WeeklyWorker

13.08.2020
Jacopo Ligozzi, ‘A chimera’’. Unprincipled unity produces programmatic incoherence

Unity and organisational principle

Mike Macnair looks at the regroupment call from Socialist Resistance and Mutiny

Socialist Resistance’s website on August 5 announced an initiative, called Anti-Capitalist Resistance, taken with the Mutiny group - “towards the possible creation of a new revolutionary anti-capitalist organisation”. Both organisations advertise a two-day school on September 12-13; Mutiny’s website advertises also evening meetings on ‘The working class and the oppressed’ (July 30); ‘The ecological crisis and the ecosocialist alternative’ (August 13); ‘Nationalism and internationalism in the era of Brexit and Trump’ (August 27); and ‘What does democracy mean for anti-capitalists?’ (September 10). The agenda for the weekend school is: ‘Analysing the world capitalist crisis’; ‘Understanding the new working class’; ‘Building resistance to disaster capitalism’ and ‘Next steps: towards a new Anti-Capitalist Resistance organisation’.1

Socialist Resistance is, of course, the latest incarnation of the group founded in 1987 as the International Socialist Group. This was itself a fusion of three groups, the core being the largest minority of the old International Marxist Group, which broke up in 1985-86 over the issue of Trotskyism and whether it was ‘sectarian’ to criticise Arthur Scargill, or the African National Congress in South Africa.2 It has undergone a variety of splits since then; Socialist Resistance itself is the product of a fusion, a ‘transitional’ paper towards unity launched in 2003 between the ISG and the Socialist Solidarity Network, which split from the Socialist Party in England and Wales over the latter’s antagonism to the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party and departure from the Socialist Alliance. There was another regroupment process - I am not sure how far it got - in 2008, with people who split with the Socialist Workers Party to go with George Galloway in Respect Renewal; and another - aborted - regroupment process in 2013-14 with Workers Power and the International Socialist Network.3 The SR group is the British section or sympathising organisation of the Mandelite ‘Fourth International’.

Mutiny originates in a September 2014 split from Counterfire, which, in turn, was the vehicle of John Rees, Lindsey German and their co-thinkers after their 2010 split from the SWP. The political grounds for that Counterfire split from the SWP was obscure, and the grounds for the Mutiny split from Counterfire was even more obscure. The root problem is that these people’s ‘non-sectarian’ opposition to having any clear political platform beyond ‘demands which have grown out of the movement itself’ - meaning, what is currently fashionable on the left - leads to an inability to explain in public why they need an organisation separate from the one(s) they recently split from. Mutiny appears at least to have developed a critique of Counterfire’s ‘Shiite bloc’ line on Syria - but whether this happened before the split or since is not easily discoverable. It is presumably since the split that Mutiny has developed an anti-Brexit line.

Anti-Capitalist Resistance seems to be an opportunity for Socialist Resistance to shed the ‘socialist’ tag, which it argued in Left Unity was an obstacle to reaching broader forces.

Platform

On what platform is this unification to take place? It is certainly highly minimalist by comparison with the 2008 version.4 Like, I guess, the whole left,

We seek revolutionary transformation to meet the compound crisis of ecological disaster, economic collapse, social decay, grotesque inequality, mass impoverishment, growing militarisation and creeping authoritarianism.

There then follow a set of four points:

1. We are internationalists, ecosocialists and anti-capitalist revolutionaries. We oppose imperialism, nationalism, militarism. We support the self-organisation of women, black people, disabled people and LGBTIQ people to combat all forms of discrimination, oppression and bigotry.

This tells us roughly what the projected group is against, but not what it is for.

2. This means: (1) we oppose Brexit as a British form of nationalism and racism; (2) we support the right of oppressed peoples to challenge colonialism and forms of apartheid and to struggle for self-determination; (3) we support a united Ireland and Scotland’s right to independence.

This is, then, an anti-Brexit group - but not one which is immediately willing to call out the EU’s murderous (and racist) policy on borders and migration. Anti-Brexit, then, but only because the Brexit camp is dominated by the nationalist right. But the group supports “Scotland’s right to independence”: that is, given that Scotland is certainly not an oppressed country, merely Scots bourgeois nationalism or ‘Tartan Toryism’. “[W]e support the right of oppressed peoples to challenge colonialism and forms of apartheid” has, presumably, to be taken as code for solidarity with the Palestinians without actually making the point explicit enough to attract the immediate attention of the ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunters.

3. We favour mass resistance to neoliberalism and work inside existing mass organisations like the trade unions and the Labour Party, but we believe that grassroots struggle is the core of effective anti-capitalist resistance, and that the emancipation of the working class will be the act of the working class.

How long the shelf-life of this formulation will be is very questionable. Is “neoliberalism” really the right name for the currently developing world order of nationalist populism, trade wars and aggressive US threats? What is “grassroots struggle”? Given the clear ascendancy of the right in Labour, and the continuing witch-hunt, it seems likely that the dedicated followers of fashion who are Socialist Resistance will be attracted by the next new outside-Labour broad-front initiative to appear …

4. We reject forms of left organisation that focus exclusively on electoralism and social democratic reformism. We oppose the top-down model of ‘democratic-centralist’ organisation. We favour a pluralist and internationalist organisation that can learn from struggles across the world. We are democratic, revolutionary socialists, who aim to build a united organisation rooted in the struggles of the working class and the oppressed, and committed to debate, initiative and self-activity.

This is again substantially negative; but also vague and diplomatic. Not even the Labour Party “focus[es] exclusively on electoralism”, and what is meant by “social democratic reformism” is undefined.

Hint: we at the Weekly Worker have been arguing for years now that what is actually involved in ‘reformism’ is not the struggle for reforms, but the idea that the only way to make progress is through forming a government, with the result that both policies and party democracy are sacrificed to coalitionist politics, to displays of constitutional loyalism and to ‘media management’. We have seen the pattern now repeatedly in the ‘new parties’, Rifondazione, Syriza and Podemos; and then in the ‘realist’ policy of the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, 2015-19.

Does “We oppose the top-down model of ‘democratic-centralist’ organisation” mean ‘We oppose democratic centralism as such’? This would seem to be the message of Neil Faulkner’s three-part series on the theory of the party (‘Marx’s theory of the party’, ‘Lenin’s theory …’, ‘Trotsky’s theory …’) on the Mutiny website. This essentially reprises standard Cliffite narratives of a teleology leading to a telos of organisational separation from the ‘reformists’, but on an ‘old 1960s International-Socialists’ line of ‘bottom-up’ organising; and coupled with the common libertarian-Trot canard, in which Grigory Zinoviev is made scapegoat for the mistakes of Lenin and others on ‘militarising’ the Russian Communist Party and the other parties of Comintern in 1920-21.5 Though this series has been rapidly put together, comrade Faulkner might have bothered to read Lars T Lih on the issue (he has clearly read him on What is to be done?) - although, of course, it would no doubt be beneath his dignity to have read Ben Lewis’s, or my, articles about the early history of the concept.6

But then the question is posed: if not democratic centralism, then what? “[R]ooted in the struggles of the working class and the oppressed, and committed to debate, initiative and self-activity” is merely to put up your hands for motherhood and apple pie; there is no doubt Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber could vote for this formulation, as indeed Joseph Stalin could too.7

Motherhood and apple pie, and vague, diplomatic formulations. The problem is that this method, which runs very deep in the practice of the ISG core of Socialist Resistance, is actually anti-democratic; it is just that it is anti-democratic in a different and more obscure way than the open bureaucratic centralism of the SWP or the leadership fetishism of John Rees and his co-thinkers.

ISG

The ISG originated in 1987 as a regroupment. On one side were tendencies that had recently split from the old International Marxist Group/Socialist League, principally the International Group led by Phil Hearse, Dave Packer and others; on the other, the Socialist Group of Alan Thornett, John Lister and others, who had recently been expelled from Sean Matgamna’s Socialist Organiser group (itself a collapsed regroupment). The regroupment was joined by elements of the Chartist Minority Tendency, which ran and still runs Labour Briefing, by the Lambertist Socialist Labour Group, and by some others.

By the early 1990s it was plain that the group was merely an enlarged International Group: Alan Thornett had become fully integrated in the Mandelite core, the Socialist Group wing had withered away and most of the other tendencies (including what became the Fourth International Supporters Caucus in the Socialist Labour Party) had split off. The 1990s were to see a series of further splits and attrition, which reduced the ISG to its present small size. A succession of regroupments since then, mentioned above, show no sign of having significantly increased over the medium term the size and striking capacity of the group.

In part these splits were attributable to the dogmatism of the splitters. In particular, for the Chartist Minority Tendency and the Lambertists, Labour Party entry was a matter of strategic principle and any involvement at all with attempts to regroup the left which went beyond the Labour left therefore amounted to a basis for a split.

More fundamentally, however, what made it impossible for the differences within the ISG to be contained within a single organisation were two fundamental and linked features of the Mandelite ‘tradition’: the diplomatic conceptions both of ‘the united front’ and of party unity. The original 1987 unification was on the basis of agreement on documents which were fuzzy on questions of principle, rather than openly and clearly expressing points of difference: and could therefore be agreed by comrades who held opposed strategic conceptions. The Mandelites also work in the same way in relation to their version of the policy of the ‘united front’: it involves, for them, diplomatic accommodations of their public political positions to the people they plan to work with. This has remained visible in Socialist Resistance’s approaches successively in Left Unity in 2013-15, and in the Labour left since it finally moved back to Labour Party work in late 2016. In the wider world, the problem is visible in the Mandelite Fourth International’s failed diplomatic approaches to the leaderships of the Brazilian Workers’ Party and of Rifondazione - only the most strikingly visible examples of a series of failed attempts to apply the method since the 1980s.

This commitment to diplomacy in relation to the ‘official lefts’ is written in code in the new appeal in the formulation, “We favour a pluralist and internationalist organisation that can learn from struggles across the world.” (‘Learn from’ in such Mandelite texts is almost invariably code for ‘tail-end uncritically’.)

These diplomatic approaches have two consequences. The first is that, since strategic and programmatic principles are never clarified, any unification is in fact not on the basis of principles, but of tactics. As soon as the tactical agreement is overturned by new developments in the political situation, the basis of unity disappears. Hence the failure of the ISG’s repeated unity operations to lead to real growth. The second is that the public press of the group has to apply the diplomatic approach to the group’s current external collaborators. As a result, the press is bound to be politically anodyne in character and controlled by a narrow group which ‘really’ understands the tactic.

Hence, the idea that the Mandelites’ soft and cuddly approach to political differences is an alternative to bureaucratism-managerialism is an illusion. It is a form of leftwing managerialism-bureaucratism. Finding an alternative to this approach will require a clean break with bureaucratic centralism and monolithism - both in its ‘Stalinist’ and ‘Cannonite’ form of the suppression of dissent and in the ‘Mandelite’ form of fuzzing over differences by diplomatic formulations for the sake of a unity - which is, at the end of the day, unity on tactics only.

Unity has to be on the basis of a clear strategic programme - one which is accepted as a basis for common action, with differences openly recognised, rather than ‘agreed’. It requires the open expression of such internal differences in the party press, not self-censorship.

mike.macnair@weeklyworker.co.uk


  1. socialistresistance.org/anti-capitalist-resistance/20470; timetomutiny.org/post/anti-capitalist-resistance.↩︎

  2. That is, after rebranding itself as the ‘Socialist League’ in 1982. The other fragments are two groups which broke decisively with their Trotskyist past in favour of forms of ‘official communist’: the Socialist Action group (socialistaction.net), and the Communist League (the organisation of supporters in the UK of the United States Socialist Workers Party; see, for example, themilitant.com/2019/12/07/communist-league-in-uk-jew-hatred-is-deadly-threat-to-the-working-class).↩︎

  3. socialistresistance.org/a-rare-opportunity/5158.↩︎

  4. socialistresistance.org/an-invitation-to-participate-in-the-creation-of-a-new-revolutionary-socialist-organisation/184. See my critique, ‘“Regroupment” or rebranding’ Weekly Worker July 2 2008.↩︎

  5. timetomutiny.org/post/the-marxist-theory-of-the-revolutionary-party (August 1); timetomutiny.org/post/lenin-and-the-bolsheviks (August 7); timetomutiny.org/post/3-trotsky-s-theory-of-the-party (August 11).↩︎

  6. LT Lih, ‘Fortunes of a formula’ Weekly Worker April 11 2013; or, if this is to be a ‘contaminated source’, links.org.au/node/3300; ‘Democratic centralism: further fortunes of a formula’ Weekly Worker July 25 2013; Ben Lewis, ‘Sources, streams and confluence’ Weekly Worker August 25 2016. See also my ‘Origins of democratic centralism’, the introduction to Ben Lewis’s translation of Karl Kautsky, ‘Constituency and party’ Weekly Worker November 5 2015; ‘Reclaiming democratic centralism’ Weekly Worker May 23 2019. (I add to the latter the less substantively historical ‘Full-timers and “cadre”’ (April 25 2019), and ‘Negations of democratic-centralism’ (May 30 2019) in the same series. But my point is that Faulkner is disregarding the historical evidence that Lars, Ben and I have dug up, not that he is disregarding my political arguments, which is his obvious political right.)↩︎

  7. Leaving aside that the point is obvious, Samantha Lomb’s Stalin’s constitution: Soviet participatory politics and the discussion of the 1936 draft constitution (London 2018) documents in depth the efforts of the high-Stalinist Soviet regime to draw masses into “debate, initiative and self-activity”, albeit subject to the leading role of the party (and within it the leading role of the CC, and so on until we arrive at the ‘Great Leader’ …).↩︎