CWI: A bureaucratic farce
The anti-Keynesian dissident, Bruce Wallace, has been suspended, reports Paul Demarty
After persistent open criticisms of the leadership of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), comrade Bruce Wallace has been suspended from its Scottish section, Socialist Party Scotland. The CWI is the ‘oil slick international’ led by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and has exported its parent organisation’s Trotskyoid reformism around the world, with - to put it politely - varying success.
Having been politically inactive for many years, comrade Wallace returned to the scene with a point to make. He is unimpressed - as surely most of us are - by the standard of economic analysis touted by the CWI, which amounts to an attempt to justify its Keynesian operative political line. For Wallace, the problem lies in the theory of crisis - while the CWI leadership tout an ‘underconsumptionist’ line, Wallace seeks answers in Marx’s analysis of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (FRP).
You would think, perhaps naively, that advocates of two different theories of crisis could co-exist in the same organisation and fight things out at length. Apparently not. After a protracted drama, Wallace has been suspended, in substance for making his criticisms openly - his blog, apparently, is “a platform for a continual stream of invective and attacks on the party”. He has already declared his intention to appeal.1
The CWI has inarguably bungled this whole affair. Comrade Wallace was, once, just an individual malcontent with a theoretical axe to grind, along with some political criticisms of the leadership. It is, surely, hardly the end of the world if there is somebody in the ranks with an obscure blog (it does not even have a domain name) featuring polemics on the nature of the law of value.
Instead, the bureaucratic response has been tragicomic in the best traditions of sect organisation. A short debate in the pages of Socialism Today was followed by a bizarre affair in which Wallace was invited to the CWI’s European school, and then disinvited for saying rude things about the leadership; the more insistently Peter Taaffe and his lieutenants claimed that the matter was ‘settled’, the more cantankerous Wallace became.
By insisting that debates on political economy be “structured” in such a way that they can be rapidly settled by a conference vote or whatever, the CWI leadership inevitably drew attention to comrade Wallace’s criticisms; and they began to gain a following. There were more than a few individuals in SPEW and its sister organisations that had developed left criticisms of its de facto reformist policies; I have certainly heard grumbles from SPEW friends over the years, particularly when it came to abject embarrassments like No2EU.
Suddenly, such people had a flag to rally to - hoisted, inevitably, on the dark side of the internet. The ‘Really Radical CWI’ group on Facebook quickly grew to a few hundred strong (not a reliable estimate of the Really Radical faction’s strength, as the group was open to allcomers - including majority supporters, who often dropped by for some tetchy trolling). Debates were forthright, and often interesting; the comrades managed to rig up a pseudo-live chat with Andrew Kliman, Wallace’s chief theoretical inspiration, on a comment thread.
But, inevitably, more than just the obsession of Wallace and Kliman with the falling rate of profit came onto the table. The Really Radicals have shown an increasing interest in the research of Lars T Lih, whose excavations of Bolshevik history have definitively blown apart the pseudo-Leninism of the bureaucratic sects (a more attentive reading of Lenin’s actual writings would have done the same thing, of course, but sometimes things do not happen that way). We can only assume this interest is what provoked a truly execrable ‘review’ of Lih’s short biography of Lenin by SPEW supremo Peter Taaffe (see Ben Lewis’s article on pp10-11).
The comrades have since set up a ‘proper’ website, which gives a more rounded picture of their ideas. A programmatic document - called, in the way of these things, ‘Building a revolutionary party in the 21st century’2 - is the clearest statement of their alternative. They argue for vigorous theoretical debate in SPEW, based on the actual practice of the Bolsheviks in the pre-revolutionary period. They write, entirely correctly: “democratic centralism prescribes unity on the basis of action, such as programmatic action and activity, and not unity on theory. It is completely absurd, not to mention anti-Bolshevik, to have an agreed ‘party line’ on the cause of capitalist crisis!”
The political substance, it is fair to say, is a mixed bag. To the CWI’s weak-tea version of the ‘transitional method’, they counterpose the explicitly revolutionary phrasing of Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional programme; they criticise the leadership’s “liquidationism” as regards its Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition alliance with the RMT union and Socialist Workers Party, which sees SPEW comrades accommodating to the reformism - and nationalism - of their trade union allies.
They also identify SPEW as economistic, for believing that workers are uninterested in ideas - “Workers are interested in theory!” proclaims a subheading. Above all other matters, of course, the ‘theory’ involved is the falling rate of profit: the posited decline in profits in the capitalist world means that the tax-the-rich reformism of the average Tusc leaflet is a complete non-starter.
The problems with this general outlook will be familiar to readers of this paper. The Transitional programme is economistic itself - it has nothing to say on the question of political power, except a passage on soviets, which expects them to rise on the basis of the successful advocacy of the rest of the programme. The whole thing, in particular the combination of a sliding scale of wages and sliding scale of hours, implies the immediate abolition of money - quite apart from whether this is actually feasible the day after the revolution, the programme does not advocate making this minor consequence clear to the working class; thus it amounts to gulling the workers into making revolution. All of which is quite at odds with the comrades’ insistence on ‘patiently explaining’ elsewhere in the document.
I am underqualified to take on the FRP theorisation directly,3 but I can state with absolute confidence that it is not the master key the comrades believe it to be. There are underconsumptionists to the left of Bruce Wallace, and FRP theorists to the right of Peter Taaffe. Indeed, why - as the comrades argue - is it possible for two theories of crisis to coexist in the same organisation? Precisely because the relationship between politics and economics is not as direct as that.
On the direct matter of ‘tax the rich’ reformism, the most pertinent obstacles are the inevitable flights and strikes of capital, aggressive speculation against currencies and imperialist sanctions that would follow from such a programme - all of which make just as much a nonsense of the proposal if you are an underconsumptionist. The proximate cause of SPEW’s advocacy of such soft-focus Keynesianism is its decades-long accommodation to Labourism, and it was just as compromised on this front in the days when - as comrade Wallace never tires of reminding his leaders - the Militant did hold to a FRP analysis.
So there are strengths and weaknesses to the comrades’ critique. Yet there is a rather greater strength which appears not in the detail of their thinking, but the view from 30,000 feet. We are going through a period where, it is fair to say, the long-standing organisations of the Trotskyist left are fraying at the edges. We have seen two splits in the space of a year in the SWP. As I write, the Renewal Platform of the International Socialist Organization - the SWP’s erstwhile US group - has been expelled. Workers Power, an orthodox Trotskyist group, has shed a large proportion of its small membership over the last few years. In Ireland, the CWI organisation has itself lost a clutch of experienced members.
All these splits have taken place on an extraordinarily thin political basis. We are beginning to recognise the pattern. Comrades, whether through a short, sharp shock (the SWP’s rape debacle) or through a longer disillusionment, come to realise that the grand breakthrough is not, after all, just around the corner. They advance criticisms of the toy town Bolshevism of their organisations, the delusions of grandeur, and set out on their own - whether they jump or are pushed - to really build the movement. What they do not do is sit down and think, and come up with a rounded political alternative. Thus, they drift into liquidationism.
The Really Radicals are not of this character. They defend the best traditions of our movement in terms of open polemics that aim to draw blood. They defend more dubious traditions too, but they do so with a political hardness which is in itself refreshing, so soon after the International Socialist Network split over a sculpture.
Well, now comes the real test for them. The clampdown is in force. In addition to comrade Wallace’s suspension, the Really Radical CWI Facebook group has been replaced by one called Really Radical Marxism - the name change, it seems, is under threat of disciplinary action, which will surely follow regardless. The phoney war is over; we shall see whether this faction is as incorrigible as Bruce Wallace himself.
3. The usefulness of FRP theory in understanding the present view is questioned by Hillel Ticktin - see ‘The theory of capitalist disintegration’ Weekly Worker September 8 2011. For an argument that the law is based entirely on faulty premises, see M Machover, ‘Saving labour or capital?’ Weekly Worker October 6 2011.