of The Guardian, so as to protect their readers from the merest sniff of internal dissension). Now would be an excellent time for the CWI to start publishing its disputes. If it is so sure its line is crucial for the success of the workers’ movement and socialism, then it should not exclude the wider movement from its disagreements.

Then we face the fact that Taaffe has claimed the IS - formally accountable to the IEC - as a factional weapon against it. The IEC should replace it with a representative body and, if Taaffe’s faction threatens to walk, its bluff should be called. The IEC should not wait a year for this special congress to start confronting Taaffe’s cynicism - certainly not if its many assertions of loyalty to democratic political methods are to be taken seriously.

Secondly, when people want splits, they usually get them. It is clear that both SPEW and the Irish SP are divided in this battle; both will lose members over it. SPEW can hardly afford it, with its prized Public and Commercial Services union fraction in crisis and many of its members - disproportionately those with a firmer grip on reality - voting with their feet to get involved with the mass movement in the Labour Party. More seriously, if the ructions in the Irish organisation should cost it its toehold in the Dáil, it is not at all clear it will be able to undertake the sort of mass work it has done around abortion, water charges and so on. The CWI tradition is one with a genuinely admirable commitment to financial self-sufficiency and members’ self-sacrifice; but a hundred members are unlikely to replace the salaries of anything close to 27 people. That is quite apart from the needless sacrifice of the toehold itself: the left does not have so many such assets that it can lightly squander them.

Thus, thirdly, this whole fiasco is yet another indictment of Peter Taaffe’s disastrous leadership of SPEW and the CWI. He is just about the only serious competitor for Chris Grayling’s coveted status as the least competent operator in British politics. How long can he limp on? More to the point: if, after missing the boat on the decisive event in the British class struggle this century so far, and now threatening the unity of what passes for his international support by declaring war on its most electorally successful part, SPEW members still do not replace him, will they ever do so?

Fourthly, however - and pace the IMT - it is not all Taaffe’s fault. Though there have been few enough successes to result from Militant’s turn away from Labour under Taaffe’s leadership, and a great many avoidable disasters, we should remember that the possibility of open Marxist advocacy really was curtailed by Kinnock’s purges, and Grant’s supporters ended up hunkering down and focusing on other things themselves, before losing patience altogether at the worst possible moment. It seems - if we are to judge by results - that there is no ‘path not taken’ for the old Militant; there is something in the DNA that causes great exertions in the way of political patience to give way to politically idiotic convulsions.

In the end, this is just the reliance on the Trotskyist doctrine of the ‘transitional method’, which drives its adherents to narrow trade unionism until - just when life exceeds its limits - it is thrown, disoriented, into the arms of the bourgeoisie on other matters of great importance. Neither of the CWI factions have resisted this course; nor - no matter how ‘meticulous’ its cadre formation - has the IMT.

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.co.uk


Notes

  1. www.docdroid.net/4EmEdw3/cwi-mb-01.pdf.

  2. ‘Women’s oppression and identity politics - our approach in Ireland and internationally’ (www.docdroid.net/bSNjIxe/sa-mb-101.pdf).

  3. www.docdroid.net/4EmEdw3/cwi-mb-01.pdf.

  4. www.marxist.com/open-letter-to-the-members-and-former-members-of-the-cwi.htm.