Taaffe counts his shekels

The two sides in the CWI dispute are engaged in a tawdry wrangling over cash, writes Paul Demarty

More unpleasant news reaches us from the Committee for a Workers’ International, which is busily cleaving itself into two parts.

Readers will know that the CWI is the oil-slick international of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which once enjoyed considerable success, by the standards of British Trotskyism, as the Militant Tendency within the Labour Party, but has more recently endured 29 lean years under the blundering helmsmanship of Peter Taaffe. The London leadership fell out with its Irish comrades last year, and proved unable to discipline the latter; Taaffe thereupon decided to force through a split, founding a faction and effectively constituting its opponents as one by the same action (the latter are called the ‘non-faction faction’ or NFF in these disputes).

The NFF has a majority on the international executive committee - in theory the CWI’s highest body between conferences - but Taaffe retains his grip on the smaller full-time international secretariat, which provides day-to-day leadership, and has shamelessly wielded it as a factional weapon against the NFF. The two NFF members on the IS were immediately excluded from all administrative activities, which are essentially given over to Taaffe’s quest for blood. We now learn that part of these two comrades’ wages have been withheld by the IS, apparently to force the (NFF-supporting) Belgian section to hand over a rather larger sum of money to the IS, which clearly wants to get its hands on the main part of the CWI’s assets, as they are crudely bisected in the coming weeks.

We do not suppose, in spite of the rhetoric used by NFF comrades about these two members’ family commitments and general need for the money, that they will soon fall into dire poverty (surely their factional comrades will not let them starve … ). The story is interesting, however, as a bellwether of how sharply divided things are, how utterly cynical the Taaffeites’ conduct has become, and how destructive it is of what remains of their legacy.

Here, we would like to correct an exaggeration in our last article, concerning SPEW’s travails in the Public and Commercial Services union. We claimed that SPEW’s strong position in that union was “the only thing left to connect the 1980s Militant and the post-millennial SPEW”. There were clearly other leftovers. In the current context, one other thing springs to mind.

In the 1980s, BBC journalist Michael Crick published a barely competent hatchet-job book about Militant. The chapter on the sources of its funding, having gone through various decreasingly plausible sources of vast wealth, concluded by dismissing the idea that it might be funded primarily by the self-sacrifice of its members on an ‘if you’ll believe that, you’ll believe anything’ basis. All we learn from that is that Crick cannot have actually bothered to go to any meetings of the organisation (and that the servants of the bourgeoisie are incapable of understanding self-sacrifice). The Militant/SPEW tradition has always had a very strong practice of fundraising. Barely a meeting of theirs goes by without a bucket being passed round, and more than small change is tossed in. Punchy subs are requested of members on top of that.

All things being equal, this is a very admirable thing. The communist movement ought not to turn away blank cheques from eccentric ruling-class traitors, but it would be foolish to rely on them; in order to compete with the subsidised paid persuaders of the enemy, we have only one reliable method, and that is the willingness of people to reach into their pockets until it starts to sting a little. But, of course, all things are not equal. Members have the right to see - indeed, the duty so far as is possible to ensure - that the money is spent wisely, and does not turn into an obstacle to the political accountability of the leadership.

So, having seen where the money comes from, we ask, where does it go? The main line item on the outgoings in that tradition has been the party workers’ wage bill. Famously, at its peak, Militant had more full-timers than Labour HQ. Today, SPEW’s rivals in the Irish SP - thanks to the bounties on offer to members of the Dáil - have, by some estimates, 25% of the admittedly small membership on the payroll.

The dangers ought to be obvious. Who disburses the wages of these full-timers? Why, the leadership - as the two NFF-supporting unfortunates on the IS are now discovering. Without compensating mechanisms, this can have a profoundly distorting effect on the overall political culture. This is perhaps clearest, in the British context, in the case of the Socialist Workers Party, which has a strict hierarchy of full-timers answerable to the central committee and in particular at the disposal of the national organiser. A series of petty tyrants occupied that position over the years - one, Chris Bambery, was reportedly nicknamed Bilko, after the venerable comedy drill sergeant - and it was accusations of rape against another, Martin Smith, that plunged the SWP into crisis six years ago.

In the SWP, full-timers are appointed centrally. This contrasts with, for example, the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain, which - in spite of its Stalinist and anti-democratic character - at least enabled districts to elect their own. This had the effect of allowing the factions (almost none of which, of course, admitted their existence) to fight for adherents and partially contest the bureaucratic management of the organisation’s political approach. It cannot be stressed enough that the internal norms of the SWP are far worse than those of the old CPGB, even as the latter reached the stage of Eurocommunist hacks searching prams for copies of opposition papers at party congress.

Where SPEW and the CWI fall on that scale is hard to tell, but it is certainly between the two. This particular dispute highlights, for a start, something very much in common with the latter days of the ‘official’ CPGB: the tendency for parts of the party machinery to be coopted wholesale as factional property. The two IS comrades are shut out because the IS is Taaffe’s base of operations in the present unpleasantness, and Taaffe supporters openly declare it legitimate for the IS to be used this way, even as they denounce the NFF for doing the same with the international executive committee. So while, in formal terms, these particular full-timers on the IS are elected and accountable to higher bodies, in practice Taaffe and co refuse to accept any accountability whatsoever, and exercise a form of ‘central appointment’ in the shape of a veto against ‘troublesome’ colleagues, as at present.

In truth, having decided on the course of forcing through a split, it was quite inevitable that Taaffe would resort to this sort of awful behaviour. In any divorce, there is the question of who gets the antique dining table, and who gets the Japanese peace lily; the division of assets will be most telling. A notable example of this - again - involves the SWP, which decamped from the Respect alliance they had formed with George Galloway and others, apparently unaware that it had thereby lost the right to the Respect name, since Galloway ally Linda Smith was the organisation’s returning officer. The SWP central committee refused to admit this to its membership for months, after which it was suddenly announced that the SWP would be standing as the ‘Left List’ in the 2008 London mayoral elections.

So today, we approach an international split which hews one leadership body from the other; no surprise that there is a scramble for whatever cash is at hand. Meanwhile, the CWI brand - for all that’s worth - may end up devolving to whichever side is quicker to delete the others’ admin accounts on the website. It is going to be a mess; and after it is done, Taaffe - and especially his loyal flock of SPEW members - will have to think long and hard about whether it was worth it.

Should any other forces succeed in regrouping amid the wreckage, it will fall to them to examine closely the roots of this awful political culture, and build a healthier and robustly democratic one for the future l