At a time when capitalism is dragging the world into crisis and the world working class needs a workers international more than ever, at exactly this time what was probably the world’s largest “Trotskyist” international in the post WW II period – the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) – is breaking apart. Nor is the CWI alone: Just a few months ago, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) collapsed completely. Some socialist groups have produced explanations of what happened in the CWI. “Left Voice’s” is but the latest. I think that they miss the mark.
I was part of the CWI from 1982 to around 1996. I worked as a full timer for eight years and was associated with the CWI International Executive Committee (IEC) for most of those years. Here is my view, based on my experiences. There may well be things I don’t see, but I hope it can help add to the explanation. I start with why I got involved in the first place:
In the first years of the 1970s, the working class in Chile elected a socialist – more accurately, a social democrat – as president. They wanted to build a socialist Chile. Their president, Salvador Allende, tried to bring down
capitalism piece by piece. It was like trying to neutralize a lion by pulling out one of its claws at a time. Naturally, the lion (capitalist class) became enraged and fought back. With the assistance of their class brothers and sisters – the US capitalist class – they staged a coup that overthrew Allende, brought in the military dictator Augusto Pinochet, and killed tens of thousands, imprisoning many thousands more. The coup set on course a reactionary wave throughout Latin America.
I remember reading about what was happening under Allende in Chile from here in Oakland, California, at that time. I remember thinking, “something is not right there. There needs to be some force to drive this thing through to the finish. If not, then it’s not going to end well.” That is what happened
US political situation
Those also were stormy years here in the United States, and it didn’t stabilize much in the following period. While the Vietnam War came to a close, the radicalism that it created remained. We also had the Black Panther Party, whose home base was here in Oakland. Of equal importance, the post war economic upswing was coming to an end. Nixon had ended the gold standard in 1971 and in the years that followed the US economy continued to stagger. By the late 1970s we had “stagflation” – a stagnant economy plus inflation – with inflation running over 11% in 1979 and 13.5% in 1980.
To this young carpenter, it did not seem so outlandish that sooner or later, we would have an American version of Salvador Allende. What would happen from there?
I had been activated in the Carpenters Union by the mass semi-wildcat strike of 1973-4. This was a strike against Nixon’s wage controls in the construction industry, and the strike, which was rank-and-file led, really showed me what a union could and should be. A few years later, I was elected recording secretary of my local, then Local 36. I was in constant open conflict with the leadership, mainly over their refusal to really lead a fight against the contractors. (This was also the time of the start of union busting in the construction industry. Contrary to what many think, it was not Reagan’s busting of the air traffic controllers’ strike that set off the wave of attacks on the unions in general; it was the union busting in construction. But that is another story.)
As a young union activist, an officer in my local, and as someone with general socialist ideas, I knew that there was something more that I needed. For one thing, I needed to understand why it was that the economic boom, under which my generation had grown up, had so clearly come to an end. Also, that vision of what had happened in Chile in 1973 hovered in the back of my mind.
I needed a revolutionary socialist group that could explain these things to me. Living here in the SF Bay Area, I brushed up against nearly every such group imaginable – the Communist Party, Progressive Labor Party, the Workers League, International Socialists, the Spartacist League… You name it, they were all here. One thing I found was that none of them had the slightest idea how to work inside the unions. To me, that meant they didn’t have any idea of how to relate to the working class in general. Nor could any of them explain to me the ending of the post war economic boom.
Meeting the CWI
In 1982, I met a representative of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) who was traveling around the United States looking for people who would build a group here. When I first met him, I was pretty suspicious due to my experiences with other socialist groups. However, I did give him credit for the fact that his group in Britain was inside the Labour Party. As somebody who had campaigned for the unions to break from the Democratic Party and build a labor party here, that simply made sense to me. What really broke the ice, though, was a presentation he made about the basis for the post war economic boom and why it had ended. Following that, I visited the CWI’s group, “Militant”, in Britain and Ireland. I met serious working class comrades. They composed the bulk of the membership, unlike anything I’d encountered in any socialist group in the United States. I also met a group of exiles from South Africa who were members of the CWI. (Soon after I met them, they returned to South Africa to work underground in the struggle against apartheid.) Of course, they brought me to Britain in the hopes of recruiting me, but I was still skeptical.
I balanced my doubts with the memory of Chile in 1973. I wasn’t under the illusion that we would have a “Salvador Allende situation” in the US anytime soon, but I did figure it was going to happen sooner or later, possibly in my lifetime. I figured we only had so much time to build that force that would drive things through to the finish – to lead the working class to power and put an end to capitalism. So I joined the CWI.
Boy, that was a rocky – and exciting – ride!
Elsewhere is a political history of the struggle to build a US group associated with the CWI. (Note: There are legal issues involved in being officially affiliated with a socialist international.) There is no need to repeat that here, although I do think that that political history is useful. But there are a couple of things that I think the record should be set straight about.
Militant in the British Labour Party
Many view the work inside the British Labour Party as the CWI’s original sin.* I think they are completely wrong. In those years, the Labour Party was a mass working class organization and Militant had some tremendous accomplishments inside it. When I visited Britain in 1982, I attended the annual conference of the official youth section of the Labour Party, the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). A thousand or more working class youth – and, yes, they were mainly working class! – gathered to discuss and debate the issues of the day. What a bubbling cauldron of ideas that was. And Militant was the leadership. That, alone, would justify their having worked inside the Labour Party. (Added point: I deal with the issue of working inside the Labour Party in more depth in our reply to Left Voice.)
Some today claim that the CWI said that the British working class could come to power simply by electing socialists to parliament. That was not my experience. We certainly never said that here in the US, where we worked under the banner of Labor Militant. In Britain, they said that the working class could come to power yes, partly through the election of a socialist Labour government, but also “backed by the power of the workers in the streets,” as they publicly put it. They had to put it that way because they in a sense were working in semi-clandestine conditions since being a formal Marxist group inside the Labour Party was prohibited.
It’s possible that among the membership there was some confusion on the issue, including confusion on what they actually were inside the Labour Party. All I can say is that I did not encounter that confusion among the members of Militant that I met and got to know, and this was not only the top leadership.
It was through that work that Militant played such a key role in the Labour-led city council of Liverpool. Many on the socialist left denounce Militant for what happened there. Mistakes were made, but first and foremost stands the fact that that was the only city council in all of Britain that defied Thatcher, refused to cut the budget, actually built council (public) housing and actually hired, rather than laid off, city workers. The only one. Not only that, but it involved the working class, especially working class women, in the process of designing the council housing. There were other “left” city councils at that time. Not a single one of them stood up to Thatcher in that way. Any legitimate criticism of Militant’s role in Liverpool (and there may be some) has to start from recognition of these facts in order to be serious. Otherwise, it is just sectarian left carping.
Militant also originated and led the campaign against Thatcher’s poll tax. That was a regressive per-person tax that fell hard on British workers. It was Militant that initiated the mass refusal to pay the tax, under the banner “Can’t pay, won’t pay”. This was the campaign that actually brought Thatcher down.
It’s success, in a way, was also part of the undoing of Militant, I believe.
Confusion on how the role of revolutionaries
All along, Militant and the CWI believed that they – we – were going to be the leadership of the socialist revolution. We, and we alone. (This was expressed to me in a very blunt way by a brick layer/Militant member I met when I first visited Britain in 1982. “So, are you going to join Militant, or are you going to be a waster all your life?” he asked me.) We were not alone in this delusion. In one way or another, all the socialist groups think this of themselves. I think now that a real working class international will develop much more like the First International did – the “International Workingman’s Association. It was true back in the 1970s and ‘80s, but even more so today that the working class has been thrown back and in some ways will have to start all over again building its organizations.
This confusion combined with a confusion that stemmed from the very success of the poll tax campaign. We had always believed that a new mass fightback against the attacks on the working class would flow through the mass organizations of the working class and would, therefore, be led in the main by “Allende” types. But in that case that didn’t happen; it was Militant that led the struggle. I believe this created confusion especially among the top layers of the leadership of Militant. They, especially Peter Taaffe, started to think that maybe they, themselves, would become the central leadership of the working class – not in a revolutionary situation, but in the present. They started to think that they could build both a mass working class party and a revolutionary leadership at one and the same time.
But how can a revolutionary socialist group become the central leadership of the working class other than in a revolutionary situation? By its very definition, that cannot happen. Militant started to abandon its revolutionary politics in order to become such.This is a complex and contradictory issue. The building of a working class international is the order of the day. But it will spring from the struggle – and the discussions – of and within the working class itself, not from some prefigured blueprint already laid out by some revolutionary group. In fact, any revolutionary socialists will only show their worth by being able to understand and contribute to this process. We will have to help and encourage it, be an integral part of the process, while at the same time challenging workers to see beyond the immediate, to take the next necessary steps forward.
Much has been made of the egoism of Peter Taaffe, and his ego is big enough to fill a football stadium. But it is only a reflection of the egoism that we all held in thinking that we, and we alone, were going to be the future world leadership. (As I said, in my experience, the CWI was not alone in this delusion.)
1980s & ’90s: The capitalist offensive
In 1996, a faction fight arose inside Labor Militant here in the United States. (Again, the political issues are explained here.) By that time, the working class throughout the world was in retreat, not only organizationally, but also in terms of the ideas that were dominant in the working class. That was the time, after all, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the time that the “free” market was the universal panacea, the time when capitalism was “the end of history” as one of its mouthpieces, Francis Fukayama, put it.
This retreat was felt inside the CWI and its associated groups. In Britain, the membership was steadily declining. But rather than recognize this situation, rather than recognize the world retreat of the working class, the CWI leadership sought to drive things forward like a jockey drives its horse with his or her spurs and a whip. Full timers were being driven into the ground raising money and trying to recruit new members. They weren’t given time to stand back, read, discuss with workers, and think. I say this based on my relationship with several extremely serious and dedicated working class full timers there.
Concessions to union bureaucracy
In the United States, one of the main symptoms of this difficult period and the fact that we did not fully recognize the nature of this period was an opportunist adaptation to the “progressive” wing of the union bureaucracy. That came out especially clearly in “Labor Party Advocates”, a group founded and led by Tony Mazzocchi, the national treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union. After a small group of us was expelled from Labor Militant, that adaptation went even further.
What I was unaware of is that it also seems that an opportunist adaptation to the union bureaucracy was under way in Britain. John Mcinally has published a long article outlining his views of this.
Revolutionaries or left reformists?
Such opportunism always goes hand-in-glove with confused perspectives – a confusion on what is happening and how things will tend to develop. Taaffe, who dominates what was Militant and is now the Socialist Party, has been confused for a long time about the role of his group, as explained above. He tried to get it to be all things to all people – both a revolutionary group and a “small mass party” (as he put it) that will be the main leadership of the working class in the here and now. The result was that it could be neither. This also meant that he was totally caught off-guard by the changes in the Labour Party.
Confusion regarding the Labour Party
Yes, it was unclear what the Labour Party (LP) had become or was becoming. Was it still a working class party, or had it been totally transformed into a capitalist party by the yuppie careerists who flocked into it as the working class retreated? Was there any chance of its revival as a center of working class struggle? It was simply unclear, and nobody expected the phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn. But Taaffe’s egoism – which represented the egoism of
the view of the role of the CWI – demanded that he have a clear answer. And answer these questions he did: The LP was dead. It was a capitalist party and would not revive. Therefore, the only answer was to build the Socialist Party. While Jeremy Corbyn was creating great enthusiasm by running for the leadership of the Labour Party, Taaffe was saying that “all efforts must turn to building a new mass party”. After Corbyn won, leading to a regeneration of the LP, Taaffe responded that Corbyn “should draw the obvious conclusion and break from historically obsolete Labour and help to found a new party” (of which Taaffe would be a main leader of course). Despite the fact that Corbyn didn’t heed Taaffe’s brilliant advice, Taaffe then turned around and claimed that “we [the Socialist Party] had a decisive effect in influencing many workers and youth to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership challenge… we played a decisive role.”1 Corbyn and even more so the tens of thousands of youth who joined the LP must have been much relieved to then hear Taaffe “openly declaring our willingness to join” the LP. What a relief! The leadership is on the way to save us!
Taaffe compounded these mistaken perspectives with a blunder of massive proportions: He and the Socialist Party supported Britain leaving the European Union – known as “Brexit”. Oaklandsocialist has had many articles explaining this issue, and the Socialist Party is not alone in this blunder. Much of the socialist left in the United States supported Brexit, just as many of them either overtly or covertly support the most bloody dictator of this century, Bashar Assad. Taaffe & Co. argue that the vote for Brexit was a working class rebellion against the European Union-imposed austerity. To the degree that workers supported Brexit (and that degree is questionable), it was a “revolt” in the same way as how some workers voted for Trump out of anger at what happened during the Obama years. All reactionary movements of any size have a working class element within them. That doesn’t change their nature. Brexit may have had some working class support, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was based on the idea that British workers and British capitalists have more in common than do British workers and their fellow workers throughout the European Union. It doesn’t change the fact that it was an anti-immigrant vote. (Not all workers who voted for Brexit are xenophobes, but that doesn’t change matters either.)
In any case, the ultimate responsibility for austerity lies with global capitalism, not with the European Union, which is merely recognizing this accomplished fact. It is more obvious now than ever as Britain edges closer to a trade deal with the United States if and when it leaves the EU. Such a deal will mean austerity and destruction of the British health care system on a scale many times worse than anything the EU imposed. Not only that, but as the departure from the EU looms, British politics is turning to the right. The looming Brexit has brought the British version of Donald Trump to power in the person of Boris Johnson. It has also strengthened the divisions within the Labour Party and weakened Jeremy Corbyn.
It does not seem that these confusions and blunders are being openly reconsidered by either side in the breakup of the CWI. That is a shame, because it’s impossible that it is irrelevant, if in no other way than the two sides being somewhat divorced from reality.
Principled debate vs. bureaucratic maneuvering
Meanwhile, the bureaucratic maneuvering is well under way. Its history should be considered:
The CWI always used to pride itself on being the only Trotskyist group that never underwent such splits. Back in the early 1980s, there was a debate inside the CWI with the majority of its (then substantial) section in Sri Lanka. Those comrades called for the Indian government to send troops to Sri Lanka to protect the oppressed Tamil minority (who were linked with India by way of being Hindu in the main). The CWI leadership argued that if India sent troops, it would be to advance the interests of Indian capitalism, not to defend the Tamils. Among other things, they gave the example of the British troops in Northern Ireland, which were originally sent supposedly to protect the Catholics. This was a debate that was conducted in a totally principled manner and did not involve organizational maneuvering.
The later debate, with Ted Grant and Alan Woods, may have been different. I still think that Taaffe & Co. were mainly right in their assessment that working inside the Labour Party was no longer a serious option. But they (including myself) did not go far enough in assessing the changed world situation. There may have also been bureaucratic maneuvering by Taaffe and Co. (As an aside, I have to say that I thrust myself too deeply into that debate without looking enough at all sides, including on the question of organizational maneuvering. Taaffe and Co. may have been guilty of this, but I know from personal experience that so was the Grant/Woods side.) The one leader of the international who did start to open up the question of the role of the collapse of the Soviet Union and how the working class had changed was Roger Silverman. He was thrust aside a few years later by Taaffe & Co. Similar bureaucratic maneuvers were used to expel the minority in the United States, of which I was a part, in 1996.
Opportunism in the US
The CWI’s opportunism is also being played out here in the United States, where their associated group, Socialist Alternative, has for several years now given all-out support to the left-liberal Bernie Sanders and his wing of the capitalist Democratic Party. When I was in Labor Militant, we never would have considered supporting any Democrats. We did make one telling mistake, though: While we didn’t support Jesse Jackson, we did call on him to break from the Democrats and lead a movement for a workers party (what we called a labor party at that time). The CWI leadership took us to task for this. “It is a mistake to call on a capitalist politician to lead the working class,” they said. “Instead, we should call on the working class to look to its own organizations and its own, independent activity.” They were right.
That’s what makes it so ironic that they completely support Socialist Alternative’s call on Sanders to do exactly what they criticized us for calling on Jesse Jackson to do! The fact that Sanders has surrounded himself with all sorts of Democratic Party hacks and open pro capitalists prove that he cannot and will not do this. (See “President Bernie Sanders?” for example.) A mass working class party will be built by the activity of workers in the streets and work places. Later, some of the left liberal wing of the Democrats might break off and join it, but it cannot and will not lead this development. It is an opportunist adaptation for Marxists – revolutionary socialists – to support Sanders and a mistake in perspectives (to say the least) to foster the illusion that he can or will lead the working class to independence. Instead, we should be laying out the path along which the working class can travel to build its own party.
The CWI has completely supported this opportunism. So far, we have seen no evidence that either wing of the split is reconsidering this. As with the blunder regarding Brexit and with the confusions regarding the Labour Party perspectives, there cannot be any way forward without such a reconsideration. As for the bureaucratic maneuvers: When Taaffe & Co. found themselves in the minority inside the CWI, they engineered a coup in order to keep control over the CWI’s assets. The other side claimed “foul”. What they didn’t do was reconsider the history of bureaucratic maneuvers by Taaffe & Co. in the years leading up to this. After all, it’s not possible that such bureaucratism could have developed overnight.
The breakup of the CWI comes shortly after the collapse of the US’s largest socialist group – International Socialist Organization (ISO). That collapse was a result of the confused times and the misconceptions that the ISO maintained, along with almost all other revolutionary socialist groups. (See “Debate within the ISO” for a further explanation.) More such crises are to come. They did not develop out of the blue. Rather, there was a long, long period in which the socialist movement became divorced from the working class, at least here in the United States. This arose due to a number of factors including the disastrous effects of the rise of Stalinism and the long post war economic boom and the softening of class relations in the US. Socialists adapted to this situation by either capitulating to the union bureaucracy or taking a sectarian position towards that bureaucracy, or divorcing itself from the unions entirely. Sometimes they veered from one to the other or practiced all of these positions at the same time. Many Trotskyist groups and individuals also accommodated themselves to the Stalinists. To those outside the socialist movement, this can sound like pure jargon. Although jargon is inadequate, sometimes it is necessary as a shortcut.
This was compounded by the sharp decline in the industrial sector of the working class in the industrialized capitalist countries. Historically, that has been the sector that best carried the traditions and the lessons of the class struggle. That influence has been weakened. In the United States, it is extremely significant that many industrial workers support Trump. That is a result of the decades-long history of defeats they have suffered. Although there has been a revival in the last year, it is also related to the sharp decline in the only mass organizations US workers have built – the unions.
Western Europe has seen a similar process with the collapse of the mass socialist and social democratic parties. As with the union movement in the US, these parties’ collapse was due to the capitulation of its leadership. Likewise, that in turn is partly a reflection of the fact that it is no longer possible to consistently resist the attacks of capitalism on a national basis. Capital is organized on an international basis; so must the workers movement become. What is needed is a new, mass workers international.
The CWI (and similar groups) operated under the delusion that they could become that international. They based themselves on the model of the Third International, which grew out of the Russian Revolution. In other words, it developed under the specific objective conditions of that time. It is pure idealism, it is a violation of the very method of Marxism, to think that the same can be repeated under the very different conditions of today.
A new, mass workers international will develop out of the mass, chaotic and, yes, confused struggle of workers themselves – out of struggles like the Arab Spring, the revolts in Sudan and Tunisia, the Yellow Vest movement, and out of the struggles of workers in China and other parts of Asia. US workers will also play their part. It will reflect the dynamism and also the confusion of those struggles. It will contain all different trends of thought – social democratic, anarchist, trade unionist, Marxist, and others.
Out of this roiling mass, clarity will tend to emerge. Yes, the most far-sighted and most determined sectors of the working class need to organize, along with their allies. That can only be accomplished as part and parcel of this wider process. It can only be accomplished as that sector proves in practice its ability to understand the necessary longer term results of the present movement. It will not be accomplished by standing to the side and preaching general “revolutionary” abstractions, nor by trying to be a self contained little core, like a nut with an impenetrable shell. It involves learning how to apply general ideas to the real, actual, living situation as it presents itself. It involves a give-and-take with a far wider layer of workers, which means open discussion and open criticism. In other words, it is not a situation of the enlightened few “teaching” the masses; it is a learning process all around. It is this process that the CWI – and practically all the other revolutionary socialist groups – fail to understand.
We can anticipate this process by developing a genuine network of those socialists who are seriously willing to review their experiences, drawing the lessons of what they did right and wrong, of their successes and their mistakes. A network that is open to comradely discussion and open disagreement rather than keeping all discussion in house, which in reality means allowing the leadership to dictate the “position”. A network that has a genuine dialog with the wider working class and learns from this dialog.
The CWI had some magnificent accomplishments. Ultimately, though, it fell victim to its own mistaken views. Our task is to learn from both the accomplishments and the mistakes, as well as from the present movement of the world working class.
If you find these comments useful or thought-provoking, you might find some of the other articles on oaklandsocialist also worthwhile:
International Socialist Organization (ISO): As referred to in this article, earlier this year the International Socialist Organization, ISO, collapsed. This collapse was ultimately due to the confusion in US politics. In “Debate inside International Socialist Organization: A sign of the times” we explain this process.
Labor Militant and Socialist Alternative: This writer was one of the founding members of the predecessor to Socialist Alternative – Labor Militant. Our struggle to build that group occurred during a difficult period – the 1980s and ‘90s. In “The early history of what became Socialist Alternative and beyond” that history is reviewed. It is not reviewed from the point of view of gossip or personal attacks or adulation, but from the point of view of trying to explain the conditions we faced at the time and how we tried to deal with those conditions. A political review, in other words.
Workers International Network (WIN): Oaklandsocialist is part of an international network called the Workers International Network (WIN). The explanation of how a new workers international will develop is explained more in depth in this interview with Roger Silverman “What is WIN?”
Brexit: Oaklandsocialist has had several articles on Brexit. The ones that might be most useful include: “Britain Votes to Leave the EU – what it means” by Roger Silverman. This was written shortly after the original Brexit vote.
“Brexit again – an Irish perspective” As the title indicates, this article on Brexit was written by an Irish socialist and is written from that perspective.
“Donald Trump and the world capitalist crisis” This article places the Brexit vote in the context of the breakdown of global capitalist stability, including the election of Trump in the US.
“Markets will teach the Italians how to vote” That was a quote from a top European capitalist after the Italians voted in a right wing populist government. The same can be said about the Brexit vote, which is discussed in this article.
Bernie Sanders: Oaklandsocialist has written extensively about Bernie Sanders, mainly from the point of view of investigating the actual facts rather than engaging in rhetoric. In “President Bernie Sanders” for example, we look at the specific individuals who he has surrounded himself with, and we draw some conclusions from there.
A mass working class party: Much as been written about the need for a working class party. Oaklandsocialist was asked by a worker “How to start a workers party” . Our answer is that we think we have to look first and foremost at the objective processes, what are the lines along with a working class movement is likely to develop, not what we should “do”.
Addition: Since this piece was written, Left Voice has published a critique of the CWI. Some of their points are not new and are answered here. Oaklandsocialist has also published a piece answering their points specifically here. In this piece, we deal in more depth with the question of the CWI’s having worked for an extended period inside the Labour Party.
1Thanks to Roger Silverman for providing these quotes.
*Two issues I don’t deal with here are the CWI’s position on the Falklands/Malvinas war with Argentina and the CWI position regarding British troops in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Many on the left have criticized Militant and the CWI for their position on these two issues. Regarding the war, many on the left criticize the CWI because the British CWI did not directly call for the defeat of its own imperialism – British imperialism. I don’t remember the exact formulations, and maybe they weren’t correct, but there are two issues that many on the left didn’t consider: First is the fact that an Argentinian victory in that war would clearly have strengthened the Galtieri military dictatorship. Second is the fact that the people living on the Falklands did not want to be ruled by Argentina. Do they, too, not have something to say in the matter? Regarding the issue of British troops in Northern Ireland: The CWI and Militant opposed those troops going in there in the first place. That stands in contrast to others on the left who supported it because they were supposedly going in to protect the Catholic minority. Later, the IRA launched a terrorist war against those troops. That war was part and parcel of a sectarian divide in the Northern Irish working class. Militant did not want to be associated with that sectarianism. It’s possible in both cases that Militant went too far in avoiding the mistakes that many on the socialist left made, but if so they did so in order to try to maintain a link with the working class, not in order to please the Labour Party bureaucracy.