IS Network: Battling with a rotten legacy

Daniel Harvey looks at developments in the political regroupment project centred on the International Socialist Network following its weekend conference

In the last six months or so there has been a slowly developing regroupment project underway between various Trotskyist splinters. Some of the roadblocks in this process became clearer at the October 19-20 ‘politics conference’ of the International Socialist Network, which split from the Socialist Workers Party earlier this year.

Initially the ISN put out feelers towards the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, which now appears for the most part to be organisationally defunct, and the ACI’s December conference looks set to confirm its merger with the ISN. The somewhat directionless ACI has been trailing the ISN, looking for something to forestall a collapse, with Simon Hardy seeming an increasingly forlorn figure trying to carve out a distinctive political position for the group.


What all this has meant in practice has been very difficult to discern, as both groups seem to have been milling about without much political clarity emerging. And, the longer the waiting has gone on, the more doubts have started to creep in about their actual viability, given the rival positions within them. So far this has been represented by both groups in wholly positive terms - as a much needed space for fresh, new ideas to be hammered out before proceeding to the next stage. But in practice there are some deep cracks appearing in the overall ISN-ACI project, with competing and incompatible claims about the mistakes of the past, and the correct approach going forward.

On the ISN side Richard Seymour has been prominent in the discussion so far, and has a reasonably sized faction forming around him, including China Miéville and Tom Walker, which can be said to have been exercising some kind of passive leadership in the ISN. Comrade Seymour’s political approach since leaving the SWP can best be described as broadly Eurocommunist (inspired no doubt by his fondness for Nicos Poulantzas).

For those of us familiar with developments in Trotskyism in the modern period, the approach is typical. John Rees’s theorisation of Respect as an electoral “united front of a special type” was one case, having a similar underpinning to the various Mandelite models for ‘broad parties’, in which Marxists are supposed to place themselves. The various theorisations produced tactical differences in practice, but all in one way or another envisage Marxists playing a more or less covert role in steering reformists through a ‘transitional process’ to some form of socialist consciousness.

The latest development of this ‘Euro-Trotskyist’ approach has been represented by the Left Party Platform in Left Unity, which many in the ISN - most vocally the Seymour faction - have supported strongly. In statements made at an LPP meeting in London last week, this was essentially theorised as a necessary response to the collapse of Labour into “social liberalism”, rooted in the “secular decline” of social democracy across Europe generally. This has been the justification offered for two decades now, starting at least from the time of Tony Blair’s ascension in Labour from 1994, but with antecedents going back way before this to the 70s. The left today is an absolute junkyard full of projects like this; rather like the stretches of desert in Nevada with endless dumped and rusting aeroplanes, left formations like the Socialist Alliance, Respect and the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party are all laid out in front of us.

When the Seymour faction hopes that this time things will be different the one thing it can hold onto is the fact that LU will not be a ‘federalist lash-up’, but a membership-based organisation without the participation of the larger bureaucratic groups to screw things up. It does not seem to have dawned on them, however, that, if social democracy is in secular decline, then this can only be part of the secular decline of reformism as such - a decline rooted in a fundamental change in the economic base. And even if this was not the case, the position his organisation is going to have to take within LU will be the same as those adopted by the SWP and the Socialist Party in England and Wales in previous incarnations.

Yet, amongst those in the ISN that think Left Unity is going to take off where all the others did not, there also seems to be a rush to ‘seize the moment’ to move into a wider, separate revolutionary regroupment. Specifically this means joining with Socialist Resistance, the British wing of the Mandelite Fourth International. This is unsurprising, given SR’s enthusiasm for ‘broad party’ projects (plus the bolting on of bits of feminism and environmentalism, as appropriate). But it seems SR is a lot more reticent about letting in Workers Power, which is seen as being too ‘ortho-Trot’ to be allowed to unsettle the fragile balance favouring the rightwing ISN faction.


The ISN, however, seems to be floundering on some very simple points of organisation at the moment - leaving aside the wider political questions. One major debate, which seems to warrant enormous levels of argumentation, is whether or not the group needs to have a full-time administrative “paid worker”. Perhaps because of the ISN’s history as an opposition within the SWP, whose large full-timer apparatus is a significant vehicle of patronage for the central committee, there are concerns about employing even one person.

But in many ways the call for a full-timer is also a response to the failure of the steering committee to offer much in the way of leadership. Originally it was elected purely as an administrative group, but it obviously had to deal with pressing questions that were in fact political, such as the handling of requests for negotiations from other left groups. This quandary has left some members of the steering committee in a state of bewilderment.

I gather from what can be read from ISN bulletins, and from my own conversations with members, that the Seymour faction is pushing to reverse this situation and create a fully political leadership. At the same time there is resistance to this, deriving, on the one hand, from an understandable knee-jerk response to the authoritarian culture from which the ISN emerged, but, on the other, from the apprehension of the left of the organisation in view of the particular political leadership it is likely to get.

This problem has also impacted on the ambitious publication agenda which was voted through at the weekend, but with a very weak executive to push it. There is to be not only the joint ISN-SR-ACI publication, The Exchange, but also a theoretical journal, Cactus, which has had one pilot issue so far, as well as another aimed at women. However, the proposal of the Seymour faction for an editorial committee of eight with a political edge was voted down by a clear margin, and instead a much weaker resolution was passed allowing a looser group to be elected to discuss “publication strategy”.

At present there is a strong contrast between the relatively high level of debate in ISN bulletins, which are nominally internal but downloadable from the website by anyone, and the outward-facing publication, The Exchange, which could not possibly be blander. It contains generic articles you might read in Red Pepper - or the Green Party publication, Green World, for that matter - about the malfeasance of the Tories in privatising the NHS, or why instituting a minimum income might be nice for everyone, and the generally awful nature of zero-hour contracts. But the debates raging internally are about the evolution of revolutionary communism, Trotskyite regroupment, the legacy of Tony Cliff and Leninism in general, the ongoing rebellion in the SWP, Left Unity, feminism ...

So it seems the ISN has yet to overcome the culture of the dichotomy between what goes on inside the organisation and what is presented to outsiders. The difference is that the ISN has rejected the SWP’s farcical attempts to keep internal debates secret. But there is a sign of a carry-over from the old model, where the external press is supposed to present ‘the line’, as opposed to contending opinions. This means that the factional perspective that wins out will control its output.

Left opposition

In the lead-up to the conference the left, spearheaded by Tim Nelson, seemed to undergo something of a revival. Comrade Nelson found two key issues to rally some forces around him: the first is the defence of a rank-and-file strategy, and the second centred on a detailed critique of the whole theoretical legacy of the SWP, particularly in regard to its role in the Socialist Alliance and Respect. On these points, as far as I can tell, the Seymour faction seems to have very little to say - perhaps because it in fact represents the logical continuation of the bureaucratic political approach of the SWP ancien régime in both respects.

Comrade Nelson has written a detailed explication of the demoralising history of the strategy of SPEW and the SWP, which has done little to overcome greater and greater levels of passivity amongst workers. We clearly need a lively, confident workers’ movement, which in part depends on the existence of a confident revolutionary trend within it. In reality there is a complete divergence between reformist and revolutionary practice - the former does not act as some transitional ladder to the latter.

This has a corollary in anti-fascist work. There was a clear majority at the conference which opposed the method of Unite Against Fascism, and its apolitical alliance with reformists, union bureaucrats and liberals. But there does have to be some caution here, in that, yes, the bureaucratic and politically compromised nature of UAF means it can play no serious role in defeating the English Defence League, but the more militant, specifically physical confrontation desired by many of UAF’s left critics is no answer either. Our strategy has to be based on working class organisation on the ground, and for that you need a political project which is not fundamentally wedded to an alliance with pro-establishment politicians. It is here that the left in the ISN needs to come into its own, offering a political project which is not in any way dependent on the left wing of the establishment.

The left at the conference managed to push a merger with Socialist Resistance further away, in what can be described as the stormiest part of the weekend, as far as can be gleaned from communications on social media (apparently comrade Seymour lost his cool when someone made a joke at the expense of SR), but a motion calling on the ISN to support the LU’s Socialist Platform rather than the Left Party Platform was overwhelmingly defeated. Clearly the left has got a long, long way to go in winning people over.