Article by Danny Byrne CWI Provisional Committee and Socialist Alternative (CWI in England, Wales and Scotland), written for Socialist World magazine, a political journal produced by Socialist Alternative, USA.
As many of our readers are aware, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), the socialist international organization with which Socialist Alternative in the U.S. is in political solidarity, has been through a serious internal crisis since the end of 2018.
This crisis related to political debates on crucial questions for socialists including how we should orient ourselves in this new period and to a process of bureaucratization which affected a layer of the organization’s long-standing leaders. Unfortunately, and against the wishes of the majority of the CWI, this led to a division in our forces.
Following seven months of discussion and debate, the overwhelming majority of the active membership rallied around the majority of the CWI’s broad leadership body, the International Executive Committee (IEC) while a minority, organized around a section of the CWI’s leaders in Britain and on the International Secretariat, decided to desert the ranks of the CWI, rather than abide by the democratic political decisions of the organization’s structures.
This article attempts to provide a partial balance sheet of this important debate, and some lessons it holds for the socialist and wider working-class movement. Further material can be found on our international website (WorldSocialist.net) with more to be published soon, including a selection of key political internal documents from both sides.
A challenging but necessary debate
This crisis has been an extremely challenging one for the whole of the CWI. Internal crises cast a stark light on all aspects of any organization, and often an unforgiving one. An organization’s political ideas, tactics, and methods, as well as its internal democratic functioning are put to a strenuous test, in the face of robust debate and criticism.
Internal crises also represent a challenge to the integrity and morale of a revolutionary organization, to the enthusiastic fighting spirit which is fundamentally necessary for all revolutionaries. In such situations, workers and young people who have become organized, active socialists struggling together against the capitalist class and to change the world, are forced to turn their attention somewhat “inwards,” in what can often be taxing and tense debates with our own comrades. People can be forgiven for thinking, “this isn’t what I signed up for!”
However, political debates and discussions, especially major and even heated ones, always have a purpose. In the dynamic of a robust debate, all participants tend to examine, to think through, to research, and consolidate their own arguments and views, in an even deeper way than otherwise. This can lead to theories and lines of argument being further developed and taken to firmer and more clarifying conclusions.
It has often been the case in debates throughout the history of the Marxist movement that it has taken a robust debate for the real essence of of differences in policy, perspectives, and methods to be clearly brought to the surface. What start as differences of emphasis, or clashes over accidental issues, can reveal a deeper political meaning, and a substantial political difference which must be debated and resolved.
The experience of the recent crisis for most of our members was in many ways very frustrating given the complete unwillingness of the minority who left in July to engage in a meaningful or constructive debate as they resorted increasingly to slandering those who disagreed with them, making up all sorts of accusations wholesale.
Despite this terrible approach to debate, political issues did emerge that forced the majority to clarify its approach on a number of key issues. These included how we assess the development of consciousness of broad masses of workers and young people in this period; how we relate to the powerful new movements against women’s and LGBTQ oppression as well as against climate change that have been a feature in country after country; how we relate to the trade unions; and how we build and renew a democratic and cohesive international.
As a result we have emerged with a remarkable degree of political cohesion. Crucially, as this crisis unfolded in our ranks, important developments unfolded in the world political situation, which gave a concrete context and backdrop to the debates we were engaged in, showing what was at stake. These included the developing economic crisis as well as revolutionary upheavals in Algeria and Sudan and mass movements in Hong Kong as well as the enormous youth strikes against climate change.
Meanwhile the political arguments, positions, and methods of those who departed our ranks evolved rapidly and dramatically. Statements were made and actions carried out by them which would have seemed unimaginable at the outset of the discussion. In short, a rapid and alarming political degeneration, along sectarian and bureaucratic lines, was revealed. This at bottom reflected a loss of confidence and demoralization in the face of the challenges of this new period.
On the other hand, the majority of the CWI, has, despite a certain weakening of our forces numerically in some countries, emerged from this crisis in a polar opposite state. The debate has given us a greater political understanding of the situation in the world, a clearer vision of the challenges to come, and, crucially, the incredibly formative experience of having engaged in a bold and principled struggle, based on a revolt of hundreds of leaders in many key sections, which reclaimed our international organization from destructive degeneration.
At the meeting that took place of the CWI’s IEC in August 2019, in the immediate aftermath of the minority splitting away, this side of the crisis and its effects were clear as day. While a challenging and, in many senses, damaging episode in our history, this crisis will be seen in years to come as a fundamentally necessary part of the political preparation of the CWI for the stormy period ahead, full of revolutionary opportunity.
Why a socialist International?
Many of the central lessons of this crisis for our organization have to do with the challenges of building a revolutionary socialist international organization. This, the most crucial of tasks for our movement today, is also one of the most challenging. Indeed, as CWI members around the world engaged in the debate, many observers and friends of our organization will have looked on puzzled as to why a discussion with fellow socialists in far flung corners of the world was occupying so much of our comrades’ time, energy, and thoughts. Weren’t there more pressing matters to get on with at home?
Internationalism is part of the ABCs of the socialist and working-class movement, woven into its fabric from its origins. However, in the last few decades, in complete contrast with the outlook of the masses of workers and youth, and with the reality of global capitalism, real internationalism has become less and less of a feature of life on the left and international organizations have not been built.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist regimes, the ruling class went on a relentless campaign to discredit the idea that any alternative to capitalism was viable. This was combined with the neoliberal offensive on the gains won by working people. Together these had a major impact on consciousness for a whole period but especially on the leaders of historic “left” parties and the unions. This is the context for the retreat of official internationalism.
In practice, for many socialist and so-called socialist organizations, internationalism has no more than a symbolic significance – something to sing about once a year at convention time, for example. For others, it is put forward in a totally abstract way – a really nice, lofty, and romantic idea – appealing to the profound internationalist sentiments of solidarity and struggle among the ranks of the labor movement and youth, but drawing no real political or practical conclusions.
Revolutionary socialists see things fundamentally differently. For us, internationalism is not a nice idea, but a burning objective necessity arising from the reality of world capitalism. In analysing capitalist development, Marx explained that a fundamental feature of that system is the tendency for the economy and market to outgrow the limits of the nation state. At the same time of course, this same feature is the source of many of capitalism’s problems and crises, as the conflict between the different gangs of national capitalists prevents this process from being fully completed. We see this today in the rise of economic nationalism, including in the U.S., challenging the process of globalization.
Nonetheless, as Marx explained capitalism took massive strides forward toward the real internationalization of the economy – and has gone much further since – and thus of its system of exploitation. An international – though chaotic – organization of the economy and an international division of labor in industry have become fundamental to capitalist production as revealed by the wide impact of the current trade war between the U.S. and China.
Capitalism also gave birth to the modern working class which from the beginning of its struggle against oppression and exploitation has strived to link together across national and ethnic lines. In the 1860s, Marx and other socialists appealed to the English working class to support the North in the American Civil War against the slaveholding South despite the dependence of the English textile industry on cotton from the South. This successful appeal was very important because of the threat of England intervening on the side of the South.
Every major struggle of working people from the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War to the fight against apartheid in South Africa has depended on international solidarity.
While mass international organizations of the left have not been built in the past period, the movements of women in country after country and now the instinctive internationalism, and international coordination of youth in a movement against climate change shows the basis for a renewed type of internationalism on the left.
International is primary for socialists
This is why the international dimension has always come first for revolutionary socialists. Starting from the economic and political reality of the world around us, we develop a political program and forms of organization to respond accordingly. Politically, it is completely impossible to arrive at a sufficient understanding of the situation in any single country or region without starting from a world understanding and perspective.
Therefore, socialists first seek to identify the main international processes and phenomena, in order to be able to correctly approach the situation in a given country. For example, it was not primarily studying domestic politics that led socialists to foresee how millions would radicalize after 2008-9 but rather the international and historical experience.
Similarly today, we see that despite the superficial “health” of the American economy, the global downturn spurred by geopolitical factors especially the conflict between the U.S. and China, is also pushing the domestic economy here into crisis. This will have enormous social and political consequences as after the 2008 recession.
Organizational forms and structures flow from political necessity. For socialists, this means that our political and organizational starting point is international. We see the building of a mass, revolutionary, working-class international party, as a prerequisite for success in the struggle for a socialist world. Nevertheless, the nation state remains the key political form under capitalism and revolutionaries must also organize on a national basis, and develop a full and concrete national perspective, for real internationalism to be effective.
In the middle of the 19th century, when seeking to organize to fight for his ideas, Marx himself sought first and above all else to build an international organization. In 1864, he and Frederick Engels helped found the International Workingmen’s Association – later known as the “First International” – which grew to eight million members. Ever since, genuine Marxists have continued in the same vein. The “Second,” “Third,” and “Fourth” internationals followed, as generation after generation of revolutionary fighters embraced the same revolutionary mission. All of the great battles waged by socialists throughout the 20th century, most especially the 1917 Russian Revolution which gave birth to the Third International, were conducted with the goal of building of a mass revolutionary international organization front and center.
The need for this fundamental principle was dramatically confirmed by the experience of the first ever successful socialist revolution in Russia. The international isolation of the young Russian workers’ state, which made the achievement of genuine socialism impossible, was the central reason for its eventual strangulation, first by a Stalinist counterrevolution and then by capitalist restoration.
However, this was in no way inevitable and there was no shortage of revolutionary opportunities around the world in the years after 1917, as revolution swept through Europe and beyond. Ultimately, it was the lack of revolutionary parties which had fully assimilated the lessons of the Russian Revolution in the countries where revolutionary explosions took place, most importantly Germany, Italy, France, and China, which proved decisive in the working class stopping short of completing a socialist transformation.
The heroic efforts of thousands of unnamed revolutionaries in all of these countries to forge revolutionary parties in the heat of battle ultimately proved insufficient. The central lesson of this for Marxists is a simple one. It is the need for the greatest possible preparation and building, in advance of revolutionary explosions, of powerful revolutionary parties in as many countries of the world as possible.
This makes the building of a revolutionary international a life or death matter for serious Marxists. The impossibility of building socialism in one country or of any revolutionary socialist government being able to consolidate its position in the modern capitalist world without a successful international movement for socialist change, is ten times clearer than in 1917.
A brief history of the CWI
This internationalist approach has always been part of the CWI’s DNA. Although our tradition originated in one country, Britain, in the 1940s, those who founded it understood that to effectively pursue its aims, it had to be international or it would be nothing. Chiefly organized around Ted Grant, they engaged in debates, collaboration, and joint struggle with other revolutionary socialists around the world in what then was a unified “Fourth International” – the international founded by Trotsky in 1938. The Trotskyist movement had great promise, developing a mass base in countries like Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Bolivia as well as a significant presence in the U.S. But Trotsky himself was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940 and the leadership of the movement in Europe was decimated during World War II by the fascists as well as the Stalinists.
The challenges of the post-war period, during which the capitalist economy had its most sustained phase of expansion and both Stalinism and Social Democracy were enormously strengthened around the world, led to the political disorientation and fragmentation of the Fourth International.
Important trends within it embraced a deeply pessimistic perspective, arguing that the working class in the advanced capitalist countries had become accommodated to the system. This led them toward an adaptation and capitulation to resurgent Stalinism and Social Democracy.
By the 1960s, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) led by Ernest Mandel, the biggest section of the Trotskyist movement, embraced the idea that other sections of society, such as students, or peasants (oppressed rural populations in the neo-colonial world) – as opposed to the organized working class – were the main agent of social change. Similar ideas were adopted by the Maoist currents which became a very significant part of the “New Left” of the ‘60s and ‘70s including in the U.S. The Maoists also saw the majority of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries as “bought off” and incapable of revolutionary action.
In this context, our predecessors, who had established themselves around Militant newspaper in Britain in 1964, set about the building of a distinct revolutionary socialist current internationally. While they started from a realistic assessment of the world situation, their view was rooted in fundamental revolutionary optimism and an unshakeable belief in the revolutionary potential of the world working class to overthrow capitalism in the post-war period.
They explained that the working class globally had been enormously strengthened by the economic boom, and that coming economic storms would see this power unleashed. This was dramatically borne out when a revolutionary general strike shook France in 1968, opening the way for revolutionary movements in Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal in the years to follow which brought down dictatorships and saw mass working-class support for revolutionary socialist measures.
At the same time, Militant resolved to orientate toward the living workers’ movement and its organizations, in a non sectarian manner. Its watchword was: “go where the workers (and youth) are.” While making a principled and devastating Marxist critique of reformism of all variants, Militant fought within the rank and file of the mass British Labour Party, where hundreds of thousands of working-class activists struggled together, as well as in the trade union movement, where many were searching for a revolutionary socialist program.
These political foundations led Militant to become the most successful revolutionary Marxist organization in the post-war period in Europe. Militant won the leadership of the Labour Party’s youth wing in the early 1970s, won the leadership of the Liverpool City Council in the 1980s, and led the mass anti-Poll Tax revolt in the early 1990s which brought down Margaret Thatcher.
However, the success of its international endeavours was equally important. Following patient work and discussions with Marxists in a number of countries over several years, Militant and its co-thinkers launched the Committee for a Workers’ International in 1974 at a meeting in London. This was attended by only a few dozen comrades from less than one dozen countries.
While other revolutionary currents went into decline after the collapse of Stalinism, the CWI kept fighting to sink roots and by the 2000s was the largest and most influential revolutionary international organization, with sections in over 40 countries, on all continents. Our sections played leading roles in mass struggles in several countries, from Ireland and the U.S., to Sri Lanka.
We built Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) in the ‘90s which organized the biggest international anti-fascist mobilization to date in Europe. In Ireland, we led the successful struggle against water charges in the ‘90s and more recently played a key role in the victorious campaign to legalize abortion. In the U.S. after Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2013, we built the grassroots campaign 15 Now which won $15 an hour minimum wage for the first time in a major city, inspiring similar fights and victories around the country. In South Africa, our comrades played a key role in the heroic miners’ strikes in 2012.
In struggles against capitalist misery of all kinds, from wage disputes, to parliamentary election campaigns, to mass insurrectionary movements against brutal dictatorships, the CWI fought to place a revolutionary socialist leadership at the head of the class struggle. It is this heritage, which we still consider to be of great value to the workers and oppressed of the world, which the CWI majority has struggled to defend, and successfully so, over the course of the last half year.
Against dogmatic methods in thought and in action
A crucial part of the crisis which has shaken the CWI in recent months has been the failure of central figures in our organization’s historic leadership to face up to the demands of a new situation. It was this, along with the failure to provide the necessary renewal of leadership which could guard against such a situation, that laid the basis for the explosive crisis.
It revealed a failure by the old leadership to provide an “up to date” political perspective, to understand sufficiently the new features of the world situation opened up by the 2008 economic crisis. Instead, old formulae were repeated, and the importance of the explosive events of our time was played down. This was connected to a pessimistic perspective which emphasised the need for socialists to “dig in” and await better times, which would bear greater resemblance to past historical periods for which these formulas were fashioned.
In truth, this reflected a disconnect with the real situation. The last decade has seen a tumultuous period of chronic crisis and instability for capitalism, of revolution and counter revolution on a world scale. Capitalism was exposed and discredited in the eyes of tens of millions. From the “Arab Spring” of 2010-11, to the movement against austerity in Greece after 2008, to the Occupy Wall Street movement, to the continuing revolutionary upheavals in Sudan and Algeria today, the question of social revolution was put on the agenda. In the “advanced” capitalist world, there has been a resurgence in mass movements of different types and a pronounced period of political radicalization and polarization.
Of course, events have borne the stamp of the preceding period. The effects of the 1990s and early 2000s, which in most of the world saw a historic ideological retreat and weakening of the organized working class and socialist movement after the collapse of Stalinism, have not been fully overcome. The masses in a number of countries sought the way forward but were sold out by the leadership of “socialist” and “communist” parties and conservative trade union leaders.
However, beyond these complications, the most important trend in the world situation has been the ingenuity, creativity and innovation of the masses, who in innumerable mass struggles including those against various forms of oppression have sought to put their stamp on events. The task of Marxists is to engage with these struggles, defending a socialist program which points all struggles in the direction of a united fightback, based on the power of the working class, with the goal of abolishing capitalism and building a new socialist society.
Far from a period fit for “digging in” and awaiting more favorable conditions, this is a world epoch fit for energetic intervention, to win the ear of millions engaged in struggle, and win the leadership of mass movements. This was the perspective, the emphasis, which defined the political position of the CWI majority in this debate.
Our former comrades, on the other hand, were very much affected by disappointment with the failure of the working class to make a more decisive breakthrough in the period after 2008. On the one hand they sought shortcuts but on the other they looked on events with increasing pessimism, seeing only complications, especially in the developing struggles by women and LGBTQ people against oppression. This led them away from energetic intervention, toward a passive approach. They particularly feared our members becoming “infected” by radical identity politics. They turned away from our historic approach of going to the youth, engaging alongside them in struggle and winning the best to the necessity of socialist revolution.
Comrades of the CWI in Ireland, the U.S., Brazil, and elsewhere who had pioneered a creative, principled Marxist analysis and intervention into real mass struggles against oppression taking place around the world were accused of “facing the wrong way,” abandoning a working-class orientation, turning away from the trade unions, and a litany of other heresies. The truth is that for revolutionary socialists, facing toward millions of people, fighting against the oppression constantly generated by the capitalist system, is precisely “facing the right way!”
Often accused of representing “old and archaic” ideas, Marxism in no way represents a disdain for the lessons of the past. Marxism is built on the historical contributions of generations of socialist fighters to a body of theory, analysis and revolutionary practice. However equally central to Marxism as an appreciation of history and theory, is a disdain for dogma. Marxism, pioneered as “scientific socialism” is a living scientific method, which starts not with ready-made formulas, but from a careful and precise analysis of the real world before us. It represents a guiding method, theory and set of principles, which assist new generations in understanding reality and in developing a path to overcome capitalism and all class society.
A dogmatic approach, on the other hand, begins from a method of analysis which starts with rigid formulas, elaborated on the basis of a past reality, and then seeks to make the real situation fit into them. It is a recipe for conservatism and disorientation. In reality, the CWI’s old leadership, which had played such a tremendous and healthy role in a past period, resisted renewal and lacked connection to the new reality. They tragically fell into the trap of a dogmatic, conservative method.
Ironically, key figures within the same leadership, especially Peter Taaffe the General Secretary of the England & Wales Socialist Party, had waged an historic political battle against dogmatic methods in thought and action, in the last major international crisis to rock the CWI. At the beginning of the 1990s, a period of massive changes in the world situation with the collapse of the Stalinist states in Russia and Eastern Europe and a major neo-liberal offensive on a world scale, key figures in the CWI’s leadership, especially Ted Grant, similarly failed to face up to a changed situation, and clung to the political and tactical formulas of the previous period. A factional political struggle followed, after which a minority organized around these former leaders departed from the CWI.
On that occasion as well as in 2019, the majority of the CWI was capable of identifying this fundamental mistake, and winning the political debate which followed, ensuring the continuation of the healthy methods of Marxism. It is no coincidence, however, that on both these occasions, major internal crises and debates in the CWI coincided with a major historical turning point and the failure of an ossified political leadership to face up to them.
What are the lessons for Marxists today? Chiefly that any leadership, regardless of its past achievements, is tested by every new development and change in the situation. Regular renewal and a healthy atmosphere of questioning and scrutiny of all leaders, and most importantly an active, healthy, thinking and politically educated membership of workers and young people, are key to safeguarding against the danger of dogmatism, conservatism and their political consequences in a socialist organization.
Socialists fighting oppression
The essence of the following paragraph, written by Lenin in 1901, was an important part of our political debate.
“The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.” (What Is To Be Done?)
Capitalism seeks to divide working people along racial, gender, sexual orientation and other lines. It uses racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia as ideological props to maintain its class rule. Today many young people have become radicalized around fighting these forms of oppression which directly impact them in their day to day lives. This has been the case throughout capitalist history, but has been an especially sharp feature of the current world situation.
Most significant has been the development of mass movements opposed to differing forms of women’s oppression in country after country, from Ireland to Bangladesh and from Brazil to China. Given the growing role of women and young women in the global working class, this revolt has tended to increasingly overlap and spur workers’ struggles, from the mines of South Africa to new “tech” workforces in Google, Amazon etc.
What is the essence of Lenin’s approach as outlined above? He is arguing against those he termed the “economists,” who dismissed the importance of “political” as opposed to “economic” struggle. He views the role of a revolutionary party, not in excluding one struggle at the expense of another, or dismissing the struggle against any form of oppression. Rather its role should be to unite all struggles against oppression with the broader working class which has the social power to end capitalism and thereby to lay the basis for ending all forms of oppression.
Our former comrades, once defenders of this, the Bolshevik approach to fighting oppression, moved away from it in an alarming fashion. The Irish section of the CWI, in line with Lenin’s method, played a leading role in the historic struggle for abortion rights which led to the referendum victory in 2018. At the same time, they fought to build a socialist feminist wing of the movement which won mass influence, and to build real links of solidarity and struggle between the women’s movement and the battle of the wider working class against capitalist austerity, industrially and politically.
For this, they were attacked by our former comrades… for orientating to the women’s movement at the expense of economic working class struggle! This seems to imply that leading a struggle against the oppression of a section of the working class is not true work among the class. In reality the comrades intervention into the women’s movement represented an opportunity to raise the need for mass working class action to win decisive victories against the capitalist establishment. Their work in the struggle to win abortion rights strengthened their ties with workers moving into struggle and taking strike action such as the nurses and midwives who went on strike in 2019. This strike cannot be separated from the victories won by the women’s movement.
Membership revolt against bureaucratism
Bureaucratic methods and actions always have a political basis. Ultimately, they are driven by a lack of political confidence, political weakness, and fear of losing a democratic debate. This was borne out in the CWI in an alarming manner. Having built an immense political authority over decades based on political strength and ability, a leadership which now lacked these attributes embarked on a bureaucratic rampage to defend the same authority and prestige by other means.
Their first target at the December 2018 meeting of our International Executive Committee (IEC) was our Irish organization whom they once lauded but now saw as a threat. The majority of the IEC rejected this unwarranted assault and the majority of the International Secretariat then declared a faction.
An alarming bureaucratic degeneration over the following seven months saw over 130 members of the England & Wales Socialist Party summarily expelled for the crime of politically disagreeing with their leadership’s faction. They declared the democratic structures which they were accountable to (the IEC and World Congress) to be “illegitimate”, and refused to participate in them, explicitly stating that the reason was to avoid “regime change”. On the basis of ignoring the organization’s democratic structures, they then proceeded to walk away, taking our financial reserves, website, social media accounts, and premises with them.
While these criminal bureaucratic manoeuvers and degeneration showed the worst of the history of the socialist movement, the majority of the CWI, from its rank and file membership (over 75% of which opposed this breakaway group) to the IEC, showed the best. Thousands of workers and youth, rather than succumb to demoralization, stood up and fought for their organization, ensuring that the overwhelming majority of the CWI remains intact, and politically stronger than ever despite this important setback.
We know that the road to building a mass working class international that will be fit for the needs of this period will be enormously challenging and will not proceed in a straight line. But we also see, as do millions of workers and young people, that capitalism only offers savage inequality, oppression and a looming climate catastrophe. Millions are moving towards socialist conclusions. Our task is to renew and elaborate the Marxist program and to demonstrate in practice that these ideas, while not new, show the only way forward. As Marx said, “theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”