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Political Differences Within the IS Tendency

SWP Central Committee

This article is extracted from a much longer "International Report 2000" by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) Central Committee, which appeared in the SWP’s Pre-conference Bulletin No.2. In it the CC presents its version of the political differences between the SWP and the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the US supporters of the IS Tendency – the international current dominated by the SWP.

Earlier in the statement, the CC argues that the 1999 demonstration in Seattle marked "the emergence of a substantial minority – mainly in the advanced capitalist countries but also finding significant echoes in the rest of the world – who do not simply protest about specific grievances but target the capitalist system itself". They conclude: "A new left has been born."

At the SWP’s instigation, the IS Tendency has made a turn towards this new left – a turn allegedly resisted by the ISO, which is evidently unconvinced by the SWP’s discovery of a worldwide "anti-capitalist mood". In this section of the Report, the SWP CC polemicises against what it sees as the "conservative and sectarian approach" of the ISO. (If anyone wants to send us a similar document outlining the ISO’s position we would, of course, be happy to publish it.)

TURNING ORGANISATIONS round to adopt a new orientation is never easy. It often requires a struggle on the part of the leadership to change itself and shift the rest of the organisation, as the SWP has experienced in the shift to campaigning branches since the Greater London elections. Many of our sister organisations have taken important steps towards relating to the anti-capitalist mood. The comrades of Socialisme par en bas threw themselves into mobilising for Millau and were able as a result to recruit substantially and set up new branches in the south (though they didn’t work so effectively around Prague – success doesn’t automatically breed success).

In Spain, with a far lower level of struggle, the comrades of Izquierda Revolucionaria have, by relating to the anti-capitalist radicalisation developing among young people, been able to transform themselves from a tiny propaganda circle in Barcelona to an organisation of 170 with branches as far north as Bilbao and Burgos. The French and Spanish groups are young, but older organisations are also turning themselves around, as is reflected by the numbers the Norwegian and Danish International Socialists were able to take to Prague.

S26 in Prague was indeed the biggest single test so far of our ability as an international tendency to relate to the anti-capitalist mood. Detailed information on this operation will be found in "After Prague", a statement to the IS Tendency by Chris Bambery and Alex Callinicos reprinted in the SWP Pre-conference Bulletin No.1. In sum, the leading European organisations of the tendency were able to mount a mobilisation right across Europe, to intervene effectively in the counter-summit organised by INPEG, and to organise the largest and most dynamic contingent at S26 itself. We made a material difference to the success of the protest.

This assessment is not, however, universally shared in the tendency. Often where there is a sharp turn in the objective situation the revolutionary movement is itself disoriented, as some seek to change tactics sharply in order to relate to the new state of affairs while others stick to the old methods of operating. This is what lies behind the differences that have developed between the International Socialist Organization (US) and the rest of the IS Tendency.

While the origins of these disagreements can be traced back to the 1999 Balkan War, they burst into the open as a result of the ISO’s failure to mobilise for Seattle and its subsequent hesitations over making A16 a priority. The differences were wideranging – the ISO Steering Committee played down the significance of Seattle itself, arguing that what was developing was an "anti-corporate" or "reformist" mood rather than an "anti-capitalist" mood, offered some extremely unclear criticisms of the metaphor of "the 1930s in slow motion", and insisted on a restrictive definition of membership that excluded all but the most consistently active.

These disagreements were discussed exhaustively at a special international meeting held on 7 May, where no other organisation in the tendency supported the American comrades. It was agreed at that meeting that the SWP and the ISO would debate these issues publicly in their respective theoretical journals. The SWP also proposed that the two organisations should hold debates at their conferences in the autumn. The ISO leadership took four months to reject this latter proposal at the same time as they explained they were too busy to take part in a written exchange. They had also pleaded lack of time to explain their unprecedented boycott of Marxism 2000.

This policy is particularly unfortunate since it is clear that the Steering Committee have been circulating within the ISO an extremely negative and largely inaccurate picture of the practice of the SWP in Britain, and to some extent of the rest of the tendency. This can only serve to demoralise American comrades and further isolate them from their fellow revolutionaries in other countries. Yet the ISO leadership have failed to publish these criticisms so that they could be discussed and challenged in the rest of the tendency.

Such a state of affairs, involving as it does one of the leading organisations in the tendency, would have been disastrous at any time. But it is doubly tragic that it should have occurred when the US has been at the centre of the anti-capitalist mood. Naturally, the rest of us have hoped that the sheer experience of this mood would bring the American comrades back into the mainstream of the tendency.

There has been some evidence of this happening. The ISO did in the end mobilise for A16 in Washington, and took a prominent part in protests outside the Republican convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. More significantly, the comrades have thrown themselves very actively into the Nader campaign – building it at a local level and intervening in the rallies.

This been accompanied by a shift in the ISO leadership’s analysis. Thus in International Socialist Review 13 Joel Geier approvingly quotes Nader’s declaration that "Seattle was a fork in the road" and argues that his campaign represents the "birth of a new left". The rapid growth in membership claimed by the Steering Committee appears to represent a move in practice towards the rest of the tendency in the shape of a greater emphasis on smaller branches and open recruitment.

The successes enjoyed by the ISO in recent months are something that the rest of us can only welcome with enthusiasm. A stronger American sister organisation helps us all. It would be tempting to see what has happened as the beginning of a process in which the ISO gradually drew back into the mainstream of the tendency. Unfortunately, however, this is not the end of the story. There are recent signs that a much more conservative and sectarian approach continues to prevail in the ISO Steering Committee.

The most important of these concerns the ISO’s assessment of S26 in Prague, which two of its leading members observed. On their return they produced an extremely negative picture of the protests. In a report full of minor inaccuracies, ISO Notes (2 October) claims, "In Prague, our movement stumbled". The NGOs had been bought off, trade unions failed to mobilise, and therefore, "[w]hile thousands of young people did come, they did not match the numbers in [Washington] DC [on A16], and they were led by ultra-left elements and anarchists".

Since the IS Tendency by common acknowledgement was the largest organised political force at S26, we are presumably among the "ultra-left elements" that misled these youngsters. The ISO leadership promises "an assessment of the IST intervention" at some stage in the future. In the meantime, both ISO Notes and the US Socialist Worker (13 October 2000) attack at length the anarchists who tried to directly storm the Conference Centre where the IMF and World Bank were meeting. To their shame the comrades approvingly quote spokespeople from INPEG who, having totally failed to organise united mass action on S26, then colluded with the Czech government by denouncing the anarchists on the mass media.

The thousands of supporters of the IS Tendency who were at Prague will be unable to recognise their own experience in these reports. It is interesting to compare the ISO comrades’ assessment with the much more positive appreciations offered by others on the left – for example, by Christophe Aguiton, a leading member of the LCR, ATTAC, and SUD-PT (circulated to the IS Tendency and printed in SWP Pre-conference Bulletin No.1) and by the Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky ("Prague 2000: The People’s Battle", available at www.greenleft.org.au).

Playing down Prague isn’t just a matter of paying off scores with the ISO’s European sister organisations. It also allows the Steering Committee to portray the anti-capitalist movement as being on a downward trajectory. Thus the ISO Notes declares: "There was a hope on the part of some participants in the anti-IMF/WTO struggle that Seattle would be the prelude to a series of other anti-globalisation demonstrations that would repeat the success of Seattle on an even bigger scale. This has not, however, panned out."

This in no way corresponds to the facts. The largest protest so far took place at Millau this July, not in Seattle nearly a year ago. It is true that the mobilisation for Millau was largely French, but those in Melbourne, Prague and Seoul, though smaller than either Seattle or Millau, drew in considerable international support and had a real impact. Undoubtedly Seattle has set the benchmark for subsequent demonstrations because of its success in bringing together tens of thousands of trade unionists and young people, but it is ridiculous to infer from the past year’s experience that it cannot be matched or surpassed elsewhere. Moreover focusing merely on the size of individual demonstrations also ignores the more diffuse and very extensive ideological and political manifestations of the anti-capitalist mood. It seems that the ISO Steering Committee is being driven to distort the facts by the need to defend an analysis that plays down the significance of the anti-capitalist movement.

The ISO is thus currently caught facing two ways – towards the future and the past. On the one hand, the comrades have made a turn towards the anti-capitalist movement that has produced real successes. On the other hand, the ISO leadership remains wedded to a much more conservative and sectarian perspective that is in conflict with this turn. This is a highly contradictory and unstable state of affairs that cannot last indefinitely. We can only hope that the comrades resolve the contradiction by abandoning this perspective. As it is, the Steering Committee’s isolationist policy is cutting the American comrades off from the experiences of the rest of the tendency – experiences from which they could learn, just as we can benefit from hearing at first hand about their own achievements.