Defend the right to be offensive

Socialist Party/CWI: Rudeness and revolution

The Committee for a WorkersÂ’ International should not insist on micro-managing debates, argues Paul Demarty

The Committee for a Workers’ International - attached to and effectively run by its British sections, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and Socialist Party Scotland - has found itself caught up in a minor, but slightly farcical, dispute with one of its Scottish comrades.

Bruce Wallace, a Militant old-timer, has taken it upon himself to wage war on the CWI’s economic analysis. He accuses his leaders of failing to acknowledge the significance of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, believed by him - among many others - to be the fundamental explanatory driver behind capitalist crisis. The leaders are instead “underconsumptionist” - which, for him, means, in effect, to desert Marxism.

The CWI is at pains to insist that it is happy to have a debate. It must be said, however, that it has a funny way of going about it. Wallace has been summarily disinvited from the CWI’s summer school. I do not mean he has been taken off the list of advertised speakers or something like that - he is no longer allowed to attend in his capacity as a long-standing member of the organisation, having previously sought agreement in advance that he would be permitted to intervene from the floor against the leadership in two sessions.

Mind your manners

Comrade Wallace has also made the ‘mistake’ of starting a blog to expound his criticisms, based substantially on the work of the American Marxist economist, Andrew Kliman.1 On this blog, he discusses his disagreements in what is best described as an impish tone, which has been interpreted by the international leadership as unforgivably rude and uncomradely.

“He has accused the leadership of … pandering to ‘Keynesianism’,” reads an internal CWI circular explaining the banning order (SPEW pandering to Keynesianism? Surely not!). Under the heading “Insulting approach”, Wallace is accused - horror of horrors - of behaving obnoxiously towards the leadership, suggesting that “they’re all hiding in their offices at the national centre ignoring or censoring signals (and letters or articles) to the theoretical journal that rip their underconsumptionist arguments to shreds.”2 Ouch …

On top of that, he was rude also to a young SPEW comrade by the name of Iain Dalton (the quotation from Wallace’s blog is snotty, but concludes a long and serious attempt to reply to the comrade’s criticisms). These breaches of revolutionary etiquette are clearly serious enough for Wallace to be considered too threatening a presence to attend the summer school - instead, the author of the CWI article, Tony Saunois, proposes a ‘structured debate’ some time in the autumn.3

All these complaints are straightforwardly spurious by any rational measure. A brief glance at comrade Wallace’s blog reveals that it is curmudgeonly at worst in tone; and that it is not composed in the main of vigorous abuse, but attempts to articulate serious theoretical ideas at a level at least comparable to the official SPEW/CWI ‘theoretical’ journals. We are left with two possible conclusions: either Peter Taaffe, Tony Saunois and co are such delicate creatures that the odd polemical barb emotionally traumatises them, or that they are excuse-mongering in order to avoid the debate. The latter, on the whole, is dramatically more likely.

We are not talking Socialist Workers Party levels of control-freakery, of course. Wallace has had four letters published in Socialism Today, SPEW’s theoretical monthly, criticising both central leader Taaffe and Lynn Walsh, the tendency’s foremost economic brain. Saunois’s statement grumbles about the blog, but concedes its right to exist.

It is abundantly clear, however, that the leadership is determined to have the debate on terms entirely favourable to it. Three of Wallace’s four letters are accompanied by far more substantial replies by authors who, more broadly, have full access to the pages of Socialism Today to make their arguments at length. Wallace’s blog does not leave one with the impression that he lacks the stamina to submit a full-length critique to the journal - so where is it, comrades? Have you spiked it or not?

A ‘structured debate’ would go as follows: “The [Socialist Party Scotland] national committee agreed to circulate two written contributions on the issues - one from Bruce Wallace and one from the IS [CWI international secretariat]. This would be followed by debate at a members’ meeting and the publication of the written contributions on the party website” - in other words, the debate would remain ‘secret’ until it was already over (my emphasis). Allowing comrade Wallace to make his points from the floor at the Belgium school - where, heaven forefend, other comrades might support him - would clearly be too much. This way, Wallace is far more easily portrayed as an isolated malcontent.

Wrong battle?

It is necessary to say a few words in defence of the SPEW/CWI leadership, or more exactly against comrade Wallace’s fetishisation of the falling rate of profit.

The idea that this is “the most important law in political economy” comes, word for word, from Marx - but from the Grundrisse, a series of posthumously published working notes. It is expanded upon in Capital volume 3, which was valiantly cobbled together from manuscripts that predated the writing of volume 1. Scholars such as Simon Clarke have argued quite convincingly that there is no one theory of capitalist crisis in Marx; law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall centrism was a minority position in the Second and Third Internationals.

The idea that the falling rate of profit interpretation has a total monopoly on orthodoxy, and that underconsumptionism necessarily equals reformism, dates not from the 1860s, but the 1970s, and emerges wholly out of post-New Left trends in Marxist economics.

It is empirically obvious, moreover, that these political diagnoses are spurious. David Yaffe, one of the leading proponents of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall revival, was driven not towards sound revolutionary Marxism as a result, but shrill, Castroite stupidity. Kliman adheres to the US Marxist Humanists, who are ‘unorthodox Trotskyist’ in origin, but were also in substance an obedience cult around Raya Dunayevskaya. Most of the pre-war Marxists of any note, including Lenin, adhered to an orthodoxy that would be diagnosed by the 70s generation as hopelessly underconsumptionist.

It is empirically problematic in another way, which is that it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that the rate of profit is falling sharply in the run-up to the crisis, primarily because of capital’s inherently global nature as a social formation and the difficulty in aggregating statistics from wildly different sources (in his reply to Wallace, Taaffe correctly points out that the likes of Kliman are over-reliant on American statistics).

The standard response is to place the law at a high level of abstraction from empirical reality, which is no doubt where it belongs; but then the idea that fidelity to law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall theory is of immediate and decisive practical importance becomes, on closer examination, indefensible.

Like any other fetish, however, comrade Wallace’s expresses something real. It slips out in Saunois’s document: “The involvement of the party in the anti-bedroom tax campaign in Scotland and the intense workload of the IS has pushed the timetable [for debate] back somewhat.” If Wallace overstates the importance and exclusive orthodoxy of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as such, the CWI leadership expresses the weather-beaten Trotskyist prejudice that any moment spent on reflection on theoretical matters is, above all else, a moment not spent on building the latest ephemeral campaign.

Commenting on this retreating timetable, Wallace remarks rather acidly that “after the summer there may be an uprising of the Inuit of the Northern Oblast or another tsunami requiring the full mobilisation of the CWI to intervene. Could this cut across the need for the debate yet again?”4

The deeper malaise lies in SPEW’s self-delusion about the scale of its mass influence. It imagines that bedroom tax activism will bring a repeat of the poll tax campaign; the problem is that the last 10 things have been viewed in that way as well. SPEW has been comprehensively outmanoeuvred on the anti-austerity front by John Rees and the like, and has only managed to leverage its substantial penetration of the Public and Commercial Services union and friendliness with Rail, Maritime and Transport union tops into the stillborn Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition electoral front. Its current political orientation, begun when the Militant Tendency finally abandoned its Labour Party entrism more than two decades ago, has stagnated at best. This is not a time for hyper-activism, but for critical reflection.

Comrade Wallace clearly wishes to base explicit political criticisms of SPEW’s orientation on solid theoretical ground. That is admirable. His comrades need a lot more of that, and a lot less curtailing of debate on the basis that dissident comrades are being too rude.




2. - the full post is less haughty that the quote makes it sound, and more humorous, but also more damning: Wallace effectively accuses CWI economists of being functionally equivalent to phrenologists and pseudo-neuroscientists.

3. http://cpgb.org.uk/assets/files/IS_Statement_ BW.doc.