Fresh thinking and stale dogma

Another split on the left leads to questions being raised about what passes for 'democratic centralism'. James Turley looks at the travails of the IMT

The decay of the International Marxist Tendency continues apace. A relatively successful Trotskyist organisation, with roots in the British Militant Tendency and (mostly tiny) sections in a large number of countries, it remains under the effective dominance of the British. First among these is IMT high priest Alan Woods.

This dominance - and the increasingly eccentric way in which it is exercised - has cost the IMT dear in recent years. The Pakistani section - by far the largest, with around 2,000 members at its peak - split a few years ago, losing one of its best known leaders and a third to half of the total membership. Earlier this year, ill tidings were in evidence again: this time, the ‘international’ lost the majority of the Spanish and Venezuelan memberships, which were likewise two of the more important.

That, alas, was not the end. A key issue behind the Venezuelan split has been a major political foible of the IMT - its utterly uncritical admiration of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. It seems that this policy works better in Greenwich mean time than it does on the ground in Latin America. The issue was finally forced last year, when the streets of Iran erupted into angry mass protests after the patently rigged presidential election in that country. The initial reaction from the Woods machine was if anything too wide-eyed, declaring that the Iranian revolution had begun.

A couple of thousand miles in the other direction, however, one Hugo Chávez was none too pleased to see his friend, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, under attack, congratulating the Iranian president on his ‘victory’, which was one in the eye for “global arrogance” (that is, US imperialism). After that, the IMT became increasingly embarrassed - not by providing left cover for this left-Bonapartist bilge, but by its support for the Iranian protests. Documents submitted by the Iranian section to the IMT’s In defence of Marxism website were spiked.

After the Venezuelans had left, then, the Iranians were always going to be next. The leadership accused them of rather ludicrous charges of breaching security, in a tortuous tale involving two exiled Iranians who were IMT members in North America - but actually members of the Worker-communist Party of Iran, a slightly sinister organisation which considers all opponents of the Islamic Republic, up to and including monarchist supporters of the shah, acceptable allies. Not any more popular a position in the Iranian IMT section than the fawning over Chávez ...

Since then, the discontent has proved infectious. Several comrades in Britain have resigned, including veterans from the Militant days. The Swedish organisation has split, with the leadership supporters in the minority. The IMT has lost a handful of comrades in Belgium, including a prominent leader of Flemish left social democracy. The list goes on, and on, and on. Where the leadership has commented publicly on these splits, it has often been to mud-rake. The overall pattern is of the Woods clique systematically misleading the membership and wider class movement about the true state of their organisation.

So far, not so newsworthy - ‘Trots split’ is rather on the ‘Dog bites man’ end of the editorial spectrum. What is unusual here is the somewhat encouraging response of many groups of ex-IMT members to the question of organisational norms in the movement. Having been at the sharp end of a petty, bureaucratic regime intolerant of criticism, the comrades - for once - have begun to draw some important lessons. As the Spanish and Venezuelan splits boiled over, some former IMT members in America issued an extensive document criticising the IMT’s internal regime, concluding: If we can’t achieve collective democracy within our own movement, how do we hope to be able to establish a democratic socialist society across the world?”[1] Quite.

At the same time, the Polish, Iranian and Swedish sections - then still members in good standing - produced a document, ‘Forwards to democratic centralism’, which demolishes in admirably comprehensive fashion the IMT’s eight so-called “basic rules of democratic centralism”. It should be required reading not only among this particular milieu, but for most left organisations today.

Others have questioned the presuppositions of bureaucratic regimes before, like the Permanent Revolution split from Workers Power. None, to my knowledge, have continued to defend any version of democratic centralism as extensively revised as it is here. The authors even go for the ultimate sacred cow of all ‘Leninist combat organisations’ - discussing differences openly before the movement. (Unfortunately, the IMT’s trade-mark snottiness about other activists is still present: “The only ones to take an interest in our differences at the moment are various ‘rival’ piddling little left groups, and of course the sectarian ‘trainspotters’ have a heyday. It is not worth our while to kick up a big fuss and waste time trying to trace leaks for their sake.” Pretty charming, considering their ideas have been the stock in trade of those who publish the Weekly Worker for almost three decades.)[2]

Now that the split is finalised, the individuals and groups behind this document have attempted to practise what they preach. Skype discussions centring on the party question have been made publicly available,[3] for a start - and they show at least some evidence of serious thinking, albeit peppered with certain unexamined Trotskyist prejudices.

So is this split likely to develop in a healthy direction? Despite these positive signs, it looks unlikely. Certainly, elements among the recent ex-members appear to be very soft on the previously expelled groups and individuals. These are not overwhelmingly politically principled oppositions. Apart from their love of Chávez, the IMT has one major distinguishing political feature - a wholesale commitment to continuous work, wherever possible, in the ‘traditional mass organisations’ of the working class. It was this issue that led to the split in the Militant that gave birth to the IMT, with long-time leader Ted Grant finding himself in a minority on the question and leaving the mother organisation.

The split took a similar form in the other sections of Militant’s ‘international’, the Committee for a Workers’ International. For Grant and current leader Alan Woods, action for socialism is ‘dead’ outside the traditional organisations - and thus the IMT operates deep entry in a wide variety of parties, from the social democratic to the ‘official communist’ (France and Spain), to the populist bourgeois Pakistan People’s Party.

The leader of the Pakistani split, Manzoor Ahmed, had some success in inveigling himself into key positions in the PPP. At the time of the split, the IMT accused him of taking on unelected roles too close for comfort to PPP leader Asif Zardari, and of opposing certain strikes in line with PPP policy.

Meanwhile, Erik De Bruyn, in a similar position in Flemish politics, has been guilty of censoring his politics - or, perhaps, abandoning them - on at least one occasion. Asked by an interviewer what a socialist alternative would look like, he had - among other things - this to say: “It would be madness to eliminate the market. Why should a government be engaged in the production of shoes, clothes or bread? But the community should control this economic game: companies should respect the social, economic and ecological rules. This control does exist partially today - I am an environmental functionary myself - but insufficiently.”[4] Whatever happened to the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies?

The most recent split document (not currently publicly available) is happy to offer guarded technical criticisms of some ex-sections (eg, in Spain); Manzoor gets off scot-free, however. The comrades argue that Manzoor was right to take on his senior positions because “there are no positions in the entire PPP that are genuinely elected. All positions or tickets to run are appointed by the top leadership”.

If this is the case, however, how on earth would a revolutionary Marxist hope to get anywhere without watering down their politics? I am in no position to know if Manzoor actually attempted to demobilise politically inconvenient strikes, but one cannot but wonder if this role was exactly what Zardari had in mind for him. As for de Bruyn, the comrades have nothing to say on the charges against him - perfectly well known at this point.

This is not merely a matter of drawing up a balance sheet - ‘ on the positive side, on the negative side ...’ In the first instance, it is plain that more than Alan Woods’s ego is implicated in the course of all these splits. It seems that the IMT has been engaged in entry operations deeper even than Militant - which at least attempted to look like it was to the left of Tony Benn and so on. The natural tendency is for sections of the membership to ‘go native’. Although Manzoor was not predestined to embarrass the IMT by working his way into the PPP establishment, if it is your strategy to engage in long-term entry at all costs, and you enter a bourgeois organisation, and this bourgeois organisation has no internal elections, then this kind of opportunism is almost inevitable. The same goes, on a much smaller scale, for de Bruyn.

The fresh thinking on democratic questions, meanwhile, is limited to the internal regime. On that particular terrain, the ex-IMT dissidents are as close to Marxist orthodoxy as any Trotskyist fragment has been for decades. Yet they remain, as far as anyone can tell, committed to strategic goals inimical to democratic struggle in society at large. They see no problem with working their people into completely unaccountable positions (Manzoor), or arguing against official policy for reformist tripe (de Bruyn). All the democratic internal norms imaginable will not make this economistic strategy anything other than a dead letter for the radical democratisation of society at large.



  1. weknowwhatsup.blogspot.com/2010/01/comments-on-current-crisis-in.html
  2. sites.google.com/a/karlmarx.net/open/topics/democratic-centralism-1/forwardstodemocraticcentralism
  3. www.militaant.com/audio
  4. www.socialistparty.net/international/359-open-letter-to-the-members-and-former-members-of-the-imt