Socialist Workers Party - Canadian style

January 10 saw a major split in the Canadian International Socialists. Below we reprint an edited version of a resignation letter - signed by Sue Ferguson, David McNally, Alan Sears and Deborah Simmons - which took the form of an ‘Open letter to members of the International Socialist’, dated December 28 1995. Though we do not necessarily agree with all their conclusions we feel it is important that all divisions in our movement are debated out openly, in print. We welcome replies from IS or SWP members

WE ARE writing to inform you of our decision to resign from the International Socialists. This is not a decision we have come to easily. Events over the past year or so have convinced us, however, that the IS is undergoing a political degeneration that is unlikely to be reversed. We feel an obligation, nonetheless, to explain our decision to many members of the IS with whom we have worked over a good number of years. This letter is addressed principally to them, and not to the Steering Committee, which is directing the transformation of the IS into a bureaucratic sect.

A perspective gone off the rails

We start from the conviction that the political perspectives of the IS leadership - which are largely a crude and mechanical application of an international perspective formulated by the British SWP - have created another-worldliness inside the organisation. The essential elements of this perspective are the following: 1) that we are witnessing a profound crisis of world capitalism comparable to that of the 1930s; 2) that this crisis is destroying mainstream parties and ideologies and creating a tremendous audience for revolutionary socialism; 3) that IS groups the world over must transform themselves in the space of a few years from small propaganda groups into the beginnings of mass parties capable of leading major struggles.

In order to try to sustain a perspective that flies in the face of reality, the Steering Committee has constantly substituted fanciful prophesies of great working class breakthroughs for clear-headed analysis of the real terrain of class struggle in this country. Thus, just before the Liberal government brought down the most anti-working class budget in post-war history (with $9 billion in cuts and lay-offs of 45,000 workers), Socialist Worker ran the editorial headline, “Liberals on the run!” Then, after the defeat of railworkers’ strikes by back-to-work legislation, Socialist Worker celebrated with the claim that, “The fight-back has just begun!”

For most of its history, the IS tendency has encouraged serious, sober and critical assessment of the economic and political realities that confront the working class movement. The IS Steering Committee now openly flouts those traditions - with the apparent encouragement of the SWP leadership.

The result is that virtually anything goes, including the most recent prediction by Abbie Bakan at a Toronto public meeting last December that, “1996 will be remembered as a breakthrough year like 1917, 1968 and 1989”. Abbie did not inform her listeners how she knew this, or where she got her ability to predict the future. But in the “new IS” serious arguments don’t matter. You are meant to believe what you are told to believe.

In and of themselves, faulty perspectives need not be fatal for a small revolutionary group. What matters is the capacity for genuine self-correction of mistakes. And the decisive element here is open and democratic discussion and debate. That’s why it is the creation of a regime of slander and vilification, of witch-hunting attacks against dissenters, which is the most dangerous element of the recent evolution of the IS. As members are driven out, each time with the slogan “good riddance”, the capacity to correct mistakes declines.

There is a line that is crossed during such a process of political degeneration: a line that separates a small revolutionary group with its feet in the real world from a sect. That line has now been crossed in the IS. The results are clear.

The key reason has to do with the adoption by the leadership of the idea that the greatest problems confronting revolutionaries today are to be found inside the IS, among its members, particularly a layer of long-standing members.

The “good riddance” regime

The clearest sign of the dramatic shift in the orientation of the overwhelming majority of the Steering Committee came at the February 25, 1995 national committee meeting. There Paul Kellogg introduced for the first time in the 20-year history of the IS a line which is characteristic of the other-wordly sect: celebrating people leaving the organisation. In the session he introduced, Paul argued that our attitude to people leaving the IS should be “good riddance”.

One of the features that distinguished the IS throughout its history was its refusal to adopt the sectist line that “enemies in our midst” represent the main obstacle to the growth and development of the organisation. We insisted that the main obstacles are external - having to do with the state of capitalism, levels of working class confidence, activity and organisation, the hold of the trade union bureaucracy and reformism, etc. When members left, we ascribed this overwhelmingly to the difficulties of building a small revolutionary organisation radically cut off from the working class.

All that changed with the adoption of the “good riddance” policy. Calls to “war” against the old IS, to “smash” the old IS, became commonplace. The results were predictable: members were removed from elected positions, large numbers left the organisation, internal discussion and debate dried up in a climate of witch-hunting against heretics and disbelievers. As a result, we now have a national leadership which has presided over a considerable decline in the membership of the IS - and brags about it! The recent news that the Steering Committee is planning further purges comes as no surprise.

Fantasies about 1903

One of the characteristics of bureaucratic sects is that their leaderships imagine themselves to be refighting great historical battles. Nowhere is this trend in the IS clearer than in the utterly ludicrous notion that the Steering Committee has been re-enacting the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, the famous 1903 Congress which saw the historic split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Russian Marxist movement.

In the IS tradition we used to refer to this silliness as “comic-opera bolshevism”. Now the cadre of the IS is being instructed in precisely this sort of idiotic “learning” of the revolutionary tradition. What you get from such a process of “education” is not people who can creatively apply the lessons of the revolutionary socialist tradition to the concrete problems confronting small groups today: instead you train people in the ability to repeat slogans and insults - and to call people “mensheviks”. Genuine revolutionary organisations cannot be built in this way.

What to do?

For some time we hoped that the obvious failures of the Steering Committee’s perspectives would force a re-examination and a reorientation inside the IS. We no longer believe this to be the least bit probable. The Steering Committee has celebrated the decline of the organisation, each stage of the way claiming to be in the midst of a great historic breakthrough. And they have received the clear stamp of approval from the leaderships of the British SWP and American ISO in doing so.

For this reason, we have decided to leave the IS and devote our energies to a new publication. We hope that it will be possible to work with many of the dedicated comrades who remain in the IS. But it is our conviction that the future for the politics of socialism from below in this country lies outside the IS.

The following open letter, dated January 10, was signed by 24 of the resigning members of the Canadian IS

The leadership has failed to live up to the better parts of our tradition of genuine comradely debate and faction rights. In short, the IS leadership has done little to avert a split. Thus our worst fears have been realised: the IS, primarily through the reckless irresponsibility of its Steering Committee, will lose more than a quarter of its membership (in crucial Ontario, where the debate is based, more than half will be lost) - and significantly more in terms of experience and activity - rather than conduct a sincere, open and democratic debate concerning the pressing political differences among the members.

This marks the IS’s degeneration into a bureaucratic sect, the failure of our factional task of politically reorienting the IS and therefore the end of our membership of the IS.

We hasten to add that the internal developments above are not our reasons for leaving. They are the symptoms of the Canadian IS’s deeper political problems, which are the sources of its other-worldliness and dogmatism and hence of our fundamental - and now irreconcilable - political differences.

Furthermore, we disavow the IS’s leadership’s conception of Leninist organisation for small groups. It is an uncritical application of organisational models from the 1920s Communist International, despite the dissimilarity of the conditions - including the absence of a real workers’ vanguard, never mind mass revolutionary parties. There is no embryo of such a mass party in Canada, and the IS’s pretensions of transforming itself into such an embryo divert it from its real tasks.

This new type of organisation must be serious about feeding the experience of its members into all meetings, debates, perspectives, and publications. It must be serious about Marxist theory based in the lived experience of the working class as a whole and integrally connected to revolutionary practice. It must present itself through a new kind of publication, which reaches out to its main audience - students and young workers - where they are at. Finally, its internal tone must be one of modesty, humour, humanity, camaraderie, and openness which inspires members and non-members alike.

We will of course remain open to cooperating with the IS. We look forward to working alongside sincere socialists who choose to continue inside the sectifying IS.