Two thousand members ... pull the other one

Taaffe demands a split

Further leaks from the CWI point to a parting of ways, writes Paul Demarty

When we last addressed the ongoing divisions in the Committee for a Workers’ International - the international grouping still, barely, headed by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, née Militant Tendency - we concluded that things were headed for a split.

Not, of course, that you would know it from a glance at the organisation’s website, or - so far as we can tell - any of its international press. This is not surprising, since it is one of many organisations that insists on deluding itself that its affairs can be conducted in secret - already laughable in the age of the photocopier, but beyond parody in the age of the internet. Nonetheless, it does force the rest of us to rely on whatever leaks happen to be forthcoming.

On that front, it seems that our prediction - unfortunately - is holding true, and a split may be along sooner rather than later. A frothing, incoherent document from the London-loyal faction leaked to the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog (which covers Irish politics) all but declares the majority of the CWI’s international executive committee (IEC) outside the organisation. Their crime? Daring to call a meeting.

The story so far - in brief - is that tensions have been simmering between SPEW and its Irish sister organisation, the Socialist Party, for years. A crisis point was reached when the leadership of the Irish SP decided that a London-loyal member was preparing a split. Some unspecified countermeasures were adopted, which caused an almighty ruckus, and, though the Irish leadership admitted it had acted wrongly, this seems to have pushed Peter Taaffe - the leader of SPEW and, in effect, the CWI - to pursue a split for real. Such is his luck at the moment that he bodged it disastrously and, in trying to rally the various CWI sections to teach the Irish a lesson, he turned a majority of the IEC against him. In response, he formed a faction with the rather unwieldy name - “In defence of a workers’ and Trotskyist CWI” - and the two sides agreed to have a showdown congress next March.

There are many unresolved issues, but the most important from a practical point of view is that the IEC majority is against Taaffe, but the smaller international secretariat (IS), which exercises day-to-day control, is firmly in his grip. An operator as cynical as Taaffe was always likely to treat the IS as factional property, and so it has proven. In our last article, in fact, we advised the IEC faction to “replace [the current IS] with a representative body and, if Taaffe’s faction threatens to walk, its bluff should be called”.1 It is in response to an apparent attempt to do exactly that that the new Taaffe-loyalist document has been written. Calling the IEC majority and its supporters the ‘non-faction faction’, Taaffe and co set out to respond to an open letter circulated by their opponents:

In their statement the NFF rejected the decision of the international secretariat to convene a meeting in November 2019 and appealed for the IS and the openly declared international faction [ie, Taaffe’s faction - PD] to reconsider its position and commit to participating in an IEC meeting in August. Now they have taken the decision to convene a meeting of the IEC in August themselves. This action is part of the objective of the NFF to carry through a ‘regime change’ in the leadership of the CWI. We entirely reject this action, which is the declaration of a split from the CWI.2

This is, to put it mildly, a rather strong claim. We do not have to hand the constitution of the CWI, admittedly, but, if we had, we presumably would discover that the IEC has the right to call a meeting of its members, and that this right devolves to a working majority of its members. What are Taaffe’s objections? Firstly, that the NFF comrades are downplaying the political differences, which are very serious:

Some sections of the CWI have buckled to the pressures of ‘identity politics’. Others have gone even further and have or are in the process of capitulating to them … This divergence is reflected by a turn away from systematic trade union work in a number of sections and abandonment of an orientation and emphasis on the centrality of the working class.

The NFF comrades’ claims to defend unity are given short shrift: “The failure to debate the political issues and only call for ‘revolutionary unity’ without political agreement is the receipt [sic] for a split.”

Regime change

You may be wondering what this discussion has to do with whether the IEC should meet in August, and frankly so are we. There is little enough in the document about the procedural issues - presumably because Taaffe’s faction does not have a leg to stand on. According to Taaffe, the NFF - devious conspirators that they are - deny being out for ‘regime change’, but several of their members openly raise the demand for a certain “Peter T” to be removed from the IS. Quite a scandal!

Indeed, he is lamely reduced, later on, to acknowledging that “it is comrades’ right to propose” regime change of this sort; and indeed that “all comrades have the right to oppose the IS”. His only basis for objecting is that they have not been open enough for him about their political differences; but, given that the NFF does not accept Taaffe’s characterisation of those differences, we can only conclude that the aforementioned rights may be exercised only if the IS deems them to be done appropriately, according to its political judgement, and that all polemic must be conducted according to the IS’s view of things. In short, it is all very well that comrades should ‘propose’ changes, but quite out of order for them to come anywhere near winning their proposals.

The idea that differences at the level of programme should be absolutely necessary for a change of leadership is bunkum. It is equivalent to saying that Theresa May should have to have some principled disagreement with Chris Grayling about the Irish border question in order to sack him, rather than his manifest incompetence; or, for that matter, that members of the IEC should need to refer to the detail of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to get rid of an IS member who had been caught siphoning funds to his personal account.

This, of course, leaves open the question of how wide the differences actually are. Without access to the IEC majority supporters’ recent documents, it is still rather hard to tell. Certainly the Irish Socialist Party has made great play of the women’s question recently, in a manner that could certainly be fairly described as ‘buckling to the pressure of identity politics’. But much the same thing is on offer at Socialism, SPEW’s annual school, when someone condescends to talk about it.

You could balk, as Taaffe does, at the suggestion that “the women’s movement was detonating the struggles of the working class” - which certainly seems a rather over-rosy assessment of the impact of anti-Trump feminist protests and #MeToo - but Taaffe’s cronies routinely assert that nationalist agitation is just such a ‘detonation’, in Scotland, Spain and elsewhere; and if the one amounts to denying “the centrality of the working class”, so does the other. If anything, Taaffe’s softness on national separatism is worse, since separatism is plainly a reactionary dead end, whereas it certainly is in the interest of the working class that women should not be sexually harassed as a matter of routine and should have legal access to abortion. That does not excuse the barely-critical attitude taken by the Irish SP (and, for that matter, Socialist Alternative, the CWI’s American section) to bourgeois feminist layers; but Taaffe and his minions are a little short on credibility when they make a big deal out of it.

Worse still, however, is Taaffe’s accusation that several sections have made a “turn away from systematic trade union work”, indicating a lack of “consistent orientation and intervention to [sic] the working class and its organisations”. There can be no greater such abdication than SPEW’s disastrous failure to engage with the Labour Party in the last few years, decisively and deliberately turning its backs on a titanic struggle, and diverting militant trade union contingents from that struggle to boot. Again, Taaffe’s opponents at least have the excuse for their opportunism that - say - abortion matters in Ireland. No better excuse for SPEW’s criminal abstentionism has ever come forth than tedious stories of how some Labour councillor in Nuneaton voted to close a Sure Start centre, ad infinitum. It is plain to all observers that the real issue is SPEW’s sect-coherence.

The stage is set for the split, then, and we should be very surprised if Peter waits around until August to drive it through. A commenter - one ‘Joe’ - on the document suggests: “it looks like there’ll be two ‘internationals’ coming out of this split. With the Irish in one and the English in another.” This is possible, but the trouble is that Taaffe is wrong, and the supposed ‘non-faction faction’ does not have a coherent alternative political direction. The paradox is that this may make Taaffe’s criticisms ‘come true’: formal membership of a Trotskyist ‘international’ in itself will have offered countervailing pressure to the wider atmosphere on the left, which is - indeed - utterly dominated by liberal identity politics. There is no reason to suppose that the sections, or fragments of sections, that ‘place themselves outside the international’ according to the IS should proceed to form a continuity CWI of their own.

Not that we expect the mothership to fare much better. Here we turn to other details. Taaffe’s final reason for refusing to submit to the decisions of the meeting in August is that the IEC is - don’t you know - unrepresentative:

Its composition is weighed towards the smaller groups like Cyprus, Poland or Australia, with one full [IEC] member, whose active membership is less than some branches in other sections! Or Russia, with 25 members and two full IEC members and not a single full-timer. Greece, with 302 members, has 4 IEC members - the same as England and Wales, with 2,000 members. Three sections - Cyprus, Australia and Russia - have a total of 66 members and four IEC members!

This is as laughable as the other reasons (OK, Peter, who was it who set up this particular arrangement?), but we want to highlight something else. Remember, at the beginning of this contretemps, both sides were very proud of belonging to the “largest Trotskyist international”. Look at those numbers (and, as for SPEW having 2,000 members, pull the other one, Peter - it’s got bells on). Add in the 100 or so in Ireland. According to Wikipedia, Socialist Alternative has 1,000 members, which may be an exaggeration, but say it is 500. Suddenly it does not seem so grand - and many of those numbers are about to get a lot smaller in short order.

The unembarrassable comrade Taaffe will no doubt motor on regardless, believing as he apparently does in his indispensability for the success of international socialism. But his remaining members will have to face the reality that their Trot international is just like more or less all the others - an oil-slick sect in hock to its founding section.

How many of the “2,000” will stick around for the next chapter of this dismal story?



  1. ‘Taaffe goes for the throat’, April 4.

  2. https://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2019/04/19/to-all-cwi-members. Though the authorship of this document is unknown, we will assume, for brevity’s sake, that it is Peter Taaffe. If he wishes to distance himself from it, our letters page is always open.