What will be left?
The split in the Committee for a Workers’ International ought to put paid to its delusions of grandeur, writes Paul Demarty
So, again, to the civil war in the Committee for a Workers’ International.
We have mentioned before that the internet is aflood with ‘internal only’ documents of the proceeding split - with names politely truncated, so that her majesty’s security services will never work out that ‘Peter T’ is really Peter Taaffe. In the week since I last wrote on this matter,1 the pace of leaks has increased still further, as morale drops in wider circles in the CWI.
I do not propose to repeat that last article’s political analysis, but rather fill out a few details. Firstly: the split in the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the pre-eminent and largest CWI section, led by Taaffe, is very serious. We noted last week that Taaffe’s pseudo-left faction won 75% in a vote on SPEW’s large national committee (NC), as against 20% against and 5% abstentions. The smaller executive committee, at the same time, was purged of its two members who supported the international majority, the so-called ‘Non-Faction Faction’, including Sarah Wrack, editor of the Socialist (but no longer). A letter of protest gathered some 127 initial signatures and, while we expect that Taaffe will carry the day on the home front by sheer bureaucratic crudity, it is clear that the international split reaches deep into SPEW.
The shape of things in Ireland, moreover, is interesting. It may be remembered that the scratch that, today, widens into schism was on the Irish limb of the CWI. The leadership of the Socialist Party in Ireland had some success positioning itself as a sort of socialist-feminist trend, for which purposes it created a front organisation called Rosa. This turned out to be quite a good move, as the referendum campaign around the 8th amendment (which prohibited abortion until sensationally rejected by an overwhelming majority last year) kicked into gear.
Some members of the Irish SP, however, believed this approach to entail too many concessions to bourgeois feminism; this faction, led by Paul Murphy, was supported by the CWI’s International Secretariat (IS) - the small day-to-day leadership dominated by Taaffe’s cronies - and a dispute between Murphy and the leadership majority in Ireland led to a mysterious ‘breach of protocol’, which in turn led to a meeting of the International Executive Committee (IEC), the larger body to which the IS is accountable in theory (but not, as we have subsequently seen, according to its own opinion). The defeat of the IS motion censuring the Irish leadership precipitated the push towards an international split.
It is worth bringing up what seems, now, like ancient history, merely to make the point that among the members of Taaffe’s ‘In Defence of a Working Class and Trotskyist CWI’ faction (it turns out that IDWCTCWI is actually longer than the word ‘Taaffe’, so let us call it the Taaffe faction), we do not find a certain Paul Murphy. He, and a number of co-thinkers, instead formed their own faction in Ireland, out of an almost touching attachment to - you know - the actual substance of their original political criticisms.
This casts an even more unflattering light on the Taaffe faction’s notional justifications for a split. It accuses the IEC majority/Non-Faction Faction of preparing a split, and that its demand for a meeting of its numbers, to be called in August, is a pretext for ‘regime change’ on the IS. The fact that the statutes of the CWI say that the IEC has a right to demand such a meeting is, apparently, to obey the letter of the law rather than the spirit, which is to defend ‘Trotskyism’. And, since it is an article of faith that the NFF represents an anti-Trotskyist trend, it therefore loses its rights altogether. (An email to all SPEW members, advertising a special congress of that organisation, makes clear that the leadership considers any participation in any meeting of the IEC in August to be an expulsion matter.)
Yet, if we look at the actual situation in Ireland, by far the largest section of members who made congruent political criticisms of the national leadership find the use of those criticisms as a means to bludgeon through a split unacceptable and distorting. Their documents are now quite critical of the conservatism of the Taaffeites, although their main enemy remains at home. Taaffe loyalists in Ireland, according to our sources, are keeping a relatively low profile.
If the political justification is threadbare (never mind the small matter of the flagrant opportunism of SPEW in the whole period of its existence under Taaffe’s hapless leadership - on which point we refer readers to our last article), something like an explanation for the accelerated timetable for the split becomes clear. Taaffe has lost a host of his Irish allies. He has lost the Spanish and Portuguese sections from the CWI altogether, and it seems that the Venezuelans and Mexicans will follow. If this battle goes on for much longer, it will be a matter of Taaffe and Tony Saunois frothing at each other in a London cupboard about the need to defend a working class, Trotskyist Committee for a Workers’ International. We note, in passing, the formal justification for a split from the Spanish comrades, which includes the accusation that the Taaffe faction resorted to diplomatic fudging with its hated adversaries so as to avoid showing up its lack of support:
The adoption of a ‘diplomatic’ resolution agreed with the ‘Non-Faction Faction’ - a manoeuvre presented as a ‘skilful tactic’, but that was in reality intended to avoid opposing the IS on a vote in the English and Welsh section Congress [sic] - alarmed us. The policy of defending ‘prestige’, of not speaking clearly, of seeking organisational short cuts to face a debate that, theoretically, had principled bases, was one more argument for the CEE of the Spanish section … to report their opinions and criticisms.2
There is a certain subplot of this whole story, which is only reinforced by recent disclosures. That is the fact that the CWI has had its own irrelevance disclosed to it.
At the beginning of it all, it was common enough to read its boast of being “the largest Trotskyist international”. This is an almost comically modest boast, of course - as the American conservative icon, William F Buckley, once put it, like being the tallest building in Topeka, Kansas. Even on the face of it, however, the claim was false to begin with. It seems quite certain that the CWI is smaller than the Mandelite Fourth International, for example. We can only assume that the latter are excluded from consideration on account of not being real Trotskyists.
The very form that the dispute has taken, however - with one faction dominating one international committee, and the other dominating another - has led to increasingly rebarbative argument about who actually represents the majority in the wider membership. The result is that the two sides end up bidding each other down. The rhetoric of the decisive importance of the CWI, the ‘biggest international’, is increasingly drowned out by the exchange of reality checks. The NFF comrades, in their most substantial statement, quote Taaffe at a SPEW national committee discussion back in January:
Comrades have been moaning ... we are the biggest international and if we are the biggest international what a pity it would be for us to lose certain sections ... Let’s have a sense of proportion about what we represent ... relatively small, mostly propagandistic, interventionist groups, but that is nothing compared to what is coming. That’s what exercises me ...3
And that was very much the picture painted in the IS majority statement that made clear the Taaffeites consider the August IEC meeting a split issue:
[The IEC] ‘majority’ in no way represents the overall balance of the CWI membership, as a whole, in which the NFF is clearly in a minority. The NFF argue they are in a ‘majority’ on an IEC in which the Russian section has two full members with a claimed membership of only 25; the Israeli section has two full members and 45 members, and the Cypriot section has one full IEC member with a claimed membership of 21. The Polish section has one alternate IEC member. Five members attended the recent debate on the CWI crisis!4
We have considered the seriousness of the Taaffeites’ claims above - and, indeed, at length in earlier articles. But this is the state of the “world’s largest Trotskyist international”. It was only a matter of time before the NFF reached for the nuclear option, and questioned how big the mothership in England and Wales really was nowadays; but they were left with little choice after the sort of accounting quoted above. So, in the response to the IS majority’s ultimatum, the comrades finally let fly:
The distorted and dishonest narrative of the [Taaffe] faction to try and deny its minority status in the CWI is mostly based on the idea that the biggest section, England and Wales, with 2,000 members on paper, supports the faction. This idea is completely fictitious. Let us look at the facts. About 300 comrades attended the 11 regional all-members debates in the England and Wales section (including overlapping comrades who attended more than one and about 50 full-timers). At the time of writing 127 England and Wales comrades from over 30 branches have signed an open letter opposing the [Taaffe] faction.5
There is a little prestidigitation going on here, to be sure - 127 signatories does not equal slightly less than half of 300 participants in aggregates. That 300 figure is extremely low, however; and we wonder how many signatories the SPEW leadership could mobilise. (Wonder is all we can do, as they do not seem to want to get into that particular competition.) It does, however, fit a wider pattern among bureaucratic centralist sects of this sort of size: the number of people taking an active role of any sort in the life of the organisation is always rather lower than the notional dues-paying membership. And so it seems today: only 300 members of SPEW can be bothered to take part in a life-or-death factional battle.
This, essentially, is what the two sides are fighting over - control of a single central organisation supposedly numbering 2,000 but with an active membership of less than half of that at best; an American organisation of 800 or so, ‘activist’ composition unclear; an Irish organisation whose electoral success belies a cadre base of barely more than 100; a whole series of tiny sects of that kind of size; and a bunch more microscopic sects of a lesser order of magnitude. To the outside world, it projects an image of monolithic unity and vigorous common purpose, and puffs itself up to look bigger than it actually is. Internally, people bitch at each other about which faction’s ‘base areas’ have the most inflated membership numbers.
The self-image of the “world’s largest Trotskyist international” was always a fantasy; but dreams also may die, and this one will not survive next month’s butchery.
‘Fiasco nears conclusion’ Weekly Worker June 13.↩