socialist movement

“Go along to get along” – a cautionary tale

I was (unofficially) expelled from a small socialist group I helped found over 15 years ago and was very active in for many years. How that happened is a cautionary tale.

The group is called the Workers International Network (WIN) and its basic idea was excellent. We never conceived of ourselves as the next great revolutionary party that was going to lead the world revolution. Our view of ourselves was based on how we saw the world around us. We believed that the world working class had been driven backwards, not only in terms of the workers’ organizations (unions and workers political parties), but also in terms of how most workers see the world. In other words, the consciousness of the great majority of workers. Flowing from this, we reasoned that any new global working class organization – a world working class party – would arise from the workers’ struggles themselves and would contain within it all sorts of different political ideas – social democrats, anarchists, Marxists, and more. In the course of the struggle, different ideas, different points of view would be tested out by workers themselves.

As a result, we really meant it when we called ourselves a “network”, and one in which open, democratic discussion and debate was welcomed.

It can be a difficult struggle to walk into the wind. Sometimes it is necessary, however.

Go with the flow”
That was the basic idea, and I still believe in it. The problem was this: Under all circumstances, there is a powerful pressure to “go with the flow”, or “go along to get along” as they say. In the unions, for example, the struggle against the employer-collaborating bureaucracy (which controls the unions) is a lonely and difficult one. Most members prefer to simply walk away from any involvement in the unions, unless absolutely forced to do otherwise.

It’s not that different within the socialist movement. But we face a socialist movement that has been in decline for decades. The reasons for this decline are many and are too complex to even begin to discuss here. (This article, which explains how and why so much of the socialist left has sided with the fascist connected Putin, goes into historical depth on that issue.) In any case, the point is that we’ve seen the workers struggles be led down a dead end alley and thrown back time and again.

Never will those who lead such struggles ever admit “I don’t know where I’m going and I don’t want to look back into history to see the results of my strategy in the past.” They will bend heaven and earth to discourage anybody else from doing this. Almost invariably that is because these leaders are looking for a way to reconcile with the capitalists. They don’t want a fight to the finish, partly because they know their methods cannot win, and partly because their entire history is tied up with conceding to the capitalists. They often cover this up with all sorts of bravado. Partly because of the confusions in the working class and partly because the capitalists help promote these types, they tend to be the central leaders of most workers’ struggles.

The result is something like the situation we find inside the unions. There is a powerful pressure to want to get along with these leaders. That is exactly what happened with the Workers International Network (WIN).

Here are some examples:

Greece and Syriza
Back in 2014, a powerful movement developed in Greece to resist European capital’s demand for austerity. That demand for austerity was led by the German government, which was headed by German chancellor Angela Merkel. This movement put what became the political party named Syriza into control of the government. At the head of Syriza stood its prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and its minister of finance, Yannis Varoufakis. They traveled around the EU nations, meeting with government heads, trying to divide them from Merkel. There was nothing wrong with that per se, but they limited themselves to that and that alone. There was no serious effort to link up with the working class of Europe and explain that the concessions demanded of the Greek workers would be demanded of them too. There was no attempt to build a Europe-wide workers movement. Doing that would have been a flagrant violation of the unannounced rules of capitalist diplomacy. The problem was that it was also necessary, as subsequent events showed.

Yanis Varoufakis. His cool image hid a lot.

Within this team of the two Syriza leaders, Varoufakis played a “left” role. Much of it was simply image. He didn’t wear a suit and tie. He rode around on a motorcycle, wearing a lether jacket. Tsipras ultimately capitulated. This was inevitable because their strategy of never going beyond negotiating with the different capitalist heads of state was a guaranteed failure. Varoufakis, however, broke from him. But Varoufakis never reconsidered this failed strategy. All he could do was claim that Tsipras’s collapse was simply due to a lack of courage. If courage is all that’s needed, the working class would have overthrown capitalism long ago.

Given Varoufakis’s “cool” image, and given the fact that he did in fact oppose capitulation, there was a powerful tendency among socialists to ignore the fact that Varoufakis too was responsible for this failed strategy. The majority of WIN, following its central organizational and theoretical leader, Roger Silverman, fell into this mistake. Criticisms of Varoufakis by WIN members were dealt with by ignoring those criticisms. This was a step in setting up a pattern of discouraging a serious and open debate – not directly, but through establishing a certain “culture” within WIN.

Jeremy Corbyn speaking to thousands of workers and youth. It was necessary to also have an independent position on his role also.

Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit
It was similar with the role of Jeremy Corbyn, the former left leader of the British Labour Party (LP). Corbyn came into the LP leadership by opposing austerity. His role encouraged millions of radicalized British youth to join Labour. This was an immense positive, and it was correct for WIN to support Corbyn. But there always was a problem:

During much of the time that Corbyn led the Labour Party, the issue of the British exit from the European Union (“Brexit”) was roiling the British working class. The whole Brexit campaign was predicated on the idea that British workers had common interests with the British capitalists, rather than with the rest of the EU working class. What inevitably flowed from this was a nasty anti-immigrant and racist tendency within the Brexit movement. During that time, assaults on people of color and immigrants markedly increased in Britain.

WIN opposed Brexit, as did Corbyn himself. However, many criticized Corbyn’s opposition as being somewhat weak. The reason it was weak was that he never took up the alternative to Brexit. That alternative could only be launching a campaign within the EU working class for a common and liveable minimum wage, common social benefits, common environmental regulations, etc. Similar to the issue with Syriza, doing so would also have violated all capitalist diplomatic norms. While this criticism of Corbyn’s failed approach was raised by one or two within WIN, once again this was ignored. Campaigning around this demand, would of course have been a lonely struggle at first. But it was necessary.

The result of Brexit was a further turn to the right in British politics. It ultimately led to the right wing conservatives inside Labour ousting Corbyn as Labour’s leader. This was followed by wholesale expulsions of lefts within the Labour Party. That even included Corbyn himself. The excuse for those expulsions was “anti-Semitism”; anybody who criticized the racist state of Israel was considered to be an anti-Semite. WIN stood up to this as did the great majority of the socialist left in Britain. WIN’s leading individual, Roger Silverman, ran for the Labour Party national executive on the program of returning Labour to what it had been under Corbyn. Well and good for a start. What Roger’s program did not do was explain the failures of Corbyn, in particular why Corbyn’s policies were unable to counter the reactionary pressures of the Brexit campaign. Roger’s campaign did not openly call for a cross-border working class movement.

Bernie Sanders and the situation in the U.S.
A similar approach was seen regarding Bernie Sanders. The majority of WIN felt that socialists (including myself) should support Sanders. Many of them said so openly. It took five long years to get Roger Silverman to say so openly. His comments on Sanders were almost entirely positive, so it was clear that that was his belief. However, he seemed uncomfortable openly saying so. I argued over and over that any support for Sanders would inevitably lead to becoming entangled inside the capitalist Democratic Party. I showed actual evidence and examples over and over. This was never answered for five years. Finally, Roger was forced to openly admit that he thought we should support Sanders and get involved in his campaign. I replied to him and that’s as far as it went.

A related debate did take place around the question of what would be the nature of any new working class party, should one develop in the U.S. Roger and another leading WIN member argued that there was no necessary reason that such a party would not be a revolutionary party from its very start. This contradicted WIN’s entire analysis that the working class in the West had been thrown back and that a new international working class party would be composed of all sorts of different elements. But that didn’t bother these comrades. What lay behind their arguments was the fact that taking that position thrust to the side the necessity of conducting a debate with the wider, and reformist, forces in the U.S.

Several years later, for example, WIN came into contact with an individual who led a corporate connected NGO. This individual may have been sincere and very dedicated, but she was also closely connected with the Democratic Party. Never once did the leading WIN members openly explain their differences with her over this issue. When others did, they were attacked for being intolerant or something of the sort. After awhile, this NGO individual ended her entire connection with WIN, as it was clear would happen.

Bend to Popular Pressure
Again, one can see the bending to popular pressure, the unwillingness to take a position that may be unpopular among radicalized American youth. (My experience was that my position was a small minority within that milieu but it wasn’t met with hostility.) One can also see the reluctance to openly debate the issue of whether or not to support Sanders.

So a mode of functioning, a dynamic, was set: Concede to popular pressures and refuse to openly discuss it when some disagreed. Go along to get along.

Ukraine and the Ultimate Crisis Within WIN
Now we come to an absolute crisis within the socialist movement. That crisis has been touched off by the fascist-connected Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The long history of degeneration of the socialist left came into full view. The situation in the socialist movement was like a house that has been eaten from within by termites for many years. It may have a pretty coat of new paint and may look fine – with a few exceptions – until a powerful storm or earthquake comes along. Then the entire edifice collapses.

It is similar with the socialist movement. The majority of that movement abandoned its number one responsibility: international working class solidarity. (Again, see this article for an explanation of how and why that degeneration occurred.) I have made detailed criticisms of the position of the socialists who apologize for Putin on this blog site. There is no need to repeat it here. What is worthwhile is to see how WIN’s pattern of conceding to what was popular and of extreme reluctance to debate the issues played out around this issue.

The Socialist Labour Network. The idea may have been good, but they violated principle in order to try to grow.

A WIN project: Socialist Labour Networks
A project of Roger Silverman and WIN had been to build socialist Labour clubs and a Socialist Labour Network. This seemed like a good idea. However, it did not exactly receive a mass response. I believe that WIN has never fully reckoned with the mood of the British working class. Yes, there has been a series of strikes, just like in the US. But, speaking from the outside, I don’t see a major tendency by workers to assert their independent political role in society as a whole. Not being in Britain, I may be missing something, and maybe I’m under the undue influence of the situation here in the US. But that’s how it appears to me, and an in-depth discussion on this certainly was needed.

Whether I am mistaken in my analysis or not, what seems clear is that the Socialist Labour Network did not exactly take off.

What did happen was that an individual who had been around the socialist movement for many years contacted Roger to say he agreed with the SLN project and wanted to participate. This individual, R.B., has a sketchy history. Specifically, he’d traveled to Ukraine to participate in conferences organized by pro-Putin elements. Anybody can be fooled by such a conference once, but R.B. had done so twice, both times in 2014. In other words, he was and is part of the pro-Putin left. As soon as R.B. contacted Roger Silverman, he was invited to give two presentations on Ukraine to consecutive WIN meetings. The position of WIN on this absolutely central world crisis was signed, sealed and delivered by a statement of the Socialist Labour Network, published just four days after the invasion (Feb. 28) and posted on March 1. I reprint it here in full:

At the all member meeting of SLN, 28 February the following motion was agreed:

This All Members Meeting believes:

  1. That the primary blame for the crisis in Ukraine rests on the United States and NATO which has continued, since 1999, to expand into Eastern Europe despite guarantees given to the USSR and Gorbachov. [see NSA archives https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-12-12/nato-expansion-what-gorbachev-heard-western-leaders-early
  2. We note that Russia’s intervention at the moment is basically defensive and has been provoked by NATO and that Russia does have the right to defend itself against NATO expansion. We call for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and reject Putin’s assertion that there is no nation of Ukraine.
  3. We support the right of the 2 breakaway republics, Luhansk and Donetsk to secede
  4. We oppose sanctions on Russia as war by other means
  5. We call for the dismantlement of NATO.
  6. We condemn the war hysteria and war propaganda waged by the MSM [presumably meaning “mainstream media”] and in particular the call to close down RT as a means of shutting of any alternative sources of information

Consider just a few points of this statement: It completely adopts the Putin line as far as blaming NATO for the invasion. Or, rather, one of several lines of Putin. As he’s made clear on several occasions, Putin’s real reason for the invasion is shown by his statements that Ukraine has no right to exist. It should be annexed into Russia in Putin’s drive to return Russia to its “glory days” of the Tsarist empire. Abstract recognition of that is given, but consider what concrete steps it actually calls for. According to this resolution, the fascist-connected Putin’s invasion is simply defensive. Since any nation has a right to self determination, in actuality Russia’s invasion is justified, according to this resolution. In fact, according to this statement, it’s not even an invasion, it’s just an “intervention”. This is like Putin’s forbidding the calling of this a war; it’s just a “special military operation”! The call for withdrawal is simply a ritualistic cover for the actual meaning of the resolution. (My suspicion is that R.B. wrote the resolution and that Roger insisted on a few ritualistic throwaways to cover himself.)

As for the threat of NATO: Even the most prestigious retired general in Russia, Leonid Ivashov, has said that “nobody threatens us” in the West. Further, in fact the invasion was guaranteed to actually strengthen NATO as it motivated several countries to apply to join NATO. Ukraine itself had had a long standing application to join but NATO never acted on it. This does not mean support for the capitalist NATO; it’s just a recognition of actual historic fact.

Russia’s “defensive” invasion – excuse me, “intervention” – has involved massive war crimes. While most of those overt crimes (other than the invasion itself) were committed after the passage of this resolution, never has SLN or WIN itself condemned those crimes.

The resolution condemns the shutting down of the Putin propaganda outlet RT, but it has no criticism of RT itself.

While the resolution goes through the all too common ritual of “opposing” the invasion, consider what it calls for: On the one had, ending arming Ukraine. Without that flow of arms from the West, Putin’s invasion would have succeeded long ago. But the real intent of the resolution is made clear here: It also calls for the complete end of all sanctions on Russia. But all reports are that Russia’s arms industry – its ability to repair and build bombs, tanks, missiles, etc. – has been severely hampered by some of these sanctions. So what the resolution calls for is for the West to stop arming Ukraine and help arm Russia! In practice it is calling for the victory of the invasion.

There is simply no escaping the fact that this is a pro-Putin resolution. It might be argued that this is not a resolution of WIN itself, but there is every indication that the WIN members, first and foremost Roger Silverman, supported this pro-Putin resolution. And for what? For the opportunist reason of trying to build WIN’s project. The dynamic of refusing to take unpopular positions met its logical conclusion: Abandoning international working class solidarity for opportunist reasons.

Russian war crimes. The reality of Putin’s “defensive” invasion.

There was a little bit of debate inside WIN around the general issue, but WIN was not openly informed of the passage of this resolution. However, it is inconceivable that the British members of WIN did not know about it.

As is necessary, given the logic of the very method of WIN, every effort has been made to discourage any further discussion. I, personally, have been removed from WIN’s Facebook internal discussion page without a word of explanation. Nor is there any further open discussion of Ukraine since that time. Of course not. If it is reconsidered, then one must explain why such solidarity was abandoned in the first place. And if not, then how can one defend this abandonment of international working class solidarity?

Conclusion
WIN’s political demise is not exactly a major event for the socialist left. That is because WIN never was a major influence or force in the first place. It could have played a small but important role in clarifying the situation and tasks for socialists, but that is now impossible. However, that demise is a cautionary tale; it shows how workers’ struggles are all too often led astray by very attractive leaders; it shows the difficulty of striking a balance between supporting those struggles and taking an independent position regarding those leaders and their program and strategy and struggling around these issues; and it shows the deadly consequences of refusing to fight that often times lonely struggle. This struggle today is defined by refusal to make concessions to the pro-Putin “left”.

The loneliness that we in the principled “Western” left face pales in comparison with the terrorist bombing campaign and mass atrocities that Ukrainians face. It also pales in comparison to the beatings, arrests, torture and murder that Iranian protesters face. The point is that if they can refuse to back down in the face of these extreme hardships, we should be able to unflinchingly stand against the tide here. International working class solidarity demands as much.

It can be a difficult struggle to walk into the wind. Sometimes it is necessary, however.

5 replies »

  1. Hi John,

    I realize this is secondary to your thesis, but as a former member of UK Labour I can confirm that the British left are at least taking baby steps away from the party. The Enough Is Enough movement is a working-class alternative (though not a political party); a number of small alternative parties (Breakthrough, Northern Independence) have sprung up; and some unions have either disaffiliated from Labour (e.g., the Bakers Union: https://labourlist.org/2021/09/bakers-union-disaffiliates-from-labour-during-party-conference/) or are threatening to stop funding it (see this article concerning Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/sep/12/workers-shouldnt-wait-for-labour-victory-says-unites-sharon-graham).

    As Labour and the unions have been intertwined for a century, undoing those bonds will take time – and it’s also possible the siren song of big poll leads will strengthen them again. Luckily, Keir Starmer doesn’t seem very interested in such a reunion project!

    • Thanks for this information. First, in relation to the article itself: The main thesis of WIN regarding the Labour Party is that there have been many attempts to build a new more left alternative. Maybe the most prominent one was the Independent Labour Party. These have all failed. It’s not that WIN and the Socialist Labour Network feels bound at the hip to the Labour Party, nor that they oppose in principle building an alternative; it’s that at this point they don’t see any of these attempts going anywhere.

      This relates to the steps you mention by various union leaders. What I’ve noticed is that they are moving away from the Labour Party, but to me the question is which ones of them show any real hint of actually starting to build an alternative? That is the key question.

      This relates to my point about the consciousness and the mood in the British working class – a question with which WIN has not seriously grappled. If it is anything similar to the consciousness here in the US, there is bitter anger about the loss of income, etc. But it is not at the point where this is tending to break through the barriers set up by the union bureaucracy – including the “progressive” wing. The reasons why get to a whole series of other questions which are too long and complex to be dealt with here.

  2. Thanks for publishing this piece, which raises a number of important issues, on most of which I would broadly agree with you. I would certainly congratulate you on taking a principled stand in support of Ukraine’s right to defend itself against Russian imperialism and your willingness to break with former comrades over this.

    A couple of points on the UK situation: it is simply not true to say that “anybody who criticized the racist state of Israel was considered to be an anti-Semite.” I am a supporter of the AWL (Alliance for Workers Liberty) in Britain and we regularly and outspokenly criticise Israel but have never been accused of antisemitism (except on one single, isolated occasion by an ignorant Labour MP who received no support for his accusation) – for the simple reason that our record proves that we’re not antisemites and even the Labour right has had to accept this. The Labour Party has proscribed the AWL, but not on grounds of antisemitism (the grounds were “Trotskyism”!). To the best of my knowledge, *no-one* has been expelled from the Labour Party for “criticism” of Israel in the ordinary sense in which we “criticise” Iran or China or the USA (i.e. criticise actions and records of their governments), rather than in the sense of wanting Israel wiped off the map. Most of the “antisemitism” expulsions that I’m aware of had little or nothing to do with Israel, but were about spreading conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds and supposed Jewish control of the media (conspiracy theories that are all too common on sections of the left). My view (and that of the AWL) is that expulsions are not the way to deal with low-level antisemitism within Labour, but the fact remains that in the vast majority (if not *all*) cases, Israel had little or nothing to do with these expulsions: certainly, none were because of solidarity with the Palestinians.

    Actually, the only recent shifts in Labour Party policy on Israel-Palestine have come with Lisa Nandy’s call in 2020 for a boycott of settlement goods if Israel should annex areas of the West Bank and Ed Miliband’s three-line whip to recognise a Palestinian state in October 2014 – the first *after* Corbyn and left the leadership and the second *before* he was leader.

    Finally, I would challenge the idea (expressed btl here by John Seal) that the main task of socialist in the UK is “undoing the bonds” between Labour and the trade unions: firstly, the present Starmer leadership of Labour is not measurably more right wing or anti-working class than, say, the Tony Blair leadership of the 1990’s and 2000’s; secondly, none of the “alternative parties” cited by John Seal (and there are several others he hasn’t mentioned) represent any serious forces whatsoever and have no influence within the organised working class; and finally, the disaffiliation of the Bakers union and Sharon Graham’s vague noises about Unite the Union disaffiliating, do not represent moves to the left, so much as moves towards apolitical unionism, and a total failure to put up any kind of serious fight within the Labour Party.

  3. The ILP was a founding organisation, affiliate, of the Labour Party, not a breakaway, until it disaffiliated in 1932. My Scottish grand-parents who were ILP activists in Glasgow, like the majority of the Glasgow ILP, did not leave Labour with James Maxton, to become, as Aneurin Bevan famously described them, “pure, but impotent”.

    Although Roger Silverman is respected by a number of people he, and his fellow-thinkers, are a very small group within a much much larger left in this country. I have not heard of any results of the call for “to build socialist Labour clubs and a Socialist Labour Network”.

    I would follow Jim in congratulating you on taking a principled stand in support of Ukraine’s right to defend itself against Russian imperialism.

    Our comrades, from the more mainstream Chartist magazine, the soft left Open Labour, Greens, Red Pepper, Jim’s group, Anticapitalist Resistance, and many others on the radical left, who supported Another Europe is Possible, have, after campaigning for Europe, taken the same position.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I used to have the highest respect for Roger, despite what I felt was his tendency to “go along to get along”. If you check out his articles on this blog, I think (hope) you will agree that they are very thoughtful. In fact, I used to consider him to be one of the most serious classical Marxists around today. No longer. In fact, I’ve lost a great deal of respect for him. It is interesting, by the way, that neither he nor WIN has responded to this criticism. Maybe they will ultimately, or maybe even reconsider their position, especially if this article receives greater publicity. As for congratulating me for my stance on Ukraine: It was easy.

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