'Regroupment' or rebranding
The International Socialist Group is calling for the establishment of a "new revolutionary organisation" limited to its co-thinkers. Mike Macnair looks at the basis for this new sect
On Sunday June 29, a new call for regroupment of revolutionaries was made by a meeting of “members of the International Socialist Group (ISG), Socialist Resistance(SR), a group of former members of the SWP and some independent Marxists not presently in any organisation”.1The ISG is, of course, led by Alan Thornett, and the ex-SWP component includes Rob Hoveman and Kevin Ovenden.
The call is “an invitation to everyone who would be interested in establishing a new revolutionary organisation based on an understanding of the need for Marxists to build a revolutionary organisation and to work for the widest unity of the working class on economic, social and political issues”.
The political basis is a “preliminary text” of 15 points. I have just quoted the first; the last asserts the character of the text as “preliminary” and reiterates the invitation to discuss. Point 3 says merely that a process of discussion in the coming year is expected to lead to a conference in a year’s time. The substance is therefore in points 2 and 4-14.
There is much in these points to agree with: point 4 on the need to replace capitalism with socialism; point 5 on the need to overthrow the capitalist state and replace it with a workers’ state, recognising that the working class is the only agency which can transform society; and point 6, that “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself, acting as a class in its own interests” - all are formally common ground for the whole far left. The emphasis on the international unity of the working class and its struggle in points 6 and 14 is welcome.
These are, however, ideas which the far left commonly merely nods to in ‘What we stand for’ columns and so on, while ‘practical politics’ and ‘the united front’ dictate behaving in practice as if ‘Socialism can be achieved from above by reformist politicians or trade union leaders’, and as if the struggle of the working class is merely national in scope.
Right now proletarian internationalism poses a very concrete choice, round the question of Iran: support for the Iranian workers and oppressed masses, against bothimperialist sanctions and the threat of imperialist attack andthe kleptocratic, neoliberal clerical regime which tyrannises over them. Will the comrades support Hands off the People of Iran? If the organised form of this campaign is for some reason unacceptable, are they willing to unite in a new campaign on the same fundamental principled basis? Or will the Mandelite politics of diplomacy lead to continued silence on this front?
Point 8 on the former ‘communist bloc’ says most of what needs to be said in an appeal: “What existed in the ‘communist bloc’ was not socialism. It was a Stalinist perversion of socialism; a dictatorship that brutally oppressed all political opposition, suppressed workers’ rights and trampled on workers’ democracy. Socialism cannot exist except with the extension of democracy so that the working class collectively takes the decisions about the future of its new society.” The comrades are right to avoid taking a theoretical position on what the ‘communist bloc’ positively was, since the primary lesson for communists after 1989-91 is: let’s not try that again.
There is, however, a problem: OK, what does “the extension of democracy” mean? The Mandelite Fourth International has put forward one set of ideas in its resolution, ‘The dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist democracy’.2 Some of the concrete proposals are sound; others, like ‘socialist legality’, are misleading. The text places a Chinese wall between ‘socialist democracy’, conceived as soviet democracy, on the one hand, and the struggle for democracy in the here and now (reduced to the defence of existing ‘democratic rights’: ie, conceived in an economistic way). Precisely because of the experience of Stalinism, it is necessary to be more concrete on this question.
Point 14 on internationalism concludes with the statement: “To these ends we will explore the possibility of links with other revolutionaries internationally.” This is a strikingly diplomatic formulation. The global far left is, in fact, characterised by the existence of (a) the international coordination of the ‘official’ communists (most recently the 2006 Lisbon conference) and (b) multiple internationalsects. The ISG is the British section of the Mandelite Fourth International. The Mandelite Fourth International is more international than the others, which are mainly fan clubs of one or another national group. But it achieves this result by being mainly a post-box or symbolic international. In terms of forces it is no longer - as it was in the 1960s-70s - dominant: the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency, the Socialist Party’s Committee for a Workers’ International and so on have comparable forces. The political problem with which this faces any new unification is not to make “links with other revolutionaries internationally”. It is how to overcome the exisitingsectarian division of the international workers’ movement.
Moreover, some points suggest that what is intended is not a new Marxist party or pro-party formation, but a new or enlarged sect. There are good reasons for suspicion in this direction, judging by the ISG’s record.
ISG and regroupment
The ISG originated in 1987 as a regroupment. On one side were tendencies who 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 Lambertiste Socialist Labour Group and by some others.
By the early 1990s the group was plainly 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.
In part these splits were attributable to dogmatism on the part of the splitters. In particular, for the Chartist Minority Tendency and the Lambertistes, 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 diplomaticconceptions 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.
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. 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.
A trivial example from my own experience - in 1986-87 I wrote for the IG-ISG’s journal a critique of Militant’s policy of introducing socialism through an ‘Enabling Act’. My critique was based on the politics of British constitutional law. Publication was refused on the ground that this would be read as an implicit critique of the IG-ISG’s Labour left allies. I was perfectly well aware that I held minority positions in the IG-ISG, though I was surprised to find that I held minority positions on this particular question, and that I was an old lag (long-time dissident). So this little bit of bureaucratism was no great shock to me. For other comrades, who had believed what was said in the unification discussions, when tactical differences came to the fore and as a result they came up against this bureaucratic/clique self-censorship of the group’s press, reasons for staying in the group were weak.
Effective unity over any serious period of time will require a clean break with bureaucratic centralism and monolithism - both in its ‘Stalinist’ and ‘Cannonite’ form of bureaucratic 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.
The ex-SWP and ex-SP comrades involved in this appeal have clearly learnt from their own history the lesson of rejecting Cannonism. It is far from clear that the ISG comrades have learnt from their own calamitous history to reject the Mandelite ‘diplomatic unity’ version of monolithism. In fact, comrade Ian Donovan, who is reported to be involved, split from CPGB in 2004 precisely in favour of the idea that our press should be ‘diplomatic’ towards George Galloway.
Who is this appeal open to? Point 2 says: “We propose a regroupment, based on our common traditions as active revolutionary socialists. This proposal emerges from practical collaboration over the recent period in building Respect. We also appeal to independent revolutionaries and new militants to join us” (emphasis added).
What are the “common traditions as active revolutionary socialists”? ‘Tradition’ is, in this context, a weasel word. The original ISG unification purported to respect the different ‘traditions’ from which the participant groups came - in that context, Mandelite and ‘anti-Pabloite’ Trotskyism. The ‘common traditions’ of the new formation are presumably to be Trotskyism, whether in Mandelite (ISG), Grantite (ex-SP comrades in SR), Cliffite (ex-SWP) or Spartacist-IBT (Ian Donovan) forms. To talk of ‘tradition’ in this context is precisely to evade addressing political differences. Conversely, would non-Trotskyists like CPGB be acceptable participants?
The proposal “emerges from practical collaboration over the recent period in building Respect”. Is this simply a proposal to comrades involved in Respect (Renewal)? Or is it open to wider forces? (Again, CPGB? Permanent Revolution? And so on ...) The expression has a terrible smell of another ISG-style regroupment on the basis of agreement on tactics.
This point is reinforced by point 12: “12. We believe that the decline of the Labour Party and the disintegration of its mass base present the best opportunity for many decades to build a viable alternative to the left of Labour. The signatories of this appeal have been working together as revolutionaries and with others to build such a party. We believe that the building of a united party of the working class is one of the overarching strategic tasks for revolutionary socialists in this period. The role of revolutionary Marxists in helping to build Respect over the next period will be an important one” (emphases added).
There is an extraordinary muddle here between (a) “a viable alternative to the left of Labour”; (b) “a united party of the working class” (but the large majority of the workers’ movement and the class, insofar as it votes as a class, still supports Labour); and (c) Respect (which is now effectively a competitor to the SWP and SP, with fewer forces than either on the ground).
From comments on Liam Mac Uaid’s blog it seems clear that participation is intended to be limited to leftwingers committed to Respect. In other words, unity on the basis of tactics: the ‘principles’ can be left vague. As in the original regroupment which created the ISG, in the end the result will be … undemocratic and smaller.
Point 7 asserts: “We recognise that capitalism uses the oppression of certain social groups to divide the working class. The organisations of the working class must constantly strive to overcome any divisions by advancing the causes of these oppressed groups. We oppose all forms of oppression and defend the right of the oppressed to self-organisation. We support, and will participate in, the struggles against national oppression, women’s oppression, racism and islamophobia and against homophobia” (emphases added).
As should by now be unsurprising, this formulation blurs the issues. The second sentence entirely correctly asserts that the working class needs to struggle for unity (and for the leadership of society) by fighting for the emancipation of the oppressed.3
The proposition, “We … defend the right of the oppressed to self-organisation”, is ambiguous. On the one hand, if we defend freedom of association (and disassociation) as a democratic right, including in the workers’ movement, it is obviously perfectly legitimate to have voluntary women’s organisations, caucuses and similar bodies of other groups of the oppressed. On the other, the presentation of the right of association as a special right of ‘the oppressed’ points towards the world of competing sub-cultures and groups which claim to represent groups of ‘the oppressed’ in demands for special treatment from the state - which is precisely New Labour policy.
It ignores the - now obvious - fact that opposed class interests present between, for example, women managers and women employees, or Asian-origin businessmen and their employees, and their wives and children. Hence, when unitary ‘organisations of the oppressed’, defined only by the common oppression, speak with a single voice, that voice is the voice of the bourgeoisie and petty proprietors. In New Labour and the trade unions it is the voice of the bureaucracy.
The last sentence makes an amalgam between quite different matters. At one end is the national question. Communists should stand for the people of Scotland to have the right to self-determination (but, the CPGB would say, should argue for them to exercise this right bychoosing to remain united in a federal Britain). But we do not support the right of the Scots to self-determination because of “national oppression”: it is blindingly obviously that they are not an ‘oppressed nation’. The point is that political democracy requires us to oppose any attempt - if Scotland decided to secede - to maintain the union by force.
At the other end of the amalgam is the reference to fighting against “islamophobia and against homophobia”. Both these expressions are psycho-babble which obscure the political issues at stake: the concrete victimisation - whether by laws or personal violence or media defamation - of muslims because they are muslims, and of lesbians and gay men, transgendered people (etc) because they are ‘sexual deviants’. The psycho-babble expression ‘homophobia’ then allows the analogue ‘islamophobia’. But ‘islamophobia’ is used, now more or less constantly, as an argument for rejecting criticism of the political views of islamist politicians and of their conduct in power (eg, in Iran).
The party question
Much of points 9-11 and 13 on the nature of the revolutionary party the comrades want to build is motherhood and apple pie. “The revolutionary organisation must be part of the working class and take part in the life and struggles of the working class and the oppressed ...” (point 10). Point 13 tells us that it will “locate itself in working class struggle - in the workplace, in the community, amongst the oppressed and in the broad party”: thus revealing (again) that this is a project for a minority party (a sect) which will work within a halfway house party, in this case Respect.
The slant of the text of point 9 reaffirms this: “The dominant ideas of the present society are those of the capitalist class. For the revolution to succeed the most militant workers and their allies have to be organised into a revolutionary organisation which challenges and confronts that ideology with one in the interests of the new socialist society.” The task of the “revolutionary organisation” is then to promote an “ideology” that is “in the interests of the new socialist society”.
In reality, what is needed is a party based on a political programme - not on an ideology. Thescientific critique of the various bourgeois ideologies is a task which needs a party to support a press, enable people to discuss, etc. But the party needs to fight for concrete political goals, not for common theoretical positions. On the contrary, scientific critique can only be conducted on the basis of open discussion.
To quote Engels, responding in 1891 to a suggestion that the party leadership should control the content of the theoretical journal: “That voices should have been raised in the parliamentary group demanding that the Neue Zeit be subject to censorship is truly delectable. Is the spectre of the parliamentary group’s dictatorship at the time of the Anti-Socialist Law (a dictatorship that was, of course, essential and excellently managed) still at large or is it a harking back to the sometime close-knit organisation of von Schweitzer? After the liberation of German socialist science from Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law, what more brilliant idea than to subject it to a new Anti-Socialist Law to be thought up and implemented by the officials of the Social Democratic Party.”4
The same issue arises in point 11: “Any revolutionary organisation must be democratic, including the right to organise around minority viewpoints, but must aim to act in a unified manner.” Yes, indeed, comrades. But what does to act in a unified manner mean? The SWP leadership, or the Spartacists or the IBT, would agree with you on this formulation. The critical issue is whether internal disagreements are openly published, to enable the debate to go beyond the organisation’s ranks. On this one, we are with Lenin in 1906: “Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free ... not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such ‘agitation’ (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited.”5
Any serious proposal for the unity of the Marxist left, however small, is to be welcomed. But this does not look like such a proposal: rather, it is a ‘rebranding’ under which some comrades in the ISG’s immediate periphery can join it (in some cases, rejoin it) without losing face. These comrades should be aware of what they are getting into. They are agreeing to unity on the basis of a common tactic. But if ever there was an organisation characterised by infirmity of political purpose and instability of tactical approach, it was and is the IMG-SL-ISG. When, as it will, the tactical unity breaks down, the internal bureaucratic manoeuvres and rotten blocs, and the monolithism in the group’s public face, will resurface.
The comrades could answer these arguments. An answer would be welcome. Regrettably, silence is the more likely response.
1. The full text is at revolutionaryregroupment.wordpress.com
3. The opening statement is crudely ‘intentionalist’: rather than recognising (as even Bebel did inWomen and Socialism (www.marxists.org/archive/bebel/1879/woman-socialism/index.htm) that capitalism naturally produces divisions and inequalities, which are then exploited by employers, governments, political parties, etc, to divide and rule, the whole phenomenon appears as a matter of capitalist policy.
4. K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 49, p133:www.marxists.org.uk/archive/marx/works/1891/letters/91_02_23.htm
5. K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 10, pp442-43: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/may/20c.htm
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