Oil-slick divisions

International Marxist Tendency has suffered a damaging split. Not a new phenomenon, notes James Turley

At the 2007 Barcelona world school of the International Marxist Tendency - a not insubstantial, relatively speaking, Trotskyist ‘international’ led primarily by its British section - spirits were as high as the grandiose title of such an event, held in a culturally iconic city (especially on the left), would imply. After days of discussion, apparently involving comrades from more countries than ever before, the IMT’s In Defence of Marxism website reported that “the general feeling is one of a tendency that is going forward, growing in numbers and sections”.[1]

Now, however, the comrades have somewhat less to be cheerful about. In the last few weeks a long-running dispute between the IMT leadership and several national sections, overwhelmingly in the Spanish-speaking world, has apparently erupted into a full split, with the rebels calling themselves, with the left’s usual lack of lexical originality, the Corriente Marxista Revolucionaria (CMR - Revolutionary Marxist Current), also the name of the Venezuelan group.

This follows another recent split, during which the IMT lost almost half its Pakistani section after a dispute with former national assembly member Manzoor Ahmed led to him and his allies leaving the organisation. The IMT did not even acknowledge it had broken with Manzoor for another six months. (Manzoor, for his part, claimed to have taken far more members than acknowledged by the IMT group, whom he accuses of bumping up conference attendance figures by inviting and counting NGO activists in large numbers.)

The Pakistani section was, and remains, by some distance the largest in the IMT, and all the lost sections this time round in all likelihood do not add up arithmetically to the number of departed comrades in Pakistan. Yet among them are those in Spain and Venezuela - both flagship sections, and both larger than the British group, Socialist Appeal.

Ted Grant

The IMT has its roots in the British Militant Tendency, which became in the 1980s the largest Trotskyist formation in Britain. Strongly committed to Labour Party entry - a strategy adopted by Militant earlier than its 1980s rivals, whose principal remnants today are the Mandelite International Socialist Group, Ken Livingstone’s former hired flunkies, Socialist Action, and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - Militant was by far the most successful in Labour entry’s history (if you discount the CPGB’s record in the 1920s and 30s). At its 1980s peak, Militant had around 5,000 members, three MPs and effective control of Liverpool city council.

This was all a little too much for the Labour right, whose rising star was former Tribunite left MP Neil Kinnock. After assuming the party leadership in the wake of the catastrophic 1983 election showing, Kinnock bided his time until a budget crisis in Liverpool - the result of a battle between leftwing councils and the government of Margaret Thatcher, who wanted to bring them to heel - saw Militant issue redundancy notices to thousands of council workers. Seeing his chance, Kinnock moved to purge Militant and other entry groups from Labour’s ranks.

His success was not total - by the 1990s, Militant still existed, and by some counts had only seen 200 members expelled; but its movements were constricted far more severely in the new conditions. The majority - led by Peter Taaffe - initiated an ‘open turn’, declaring Labour a dead duck and reorganising themselves first as Militant Labour and then as the Socialist Party in England and Wales (SPEW’s bureaucratic regime saw it lose whole swathes of its membership in the late 90s, including most of the Liverpool organisation and the Scottish section).

The factional struggle over this move was understandably intense in an organisation which by then had over 30 years’ history as an entry group, and had formed its whole ideology and identity around this strategy. The minority leader was Ted Grant, a Trotskyist since the 1930s and the founding leader of Militant. His differences were announced to the wider world, as is the way with bureaucratic left organisations, not in his organisation’s public press, but in a letter to The Guardian protesting the ‘sectarian’ drift of Militant’s majority. Grant was expelled; his supporters regrouped around the new publication Socialist Appeal, founded in 1992, by whose name the group is generally known.

This split was reflected in the international support accumulated over the years - the Committee for a Workers’ International had been founded in 1974, and remains one of the largest and widest-spread Trotskyist ‘internationals’ to this day. Grant’s side became the Committee for a Marxist International and then the IMT.

From the beginning, the IMT was a demographically peculiar group. Its earliest bit of good fortune came with the development of the Pakistan section, known as The Struggle and pursuing a course of long-term entry into the Pakistan People’s Party, the mass bourgeois party associated with the Bhutto dynasty. Lal Khan, the Struggle’s principal leader, had become closely acquainted with Grant ally Alan Woods, and brought his supporters into the IMT in the early 1990s. That meant an organisation dominated by a British section which was by all accounts tiny, yet featuring a several-thousand-strong subordinate group abroad. As time went on, the IMT grew substantially in Spain as well, and Grant and Woods became increasingly reliant on the human and financial resources of the hundreds of Spanish comrades.

Then history delivered unto Grant and Woods a messiah, in the form of a Venezuelan former junior army officer turned populist politician. Since Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in that country, the IMT has become the most energetic Marxist cheerleaders of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’. Unsurprisingly, as an increasingly popular Chávez cemented his power, a sympathising section of the IMT grew in strength and influence. Unsurprisingly also, it too soon outstripped the mothership in these terms. And, given the centrality of Chávismo to IMT propaganda, all comrades’ eyes have been on Venezuela.

The split

Losing Spain and Venezuela, then, is an unmitigated disaster for Woods. Exactly how he managed to lose them is a rather more obscure matter. Numerous candidates for the political basis have been advanced - it was suggested, for example, that the rebels no longer believed China to be a ‘deformed workers state’, as per orthodox post-Trotsky Trotskyist dogma, but IMT comrades have hotly denied that this was the splitting issue; the debate over China, such as it has surfaced publicly, does not apparently coincide with the organisational pattern of the split.

Other rumours suggested that the IMT’s dedication to entry into what it calls the mass parties of the working class (and, in Pakistan, of the popular masses) was in question. This looks a more likely candidate, with a particular leadership document referred to widely on internet discussions criticising the Spaniards for being insufficiently energetic in pursuing “the need for organised entrist work in the Spanish Communist Party; a better approach to the left leaders; mistakes made in organising the Spanish students strike last March, and in the approach to the one-day work stoppage in May in the Basque country.” This paraphrase comes from a perceptive statement issued by former IMT comrades in America, centred on an e-list called Learning from our Past, a couple of weeks before the split was finalised.[2]

There is also the case of a statement, Venezuelan in origin, on the struggles in Iran. The IMT website apparently refused to publish it - I have not seen a translated version yet, but its title, ‘Marxists must stand firm against Ahmadinejad’, says it all.[3] The IMT, it has to be said, came out with if anything too rosy an estimation of the protest movement that emerged last year in Iran - but one Hugo Chávez certainly did not, immediately congratulating Ahmadinejad on his victory in patently rigged elections. It was always unclear how Woods would square this circle - now, it seems, he has done it to the detriment of the Iranian masses. The IMT section in Iran, meanwhile, has not come out on either side - it is the only remaining IMT group linked on the CMR’s website.

The real cause of the unrest, however, is different - as the statement from Learning from our Past makes clear. It is obvious, furthermore, that the CMR, like the IMT leadership, remains for the time being committed to both Chávismo and entryism - the political differences are those of nuance.[4]

In reality, the whole thing appears to be almost completely apolitical - the Spanish and Venezuelan sections have complained of persistent interference in their affairs by the international majority. This unrest reached its peak last year, when the international majority’s supporting faction in Spain came into fierce conflict with the local leadership, getting accused of breaking the organisation’s rules. Many comrades were expelled, although a split was averted at that point. A million tiny complaints and sallies from each side later, we can only conclude that the contradiction between the IMT’s demographics and its structures has finally ruptured, with the Spanish and Venezuelan comrades finally rejecting their ‘junior partner’ status.

And why not? They are, after all, bigger - they are more powerful in their own countries, and provide both foot soldiers and prestige to even the runts of the IMT litter. It is patently ridiculous that in a supposedly ‘democratic’ organisation numerically and politically more significant sections are under orders from people who have effectively gerrymandered them out of their share of leadership representation. Trotskyist leader James P Cannon once quipped that in any split there were two causes - the good reason and the real reason. This time around, the good reason is the real reason.

Furthermore, the IMT, despite its surreal, pre-Marxist fawning before petty bourgeois nationalist leaders in Latin America, is the most rhetorically urgent claimant to the mantle of Trotskyist orthodoxy on today’s left (excluding the likes of the Spartacist League). The web address of In Defence of Marxism is www.marxist.com - naturally. This orthodoxy has had, it has to be said, the positive side effect that the IMT’s politics - however wrong - are not philistine: dogmatists at least take their dogma seriously. Its main function, however, is to consecrate a ‘Marxist’ priesthood whose mandate comes from the Word and, thus, cannot be challenged by the earthly powers of the rank and file. The Learning from our Past comrades note an increasingly reverential cult of personality developing around Grant, who died in 2006. It is here, as everywhere else, an alibi for bureaucratic control. It was the entirely dogmatic attachment to entry work - applied in all IMT sections - which caused the problem in the first place when, predictably, this strategy produced vastly varying results in a complicated world.

In its fatal lopsidedness, the IMT poses in a peculiarly sharp way the problems of this style of ‘international’-building. We have called this type of grouping an ‘oil-slick international’ in the past, and indeed the IMT has spread outwards from London over the world. An oil slick, furthermore, can stretch out until it is only a single molecule thick, and the IMT indeed has a particularly large swathe of tiny sections from Canada to Iran. Building organisations in a way that pays no attention to local conditions of necessity produces this unevenness - it just happens that, this time, the strategy was politically bankrupt at the centre and intermittently successful on the periphery. The oil spreads out not from London any more, but Barcelona.

International organisation is a burning necessity for our class. It is so important that it has to be done properly, on a sound basis - effective international unity grows out of serious national political organisations, bringing serious forces together. None of this can be done by opening ‘foreign bureaus’ in sundry states around the world - parasitic from the beginning on pretty ramshackle foreign support, these groups almost invariably fail to take off in any real sense.

The split in the IMT is an unorthodox take on a tale we have, depressingly, told many times in this paper - bungled unity, bureaucratic manoeuvring and a whole lot of hot air. It appears, at least, that some ex-IMTers are learning from their past on this one. Let us quote them again: “There is a natural inclination to look for fundamental differences in political principle behind such splits. Yet the question of democracy is itself a supremely political question.”


  1. www.marxist.com/2007-world-school-international-marxist-tendency.htm
  2. weknowwhatsup.blogspot.com/2010/01/comments-on-current-crisis-in.html
  3. elmilitantevenezuela.org/content/view/6659/179
  4. For these rumours and others, see the perennial Leftist Trainspotters e-list: groups.yahoo.com/group/leftist_trainspotters