‘Historic’ meeting ... hardly

Taaffe expels his majority

Paul Demarty reports on the finalisation of the split in the Committee for a Workers’ International.

Splits come in many forms. A great international movement may be cleaved apart by events, as happened to the Second International during and after World War I. A small tendency may depart, or be expelled from, a larger one - as Trotskyism was from the Communist International. A micro-group may itself divide - indeed, there is at least one recorded case of a Trotskyist group of two splitting in half!

But the relative and absolute strength of the contending groups are only two of the innumerable axes of variety for the curious leftwing trainspotter to explore in the history of our movement, its tragedies and farces. One particularly irritating subspecies is the split where both sides insist on keeping the name; and to that vexatious category we may now add that of the Committee for a Workers’ International. As long expected, the leadership of the Socialist Party in England and Wales - the sinking tanker at the centre of the CWI oil slick, with Peter Taaffe as its clueless helmsman - has concluded its laughably cynical response to losing undisputed control by dissolving the international and declaring another. Taaffe’s opponents, meanwhile, see no reason to abandon the name, seeing as the SPEW leaders have acted in outright contempt for the formal democratic norms they themselves created ever since their first attempt to bring troublesome comrades in Ireland to heel backfired.

That attempt was seen off by a majority of the CWI’s international executive committee (IEC), which committed the organisation to holding a world congress next spring. However, Taaffe and his allies retained control of the day-to-day leadership, the international secretariat, and immediately appropriated it as factional property, reneging on every promise made to the IEC and pulling out every stop to force a split; and, just as in the modern world it takes only one dissatisfied partner to make divorce inevitable, so Taaffe got what he wanted. On July 21, a special conference of SPEW voted 173-35 to “reconstitute the Committee for a Workers’ International”1; the next day, a suspiciously similar number of people “from [Taaffe’s] international faction, … took the decision to refound the Committee for a Workers’ International”.2

So we now have two CWIs - one built around SPEW and the other composed of everybody who thought the split was unnecessary, the most important components being found in Ireland and the United States. Both sides emerge damaged by the course of events, although it is the SPEW faction - in the best traditions of Taaffe’s leadership - whose wounds are most predominantly self-inflicted.

Those wounds, then: in the best case, the split leaves the CWI (Taaffe) light by about a third of its former members. Assuming SPEW really did number 2,000 prior to all this, and the low vote against the leadership line actually represents the balance of forces within SPEW, then it has lost 350 at home, the majority of the 800-strong US section, the vast majority of the 150 or so in Ireland, and most of the micro-sections of 20 or less members scattered around the place. (This leaves out of account the Spanish section and its allies, which have already flounced out on the basis that Taaffe and co were too conciliatory.)

So let us say the Taaffe CWI is down from 3,000-odd to 2,000, and down from 40-odd sections this time last year, for what they are worth, to 11. This is undoubtedly an over-generous estimate, if only because splits are inherently demoralising and send people quietly to the exits in dribs and drabs. Depending on how much funny accounting is going on in the SPEW membership rolls, the number could be far lower, although the assessment of one disgruntled South African comrade that the Taaffe CWI “will have less than 500 active members” seems rather to lowball it.3

Fewer, but better?

It has been said of certain splits, sometimes legitimately, ‘Better fewer, but better’ - unity for its own sake can lead to politically disastrous outcomes, and the split may be the least-worst option. Such is the ostensible split justification for the CWI (Taaffe): the comrades were shocked - shocked! - to discover that their historic co-thinkers in Ireland, America and (more tenuously) in the other 20 sections squandered last week had capitulated to identity politics and/or become ‘Mandelites’, and thus the international needed to be refounded on its uniquely profitable original basis, with regrettably (but necessarily) fewer participants than before. We will cover the political development of these ‘Mandelites’ below, but in this connection we need only consider the history of SPEW to conclude that this particular maxim is not a flier this time.

It was Taaffe who abandoned the Militant Tendency’s stronghold in the Labour Party; Taaffe who then swerved towards disastrous feminist and black nationalist initiatives; Taaffe who sold his soul to petty nationalist separatism - first in Scotland on the basis of a few opinion polls and then in general everywhere ‘on principle’. He objects not to this sort of crass opportunism, but merely to its being carried on independently of his own political judgement. ‘Better fewer, but better’ simply does not work if the percentage of people in your organisation called ‘Peter Taaffe’ goes up by half.

On the plus side, taking the initiative in forcing the split has benefits of another kind. It certainly seems to be the case that Taaffe and co have made off with all the international’s assets, taking advantage of the IS’s control of bank accounts, web infrastructure and so on. Given that their decision to split amounts to an admission that they could not expect to win at any meeting of the IEC or subsequent congress (note that the ‘refoundation’ of the CWI is attributed to Taaffe’s faction, since no more august body could be persuaded to back it), their ransacking of the material resources looks rather less than classy.

So what of the CWI majority? As noted, it proposes to keep the name, which really is fair enough. A defiant response, signed by various figures from the anti-Taaffe faction, has appeared on the website of the CWI’s American section, Socialist Alternative. The account of the differences given is recognisable:

The conditions suffered by large numbers of workers, youth, women, migrants, and other layers in society have brought many into action. In the case of mass movements against specific forms of oppression, these have often been marked by ideological confusion, and varying degrees of bourgeois and petty bourgeois influence. The majority of the CWI and its ranks believe the best way to help overcome this confusion is by participating as the most dynamic and programmatically clearest component in those movements, clearly drawing a line between our working class approach and that of our opponents.

The former day-to-day leadership of the CWI, which has carried out a bureaucratic coup in the organisation, … showed a lack of confidence about intervening in these movements. They emphasised the fear that our membership would be intoxicated by petty bourgeois identity politics and other “alien ideas” in these movements and preferred, in their own words, to “dig in” and await events within the official labour movement.4

There follows a generally accurate account of the course of the split, with great (and probably exaggerated) emphasis on the size of the majority, relative to the minority, that engineered it. The comrades do their best to end on a stirring note:

The CWI majority is united, intact and retains significant fighting capacity in over 30 countries around the globe! We are determined to discuss and debate to draw all the lessons from the crisis we have been through, for how to build a youthful, democratic and powerful world party dedicated to the fight for a socialist revolution … We will soon launch an international website and other publications. We call on all CWI members, and workers and youth of all countries, to discuss with and join us!

How well do we expect them to do? Unfortunately, it is necessary to express scepticism. There are, of course, the practical difficulties: Taaffe’s carpetbaggers have run off with all the money and the international website, which will give them a head start in fighting for the CWI ‘brand’. The trouble with the particular tiered model of organisation operated by the CWI hitherto - a large, but basically ineffective, leadership body, and a small and effective day-to-day executive - is that members of the former do not automatically learn to do the activities of the latter, and so it falls to the ‘non-faction faction’ to assemble a provisional executive body from scratch. The CWI (Taaffe), on the other hand, already has a ready-made clique of cronies to run things.

More important are the political difficulties. We have denounced the Taaffe faction’s polemics not for being entirely incorrect, but for being hypocritical. Taaffe denounces ‘Mandelism’ - meaning by that unprincipled accommodation to the demands of social movements that are not directly socialist, but has himself acted in that way repeatedly, usually with the result of total disaster. His pseudo-left turn during the present contretemps must be dismissed on that basis - indeed, that unreality in relation to practice is why the polemics being hurled out of London are so theoretically impoverished.

Too faithful

The CWI (majority), then, is to be faulted not for breaking with the historic basis of the CWI, but rather for adhering to it all too faithfully. In its statement, for example, it writes:

These [feminist, etc] movements have often also been characterised by a strong participation by the working class, and are increasingly being expressed in working class strike action - for example, with industrial action against sexism taking place around the world from the USA to South Africa.

We have seen a lot of this sort of stuff in the back-and-forth between the two factions, and indeed beforehand (the use of the strike weapon in Catalonia, for instance, was given as an excuse for the CWI’s starry-eyed adulation of national separatism there). The mistake is, first of all, to take the use of the strike as a form and a symbol to be an indication of an underlying orientation to the working class, when in fact the strike is also part of a general rhetorical repertoire available to all protest movements; it is thus a kind of category error, equivalent to mistaking marketing slogans of the ‘Join the [insert the particular] revolution’ type for an incipient insurrectionary consciousness on Madison Avenue. No doubt the comrades do not think that the use of strike rhetoric is enough to characterise a movement as socialist, or even socialistic; but revealed here is the old error of assuming that things must develop in that direction - provided, at any rate, there is sufficiently enthusiastic participation of socialists.

That leads us to a second problem, which is that “participating as the most dynamic and programmatically clearest component in those movements” does not - at least without further specification - in fact demand a “world party dedicated to the fight for a socialist revolution”. People can build movements anyway, in ad-hoc affinity groups, NGOs or whatever else. There would be a purpose in advocating distinctively Marxist approaches to the questions at issue, but to do so would be to immediately put into question the CWI’s status as ‘participants’, for the uncomfortable conclusion must be that a movement of ‘all women’ ‘against sexism’, for example, is a chimera, and the isolated use of the strike weapon within such a movement does not at all entail a danger to the political domination of the bourgeoisie. Without such a critique, which means in the end the willingness to split movements as well as build them, there is no connection between the ‘world party’ and the day-to-day activity, and certainly no obvious reason why the right-on movement-building work could not be conducted with just as ‘socialistic’ a rhetoric within, for example, the Democratic Socialists of America.

The germ of truth in Taaffe’s proprietorial attitude is that the CWI’s ‘historic basis’ is primarily a matter of its connection to Britain, and specifically SPEW’s predecessor, Militant. Its political coherence consisted then in an orientation to the ‘mass parties of the working class’, such as Labour, but, after Taaffe’s split with Ted Grant, an absolute refusal to do any work in those parties, combined with a focus on severing their links with the trade unions. Attempting to carry on without that anchor, and on such a thin political basis, is likely to lead not to a renewal - ‘Better fewer, but better’ - but a slow dissipation, after the fashion of the various splits from the Socialist Workers Party and its International Socialist Tendency.

It need not happen that way, of course. Both sides in this split claim to defend the CWI tradition, but the bruising of the last few months might act as a spur to rethinking. It is to be hoped that this rethinking leads back to serious Marxist politics, and not the evaporation of one fragment into the well-meaning activist ether and the reduction of the other to a sterile obedience cult.


  1. www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/29389/21-07-2019/socialist-party-conference-reaffirms-the-cwis-historic-approach.↩︎

  2. www.socialistworld.net/index.php/192-cwi/10249-refounding-the-committee-for-a-workers-international-on-the-basis-of-a-trotskyist-programme-and-method.↩︎

  3. https://telegra.ph/CWI-split-Statement-on-the-formation-of-the-WASP-Caucus-for-a-United-International--reply-by-EC-majority--explanation-by-DB-07-05.↩︎

  4. http://www.socialistalternative.org/2019/07/26/bureaucratic-coup-will-not-stop-cwi-majority-from-building-a-strong-revolutionary-socialist-international↩︎