Drop the dead donkey
Peter Taaffe’s determination to split his would-be international is yet more proof of his unfitness for leadership, argues Paul Demarty
As time marches on, the chances of preventing a damaging split in the Committee for a Workers’ International are reduced to almost nothing.
Historically under the control of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the successor to Militant, the CWI has been engulfed in crisis for eight months or so. The SPEW-dominated international secretariat (IS), which leads the international day to day, lost control of the Irish Socialist Party. In attempting to regain the upper hand, it also lost control of the international executive committee (IEC), to which the IS is accountable in theory. Having done so, the IS majority turned itself into a faction, half of which it rapidly lost; what remains has determined effectively that the split will be concluded by the end of this month, at which point the IS majority hopefully will not have inflicted any more misfortunes upon itself.
Recently leaked documents confirm the picture both of an imminent parting of the ways and an ascending wave of utter clownishness on the part of the IS/SPEW leadership. The two principal sides - the SPEW-IS faction, led by the ill-fated Peter Taaffe; and the ‘non-faction faction’ (NFF), led by various worthies from Ireland, the United States and elsewhere - accuse each other in increasingly shrill terms of financial impropriety. The IS majority consistently alleges that the NFF is preparing for a split - either oblivious to the irony or openly contemptuous of the simple truth that the tale is told of them. Meanwhile, an NFF supporter elected - in happier times - to conduct an audit of the CWI’s accounts asserts that the IS is refusing him proper access. One can hardly blame the NFF supporting sections for keeping a beady eye on the Benjamins under the circumstances - although they, of course, deny they are doing any such thing.
In Ireland, things are getting murkier by the day. We have already reported that the old faction with whom Taaffe and his cronies were allied had split into die-hard IS loyalists and another grouping, which calls itself Transform the Party (TP), which maintained the old political criticisms of the NFF-supporting Irish leadership (in substance that they were soft on bourgeois feminism and sectarian towards Sinn Féin’s support base) but took distance from the IS’s obvious desire for a split. TP has since agreed a statement supporting the NFF’s principal procedural demand for a meeting of the IEC to go ahead in August, as initially agreed, and a special world congress of the CWI to take place in January. This was too much for some of them - four immediately resigned. Thus the balance of forces in the tiny, but disproportionately successful, Irish SP is split three ways.
Meanwhile, the arguments of the IS majority supporters against having the August meeting continue to get more bizarre. There was, of course, the initial prematurely released broadside by Taaffe creature Tony Saunois that insisted that the August meeting was a Mandelite conspiracy for ‘regime change’. When the NFF undertook not to use its IEC majority to change the composition of the IS, that was not good enough - clearly the majority would be used to guarantee ‘regime change’ at the congress in January.
A SPEW members’ bulletin dated June 18 contains a pro-Taaffe missive from a certain Keith Dickinson, a very long-standing activist. It seems almost to have landed from Mars. “The transformation of [a political] discussion into a campaign condemning the international secretariat majority for exercising its rights to form a faction is a big mistake,” he writes. “I cannot see what alternative the IS majority had if there was going to be an open and honest debate.” As if that is what the Taaffe faction has been promoting all this time, as it purges NFF supporters from bodies it controls and issues increasingly hysterical provocations! On the August meeting itself (and here we feel it is worth pointing out that comrade Dickinson’s document, as a whole, is called ‘Politics, not procedures’) he writes:
In relation to a meeting of the international being proposed by the NFF for August, it is absolutely unreasonable for the comrades not to recognise the immediate circumstances of the international being evicted from the premises they are in by the end of July. Who do they think is going to move them and the England and Wales centre? - no small project! How could the IS prepare for and plan any international meeting in August?1
Which would be all well and good, except that this is not what the IS majority says. It does not say, ‘August is no good - how about September?’ It implies that any meeting where the NFF has a majority is ipso facto a threat to the political existence of the CWI.
Beasts of burden
We have in the past sunk so low as to call SPEW - and, by extension, the CWI - that classic phrase of World War I - ‘lions led by donkeys’. This is insufficient, primarily inasmuch as it is unfair to donkeys: patient beasts of burden are not a good analogy for Taaffe and his capricious courtiers. But in a sense they are a good analogy for the general run of SPEW members, who are diligent trade union militants and good socialists enlisted in a hopeless cause by the sort of stupidity that belongs neither to lions nor to donkeys, but to humans alone.
If we are permitted to push the animal analogies further still, we may remind readers of one of the more bizarre episodes in the Torah, where the well-meaning Moabite prophet, Balaam, is caught between the wills of his Baal-worshipping king, Balak, and Yahweh himself; Yahweh sends an angel to block his progress, but only the donkey he rides can see it; she ducks and dives away, much to Balaam’s frustration. When he beats the poor animal, things take a peculiar turn:
And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, “What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?” And Balaam said unto the ass, “Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.” And the ass said unto Balaam, “Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?” and he said, “Nay.”
Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.2
There is often, in splits of the Marxist movement, a similar phenomenon: the donkeys talk back to the riders, and not infrequently they have the angels on their side. This was very much a feature of the Socialist Workers Party’s various ruptures since the end of the last decade - particularly after a palace coup got rid of John Rees and his allies from the leadership. For a brief, tantalising moment, there was actual political content in its internal bulletins, though its level remained low and there was still plenty of localist bilge to wade through.
The context of the anti-Rees coup was the disastrous end of a political cycle in which the SWP, despite serious errors at times, had at least one major achievement to its name. It had placed itself at the centre of the movement against the Iraq war, and succeeded in calling the largest demonstration in British history. It is undoubtedly the case that the strength of that movement has acted as a partial brake on the subsequent military adventures of the British state, restricting John Bull to fatuous token bombings and - at best - ‘assistance’ to proxies like the Benghazi rebels in Libya, and the Kurds and ‘moderate’ Islamists of Syria. Rees attempted to cash in on the anti-war success with Respect, a joint political venture with George Galloway and various petty bourgeois opportunists in south Asian Muslim neighbourhoods, and it was the SWP’s farcical exit from Respect that put Rees and his allies on borrowed time.
The trouble with SPEW - all the more so as they lecture the Irish leadership on the right way to do politics - is that there are no such successes since 1989-91 and the anti-poll tax movement. Having once had three Labour MPs, control of Liverpool council and a stronghold in the Labour Party Young Socialists, Peter Taaffe initiated his ‘open turn’ with the promises that, despite the collapse of the “workers’ states” in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, the “red-1990s” awaited them.
In fact, that decade delivered little other than fragmentation and posturing disaster; the capitulation of the Scottish section to left nationalism and rapid exit from the CWI; the loss of the remnants of the Liverpool organisation; the support of a series of disastrous electoral adventures in cooperation with the RMT union bureaucracy - from the Campaign against Tube Privatisation to No2EU, to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition; and, above all, paralysis in the face of the election of Jeremy Corbyn - an event that blew to pieces its founding shibboleth, that the Labour Party was irreformable, and which may yet rob it of the influence SPEW still has in certain unions.
Decline and hope
The picture is, in reality, one of decline; and this goes in fact for both sides. It is now admitted that a substantial split last year in Socialist Alternative, the CWI’s US section, was in practice a split towards the Democratic Socialists of America, who have profited greatly from the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. The Irish organisation, moreover, remains a skeletal appendage of its TDs’ staff, and has serious democratic and cultural defects of its own. A particularly bitter missive from anonymous ex-members paints a picture which, alas, we recognise from other accounts: top-heavy and intolerant of differences.3 It should be remembered that the initial escalation was in part due to the decision of the core leadership to spy on the then Taaffe-loyal Paul Murphy.
Murphy, as noted, went on to found his own faction and, if there is a glimmer of hope among all this, it is the rather plaintive note sounded in that faction’s formal break from the IS:
We fear that [the] failure for either main trend to clearly and consistently stand for democratic methods, as well as the explosive way this crisis arose after many years of formal agreement, points to underlying problems in the democratic culture within the CWI and at least some of its sections. The political issues which have emerged … will not be properly addressed without an internal life which encourages questioning, open expression of differences and democratic debate. We want to contribute in a full debate in Ireland and internationally to understand the causes of the degeneration of our democratic internal life and to assist its renewal.4
Without such a renewal, to be sure, things do not augur well. Take, again, the SWP: the brief flourishing of oppositional voices in 2008-10 gave way to an almost uninterrupted decline into total intellectual sterility and political irrelevance. The 2013 crisis over rape allegations gave rise to two splits, which bundled - in good order or otherwise - towards oblivion at quite a clip. The same possible fate awaits SPEW and whatever parts of the CWI it can keep, when the bloodletting is done - and for that matter those sections rudely declared ‘outside the international’ by the IS this month - unless a real democratic culture can emerge, and a serious critical examination of the tendency’s many political errors is begun.
It goes without saying that the woeful misleadership of Taaffe and co is an absolute obstacle to such a course, and must be brought to a swift and merciful end. Few indeed are the leading figures of the Marxist left who so misused the energy and patience of their members.