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The ISO (US) and the International Socialist Tendency

International Socialist Organization Steering Committee

THE ATTEMPT by the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) to justify its decision to break relations with the International Socialist Organization (US) shows contempt for the truth – and contempt for members of the ISO, the SWP and the rest of the International Socialist Tendency as well. (See "Statement on Relations Between SWP (GB) and ISO (US)", on the SWP website, 12 March 2001.)

Essentially, the CC statement gives two reasons for our virtual expulsion from the Tendency: (1) that we "deny" the significance of the Seattle demonstrations and particular struggles and (2) that we "encouraged a split" in the Greek Tendency organization, SEK. Both accusations are patently false. As the overview of our publications and work since Seattle makes clear, no one without a factional axe to grind could argue that the ISO is "sectarian". Moreover, the split in SEK was an outgrowth of a crisis in that organization, and took place without any involvement from ISO members.

In fact, the split in Greece follows that of a number of Tendency organizations – including France, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey and South Africa. These took place as a direct result of the intervention of the SWP CC as it sought to impose its failed perspectives and organizational methods on those groups. In each case, the CC bestowed recognition of Tendency status on one side over another. All this makes the charge that the ISO "encouraged" a split in Greece hypocritical, to say the least. Moreover, it seeks to make the ISO the scapegoat for the fact that the Tendency’s failed perspectives means that most Tendency organizations – including the SWP – are smaller today than in 1995. The SWP CC was so determined to effectively expel the ISO from the Tendency that it declared its intention to support six former ISO members as the "real" Tendency organization. Apparently, the CC would rather have six unquestioning followers in the heart of imperialism rather than a dynamic, youthful and growing organization of more than 1,000. This approach to international leadership – if it can be called such – has grave consequences for every organization in the Tendency and its continued existence.

Two years of factional war on the ISO
We have answered the CC’s baseless charges about our work in previous documents. The latest statement from the CC, however, compels us to do so again. The CC statement declares that "this split can be traced back to the great demonstrations at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Seattle at the end of November 1999". Yet this same website features a lengthy article by Alex Callinicos that repeats the SWP’s criticisms of the ISO’s work on the Kosovo war as sectarian – an absurd charge that we formally debated at the time. Anyone can see that the SWP CC’s relentless attack on the ISO began at that point. Indeed, thanks to Alex Callinicos’ habit of e-mailing factional documents to our members, anyone can read the relevant material on various sectarian web sites from anywhere in the world.

Given that the earlier document by Alex Callinicos had already announced the severance of relations with the ISO by the SWP – and urged other Tendency organizations to follow the CC’s lead – the question arises as to why the Central Committee issued a second statement at all? Apparently, the CC felt the need to try to explain its unprecedented and reckless actions without all the absurd charges, false historical justifications and sectarian attacks in the lengthy Callinicos article. Without that smokescreen, however, the CC’s action stands exposed for what it is: the culmination of two years of factional attacks on the ISO with an attempt to unilaterally expel us from the Tendency.

The CC statement begins – once again – with the falsehood that "the ISO Steering Committee have refused to recognize the significance of Seattle". Yet the CC – like the Callinicos document – avoids all reference to our publications on this point. And no wonder. Here is what we said immediately after the Seattle protest: "The WTO protest showed a huge sea change in people’s attitudes. Crucially, the WTO demonstrations showed that it is possible to build a united struggle composed of diverse forces with differing political views" ("WTO: Crashing the Bosses’ Party", International Socialist Review, 10, Winter 1999. Available at www.internationalsocialist.org/notes_winter99.html). Can any serious person call this a "refusal" to recognize the significance of Seattle? The SWP CC has ignored this article – even though it has been available on the ISO website for more than a year.

Furthermore the ISR, Socialist Worker and internal perspectives documents have detailed our views of the new radicalization that has expressed itself in several ways. Since the protests in Seattle and Washington, we have seen national demonstrations against racism and the brutality of the criminal justice system as well as a large protest against US militarism at the School of the Americas. We saw the Nader campaign as a reflection of the widespread anger against corporate greed that goes far beyond the politically active minority. (See Joel Geier, "Nader 2000", ISR, 13, August-September 2000.) Thus, in our view, the formula "anti-capitalist mood/movement" actually understates the scale of the radicalization taking place by focusing only on one current within it. Moreover, it says nothing of the balance of class forces, the state of working class consciousness and the level of struggle – all of which will shape the development of the radicalization.

But, for the SWP CC, our rejection of its phrase "anti-capitalist" is tantamount to a sectarian attack on the movement. To make that case, the CC not only hides what we said but also denies what we did. The ISO was instrumental in organizing the A16 demonstration in Washington against the IMF and World Bank and had our largest contingent ever on the protest. Far from denouncing the protest as a "failure", as the CC alleges, Socialist Worker (US) argued that it was a success even though the official meetings were not disrupted. Socialist Worker and the ISR prepared a special section on the IMF, World Bank and WTO for the A16 protests. The following issue hailed "The New Movement Against Globalization". Ahmed Shawki, editor of the ISR, participated in a debate with the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa. Leading ISO members have since then spoken at conferences and teach-ins alongside Kevin Danaher, Medea Benjamin, Bob Naiman, Njoki Njehu, Sarah Anderson, David Bacon and other leading global justice activists. Moreover, Socialist Worker and the ISR published positive reports from the demonstration in Nice and the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

As for our shorthand characterization of the movement as "anti-globalization" instead of "anti-capitalist", this is apparently only a crime when the ISO does it. See British Socialist Worker: "15,000 March Against Globalization" (24 February 2001), which refers to ATTAC as an "anti-globalization organization". Similarly, the SWP CC criticizes the ISO for relating to anti-globalization as "one movement among many" – as if something is wrong with relating to other expressions of radicalization and struggle.

Moreover, the CC also ignores our central involvement in both the Philadelphia and Los Angeles protests against the Republican and Democratic conventions (including speakers on the main platform). The facts don’t fit, so the CC simply denies the facts. The accusation that the ISO used the Nader campaign to "raid and recruit from" is laughable – not to say ignorant. ISO members served in the campaign’s national office, ran the California student campaign and neighborhood Nader committees across the US. In any case, since when does building revolutionary organization while working in the broad left constitute "raiding", an epithet long used by anti-Leninists against our tradition? Indeed, the SWP had to defend itself against similar charges form activists who leafleted the Globalize Resistance conferences ("Are the SWP Vampires?", Socialist Worker (Britain) 17 February 2001.)

The CC’s criticisms of our Nader work are nothing more than factional myth making. After all, SWP National Secretary Chris Bambery encouraged SWP comrades to download the ISR articles on Nader. Alex Callinicos praised our work in the Nader campaign in his intervention at the ISO Convention. But now the CC has declared a split, so all of this is denied. This method of "debate" is the reason why the SWP CC long ago lost all credibility with the ISO membership.

Furthermore, the CC displays appalling political ignorance when it declares that "as soon as the presidential election was over, the ISO dropped the Nader campaign, preferring to orient to liberal Democrats angered by George W. Bush’s stolen victory". Does the CC really believe that the ISO should ignore Gore voters – who include the vast majority of African Americans and millions of trade union members? Green Party activist Howie Hawkins – quoted approvingly in the Callinicos document – noted that the anti-globalization movement is "predominantly white" and that "the Greens should connect to the rank and file" of liberal Black organizations as well as the feminist groups and unions that supported the Democrats (Independent Politics News, Winter 2001). That is why the DC Statehood Green Party backed the Congressional Black Caucus’ efforts to make an issue of racist vote fraud. In fact, California Green Party candidate for US Senate, Medea Benjamin – who worked closely with ISO members in her campaign – traveled to Florida to help organize protests there. Indeed, the need for Nader activists to relate to Black and labor audiences is commonly accepted on the left in the US. In rejecting this approach, the SWP CC shows that it is incapable of making any serious assessment of the situation in the US – let alone of passing judgement on the ISO.

Far from exhibiting a "refusal to recognize the way in which the world is changing", as the CC alleges, the ISO is in the thick of the movement against corporate globalization and much else besides. Not only are our Northeast branches deeply involved in the protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, ISO comrades have been crucial to organizing cross-border protests in the Pacific Northwest and – in a major breakthrough for the left – a bi-national protest on the US-Mexican border. At the same time, we are centrally involved in the movement against the death penalty. The substantial growth of the ISO over the last year is itself an expression of this new radicalization. That is why not even our biggest critics in the US would accuse the ISO of being an "ossified sect" that Callinicos purports to describe in his document.

The SWP’s crisis of perspective
The CC’s relentless attack on the ISO serves as a substitute for coming to grips with the SWP’s own failed perspectives in the 1990s. The Tendency accepted the characterization of the 1990s as the "1930s in slow motion" to summarize our shared expectation of prolonged economic crisis, a rise in class struggle and the growth of revolutionary socialist organizations to compete with and even displace Stalinist and social democratic parties. In Britain there was the expectation of a sharp rise in class struggle following the election of the Labour government in 1997 – that Blair would have no honeymoon and that there would be an explosion in struggle. As Tony Cliff put it in an interview with Socialist Review (November 1996): "The situation there [in France] is extremely volatile, with very big strikes going on at the same time as support for the right. When Blair comes to office here we will see similar volatility. There will be a race between the far right and the far left to win workers to their politics." This is the politics of the "1930s in (not very) slow motion." Cliff generalized this conclusion in the conclusion of his 1999 book Trotskyism After Trotsky by declaring that "capitalism in the advanced countries is no longer expanding" so that Trotsky’s words in the 1938 Transitional Program "that ’there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards’ fits reality again" (pp.81-2).

But as Cliff himself pointed out years before, "the basic assumption behind Trotsky’s Transitional Demands was that the economic crisis was so deep that the struggle for even the smallest improvements in workers’ conditions would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved the assumption the ground fell from beneath the program" (Trotsky: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star, p.300). Duncan Hallas made the same point even earlier. He argued that the perspectives reflected in the Transitional Program "made sober and realistic assessments of actual shifts in working class consciousness, alterations in the balance of class forces, and tactical changes to gain the maximum advantage from them (the essence of Lenin’s political practice) extremely difficult for Trotsky’s followers" (Trotsky’s Marxism, 1979, pp.103-4).

The notion that the Transitional Program "fits reality again" has contributed to a crisis of perspectives in the SWP. The CC has never come to terms publicly with the fact that the catastrophist perspectives of the 1990s have been proven wrong. The economic boom in the US, while exacerbating class polarization, nevertheless reduced unemployment to the lowest level in 30 years. While unemployment remains higher in the European Union, it has dropped at a faster rate than in any economic recovery in the last 30 years (see The Economist, 14 September 2000). In France – where a recovery has cut unemployment to the lowest levels in more than a decade – workers succeeded in winning some reforms, such as the 35-hour workweek. The far right is split and the conservatives are in disarray. In Britain, unemployment fell to the lowest levels in more than two decades.

Nor is there a race between the "far right" and "far left". Blair is poised to win re-election rather easily. Qualifications such as "slow motion" do not make comparisons to the 1930s, still less the Transitional Program, relevant to the political situation in the second half of the 1990s. Moreover, it is telling that in the second half of the 1990s the International Socialism journal failed to publish an article analyzing the boom in Britain, Europe or the US. It devoted its only lengthy article on economic issues to the East Asian financial crisis (Winter 1998). The title of the article by Alex Callinicos – "World Capitalism at the Abyss" – reflected the SWP’s catastrophist perspective. Indeed, it included a discussion of the UPS strike in a section entitled "Wars and Revolutions", which gives some indication of the disorientation caused by the SWP’s perspectives.

The ISO came to grips with the situation in the US in a series of articles on the American economy in the International Socialist Review (including one praised as an "excellent analysis" by Alex Callinicos in the journal Historical Materialism, Summer 1999, p.21). We shifted our political perspectives accordingly, as detailed in our 1999 Convention document, "Assessing the 1990s", which discussed the political impact of the boom in the US and the advanced Western countries. Moreover, we rejected the mainstream view of "contentment" in US politics and oriented towards what we called a "political awakening" months before the Seattle protests – all of which was discussed in our August 1999 National Committee documents. Ironically, the Callinicos document attacks our analysis of the coming recession as "catastrophist", ignoring our published views. (See Paul D’Amato and Joel Geier, "The End of the Miracle Economy", ISR, February-March 2001.)

In Britain, unfortunately, the SWP’s perspectives led to serious organizational decline to perhaps half of the 10,000 claimed in the mid-1990s – exact figures are no longer given – as comrades understandably became disoriented and inactive. A series of organizational formulas – such as very small branches, for example – apparently compounded the problem. In the late 1990s the SWP CC’s insistence on its perspectives and organizational prescriptions was a decisive factor in a series of splits in Tendency organizations, including France, Turkey, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. That is why the charge that the ISO "engineered" a split in Greece is not only a lie, but reeks of hypocrisy. The split in the Greek organization SEK was a result of a debate on perspectives in that organization, which took place without the involvement of anyone in the ISO. Both SEK and the group International Workers Left claim to stand in the tradition of the Tendency. But apparently only the SWP CC is allowed to proclaim which group is the "real" Tendency organization following a split.

(We also note that SEK itself maintained fraternal relations with two groups in Turkey following that split, and of course was not expelled from the Tendency.)

None of these splits in the Tendency in the late 1990s involved a deviation from the principles and politics of the International Socialist Tendency, but concerned organizational perspectives. The Callinicos document attempting to justify the SWP’s split with the ISO tries to dress up this method with a pseudo-history of "sectarianism" in revolutionary organizations. The Callinicos argument boils down to this: every serious turn in a revolutionary organization requires splits. While this may provide the CC with a convenient explanation of the decline in the size of the Tendency since the mid-1990s, it has nothing in common with revolutionary political leadership. Consider Trotsky’s account of the methods of the Bolshevik Party: "The chronicle of the year 1917, the greatest year in the history of the party, is full of intense internal struggles, as is also the history of the first five years after the conquest of power; despite this – not one split, not one major expulsion for political motives" (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.110).

It is in this context of decline and splits in the Tendency that the SWP’s factional war on the ISO began. The protests in Seattle and the emergence of the international anti-globalization movement – a radicalization that we all agreed was taking place and all related to – should have been an opportunity for greater collaboration. Instead, we were told that unless we accepted the "anti-capitalist" characterization and highly specific organizational conclusions (i.e. we must view our audience as having "90 per cent agreement, 10 per cent disagreement") that we were somehow abstaining from the movement. Even worse, the SWP CC has systematically campaigned against us throughout the Tendency, asking the leaderships of various organizations to take positions against us – exactly what Cliff criticised Trotsky for encouraging in the original Fourth International.

Only one group in the Tendency is exempt from such scrutiny – the SWP itself. Even though the organization has taken a series of major organizational shifts – seeking to enter the multi-tendency Scottish Socialist Party or dissolving branches for the London and now national elections – they are carried through with virtually no discussion in the Tendency and relatively little in the SWP itself. Thus we have the specter of the SWP merging with other tendencies in Scotland even as it pushes a split with the ISO. And since reports on various groups stopped being issued at Tendency meetings years ago, comrades in various organizations are expected to pass judgement on us – and one another – with virtually no information other than the CC’s version of events.

The future of the International Socialist Tendency
Anyone who knows our history must reject Callinicos’ charge that we seek to "destroy" the Tendency as rubbish. We have been proud members of the Tendency. We helped build support for comrades facing prosecution in Greece and South Korea and raised thousands of dollars to help build in South Africa. It is the CC which has led the Tendency and presided over repeated splits and decline. Now it has openly attempted to foment a split in the ISO – from the "open letter" e-mail to members of the ISO a year ago to the CC’s declaration of support for six discredited former members – all before the split in SEK. If anyone is to be found guilty of the charge of "splitting" the Tendency, the CC does not have to look across the Atlantic.

Indeed, the SWP CC’s method of splitting with the ISO makes a mockery of serious international revolutionary work. Alex Callinicos, the International Secretary for the CC, publicly vowed to "save" the ISO at the SWP National Conference. Yet he managed to attend the ISO Convention for only one of three days. Can this be taken seriously as revolutionary leadership?

And now we have the summary removal of the ISO from the list of Tendency organizations on the SWP website in a virtual electronic expulsion. Compare this to the CC’s 1995 statement on the informal IS List e-mail network: "The IS Tendency is not an international organization but a current composed of independent organizations who share the same politics. We therefore lack the means to make the [e-mail] list accountable to the organizations making up the Tendency. Political debate is essential in a healthy revolutionary organization. But that debate takes place through party branches and at national meetings and conferences, where all comrades can participate as elected delegates. Irresponsible gossip by a self-selected and relatively privileged clique is no substitute for discussion in a democratic centralist organization." Clearly the CC has moved a long way since then – and in the wrong direction.

The Tendency now faces a severe crisis. Rather than try to come to grips with the reasons for this, the SWP CC has made the ISO a scapegoat simply because we asked why – and worked to answer questions for ourselves in order to build our organization. And now, having failed to split the ISO, the SWP CC has parted ways with the second-largest organization in the Tendency – a dynamic, growing and young organization of more than 1,000 – to embrace a handful of ex-members who got zero support at the ISO Convention. To explain the lack of support for their perspective in the ISO, the SWP CC has invented the charge of thuggish and undemocratic behavior. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the SWP CC seeks total obedience in place of genuine debate and collaboration between revolutionaries – and not just in the US. Thus the Callinicos document concludes with a crude factional threat: "The ISO’s metastasis into a sect is an extreme case of a tendency present in all our organizations. We will all have to fight to overcome this tendency and transform ourselves into an effective part of the movement that is burgeoning beyond us." Therefore anyone who questions the SWP CC for pushing this split is a "sectarian" to be gotten rid of. This method is wholly alien to our tradition.

We intend to answer all the slanders about us and defend our organization. We further appeal to comrades in the International Socialist Tendency to oppose the SWP CC’s attempt to effectively expel the ISO. If there is to be a Tendency meeting to deal with this matter, as the CC suggests there will be, it should be based on an open debate in which all points of view can be aired. Instead, the leadership of Tendency groups have already broken relations with the ISO with no attempt to discuss the issues with us – and no prior internal discussion in their own groups. And now the CC is calling on every Tendency group to sever ties with the ISO immediately – to reach the verdict before the trial.

Such developments can only have a negative impact on the development of – and fraternal relations between – all Tendency organizations. Finally, despite our effective exclusion from the Tendency, we have continued to build the ISO’s international links. As we wrote to ISO members, we remain proud of the International Socialist Tendency. We will continue to work with any organizations who are willing to have open, fraternal relations with us, whatever our disagreements may be.