WeeklyWorker

12.12.2013
Such diversity, such choice

Liquidationism: End of the road

The Anti-Capitalist Initiative is about to fold. Meanwhile the International Socialist Network looks set to splinter. Harley Filben explores the politics of the marsh

The Anti-Capitalist Initiative has never exactly inspired much enthusiasm in the CPGB, nor any particular optimism as to its long-term prospects. Around the time of the foundation of the ACI last spring, many a comrade in our ranks was to be heard muttering things like “I give it a year”. In the event, it wildly exceeded all expectations by loping on for over 18 months.

Alas, it has - for all intents and purposes - now reached the end of the line. A national meeting of the organisation resolved to dissolve the ACI into the International Socialist Network - well, sort of. There is no mechanism for making any binding decisions in the ACI, its refusal to adopt any such mechanism being one of the many indicators of its short shelf life. Where branches are functioning - principally Manchester and Birmingham - they will continue their independent existence. The group has never taken hold in London, however, so the core comrades - composed principally of the ex-Workers Power members who set up the now-defunct Permanent Revolution group, and a number of younger ex-WP comrades around Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper - will simply transfer their standing orders to the ISN.

It makes a certain sense. Having been through a very different factional struggle in the Socialist Workers Party, the founders of the ISN have arrived at more or less the same conclusions, albeit with a more SWPish flavour. The ISN has functioned primarily to attract various individuals who have found themselves outside the SWP over the years, for one reason or another. Some of the older heads from the PR half of the ACI, indeed, were once members of the SWP or its predecessor, the International Socialists. In practical terms, ACI comrades have dedicated themselves to building Left Unity (with some exceptions, of course, and no coherence, given the ACI’s utterly individualistic and atomised character).

Enthusiasm for LU is more mixed in the ISN; but certainly its more rightwing members (the Richard Seymour-Tom Walker faction) are heavily involved. (What we might broadly call the left in the ISN tends to look back to the IS/ SWP’s rank-and-filist heyday, rather than to the left in LU.)

On closer inspection, however, the prospects are perhaps not so rosy. We note a piece on the ISN’s website, signed by various figures on the group’s right, but quite obviously penned by Richard Seymour: ‘The politics of anathema in the IS Network’.1 It is a pretty gnomic bit of shadowboxing against persons unnamed, whose style of argument is deemed too Manichean and aggressive by the signatories. “We think this is necessarily and intrinsically linked to the danger of becoming a small sect,” they argue. Not necessarily, in fact: the Gerry Healy organisation became the largest Trotskyist organisation in the country, in spite of its Comrade Bala-esque paranoia.

What follows is a cod-sociological analysis of in-group dynamics in small leftwing organisations, and an appeal to unnamed individuals to play the ball, not the man; refrain from calling people ‘bureaucrats’ simply because they hold a minor union post; and so on. Who is the target? We can only guess that it is these comrades’ factional opponents in the ISN. Seymour and co, after all, were defeated on most major points at the ISN’s national politics conference, where much of this ‘uncomradeliness’ is supposed to have taken place.

(There is a somewhat amusing footnote: “We note, for example, the peculiar way in which forms of anti-oppression politics have been mobilised in this cause. One of us was publicly denounced for ‘alienating’ women comrades by ‘shouting’ during a speech; the use of the word ‘trauma’ in a pre-conference document was deemed ‘ableist’. Such tactics seem not only to vulgarise important arguments, but actually diminish the anti-oppression politics being invoked.” Given how enthusiastic these people are to cosy up to the ‘intersectionality’ crazies, how surprised can they actually be by this tactic, which has substituted for reasoned argument among such people for decades?)

It is hardly a coincidence that the ex-Workers Power flotsam should wash up on the same shore as the ISN jetsam; but it is in fact the same political dynamic that ensures first the ACI and then the ISN should run so rapidly into difficulties. That dynamic is liquidationism. Lest I be accused of political ‘anathematisation’ by comrade Seymour and his allies, I should stress that this hardly means the comrades are not sincere. Hardy, Cooper and the PR people come from a political tradition that suppressed public criticism of some pretty absurd political perspectives over the last two decades; most ISN comrades were treated in much the same way, before their departure from the SWP, as the ‘Trotsky-Bukharin gang’ was by 1930s Stalinists, although without the final recourse to mass murder.

The comrades draw the lesson that left sects are not the answer to all our problems; indeed, they are a serious obstacle to effective left politics of any kind. Very good. Liquidationism is a family of non-sequiturs spuriously derived from that proposition: that the answer lies in the spontaneous movement, that it is the job of revolutionaries to throw ourselves into those movements, abandoning thereby the idea that we have ‘all the answers’. We are to be, after the fashion of the Occupy movement’s general assemblies, facilitators.

The trouble with this approach is, firstly, that it is ultimately depoliticising. This was almost laughably obvious during the history of the ACI. At its founding meeting, it decided not to decide on even the most elementary political line. At that point, it was already a failure of nerve. When, at its next meeting, it decided once again to defer any such decision, Workers Power walked out (as is WP’s habit - comrade Hardy learned from the best). Those of us who had ‘given it a year’ wondered if we might have to start thinking in weeks. The long preparation and build-up for its ‘Up the Anti’ day school (at which it was more or less completely anonymous)2 and subsequent conference kept the machine ticking over; faced again, however, with a series of competing sets of political aims, the ACI chickened out once more. In the last year, ‘unity’ discussions with the ISN and Socialist Resistance have kept the brand alive, but the idea that the ACI represents anything more than a jumbled heap of cliques, local affinity groups and atomised individuals has been patently indefensible since Up the Anti. Three strikes, comrades, and you’re out.

Their excuse on each occasion was that ‘more time’ was needed to ‘discuss’ the way forward - the implication being that greater unity would be reached, as it were, by osmosis. This process has actually had the opposite effect - the best part of 100 comrades, initially at least, had in their overwhelming majority been until very recently members of the same centralised Trotskyist “fighting propaganda group”. Now they are scattered among 57 varieties of no-doubt worthy activism; some, like comrades Hardy and Cooper themselves, are gearing up to be minor-league public intellectuals (I remain unconvinced3); others have collapsed into irrationalist feminism. They are not all in Left Unity, and within it they are scattered across the different platforms.

Such are the dilemmas facing the ISN. Seymour and co note in passing, rather candidly, that “we are a very small organisation, and becoming smaller”. The immediate issue, of comrades unknown being unduly rude, is put down in the first instance to the fact that “we bring with us certain habits taken over from the SWP, where a hierarchical culture was underpinned in part toward personal spite towards those perceived as deviating from the line, and personal favour toward those perceived as capably upholding it”.

The comrades are right, but in the wrong way. What they have taken over from the SWP is its apolitical spontaneism. The bureaucratic regime held them together, first as loyal activists and then as oppositionists. In its absence, the centrifugal forces have taken hold; as operative political methods drift apart, it is inevitable that debates should become more fractious.

There are individuals and small groups in both the ACI and ISN that have shrunk from fully adopting the liquidationist conclusions outlined above, or have learned the lesson that the method leads only to oblivion.

Notes

1. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/ideas-and-arguments/organisation/293-the-politics-of-anathema-in-the-is-network.

2. See M Fischer, ‘Up the SwannyWeekly Worker December 6 2012.

3. See ‘Beyond “anti-capitalismWeekly Worker January 24.