After 60 years of opportunist adaptation
The profound internal crisis currently wracking the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) has produced a series of splits. The Spanish section Izquierda Revolucionaria (IR-Revolutionary Left), which only joined the CWI in 2017, seven years after leaving the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), broke away last year along with the Venezuelan, Mexican and Portuguese groups and a minority of the German section known as Offensiv-Marxistische Organisation (OMO). In denouncing the CWI’s tendency towards “adaptation to bourgeois public opinion and petty-bourgeois prejudice” OMO declared:
“Along with comrades from Spain, Venezuela, Mexico and Portugal, we have come to the conclusion that the roots of opportunist adaptation in the CWI will continue even after the current crisis. They result from a bureaucratisation of structures, from opportunist methods in entryist work… from the adaptation of political principles and the programme to national circumstances, which has led to a federal construction of the International, but first and foremost they result from a lack of trust in the working class.”
—Offensiv-Marxistische Organisation’s resolution to the International Revolutionary Left Group, 2 July 2019, published on the group’s Facebook page [our translation]
Like all other wings of the former CWI, the Spanish-led breakaway claims to be the most left wing, while glossing over the fact that this opportunism characterised the CWI and its predecessor right from the beginning in the 1950s. After the departure of IR et al, a new round of factional struggle pitted long-time CWI leader Peter Taaffe’s “In Defence of a Working Class Trotskyist CWI” faction against the “Faction for Revolutionary Internationalism” (FRI) led by the majority of the Socialist Party Ireland (SPI) and the Greek section (Xekinima). The FRI, supported by the majority of the remaining CWI supporters outside Britain, split with the Taaffeites in July 2019 with both wings claiming to be the CWI. In September, the Irish group split again with a minority leaving to found a new group called “Rise.”
In the course of the fight with the FRI Taaffe accused the Irish and Greek sections of engaging in the sort of political liquidationism long associated with the followers of the late Ernest Mandel, the historic leader of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec). Taaffe supporters who controlled the CWI’s International Secretariat (IS) charged that the Irish section’s intervention into the successful “Repeal the 8th Amendment” campaign to legalise abortion was marred by capitulation to feminism. The Irish leadership defended their approach by claiming that the feminist movement’s “high expectations for equality and for freedom from oppression” must inevitably “clash completely with what capitalism has to offer, and simply cannot be met within the framework of the current system” (“Our response to the issues,” 5 October 2018, Members Bulletin—Documents on the dispute that arose at the IEC). The IS majority also criticised the SPI for failing to seriously attempt to draw the trade unions into the struggle (see: “Women’s oppression and identity politics—our approach in Ireland and internationally”). To bolster its charge that the Irish leadership was increasingly viewing social struggles through the lens of feminism, the IS cited a public SPI meeting entitled “Why housing is a feminist issue.”
Taaffe contrasted the SPI’s “Mandelism” with his own record:
“In the 1960s Ted Grant and I walked out of their [USec] world congress and subsequently broke with these opportunists. We turned our backs on them and faced up to the task of winning the working class, above all the youth, to our banner, despite being a very small organisation at the time. All of our present ‘critics’ would never have been able to discover the revolutionary perspectives and programme of the CWI if we had not resorted at that time to this bold move. What are the policies of Mandelism then and today? Abandonment of the centrality of the idea of the working class as the main force for socialist change and, in its place, the hunt for other forces to play this role: students as the ‘detonator’ of revolution, false illusions in the guerrilla movements and leaders like Tito, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Mao.”
—In Defence of a Working-class Orientation for the CWI, 14 January 2019
In fact Taaffe’s record is not a great deal better than either Mandel’s or that of his one-time mentor, Michel Pablo, whose name has long been associated with a tailist and impressionistic brand of revisionism in the Trotskyist movement.
Pablo, Mandel & Healy: Militant’s predecessors
In the early 1950s Pablo observed that Trotsky’s predictions that the Fourth International would have enormous revolutionary opportunities after the Second World War had not come to pass. Given that the Stalinists and social democrats had retained the loyalty of the masses of workers, and what he anticipated as the imminent prospect of “War-Revolution” which would not allow the time necessary to build independent revolutionary parties, Pablo proposed that the Trotskyist cadres should carry out a “deep entry” in the existing mass reformist workers’ organisations where they could patiently await the opportunity to push them to the left when the supposedly inexorably unfolding “objective revolutionary process” of history finally manifested itself. Pablo acknowledged that his “deep entryism” had nothing in common with the time-limited entryism Trotsky had championed in the mid-1930s as a tactic to recruit leftward-moving workers to the Fourth International:
“What was involved in general [in the 1930s] was to enter into these parties, to profit from their temporary left turn, to recruit members or to court certain thin leftist currents which were developing there, and to get out. It was not a question of facing the tasks of the war and revolution by remaining inside these parties. The entire conception of carrying out the entry and the work inside these parties was determined by this perspective.
“Today it is not exactly the same kind of entrism which concerns us. We are not entering these parties in order to come out of them soon. We are entering them in order to remain there for a long time banking on the great possibility which exists of seeing these parties, placed under new conditions, develop centrist tendencies which will lead a whole stage of the radicalization of the masses and of the objective revolutionary processes in their respective countries. We wish in reality from the inside of these tendencies to amplify and accelerate their left centrist ripening and to contest even with the centrist leaders for the entire leadership of these tendencies.”
—The Building of the Revolutionary Party, February 1952 [emphasis in original]
Long-term entry in reformist mass organisations inevitably requires political adaptation to the host. This was explicitly elaborated in the Resolution on the Austrian Question, adopted at the 1951 World Congress of the Fourth International, which instructed those carrying out the entry “not to come forward as Trotskyists with a full programme” and “not to push programmatic and principled questions” but instead “to begin with the level of consciousness of the workers in each sector of a given activity and to avoid the danger of isolation by going too far beyond this level”. This approach tends to result in the political profile of the cadres undertaking this work becoming barely distinguishable from ordinary social democrats. In many cases the mask becomes the face.
In Britain the popularity of the post-war nationalisations carried out by Clement Attlee’s Labour government created enthusiasm within the working class about the prospect that social democracy could serve as an instrument for socialist transformation. This created difficulties for the tiny forces of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), as Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson observed: “It was the hopes raised among the working class by the nationalisation programme of the Labour Government that were responsible for the lack of success of the R.C.P. during this period, and ultimately its stagnation and disintegration.” (War and the International, 1986).
Pablo/Mandel’s perspective was initially enthusiastically embraced by Gerry Healy, who pioneered “deep entry” into the Labour Party. To his credit at the time Ted Grant rejected this liquidationist course:
“The whole approach in the Labour Party is a Stalinist one of controlling machines, a Socialist Fellowship, a Socialist Outlook, an entire League of Youth, at the expense of political ideas and programme. However, it has not the saving grace that side by side with organisational appendages, the Stalinists simultaneously organise their own powerful independent party and press.
“This liquidationist policy becomes the mixing of banners, policy and programme.”
—Ted Grant, Open Letter to the B.S.F.I., September/October 1950
Grant unfortunately did not carry the fight to its logical conclusion and ultimately rejoined Pablo and Mandel in 1957:
“‘They helped us at the time. They gave us some money to publish an Open Letter to the Communist Party. And anyway, we did not have much of an alternative’. He added: ‘We had no illusions about Pablo and the others, but as there was nothing to lose, we went along anyway. As a result we found ourselves once more inside the Fourth International. Lacking any viable alternative, Pablo was compelled to recognise us as the basis of a new British section.’”
—Alan Woods, The Permanent Revolutionary
It was not just a matter of getting funding—there was a real political convergence. Grant, embracing the perspective of long-term entry in the Labour Party, began spinning fantasies about the possibilities that this agency of the pro-imperialist trade-union bureaucracy might gradually undergo a significant shift to the left:
“The right wing would find itself isolated…the Labour Parties will be vibrant with life…the workers will rapidly rid the organisations of dead wood and live-wire delegates will be sent from the branches to the General Management Committees. The crisis in industry, and the struggles of the workers…will have their effect on the Labour Party and, in turn, the crisis of the Labour Party will react on the workers’ organisations at shop and factory level. The possibility of a split, in the event of the right wing retaining control of the party apparatus, would be present. It is, however, more likely that the left would gain the majority and transform the Labour Party into a mass centrist organisation. In either case the work of revolutionary Marxists in the period ahead must be largely the preparation and training of a cadre with such a perspective in view.”
—“The situation and our tasks”, Workers International Review, June—July 1957, cited in: Bill Hunter, Lifelong Apprenticeship, 1997
Grant/Taaffe’s ‘peaceful road to socialism’ nonsense
Grant and Taaffe broke organisationally with Mandel et al in 1964 and launched the Militant tendency inside the Labour Party. To avoid unduly antagonising the party leadership, Militant downplayed the perspective of smashing the capitalist state apparatus and replacing it with proletarian organs of power. As far back as 1952 Grant had lamented that under Attlee’s post-war government “a golden opportunity of transforming Britain into a workers’ democracy and shaking the world by her example was lost by the cowardice and shortsightedness of the leadership” (Ted Grant, The Unbroken Thread). Leon Trotsky took a different view:
“The coming into power of the Labour Party will have only this meaning for progress, that once more it will show—infinitely clearer even than before—the bankruptcy of the methods and illusions of parliamentarianism amidst the crumbling ruins of the capitalist system. And so the absolute need for a new, a truly revolutionary party will stand forth clear-cut before our eyes. The British proletariat will enter upon a period of political crisis and theoretical criticism. The problems of revolutionary violence will stand in their full height before it. The teachings of Marx and Lenin for the first time will find the masses as their audience.”
—Foreword to Terrorism and Communism, 10 January 1935
From the beginning Grant, Taaffe and Co. rejected this perspective and instead based the Militant tendency on the possibility of peaceful revolution via parliamentary legislation. In 1968, when a mass uprising of French workers and students posed a genuine revolutionary opportunity, these reformists saw only an opening for a peaceful transition from bourgeois to proletarian rule:
“The police themselves have been touched by the hot flares of revolt. Their union issued a warning to the government that the ‘police officers thoroughly appreciated the reasons which inspired the striking wage earners and deplored the fact that they could not by law take part in the same way in the present labour movement… the public authorities will not systematically set the police against the present labour struggles.’ (The Times, 24 May 1968) In the event of a clash, many serious matters would arise, in other words, many sections, if not the majority, would go over to the workers. The army also would be split from top to bottom if the officer caste sought to intervene…If there ever was a time when the working class could take power peacefully, that time is now.”
—Militant, 28 June 1968, quoted in: Peter Taaffe, The Rise of Militant
Yet, on the very next page, Taaffe describes how President Charles de Gaulle “conferred with the commander of the French NATO troops, General [Jacques] Massu. In exchange for de Gaulle’s promise to free some of the right-wing generals and army officers involved in the military revolts in Algeria in the early 1960s, Massu promised, if necessary, to march his troops on Paris” (Ibid.). Does Taaffe think Massu intended to march on Paris in order to salute a peaceful workers’ revolution? As Lenin observed, “the proletarian revolution is impossible without the forcible destruction of the bourgeois state machine and the substitution for it of a new one which, in the words of Engels, is ‘no longer a state in the proper sense of the word’” (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky).
Militant’s ‘flexible’ interpretation (i.e., blatant rejection) of this basic Marxist principle regarding the state did not prevent the Labour leadership from hounding them. Ted Grant’s speech at the September 1983 Labour Party conference, just as the right wing began expelling members of Militant’s editorial board, was a testament to the group’s Labourite core:
“We shall continue to work to make certain that this Tory government is thrown out, and preferably a Labour government with socialist policies returned. Whatever programme is put forward, Militant, as it has always done in the past, will continue to work for the victory of this movement. There is no way that Marxism can be separated from the Labour Party.
—Ted Grant, The Unbroken Thread
This craven declaration of Labour loyalism, “whatever programme is put forward”, reflected Militant’s distance from Marxism. The advocacy of “socialist policies” was little more than a marketing device to differentiate Grant/Taaffe et al from their more overtly reformist competitors in the party. Trotsky had nothing but contempt for leftists who tailor their politics so as not to offend reformist bureaucrats:
“Those who say “we will forego telling the masses the truth about the latest social-patriotic treachery so as not to be expelled from the party led by the social patriots” become the witting accomplices of these traitors. By claiming to speak in the name of Marxism they reveal what contemptible scoundrels they are.”
—The Crisis of the French Section [1935-36]
Militant’s version of “a Labour government with socialist policies” was previewed after they won control of Liverpool City Council in 1983. After initially increasing spending on housing and other public services, Militant and its allies ran up against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s drive to cap funding for councils across the country. By May 1984 the district auditor was threatening to lay charges of ‘misconduct’, which could have barred Militant councillors from office for five years and saddled them with heavy fines. Militant ineptly responded by attacking its own base—issuing redundancy notices to all council employees, while somehow imagining that Thatcher would be blamed. Instead this manoeuvre sparked a wave of hostility towards Militant so intense that its own local trade-union group threatened the council leadership with an all-out strike.
The Liverpool fiasco demonstrated clearly that meaningful steps towards rational socialist planning can only be successfully undertaken on the basis of the expropriation of the capitalist class and the destruction of its repressive state machinery. As long as the bourgeoisie wields control of the state apparatus, whether directly through its own parties or via its labour lieutenants, there is no possibility of making the leap to a genuinely socialist regime. This is why revolutionaries advocate smashing the bourgeois state and replacing it with organs of proletarian power—workers’ councils and workers’ militias.
Taaffe retrospectively acknowledged the limitations of reformist municipal socialism:
“A local council restricted to one city, however is far from being in the position of a healthy, democratic workers’ state. Its actions are still dominated by the capitalist economy generally, and by constraints imposed by the government. It is still subject to the laws of capitalism. Even under the most radical leadership, therefore, the actions of the council can at best ameliorate the conditions of the working class.”
—Tony Mulhearn and Peter Taaffe, Liverpool—A City That Dared to Fight
Yet rather than acknowledging the catastrophic mistake in Liverpool, all of Militant’s various descendants continue to pitch it as a success story. Some success! The defeat in Liverpool produced a haemorrhaging of Militant’s membership, a vicious witch-hunt in the Labour Party, and the reversal of many of the initial reforms the Militant councillors had been able to implement. But Taaffe still celebrates Militant’s “success” in Liverpool:
“When we held effective power at local level in Liverpool we put these ideas into practice – through working-class control by the council unions of hiring and firing – we made clear proposals on the issue of full-time employment of a layer of long-term unemployed, particularly black youth, in deprived areas of Liverpool.”
—Peter Taaffe, In Defence of a Working-class Orientation for the CWI, 14 January 2019
Lenin saw things rather differently, arguing:
“that only workers’ Soviets, not parliament, can be the instrument enabling the proletariat to achieve its aims; those who have failed to understand this are, of course, out-and-out reactionaries, even if they are most highly educated people, most experienced politicians, most sincere socialists, most erudite Marxists, and most honest citizens and fathers of families.”
—“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder
In The Case for Socialism the Socialist Party spins a fairy story about the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism without breaking any bourgeois crockery or mobilising organs of working-class power:
“Nonetheless, in a country like Britain, it would be possible for an entirely peaceful socialist transformation of society to be carried out. If a socialist government was to nationalise the ‘commanding heights’ of Britain’s economy, provided it mobilised the active support of the majority of the population – the working class – the efforts of the capitalists to stop it would come to nothing. Of course, if they thought they could get away with it there is no doubt that the other major capitalist powers would attempt to strangle a socialist Britain. However, they would not be able to get away with it.”
—The Case for Socialism, 2016
The “efforts of the capitalists” will only “come to nothing” if their agencies of repression are soundly defeated by a superior, organised force representing the oppressed and exploited. One only need recall the naked threats by one of Her Majesty’s senior generals reported in 20 September 2015 Sunday Times against Jeremy Corbyn. The British ruling class will never cede state power without a struggle. Revolutionaries have a duty to help working people grasp this hard fact. Instead the Socialist Party, like the rest of Militant’s political offshoots, is still busy sowing utopian fantasies about a parliamentary road to socialism.
Taaffe’s big turn: wrong again
In the early 1990s, the majority of Militant abandoned their deep entryist policy leaving Ted Grant and a circle around him buried in the Labour Party where they remain to this day as Socialist Appeal, British section of the IMT. Taaffe justified this dramatic turn without admitting that deep-entryism had been a mistake, on the grounds that Labour had undergone a “counter-revolution” that turned it into a purely bourgeois party:
“The creation of the Labour Party, in effect, brought into being a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, as Lenin described it. This was a capitalist party at the top, whose leadership had at least one foot in the camp of the ruling class – they were not prepared to break from capitalism – but with a working class and increasingly socialist base, particularly after the October 1917 Russian revolution. This meant that the ruling class could never completely trust such a party, particularly when it formed the government, because it was susceptible to the pressure of the organised working class in particular through the trade unions.
“All of that was, however, completely changed through the counter-revolution of Kinnock, Smith and, particularly, Blair and Mandelson. They created a bourgeois party, which is correctly seen by the bourgeois as entirely trustworthy, in the sense that it would stoutly defend the interests of the capitalists, as they perceived it, no matter what pressure was exerted from below. Moreover, the change in the character of this party is clearly perceived by the working class which is coming into bitter opposition with its leadership on a whole series of issues. This is reflected in a number of ways: in the turning away from voting Labour to mass abstentions – in effect, a voters’ strike – and more consciously, in the unprecedented pressure in the trade unions to break from Labour.”
—Socialism Today No. 68, September 2002
In fact there was no qualitative change in Labour—it remained the political representative of the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy and more privileged and backward layers of the working class. Unlike Militant, which viewed Labour as an empty vessel capable of being transformed into a vehicle for socialism, the British bourgeoisie recognised long ago that working-class militancy is usually best controlled through the agency of the trade-union lieutenants of capital and their parliamentary wing. In 1916 Lenin provided the following vivid description of the function of bourgeois workers’ parties:
“On the economic basis referred to above, the political institutions of modern capitalism—press, parliament associations, congresses etc.—have created political privileges and sops for the respectful, meek, reformist and patriotic office employees and workers, corresponding to the economic privileges and sops. Lucrative and soft jobs in the government or on the war industries committees, in parliament and on diverse committees, on the editorial staffs of “respectable”, legally published newspapers or on the management councils of no less respectable and “bourgeois law-abiding” trade unions—this is the bait by which the imperialist bourgeoisie attracts and rewards the representatives and supporters of the “bourgeois labour parties”.
“…Nothing in our times can be done without elections; nothing can be done without the masses. And in this era of printing and parliamentarism it is impossible to gain the following of the masses without a widely ramified, systematically managed, well-equipped system of flattery, lies, fraud, juggling with fashionable and popular catchwords, and promising all manner of reforms and blessings to the workers right and left —as long as they renounce the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of bourgeoisie.”
—Imperialism and the Split in the Socialist Movement, October 1916
While the Socialist Party (SP—as Militant renamed itself after ending the entry) declared that Labour’s rightward shift under Neil Kinnock, Blair and company had somehow transformed it into an outright bourgeois formation, in fact the party underwent no qualitative change. This became obvious after Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising victory in the 2015 leadership contest on a pledge to return the party to something closer to what it had been in the 1970s, set off a wave of popular enthusiasm and an influx of new members. But little really changed—under Corbyn’s direction Labour councils are continuing to implement austerity measures on a local level. This timidity reflects Corbyn’s overriding concern to adhere to bourgeois legality.
Yet the hope that Corbyn’s moderate leftist posturing ignited in millions of British workers must have made it blindingly obvious to everyone in the SP that their leadership’s claim that Labour was just another bourgeois party was flat wrong. This would naturally undercut Taaffe’s political authority and in particular confidence in his capacity as a Marxist theoretician. His former comrades in the IMT have plausibly suggested that Taaffe’s refusal to admit his mistake was a major factor in the CWI’s disintegration:
“It made a big mistake in abandoning the Labour Party perspective and has not had the honesty and courage to admit so. This, rather than enhancing their authority, has diminished it, especially after Corbyn’s victory and the rise of the Labour Party left over the past few years.
“A leadership that lacks the necessary theoretical weight will always resort to organisational and administrative measures to silence opposition. This is a finished recipe for crises and splits.
“Taaffe declared that the Labour Party had become a capitalist party and no longer a workers’ party. In order to reorient to the Labour Party he would have to admit that the perspective he based himself on for over 25 years, and which was one of the main issues of the 1992 split, was wrong.”
—Socialist Appeal, 29 March 2019
While their critique of Taaffe is accurate enough, the IMT itself continues to operate within the framework of Militant’s deep-entryist logic: if Labour is a workers’ party then they consider it to be the duty of Trotskyists to bury themselves in it. This profoundly reformist outlook is evident in their “Open Letter” to CWI members which complains that “Taaffe and co. did not understand that the successes on the parliamentary front, in Liverpool, in the Labour Party and the trade unions were built on a long, prior period of patient work of building up cadres on the ground” (Ibid.).
Jeremy Corbyn and the crisis of leadership
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn posed a difficult choice for Taaffe between standing by his previous assertion or frankly admitting his error and climbing aboard the Corbyn bandwagon. Instead of coming clean, the SP leadership sought to fudge the issue. On the eve of the recent split, Taaffe et al were predicting that a future Corbyn government could face a situation similar to that which confronted Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1970s:
“Labour was propelled into power after waves of strike action against the employers and the Tory government of Heath.
“The ruling class then were concerned that given the intensity of the class divide, Labour may not be able to control workers and act in their interests. The forerunners of the Socialist Party, the Militant Tendency, was a key Marxist element in the struggle to push Labour left at this stage.
“Similarly now, the establishment are wary of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government. The ‘Corbyn surge’ that developed at the 2017 general election because of the Labour manifesto, the most radical for decades – of re-nationalisation, abolishing tuition fees, £10-an-hour minimum wage – has reinforced their view that such a government would be an unreliable tool for them. They fear the effect that a Corbyn administration could have on the working-class, raising their horizons and pushing such a government further to the left.”
—The Socialist No. 1049, 3 July 2019
The SP’s parallel between Wilson’s and Corbyn’s Labour Parties only highlights the stupidity of their assertion that under Wilson the party was part of the workers’ movement, while under Corbyn it is not.
The contradictions of Taaffe’s muddled theorising were on display a couple of years ago when SP deputy general secretary Hannah Sell complained about the SP’s misrepresentation by Radio 4:
“On 9th May, Radio 4’s PM programme made a rare reference to the Socialist Party. Unfortunately it was completely untrue.
“The Socialist Party, which includes ex-members of Militant” had contacted them, they explained, to complain that Jeremy Corbyn was ‘too right wing and not a socialist but a reformist.’
“When we urgently contacted them to complain we had done no such thing and that on the contrary, we are energetically campaigning for the election of Jeremy Corbyn on 8 June, they did apologise in writing for the journalist, Iain Watson, ‘saying on air that he had been contacted by “the Socialist Party which includes ex-members of Militant Tendency’”.”
—“Apology from Radio 4’s PM programme”, 17 May 2017
Sell did not attempt to explain why socialists would be “energetically campaigning” for the leader of a bourgeois party. In an attempt to get out of this predicament the SP leadership clumsily tried to shift its posture with talk about “The Struggle to transform Labour” (The Socialist, 19 September 2018). The Taaffe leadership, well aware that Labour has not permitted affiliations since 1946, formally requested admission to the party as a group. To no one’s surprise this request was denied. While the SP leadership continues to operate programmatically in a sort of Kautskyan twilight, what remains of the membership must be wondering why Taaffe is so stubbornly avoiding simply owning up to this obvious mistake on the one hand while, on the other, continuing to sing Corbyn’s praises (with an occasional criticism thrown in for balance).
The CWI and Syriza: another fiasco
Rather than viewing bourgeois workers’ parties as roadblocks, the CWI regards them as potential agencies of progressive social change if enough pressure can be exerted by their base, and their leadership is not cowardly:
“Look at the experience of the Syriza government in Greece, which came to power on an anti-austerity programme. It is now implementing austerity having capitulated to gigantic pressure from the Greek capitalist class and the institutions of the EU.
“That is in no way to suggest that capitulation is automatic. The Greek working class did not capitulate, but stood firm by overwhelmingly voting ‘oxi’ (no) in the 2015 referendum on austerity. Had the leadership of Syriza shown the same courage as the Greek people a very different scenario would have opened up. The events of Greece show that the election of an anti-austerity government would be positive – but it is only a first step.”
—The Case for Socialism, 2016
This experience is indeed worth reviewing. The CWI’s Greek section Xekinima accommodated itself to popular illusions in Syriza and thereby demonstrated its incapacity to provide any approximation of revolutionary leadership, as Taaffe’s factional opponents in the IEC majority noted:
“It is beyond doubt in our opinion that the IS has not been able to respond, in recent years, in a satisfactory manner in relation to the challenges of the epoch which we live through. The collapse of Stalinism led to a serious retreat in consciousness, on a global scale, as has been analysed in the past. The last two decades, however, particularly the years since the 2007-8 crisis have given rise to exceptionally dynamic mass movements even of revolutionary or pre-revolutionary dimensions – such as the North African and Middle Eastern revolutions of 2011 or the struggles of the Greek working class in the period 2010 to 2013. However, in their majority these struggles failed to win. In Egypt, Syria and Libya the revolutions turned into open counterrevolutions, due to the absence of the subjective factor – i.e. the lack of a mass revolutionary party. In Greece, SYRIZA capitulated to the Troika (the EU, the ECB and the IMF) causing a very serious defeat.”
—“The world at a crucial conjuncture: new phenomena, demands and tasks – the crisis in the CWI”
Following the draconian anti-working class attacks in 2010, Syriza’s anti-austerity posture suddenly made it a pole of attraction for a significant section of the population and allowed it to finish second in the 2012 elections. By 2015 Syriza was already back-pedalling, as its leader Alexis Tsipras indicated to the capitalist press that his top priority would be balancing the budget. He also refused to rule out the possibility of governing in coalition with the rightwing populist Independent Greeks. Xekinima ignored these signals and campaigned for Syriza on the grounds that “whatever compromises the leadership is willing to do, the workers will feel there’s a much better environment to fight to defend their rights and this is the fundamental reason that Syriza should be given conditional/critical support” (The Socialist, 21 January 2015). We took a different approach and refused any electoral support to Syriza on the grounds of Tsipras’ clearly expressed willingness to betray the hopes of his supporters:
“Since Syriza has no intention of launching a serious assault on the power of the ruling class by expropriating the holdings of domestic and foreign capital, and is promising instead to somehow make capitalism work for a majority of the Greek population, it is laying the groundwork not simply for disappointed voters but for a potentially bloody outcome to the crisis.”
—1917, No. 37
After Syriza’s election, it immediately formed a coalition with the Independent Greeks. On 5 June 2015, trapped between the expectations of his base that his government would ease the pain of austerity, and the insistence of the EU moneymen that the pressure be increased, Tsipras called a referendum to settle the issue, but when 62 per cent of the electorate voted against austerity, he ignored the result and went ahead with further cuts. Xekinima, which had earlier issued Syriza a blank cheque “whatever compromises the leadership is willing to do,” seemed surprised by the betrayal:
“The working masses do not forget that the same people who are today betraying the ideas and principles of the Left are the same people who had promised to get rid of the Memorandum “within one day and with one law”. It’s the same people who promised the Salonica Programme (SYRIZA’s more radical pre-election promises), which they claimed would be carried out irrespectively of the negotiations with the Troika.”
—The Socialist, 11 July 2015
Xekinima’s policy boiled down to going along with popular illusions, crossing its fingers and hoping for a miracle, rather than warning workers about Syriza’s slippery leaders and the likelihood they would betray. Taaffe’s critics in the IEC majority scored a retrospective point, even if, to our knowledge, none of them fought the policy at the time. The problem for the CWI is that the debacle in Greece was not an isolated error but rather part of a pattern.
Ignoring the class line
Taaffe’s insistence during the faction fight on the necessity of a working-class orientation is of course abstractly correct, but the fact is that the CWI, like Militant before it, has a record of ignoring the class line and supporting popular-frontist candidates and, sometimes, even overtly bourgeois ones, if they are sufficiently popular.
In the 1970 Chilean election, Militant enthused about the socialist potential of Salvador Allende‘s Unidad Popular (UP), a popular front composed of Stalinists, social democrats and several small bourgeois formations. In an article headlined “Chile: For a real Workers’ Government”, Militant suggested that it would be helpful if Allende somehow spontaneously transmogrified into an implacable Leninist revolutionary:
“The splits in the left and attempted intervention by the right which will result through backsliding can only be prevented by Allende recognising the enormous power of the organised workers and peasants and handing over to them the real economic and social power which is theirs by right of their labour. Only by carrying through a programme of full-scale land reform giving the land to the peasants and of full-scale nationalisation giving control of industry to the workers themselves can the new government begin to resolve the problems of poverty, underdevelopment and domination by foreign capital in Chile itself and point a way forward to the socialist solution of the problems of the rest of Latin America and the underdeveloped world.”
—Militant No. 68, October 1970
Allende and his “Chilean Road to Socialism” was popular at the time and like most of the rest of the international left, Militant’s desire to swim with the stream led it to promote the illusion that the Unidad Popular might somehow carry out a peaceful transition to socialism. By contrast, our forbearers in the then-Trotskyist Spartacist League refused to give any political support to Allende’s popular-frontist project:
“It is the most elementary duty for revolutionary Marxists to irreconcilably oppose the Popular Front in the election and to place absolutely no confidence in it in power. Any ‘critical support’ to the Allende coalition is class treason, paving the way for a bloody defeat for the Chilean working people when domestic reaction, abetted by international imperialism, is ready.”
—Spartacist No. 19, November-December 1970
After a while, as the initial enthusiasm wore off, Militant changed tack and prior to the March 1973 election called to “Break the coalition with the capitalist parties!” while still urging “socialists” in the popular-front government to “demand the arming of the workers…!” (Peter Taaffe, The Rise of Militant). In fact the whole purpose of any popular front is to politically disarm the working class, and the disappointment of the Unidad Popular prepared the ground for Pinochet’s bloody coup which decapitated the left and represented an enormous defeat for the international workers’ movement.
Yet the leaders of the Militant tendency learned nothing from this experience, and 30 years later, the CWI was once again pandering to a popular left-talking Latin American bourgeois regime. This time it was Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian “revolutionaries”, who were voted into office in 1998. While protecting the property and interests of Venezuela’s ruling class, the Bolivarians also introduced reforms aimed at raising living standards for workers and the poor. While at times Chávez clashed with the local bourgeoisie and their imperialist patrons over control of Venezuela’s energy resources, his was a left-bonapartist regime.
In 2003 Tony Saunois, one of Taaffe’s closest allies in the factional dispute, wrote an article entitled “Decisive moments in Venezuela”, in which he observed that “Chávez has attempted instead to do the impossible and preside over a capitalist market economy ‘with a human face’. At the same time, he has viewed the working class as an auxiliary whose role it is to support him and his government, rather than as the decisive class that could transform society” (Socialism Today, February 2003). Chávez was genuinely aggrieved by the abysmal living conditions of the masses of Venezuela, but he also championed the interests of the Boli-Bourgeoisie, the wing of the national capitalists which sought to carve out more independence from imperialist control.
Leon Trotsky described the distinction between left-populist bonapartist regimes and outright reactionary ones in semi-colonial countries:
“The governments of backward, i.e., colonial and semi-colonial countries, by and large assume a Bonapartist or semi-Bonapartist character; and differ from one another in this, that some try to orient in a democratic direction, seeking support among workers and peasants, while others install a form close to military-police dictatorship.”
In a 2008 piece Saunois described how the verbiage employed by the Bolivarian el supremo took on an increasingly leftist tint as time went on:
“Initially, Chávez did not speak of socialism but limited himself to the idea of a ‘Bolivarian revolution’. His populist, nationalist regime and the radical reforms he introduced rapidly came into conflict with US imperialism and the ruling oligarchy which had ruled Venezuela for decades. (…)
“These conflicts between the masses and the ruling class provoked political radicalisation at each turn. This was reflected in Chávez eventually declaring that the ‘revolution’ was not only ‘Bolivarian’ but ‘socialist’. He proclaimed that Venezuela was embarking on a road to construct ‘socialism in the 21st century’. Following his election victory in December 2006, he went further and announced his support for Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, and Permanent Revolution.”
—Socialism Today No. 115, February 2008
Rather than focusing on the fact that Chávez remained at the top of a bourgeois state committed to the defence of capitalist property, Saunois celebrated the Bolivarian strongman’s rhetorical “support” for Trotsky’s programme of expropriating the capitalists and smashing their state:
“Against the background of the global ideological offensive against socialism conducted by the ruling class and its representatives in the former mass parties of the working class, these developments represented and still represent important steps forward.”
Instead of praising Chávez we told the simple truth: “No Bolivarian alchemy can transform an instrument constructed to defend and promote capitalist exploitation—the bourgeois state—into an agency of social liberation.” We did not hail the empty rhetorical declarations by the head of the left-bonapartist regime as “important steps forward,” but instead bluntly asserted that Venezuelan workers need a revolutionary party “that is committed to the struggle for power—a Leninist vanguard party rooted in the proletariat, capable of polarising the Bolivarian movement into its class components and thus preparing the working class for the inevitable showdown with the bourgeoisie” (“Venezuela: State & Revolution”, 1917 No. 28).
Confronted with a wave of trade-union militancy Chávez sought to contain Venezuela’s potentially powerful workers’ movement. When treacherous elements of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) union supported the bosses’ lock-out in 2002, Chávez seized on this as a pretext to reign in independent trade unions. In August 2007 Chávez dispatched police units and the National Guard to intervene against striking workers of the Sanitarios Maracay plant in Aragua state who had imposed a regime of workers’ control to counter management union-busting.
Orlando Chirino, the leftist national organiser of the National Union of Workers (UNT), described the occupation of another factory:
“Our comrades at the Constructora Nacional de Válvulas (today called Inveval) had to undergo real physical hardships and hunger, and fight like hell before the government finally listened to them and agreed to expropriate the company. The workers of Venepal (now Invepal) had to fight for ten months before they beat the capitalists—while the government looked the other way. And now we have the case of Sanitarios Maracay where the workers are in the fourth month of an occupation for nationalization…”
—Venezuelanalysis, 18 July 2007
Chirino led a grouping of militants known as C-CURA (the United Autonomous Revolutionary Class current) who were committed to preserving the unions’ organisational independence from the Bolivarian state apparatus. At the UNT’s second congress in 2007 Chirino helped lead resistance to a minority headed by the Bolivarian Socialist Workers’ Force (FSBT) who favoured integration with the state. The congress ended with a physical confrontation between the Bolivarians and C-CURA supporters.
Saunois criticised Chirino for not bowing to the demands of the Chávistas at the congress:
“Despite having a majority, its leadership layers – including some who proclaimed themselves Trotskyists – failed to put forward a programme at the second congress to fight the capitalists and the bureaucracy, and build a united front with the ranks of the Chavista movement. This was an opportunity missed. It allowed the bureaucracy to break up the UNETE [UNT] and paralyse the most advanced layers of the working class at a decisive conjuncture in the revolutionary struggles.”
—Tony Saunois, Socialism Today, No. 212, October 2017
Given that Chávez’ supporters made no secret of their desire to subordinate the union to the Bolivarian regime, Saunois’ united-front proposal could only have meant capitulation to the bonapartist regime. Trotsky discussed the importance of trade-union independence in the 1940 article cited above, and observed that in semi-colonial countries rightist regimes sought to crush workers’ organisations while more “democratic” ones sought to co-op them:
“They [trade unions] either stand under the special patronage of the state or they are subjected to cruel persecution. Patronage on the part of the state is dictated by two tasks which confront it. First, to draw the working class closer thus gaining a support for resistance against excessive pretensions on the part of imperialism; and, at the same time, to discipline the workers themselves by placing them under the control of a bureaucracy.”
Chávez considered himself a friend of the working class and sometimes intervened in situations where he thought that particular bosses had behaved badly. The occupation of the SIDOR factory in 2008 provides an example of this. After a protracted struggle, the local Bolivarian governor, Francisco Rangel Gomez, sent in the National Guard and police to break the strike. Chávez intervened on 9 April to dismiss Gomez and nationalise the plant. This episode took place a year after the launch of the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) through which the Bolivarian regime hoped to bulwark its position by hegemonising the left and workers’ movement and thereby gain control over the more militant sectors of the working class. Chirino described the cross-class character of this Bolivarian venture:
“How is the PSUV being built? I want to express my solidarity with thousands of my compatriots who went to Caracas to take part in the event and who were not only excluded, but mistreated and beaten in the bargain. On television we saw governors, mayors, and deputies who do not have mass support occupying the first rows. There were bosses and bureaucrats present who have defended the bosses, and a number of people who have been accused of corruption and the defense of policies that did not reflect the interests of the people.”
—International Socialist Review, July–August 2007
At a subsequent PSUV event Chávez announced the need to “put an end” to trade-union autonomy. Yet the CWI welcomed the formation of the PSUV and directed its Venezuelan adherents to sign up:
“The establishment of the PSUV can offer an important opportunity to build a new mass party of the working class which, with a revolutionary socialist programme, can become an important weapon to take the revolution forward. (…)
“If the PSUV is to become an instrument for a successful revolution it will need a fully active rank and file, and not only be an amalgam of the membership of the existing pro-Chávez parties. The right to form tendencies and allow democratic debate will be essential if the party is to develop into an effective weapon for the working class rather than become a tool for the government. Unfortunately, the PSUV was launched from the top down with Chávez appointing a committee involving two former generals to set it up. In January, Jorge Rodriquez was charged with the ‘general co-ordination of the PSUV’. The CWI supports fighting for a fully democratic PSUV with a revolutionary socialist programme.”
—Socialism Today, No. 115, February 2008
It is hardly surprising that the CWI’s suggestion that the PSUV adopt a revolutionary socialist programme fizzled. The CWI’s Alejandro Rojas celebrated his group’s willingness to go along with the regime’s attempt “to discipline the workers themselves by placing them under the control of a bureaucracy,” in this case the PSUV:
“Unlike some on the left we have avoided the trap of opportunism – acting merely as cheerleaders and advisers to Chávez – or of attacking Chávez in a purely personal and sectarian manner. The threat of counter-revolution remains because capitalism has not been replaced by a democratic socialist plan of production based on workers’ and peasants’ democracy.
“The new phase poses new dangers. One of the most serious weaknesses is the lack of a politically conscious, independent organisation of the working class which puts itself at the head of the struggle for a socialist revolution.”
—Socialism Today, No. 134, December/January 2009
By supporting the bourgeois-nationalist Chávez regime, and denouncing those who dared raise leftist criticisms, the CWI shared responsibility for the absence of the revolutionary political leadership the combative workers’ movement needed. Instead of a perspective of seeking to split the PSUV’s working-class base from its bonapartist leadership, the CWI celebrated the “anti-imperialist” character of the regime. Eighty years earlier Trotsky sharply criticised the Stalinists for pursuing a similar policy in relation to the Chinese Kuomintang:
“In practice, however, the policy of Menshevism in the revolution consists of retaining the united front at any cost, as long as possible, at the price of adapting its own policy to the policy of the bourgeoisie, at the price of cutting down the slogans and the activity of the masses, and even, as in China, at the price of the organizational subordination of the workers’ party to the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie. The Bolshevik way, however, consists of an unconditional political and organizational demarcation from the bourgeoisie, of a relentless exposure of the bourgeoisie from the very first steps of the revolution, of a destruction of all petty-bourgeois illusions about the united front with the bourgeoisie, of tireless struggle with the bourgeoisie for the leadership of the masses, of the merciless expulsion from the Communist Party of all those elements who sow vain hopes in the bourgeoisie or idealize them.”
—“The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin”, 7 May 1927
The policy of “critically” endorsing left-bureaucrats and semi-colonial “anti-imperialists” has only produced defeats in the past and must inevitably produce similar results in the future. Chávez is gone and while the regime he created endures, its socialist pretensions have worn thin. The right in Venezuela is stronger than it has been for many years and, although the Trump administration exhibited a world-class level of incompetence in its failed attempt to topple President Nicolás Maduro last March, on the whole the imperialists’ attempt to strangle the economy has strengthened their position. Venezuela’s domestic capitalists are eagerly imploring their northern imperialist overlords to intervene and plunder their country’s resources. The workers’ movement is in disarray and demoralised by the exigencies of the desperate day-to-day struggle for survival. The enthusiasm for the militant factory occupations of a decade ago has dissipated and the material benefits the Bolivarian regime once was able to provide for the popular masses are disappearing due to the cruel sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its “democratic” allies.
Marxists defend Maduro’s regime against imperialist sanctions, subversion and military attack, but by now it should be very clear to every thinking leftist that the Bolivarian attempt to find a “third road” between socialist revolution and semi-colonial subordination to global finance capital has turned out to be a dead end. The CWI’s policy of prettifying “left” bourgeois forces not only failed to advance the interests of the working class, it actually helped confuse and weaken the left in Venezuela and abroad.
What is to be done?
Taaffe, according to his former Spanish comrades, no longer subscribes to the proposition that the defeats suffered by the workers’ movement are chiefly attributable to a lack of competent revolutionary leadership. The IEC majority faction reported:
“The comrades of the ex-Spanish section allege that at the faction’s meeting in London, PT [Peter Taaffe] claimed that the key reasons for the defeat of the working class in Greece in 2015 and the looming defeat in Venezuela was the low level of working class consciousness and not primarily the role of leadership. We cannot fully judge this claim nor the even more surprising assertion that PT declared that the failure of the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s was also primarily due to the low level of working class consciousness. If this is true it would certainly contradict Trotsky’s assessment including in the famous article “The Class, the Party and the Leadership”, which summarises key theoretical conclusions of the early Trotskyist movement.”
—“The world at a crucial new juncture: new phenomena, demands and tasks–the crisis in the CWI”
The IEC majority cited Trotsky’s assertion in The Class, the Party and the Leadership that the willingness to struggle for revolutionary programme is decisive:
“[The centrist Spanish POUM] could not become a mass party because in order to do so it was first necessary to overthrow the old parties and it was possible to overthrow them only by an irreconcilable struggle, by a merciless exposure of their bourgeois character. Yet the POUM while criticizing the old parties subordinated itself to them on all fundamental questions… The historical falsification consists in this, that the responsibility for the defeat of the Spanish masses is unloaded on the working masses and not those parties which paralyzed or simply crushed the revolutionary movement of the masses. The attorneys of the POUM simply deny the responsibility of the leaders, in order thus to escape shouldering their own responsibility. This impotent philosophy, which seeks to reconcile defeats as a necessary link in the chain of cosmic developments, is completely incapable of posing and refuses to pose the question of such concrete factors as programs, parties, personalities that were the organizers of defeat.”
Rather than warning of the inevitable betrayals by Syriza and the PSUV when the masses had illusions in them, the CWI joined in celebrating them, while helpfully suggesting that they adopt “socialist policies”. These programmatic capitulations did not fall from the sky—they are just the most recent fruits of the objectivist methodology, political passivity and endless pursuit of short cuts to mass influence that characterised the Pabloist revisionism that destroyed Trotsky’s Fourth International in the 1950s.
The CWI traditionally treated questions of the class character of an organisation, its relationship to the bourgeois state and its actual, operational programme as essentially secondary issues—the main thing was always chasing after the masses. But the crisis of proletarian leadership can only be overcome by an organisation that recognises the centrality of the subjective factor and rejects all notions of any unfolding historical dynamic inexorably moving towards socialism. The only road forward is by building a political vanguard organisation founded on a consistently revolutionary programme, fused to the working class, and not afraid to speak the truth to the masses.
The recent wave of brutal repression unleashed against popular protests including the Gilets Jaunes in France, the Catalonian independence movement, the anti-austerity demonstrators in Chile, anti-coup protesters in Bolivia, and protests in Iraq, taken together with the systematic and ongoing erosion of civil liberties and feverish expansion of the capitalist repressive apparatuses throughout the “advanced” capitalist counties, and the unwillingness and incapacity of the global rulers to initiate a serious struggle to avert a looming climate catastrophe, all testify to the burning necessity to transcend the irrationality of capitalist rule.
The crisis that has staggered the CWI has clearly been linked to the exposure of the theoretical incapacity of its discredited leadership who stubbornly continue to try to alibi their mistaken estimates and gross political failures. None of the fragments of the former Militant tendency will be capable of usefully contributing to the struggle to build a genuinely Trotskyist international current until and unless they break decisively with the six decades of wishful thinking, political adaptation and promotion of bankrupt reformist formulas that is their political legacy.
Izquierda Revolucionaria and its affiliates have indicated that they know there is something rotten with the Militant brand, but it remains to be seen if this will translate into meaningful programmatic conclusions. Those comrades who take seriously questions of the class line and who grasp the vital importance of intervening in the living class struggle on the basis of an authentically revolutionary programme will find little of value in the historical tradition of the CWI and Militant.
The recent experiences in Venezuela and Greece demonstrate that there can be no substitute for the struggle to build a revolutionary leadership, based on the historic Trotskyist programme of implacable opposition to all wings of the capitalist class. The Bolshevik Tendency is committed to participating in the process of creating such a leadership internationally through political regroupments based on seriously investigating the lessons of past decades of workers’ struggles. We invite CWI comrades from all sides of the split to revisit their own tradition, to study the chequered history of those who claim the mantle of Trotskyism after Trotsky and to engage in a serious evaluation of these critical questions.