Workers Power is again embroiled in internal disputes. James Turley asks why it insists on hiding its internal differences
Workers Power, a smallish Trotskyist organisation (with, inevitably, its own ‘international’, the League for a Fifth International, or LFI) is positively abuzz with activity - of one sort and another - at the present time.
Some of this activity is supposed to be visible to those of us mere mortals in the broader movement who do not accept their particular micro-sliver of the Trotskyist tradition. Most notably, its repeated propagandistic calls for a new anti-capitalist organisation have seen attempts, in various localities, to actually bring it into being in some form (expectations have been apparently revised downwards from a new anti-capitalist party, as it previously was, to the more sensible level of a ‘network’ or ‘organisation’).
Inside the sacred circle of revolutionary Trotskyism, however, things are not quite so rosy. WP is caught up in a great row over the relationship between democratic centralism and strategic debate, and between its hallowed tradition and its recent tactical decisions. The dispute has split its six-strong political committee 4-2; innovatively, it is the majority that argues for a critical re-examination of WP’s practice, and cries foul over the tenor of internal discussion.
WP’s ‘new anti-capitalist network’ initiative is not, as noted, new to its public positions. What is new is that it has begun to put it into practice.
A simple declaration now appears on the WP website, and relatively reasonable it is too. The coalition government represents “a real offensive by the bankers and the capitalist class to make the workers pay for their crisis. We are not the only country to face this offensive: this is an international attack by the capitalist class against the working class.” (Correct and correct again - banker-bashing clichés aside.) All manner of social ills await, “unless we can organise an anti-capitalist force, rooted in the working class, that can break this government and open the road to a new socialist society”.
This is not possible at present, because the forces arrayed against the government are hampered by futile divisions. The statement points to the existence of rival anti-cuts fronts with no discernible difference between them apart from the groups backing them. Wisely, it suggests that “the seriousness of the crisis in Britain is forcing us to take a look at the left as well, to see if we are ‘fit for purpose’”.
The three organisations pointed to as examples, however, leave something to be desired. The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste of France is suffering severe internal strains; the New Anti-capitalist Left has hardly made an enormous splash in the Czech Republic; and the Greek regroupment Antarsya’s best electoral showing gave it seven councillors scattered across the country, which is hardly putting the scare into Papademos. It seems (who’d have thought it?) that the combination of left regroupment and the word ‘anti-capitalist’ is not necessarily a recipe for overnight success.
Nevertheless, the British initiative is not entirely without merit. First of all, it has involved, thus far, forces outside Workers Power itself - the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Socialist Resistance and Permanent Revolution are all involved to some degree. All of them taken together, it is true, do not add up to much in terms of numbers, but in this time of increasingly absurd disunity movement in the other direction is not to be sniffed at.
While the public statements of WP, though muddled, would at least suggest a political programme slightly more radical than the sub-Keynesian dross on offer from ‘rival’ initiatives such as Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the key question is the type of formation that needs to be formed: a united Marxist party or yet another halfway house?
Discontent of the majority
Despite its apparent congruence with previous positions, however, this policy seems to be at the root of the aforementioned internal ructions.
‘Seems’, because both sides are nominally committed to it. Around the edges of the policy, however, a series of disputes are forming, with a distinctly inter-generational tilt to the argument. Just as the AWL was ‘forced’ to move decisively to circumvent dissent at its most overt pro-imperialism from its ‘Maoist youth’, so older and (in their own opinion) wiser heads now seek to prevail over younger recruits less wedded to the notionally impeccable orthodox Trotskyist heritage WP exists to defend.
In a recent internal bulletin (dated February 2011, but clearly from this year), four documents appear: ‘We need a change in our culture’ by comrades ‘Cade’, ‘Coates’, ‘Haskett’ and ‘Morrow’ (these appear to be cadre names) does what it says on the tin, and additionally complains at ill-defined bureaucratic mishandling of the debate on internal culture. One comrade ‘Simpson’ replies, defending WP’s concept of a ‘fighting propaganda group’; and two more comrades - ‘Eugen’ and ‘Firman’ - weigh in against the first document. Finally, there is a resolution condemning its authors.
WP’s decade-and-a-half-old turn to the youth, however, has not been without consequences - so, the most extraordinary thing about this dispute, as noted, is that the four comrades who wrote the first piece in fact constitute a majority of WP’s political committee. You would not know they were a majority of anything from reading it; let alone the shower of condemnation their document meets elsewhere in the bulletin.
Their central argument, though articulated in a slightly confused way, is clear enough, and indeed articulates a point this paper has made throughout its existence: it is futile to expect all members of an organisation to express complete political, theoretical and ideological unity in public: “We think ‘lines’ should largely be applied to practice: what slogans we will raise to win a strike, what initiative we will take for a new organisation, etc, and that we should recognise far greater plurality - of a diversity of opinions and outlooks - when it comes to ideas.”
In contrast, the culture of Workers Power as it stands is such that “subtle issue[s] of analysis” are subject to ‘democratic centralist’ discipline - even to the point that reference to Marxists outside the WP tradition ought, in the view of some comrades, to be OK’ed by the leaders. (In fairness, the verboten ‘Marxist’ in question is Mark Fisher, a punkish cultural theorist. His short book, Capitalist realism, which cobbles together bits and bobs of Marx, Deleuze and Lacan in a scatterbrained iekian fashion, has become something of a ‘little red book’ for WP’s younger set.)
Most sensibly of all, the comrades are quite insistent that a critique of the left’s failures - which the leaders have approved for inclusion in WP’s material on the anti-capitalist network project - must involve an autocritique of the WP tradition. That their answers are diffuse - it is difficult to see exactly what they have in mind in terms of a more “pluralist” WP - does not negate the very valuable impulse to subject a tradition they rightly say has not grown substantially since its birth to a thoroughgoing critique.
As for the minority documents, it must be said that some complaints have some justice (and they do not, for the most part, read like strikes of the bureaucrat’s gavel). The frustration that there is little tangible to attack in the self-confessedly embryonic critique of the PC majority is understandable, for one; and ‘Simpson’ is right to point out that a sharp distinction between the correct and incorrect is simply an epistemological necessity for debate.
On the whole, however, the elder ‘dissidents’ are caught defending positions that are simply antiquated. They argue that WP must remain a ‘fighting propaganda group’; the implied argument here is that for such a group propaganda itself is ‘action’, and producing propaganda of any kind divergent in any way from agreed policy is an infraction of discipline.
This character, Eugen and Firman argue, will have to be redoubled in the anti-capitalist party initiative. After all, WP will be under pressure from libertarians and the “ossified centrists” of the Permanent Revolution group; strict unity will be required to win the organisation to WP’s particular programme. (Unfortunately, these comrades insist on the tautological Trot definition of centrism, with the inevitable result that all organisations not explicitly on the right of the workers’ movement become ‘centrist’).
If they are to take this initiative seriously, however, there is a flat contradiction here. For any resultant anti-capitalist organisation to succeed, it will have to be able to take united action, and make united propaganda, just like its component parts; but for the ‘regroupment’ aspect to succeed, debate among factions will be necessary.
If one is to make propaganda for the formation of an organisation with this character, to reject such a character for one’s own group undermines that propaganda. If it is good enough for one party, why is it not good enough for the other? Put it another way - the public expression of differences in a propaganda group, combined with effective unity in action, is itself propaganda for democratic organisational norms, in politics and society at large; we demonstrate in our practice that democracy works, in contradistinction to the capitalists, their state and our rivals on the left, who insist on bureaucratic diktat. Eugen’s and Firman’s obvious discomfort with the anti-capitalist initiative, then, is hardly surprising.
Enforcing public unity on all matters, as the PC majority points out, does not result in actual unity. In another matter, several Workers Power members have now been expelled, suspended or otherwise put ‘on notice’ for ‘breaking discipline’ over the Libyan conflict.
The two disputes do not appear to be directly connected, but a public political argument on the ‘anti-imperialist united front’ (which these particular rebels would like to uphold against the anti-Nato/anti-Gaddafi line WP took in the event) would surely be preferable to producing a drip-drip of embittered ex-comrades. WP, however, insists on upholding the ambiguous stance on the party question that has driven the entire Trotskyist movement to its infamous endless splits.
Where they come from
Workers Power, like many a far-left sect in this country, should know better than to cling to this idiotic shibboleth, as the group is a product of the mid-1970s ‘turn to Lenin’ in the Socialist Workers Party (then the International Socialists), which saw the IS shedding factions left and right. It began its independent existence in a fusion with Sean Matgamna’s International Communist League - now the AWL - which foundered rapidly on the rocks of comrade Matgamna’s almost paramilitary-grade sectarianism.
WP developed quickly into a distinctive trend in its own right. Its comrades rapidly dropped Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism in the Stalinist regimes, and reverted to the orthodox Trotskyist ‘degenerated workers’ state’ analysis; but, unlike most orthodox Trotskyists, they did not posit a grand, unbroken thread of principled Marxism from Marx, through Lenin and Trotsky, and your choice of post-war Trotskyist leaders, to their organisation.
Instead, the red thread - in their narrative - is snapped at Lev Davidovich’s murder. A series of incremental betrayals turned, as they say, from quantity to quality in the 1953 split between the (‘Pabloite’) International Secretariat and the (‘orthodox’) International Committee of the Fourth International, both of which were called “degenerate fragments”. “Neither the International Committee nor the International Secretariat, nor any of the tendencies claiming continuity with them, have proved capable of regenerating a democratic-centralist international based upon a transitional programme re-elaborated to encompass the new circumstances and tasks of the last 30 years” - a 1980s-vintage judgement no less damning for its convoluted Trot-speak.
Such, indeed, is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Workers Power summed up in a single sentence. The re-examination of Trotskyist history is best thought of as making a virtue out of necessity. WP was a product of Cliffism, not some ortho-Trot sub-fragment - so there was no way the red thread could finish up tied to its ankle. Yet in avoiding the retrospective identification with the ‘anti-Pabloite’ International Committee so common to similar organisations, the ground was nonetheless clear for a serious advance on the crypto-mystical narratives of apostolic succession characteristic of orthodox Trotskyism.
Alas, the Trot-speak testifies to the fact that there was a hard limit on criticising the tradition. Trotsky did, according to WP, perform a lasting service to the movement in his voluntarist-economist Transitional programme. The other fundamental bases of his project - an historically disproven theory of the Soviet Union, the need for a ‘democratic-centralist International’ (ie, an international sect) and all the rest - equally survive.
And so, just as no lineal descendent of Healy and Cannon was capable of maintaining political principle or sound revolutionary theory and activity, so the ‘class of 73’ has been made to look quite silly on occasion. A single example will suffice: throughout most of the 1990s, it was simply denied that the “degenerated and deformed workers’ states” had reverted to capitalism; they were instead “moribund workers’ states”. At the end of that decade, readers of WP’s eponymous journal were informed, perhaps to their surprise, that this judgement had been summarily reversed - capitalism had indeed taken hold.
Here, again, all the problems are neatly encapsulated. It is easy enough to mock the “moribund workers’ state” theory; but the brute fact of the matter is that, along with innumerable other features of Stalinist societies (starting with their post-war multiplication), Trotsky’s theory simply cannot account for the manner of their fall. WP hewed closest to his analysis in the 1990s of all Trotskyist groups - a feat it could only accomplish by flatly denying the reality before it.
Secondly, we may presume that there was a wide-ranging discussion on the matter internally - but we cannot know, thanks to WP’s insistence on maintaining a public front of unity. This has two consequences: firstly, the appearance of a monolithic about-face - which no doubt alienates many on the left suspicious of cultism and inspires mirth in those who mock such ‘Toytown Bolshevism’ - simply makes the group look ridiculous. Secondly, it means that the wider movement was unable to participate in the debate. Who knows? - perhaps the rest of us might have been able to persuade the comrades to drop this obvious absurdity sooner, to the mutual benefit of all.
Clinging to that perspective has cost Workers Power dear. It lost a substantial portion of its membership five years ago in the split that produced Permanent Revolution, and that portion included many of its most hardened and experienced comrades. More recently, the LFI’s meddling in its Austrian section forced out another faction, again including relatively prominent members. Now, the cryptic Facebook dissent of some members from the prescribed line on Libya has provoked more bureaucratic expulsions and suspensions; and the dispute over ‘party building’ initiated by the PC majority has all the makings of yet another split (though it is to be hoped that it will not come to that).
How much smaller does Workers Power have to get before it takes the comrades’ cue and re-evaluates the merits of its ‘tradition’?
1. The AWL’s side of the story is available at www.workersliberty.org/node/6633; given its ignoble record of deliberately botched ‘fusions’, the account is most likely disingenuous, but WP does not appear to have replied.
3. The criticisms advanced by the expelled minority are substantially on workerist grounds: www.rkob.net/new-english-language-site/editorial-revcom-1.