Fiasco nears conclusion
Peter Taaffe’s split-mongering shows that loyalty to him is the yardstick of orthodoxy in his ‘international’, argues Paul Demarty
As the crisis in the Committee for a Workers’ International draws on, we are reminded - of all things - of the classic spy spoof, Austin Powers: international man of mystery.
Readers of a certain age will recall a particular scene, wherein Powers and his companion find themselves behind the wheel of an out-of-control steamroller, which creeps towards a hapless henchman of Dr Evil at a glacial pace. The henchman can only stand there screaming, for minutes on end, until the inevitable happens, and he is squished into strawberry jam.
The CWI - the spectral emanation of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and its great helmsman, Peter Taaffe - divided sharply down the middle a little over six months ago; the final showdown was scheduled for next January. Nothing that has happened since has suggested that the split will not happen more or less as advertised, and - as we shall see - we are unlikely to have to wait until January; but still we must wait patiently indeed for the pay-off, primarily because the side keenest to get things over and done with is having such a dreadful time of it.
The whole situation kicked off, for latecomers, when the CWI’s Irish section, also called the Socialist Party, came in for a tongue-lashing from the London-dominated international day-to-day leadership (the International Secretariat, or IS) for its deviation from Trotskyist norms - or else worrying signs of independent thought, depending on which side you take. This is all par for the course for oil-slick internationals of this type; so ham-fisted was the IS offensive, however, that it lost the support of the larger body to which it is in theory accountable, the International Executive Committee (IEC). As is also par for the course, everything is being done officially in secret, but leaking like an old blow-up mattress.
When we last picked up the story,1 the latest document to emerge seemed to proclaim (from the IS’s point of view) the split concluded, on the basis that the IEC majority - snidely called the ‘non-faction faction’ in these documents - dared to demand a meeting of that august body in a few months time. For the IS comrades, this was an attempt at a palace coup. Time is sometimes unkind to weekly papers, and so we learned a couple of days later that this was, in fact, a leak of a leak: the IS majority’s faction, whose official name is too long and pompous to be worth typing, had apparently commissioned hapless Taaffe loyalist Tony Saunois to draft a letter along those lines, and he had managed to send it to the wrong email list that included members of the other side.
In doing so, he had merely made explicit what we all already knew and has only become clearer since: his faction is determined to force through a split, and is merely awaiting its moment. We are not aware of any document that attempts to, as the idiom has it, style it out. The reality - the Taaffe faction was so eager to be rid of its troublesome political majority that it prematurely declared the split complete - is somehow brushed over in total silence, like a particularly ripe elevator fart, despite the protests of its opponents.
What some more recent leaks reveal - here we must note that they almost all seem to come from supporters of the non-faction faction (NFF) - is quite how badly Taaffe’s blood quest is actually going. There is, first of all, the small matter that the CWI section initially most sympathetic to the IS majority outside of Britain (sorry! ‘England and Wales’ - and England and Wales’s handful of remaining cronies in Scotland) has flounced out of the Taaffe faction, and then onwards to greener pastures outside the CWI altogether. Whoops!
The comrades concerned, in Izquierda Revolucionaria, the Spanish section - sorry! the section in ‘the Spanish state’ - were relatively recent arrivals, having only joined up in 2017, along with their co-thinkers in Venezuela and Mexico. The sudden absence of the ‘Spanish-state’ contingent from matters, and the probable following-suit of Venezuela-state and Mexico-state (along with the Portuguese, who are unconnected to the latter three, so far as I know) - leaves Taaffe yet further denuded of office-holders he can ill do without, as he attempts, against all appearances, to present himself as the voice of the ‘silent majority’.
Silent indeed is that majority, according to the NFF, in its most substantial factional document (surely even they must acknowledge, now, that they are a faction).
The [Taaffe] faction is losing the debate not only on a leadership level, but throughout the ranks of the CWI. It is an established fact that, despite enjoying every democratic opportunity, up until now, literally only one member of any section of the CWI, at any level, outside of those [with leading faction supporters on the IEC], has declared their support for the faction.2
Things are hardly rosy on the home front, for that matter. A vote on the correctness of the Taaffeites’ line in regard to all this drama succeeded in getting only 75% at a SPEW congress, with 20% opposed and 5% abstaining. This is not nothing. Meanwhile, among the most recently leaked documents is a contribution from two leading members of the student caucus, Socialist Students - from personal experience, I am quite sure that things are quite a bit more eclectic at the base of SS than the leadership, so this may be an indication of more serious ructions among ‘the youth’.
A few days later, one more document was leaked. Very much along the lines of the Saunois draft, and written on behalf of the IS, it rejects the opposition’s demands for a meeting of the IEC, accuses them of dishonesty and hypocrisy, and further accuses them of financially preparing for a split by withholding dues in some sections. It concludes:
An international meeting of the faction has been convened by the IS majority for July 22-25 with the sponsorship of the English and Welsh and Scottish sections, with the support of the German NC and others, to debate all of these issues and decide on the next steps to go forward and build the CWI, on the basis of the Trotskyist methods and principles it was founded on in 1974.3
The situation we face, then, is thus: firstly, the steamroller is approaching. We are moving towards a split, more and more with every cunning plan of Taaffe and his lieutenants. Indeed, with the loss of Izquierda Revolucionaria, he is rather short of allies, and particularly among the larger sections of the CWI other than his own (in the United States, for example). Paradoxically, this drives Taaffe and co even further in that direction. If he were to back down, his leadership would plainly be in question.
The leaked Saunois letter already effectively identified the Taaffe faction as the only legitimate leadership, to the point that any attempt to replace the leadership was ipso facto an act of such treason that those who attempted it automatically placed themselves outside the organisation. Given the approach already taken, the only possible endings to this dispute are the resignation of the IS majority en masse or the bureaucratic expulsion of the international majority. The virtue of humility being entirely foreign to Taaffe, things are going the way they are going; and by July 25 a parting of the ways is all but inevitable.
The result may be something like the 1953 split in the original Fourth International (barring the truly ectopic claimants to that name prior to 1938), whereby the largest and most prestigious section (in 1953, the US Socialist Workers Party, led by James P Cannon at the time) realises it has lost control and manufactures a split against ‘liquidationists’, which in reality serves to create an environment where control remains with itself, however emaciated its membership looks. Since Taaffe retains control of the International Secretariat, he remains in a good position - better than Cannon, indeed - to expel the majority, and elect another at his own leisure.
Though retrospective mythologisation of the brave ‘anti-Pabloites’ who split the FI back then occludes the fact, it is worth stressing that it was a cynical manoeuvre of exactly the moral calibre of Taaffe’s crusade. That can be judged from the bare fact that the ‘Pabloite liquidationists’ - in spite of their severe political errors - maintained an organisation with decision-making international congresses and an international press, whereas the US SWP’s international committee remained a diplomatic love-in for the leaderships of the four sections that founded it, with no formal democratic structures and no press. (Before long, the SWP decided to reunite with its old enemies, having drifted closer to them politically, and the rump split into its three component parts, each led by its own labour-dictator, over the course of the next decade and a half. The International Committee brand ended up in the pocket of the unhinged Gerry Healy in Britain.)
Nonetheless, the Taaffe faction is nodding towards that precedent now by using the slur of ‘Mandelite’ to describe its opponents - the Mandelites being the trendier successors to the perfidious Pabloites of the 1950s.
It is worth revisiting Taaffe’s critique of the NFF, since we now at least have access to a semi-serious programmatic document on the part of the latter. What Taaffe means by Mandelism is accommodation to what is now called identity politics - the various sectional campaigns for overcoming the oppression of different subaltern groups, one by one - and the concomitant charge that insufficient focus is being placed on the mass organisations of the working class as such, by which is meant the trade unions. The cliché of anti-Mandelism is that the malady stemmed from middle class disillusionment with the working class; thus we read that, in an earlier Taaffite critique of the Irish organisation:
In our view a tendency has also developed of some leading Irish comrades seeing all struggles through the prism of the women’s movement, rather than seeing how it interconnects with other struggles.
Once the trade unions are on the back-burner, socialism itself will surely follow, and much of the more tedious minutiae of the debate between the two sides, such as it is, concerns the matter of whether the word ‘socialism’ was on such and such a poster in America or Ireland.
The Taaffite critique of its opponents is not wholly senseless, and in fact a closer look at the NFF’s politics reveals some justification for the idea that they are insufficiently critical of contemporary identity politics and overly optimistic about the socialistic direction of travel of such movements.
As for the question of orientation to the mass institutions of the class, the NFF comrades argue at some length that the failures of the last period must be taken into account:
The trade union leaderships and the leadership of the left, both ‘old’ and ‘new’, failed completely to provide a way out for the struggling masses. As a result, a whole series of new movements are developing, not only outside the control of the ‘traditional organisations’, but often in complete hostility to the traditional leaderships.
So, for example, it is important to note that the Yellow Vests movement in France developed after a more ‘classical’ trade union and youth movement challenged Macron in the first part of the year 2018. Despite a historically low level of support for Macron and a huge anger and clear will for struggle, the trade union leaderships disorganised and abandoned the movement and the immediate potential was lost … The picture is similar in relation to the emergence of the women’s movements on a global scale and more recently of the school students’ movement on climate change.
Exactly what this means for socialist strategy is left rather unclear. The two student comrades, Conor Rosoman and Tom Costello, certainly do seem to think that it means backpedalling from explicit commitments to socialism. In their case, they discuss the recent youth climate-change movements, whose militants have begun to talk about anti-capitalism and ‘system change’:
The call for socialist change does make sense in these conditions. But exactly how we raise a socialist programme is a bit more complicated than repeating the word ‘socialism’ on our placards without any variation. Young school students need to hear the case for socialism, but the vast majority of them (between ages 11-18) don’t necessarily have their political level raised by placards that repeat this slogan. Our job is to introduce the word ‘socialism’ into the vocabulary of movements like this, but that is only meaningful if we explain what is meant in practice by the word ‘socialism’.4
This sort of formulation is best described as slippery. It is, of course, necessary to explain to people what socialism is. Indeed, it is quite as necessary to explain it to self-described ‘socialists’ nowadays - what with Sanders, Corbyn and so on making leftish social democracy respectable again under that name - as to the total naïfs mentioned here. The practicalities of ‘raising the political level’, however, can slide all too easily into lowering standards about what level to get people to. Decisive in the current Greatcontext, surely, is the understanding - however elemental, and in whatever words get through - that society is systematically organised to allow the world to be destroyed, and thus that social and political revolution is necessary to prevent it.
It is not clear whether the NFF comrades will be sucked into that dead end, but the political development of most splits in the recent history of the far left do not exactly swell the heart with confidence, and nor do the attempts throughout the main NFF document to massively overstate the significance of parts of the women’s movement, using the word ‘strike’ to describe some of its actions. This seems to me to be of a piece with anti-Trump celebrities calling themselves ‘the resistance’: it is an interesting phenomenon, but basically a matter of middle class protest as such, which must dip into the aesthetic armoury of the radical left and mass movements of the dispossessed simply out of its own impoverishment in this regard.
This is hardly unprecedented. Among the many uses of the phrase ‘the something spring’ after the Arab revolts of 2011, there are numbered French mass protestors against gay marriage, and a brief anaemic backlash against excessive executive remuneration by public company shareholders. There are also, in similar vein, the US-sponsored ‘colour revolutions’ in eastern Europe and, more distantly, the various waves of ‘social Catholicism’ going back to the late 19th century. Other phenomena could be mentioned. At work here is a confusion between the sign and the thing signified; but it is a convenient confusion for a left tendency trying to reach out to elements in this milieu - why have a difficult argument about the inherently corrupt capitalist political system, when people will spontaneously make the correct judgment anyway?
It is this sort of formulation that Taaffe and co are banging away at, calling it a decisive break in method and so on. Yet the real scandal of this split is that it is no such thing - it is the essence of the CWI method to decry as ultra-left those who dare to demand what is needed, rather than what a hypothetical mass audience of backward workers will accept. In their document, Rosoman and Costello go on to note, rather brightly, that “were comrades not operating in ‘faction mode’, our organisation would have formulated our slogans slightly differently, given how we’re faced with a different audience [ie, the climate school strikers].” This is certainly true.
The endless demands for the word ‘socialism’ - and only the word, remember, not the substantive idea of a society ruled by the working class - to appear on more placards and in more election leaflets is a pose. It is turned into a shibboleth of orthodoxy, because it is convenient for factional purposes for Taaffe and co to pose left. As is rather typical of this farce of a polemical offensive, it has gone wrong again and again. Taaffe’s faction, as noted, has suffered a split - of the Spanish and Portuguese, and probably the Venezuelans and Mexicans - to its left; so it must, again, ‘style it out’ by now posing as the guardian of orthodoxy against both right opportunism and ultra-leftism.
Meanwhile, a series of ill-tempered attacks on the Irish SP’s electoral performance in the recent European elections is only slightly undermined by SPEW’s failure to recommend any electoral policy of any kind whatsoever in those elections. We wondered at the time whether the CWI crisis and the bizarre silence - not even a call for boycott - on the English polls might be connected, and it seems more likely now, given that a call for a Labour vote could result in accusations of rightism, while a boycott could be interpreted as sectarianism. Better to do nothing whatsoever than to look bad before your opponents.
So let us get real for a moment. In 2001, SPEW flounced out of the Socialist Alliance - the Socialist Alliance, mark you - ostensibly because it wanted to support rival candidates of the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation. There’s your dedication to the socialist vision - far more important to participate in a single-issue protest campaign.5 In 2009, SPEW did manage to participate in the European parliament elections - as part of ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ (No2EU), which frothed a lot about national sovereignty and EU state aid laws, but was more or less silent on socialism. That morphed into the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which ran candidates until very recently: at least the word ‘socialist’ was in its name, but its election literature gave the overwhelming and basically accurate impression that this was pitched as an anti-austerity front - cuts were the issue, not sweeping expropriations and revolutionary democracy.
So if SPEW is to be considered exemplary of “the Trotskyist methods and principles [the CWI] was founded on”, it must indeed be admitted that the NFF’s contention that there are no life-and-death matters of principle at issue is abundantly correct. What is at issue is Taaffe’s leadership as such. It is his way or the highway, even if the highway is basically his way - except occasionally (as in Ireland and even America) it is more successful than the ill-conceived, non-stop misadventure that is SPEW itself.
Not only is this behaviour morally contemptible in itself: it is deeply harmful. Both sides mention the damage done by the weakness of the ‘subjective factor’ - that is, the absence of mass revolutionary parties - in the disastrous course of history since the great financial crisis. That absence, to be sure, is mainly to do with an earlier historic defeat - Stalinism and its downfall - but there is no reason why the remaining forces of the far left need have been in quite such a bad state come 2007. We did it to ourselves, comrades, by precisely the same mechanisms of cynical, barely political purges and splits. We taught the wider workers’ movement and progressive milieu that, whatever we say about workers’ democracy and the like, we show what we are really like by the way we treat our own members, especially when they get out of line.
It was shown by the British SWP’s response to the Martin Smith rape accusations; but it is equally shown by the current CWI fiasco. The left feminists or Extinction Rebellion types might be convinced that Marxism is a better fundamental basis for politics; but hardly if the Marxist groups they encounter are riven with disputes - essentially about whether they remain the perpetual fiefdoms of barely competent leaders like Peter Taaffe.
. ‘Taaffe demands a split’ Weekly Worker April 25.↩
. Jim Cannon, whom we have mentioned, used to say that any split had two reasons: the good reason and the real reason. The real reason in this case was an unwillingness to be outvoted by the Socialist Workers Party in the SA. Nonetheless, note the political vapidity of the manufactured split issue.↩