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Another American Tragedy or The Revenge of History: Left Turn and the IS Tendency

Alex Callinicos

This letter, written on behalf of the Socialist Workers Party central committee, was sent to sections of the SWPís international organisation, the International Socialist Tendency, to explain the defection of the ISTís US affiliate, Left Turn. It is only a couple of years since the Tendency lost its former US section, the International Socialist Organization (see What Next? Nos.17 and 19), and now the minority who stuck with the IST during the previous split have gone their own way too. A sceptic would perhaps remark that to lose one US section might be a misfortune, but to lose two begins to look like a fundamental problem with the SWP/ISTís organisational practices. We publish this letter here because it deals, from the SWPís own perspectives, with the vexed question of how Marxists should relate to the wider movement, in this case the "anti-capitalist movement". Whether the SWP has satisfactorily resolved this question, as Callinicos claims, readers will judge for themselves.

18 September 2003

Dear Comrades,

This letter accompanies some correspondence between the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and the comrades of Left Turn in the United States. As you will see, the bottom line is that the comrades have decided to dissociate themselves from the IS Tendency and have therefore asked us to remove them from the list of IST organizations on our websites. We have, of course, complied with this request, and we must ask you to do the same. In an apparently related move, the original description of Left Turn on the groupís website as "a network of anti-capitalists and revolutionary socialists" has been modified by the removal of "and revolutionary socialists".

This is a very unwelcome development, and one that requires explanation. This is particularly so because the rather curt tone of the Left Turn communications implies that their decision was the outcome of a long and acrimonious debate between them and the SWP. This is not so. As I said in my initial reply, the decision came to us as a bolt from the blue. To understand what happened some background is necessary.

Left Turn was formed in the early months of 2001, on the initiative of several comrades who had been expelled from the International Socialist Organization, which had been, till then, the US affiliate of the IST. This was the result of a debate between the ISO (US) and the rest of the IST. At the heart of this debate was the ISO leadershipís rejection of two propositions accepted by the rest of the Tendency: (i) the Seattle protests marked the emergence of a movement against global capitalism and, more generally, the beginning of a new phase of radicalization; (ii) revolutionaries should accordingly make themselves part of the movement, starting not from their disagreements with other activists, but from the much larger area of agreement that united the entire movement.

History Ė particularly the Genoa protests of July 2001 and the emergence of the anti-war movement after 11 September Ė has decisively settled who was right in that debate. The ISO (US) leadershipís refusal to recognize reality reflected a larger sectarian turn by the group. The founders of Left Turn were expelled because they expressed views similar to those shared by the rest of the Tendency. Their expulsion and the ISO (US) leadershipís role in helping to engineer a split in the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK) prompted an IST meeting held in July 2001 to exclude the ISO (US) from the Tendency; that same meeting invited Left Turn to attend meetings of the Tendency.

Though there had been comparatively little contact between the SWP leadership and the founders of Left Turn before the latterís expulsion, there was some intensive discussion between us as to the nature of the new group. We encouraged the comrades not simply to form a new revolutionary socialist organization (a New Model ISO) but rather to create a looser anti-capitalist network. Our thinking was that through an organic involvement in the new movements the comrades (who were already active in different networks) could begin to crystallize around them a cadre of revolutionary activists unscarred by the sectarianism of the ISO (US). We took it for granted that building such a network was a means to developing a much more healthy revolutionary Marxist organization in the United States.

Initially all seemed to go very well. Very early on Left Turn comrades based in New York began producing a magazine of the same name. This made a considerable impact: the group began to attract activists repelled by the sectarianism of the established left organizations but wanting more than the cult of spontaneity dominant in the anti-capitalist networks. Bilal Elamine in particular played a leading role in organizing a very successful conference on Globalization and Resistance in New York in November 2001 that helped to rally the local left after 9/11. This dynamic start did great credit to the comrades after the bruising experience they had suffered in the ISO; it also reflected the strong support they received from the IST and its sympathizers.

Relations with the rest of the Tendency were initially excellent. A relatively large number of LT members attended Marxism 2001. Some of them stayed on to join in the IST intervention at the great Genoa protests. I spoke at the New York conference and afterwards took part in an excellent caucus with about 20 LT comrades. We all shared in the grief when one of the groupís founders, Pete Moore, died in a car crash in September 2001. Another founding member, Brian Campbell, wrote to me after attending the IST meeting in London in January 2002 to "say how useful I found the international meeting".

In the early months of 2002, however, it began to become clear that significant disagreements were developing between Bilal, Brian, and other leading Left Turn activists, on the one hand, and the two IST organizations in closest contact with them, the British SWP and the International Socialists in Canada. The comrades were resistant to public sales of Left Turn (for example, at the anti-WEF demo in February 2002) and to organizing any forms of Marxist discussion within the group.

It slowly emerged that the comrades conceived themselves as a loose network of experienced activists involved in different single-issue campaigns (Palestine, Colombia, etc.). Some of these activists had been in the ISO (US); others were members of orthodox Trotskyist tendencies. They didnít need Marxist education, it was sometimes argued. At other times, it was argued that it was too "early" to start trying to create a larger core of revolutionary socialists. Like all stages theories this suffers from the difficulty that if you donít start the way you mean to carry on, you donít get to where you intended.

Inevitably, practice reshaped theory. Having deferred building a revolutionary Marxist organization to the future, the comrades came to abandon it altogether as an objective (cf. Sasha and Legba: "the majority of Left Turn members do not see building the revolutionary party as the project of our organization.") Logically enough, the idea of recruiting new members came to seem an unattractive one. Recruiting young radicalized students became associated with the ISO (US)ís sectarianism. But what was wrong with the ISOís methods wasnít recruiting youngsters, but rather trying to enclose them in a hermetically sealed, intellectually arid organization, instead of encouraging the new members to develop themselves through actively participating in the struggles and debates inside the movement.

Clearly one driving force in this process was a perfectly understandable reaction by the founders of Left Turn to the sectarian practices of the ISO (US). But in an important sense they are still accepting the terms of debate set by the ISO. Effectively the ISO leadership posed a dilemma: either a "hard" Leninist organization or the loose, fluffy "movement of movements". What the rest of the IST did was to reject this dilemma. We say that the only way to build serious Marxist parties today is to be thoroughly in the movement. The SWP, for example, is being transformed through our role in building the Stop the War Coalition and other movements such as Globalise Resistance.

What Left Turn has, in effect, done is to accept the dilemma posed by the ISO (US) leadership: the difference is that the comrades have opted, not for a sect isolated from the movement, but for liquidation into the movement. In a certain sense this too is understandable. The movement is diverse, lively, dynamic; in the hands of many far left groups, Marxist theory is dull and dreary. The same temptation to dissolve ourselves into the movement has been felt elsewhere in the IST: it was, for example, one factor in the very serious crisis that afflicted Linksruck in Germany in 2001-2. And in a more mundane level, most groups, in turning towards the movement, rightly dismantled existing routines and structures that were an obstacle to this turn but didnít replace them with new ways of organizing appropriate to the changed situation Ė a failure for which we have paid a certain price, even though we are now trying to correct this mistake.

But simply to become part of the swarm is a form of surrender. As I have tried to show in An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto, the development of the anti-capitalist movement has posed a series of tough theoretical and strategic problems: the state, imperialism, reform and revolution, party and movement. The revolutionary Marxist tradition Ė creatively applied to the present Ė can help activists to address these questions. The movement needs Marxism Ė Marxism of the right kind, a Marxism that is rooted in an active and organized participation in the movement.

Politics abhors a vacuum. The failure of the leaders of Left Turn to address these strategic problems is reflected in a certain decline in the political quality of their magazine, which has tended to become a collation of articles on specific issues lacking a coherent focus. Thus last autumn Left Turn led on Enron rather than the coming war in Iraq that was evidently becoming the dominant issue in world politics and subsequently producing a huge anti-war movement in the US. The latest issue reflects a certain adaptation to the kind of libertarian politics dominant in many anti-capitalist networks in the Americas Ė celebrating the "horizontalism" of the movement, as if decentralized structures are sufficient to take on global capital. Rejecting revolutionary Marxism isnít adopting a neutral stance but opening up to other forms of politics.

The emergence of these divergences put the SWP leadership in a quandary. A relatively brief and (for our part) amicable meeting between Bilal of Left Turn and John Rees and me for the SWP at Marxism 2002 produced such a vehement response from Bilal that we decided to pursue our disagreements with great caution. Martin Smithís offer of a speaking tour was turned down by Left Turn, but his visit to the West Coast last autumn involved friendly and positive contacts with LT comrades in San Francisco, Seattle, and San Diego.

During a visit to New York in March I had a frank but perfectly friendly discussion with Bilal, Brian Campbell, and another comrade. I made clear our desire to pursue the discussion in a constructive and non-confrontational fashion and within the framework of LTís continued connection with the IST, despite the ambiguities arising from the participation of supporters of other currents in Left Turn. The comrades did not dissent from this approach. Chris Harman on a visit to New York a few weeks later had similarly friendly contacts with Bilal and Brian (with whom he stayed), and later pursued the discussion by e-mail.

So why this sudden and brutal break a few months later? It is hard to be sure looking in from the outside, but the driving force seems to have been tensions within Left Turn itself. A scattering of comrades around the country expressed two sorts of overlapping concerns. First, some at least shared our worries about LTís failure to pursue the project of building revolutionary socialist organization within the movement. Secondly, there were concerns about the internal democracy of Left Turn. The main complaint was that control of the magazine and over broader decisions (or non-decisions) about the development of the group seemed to be in the hands of a few founding members based mainly in New York and Washington DC with no way for the other members to hold them accountable.

Argument over these issues seems to have produced growing tensions between the leading comrades and in particular some activists in Baltimore. The latter successfully pushed for a national meeting in Washington DC in July. This initiative had nothing to do with the SWP. When we learned about it we were concerned that, given the defensive way in which Bilal had responded to Johnís and my criticisms, such a meeting would only intensify the tensions within the group and between LT and the rest of the IST.

We made these concerns clear to the three members of LT who attended Marxism 2003 in London this July (none of the leading comrades from New York or Washington came). At a meeting with them, Martin Smith and I underlined that focusing on organizational questions is usually not the best way to pursue an internal argument. We stressed that the broader debate on the future of Left Turn should be pursued on a long-term and fraternal basis and that confrontation should be avoided at the meeting in Washington.

Because two of the Baltimore critics had connections with IS Canada (an ex-member of the group and her partner), our Canadian sister organization had been blamed by Bilal and his co-thinkers for the confrontation that did develop at the LT national meeting. IS Canada has an entirely legitimate interest in the fate of the Tendency in the US, given the very close links between the workers movements and anti-capitalist networks across North America. Two leading members of IS Canada, Michelle Robidoux and Paul Kellogg, attended the meeting with LT comrades at Marxism 2003, and argued along the same lines as Martin and I did. Michelle put this approach at length on the phone to the ex-IS member in Baltimore before the national meeting.

Despite all this (what seemed to us) good advice, the meeting was a disaster. A bitter confrontation developed between the dominant comrades in Left Turn and the two Baltimore comrades linked to IS Canada. It is impossible to say at this distance whose fault this was. But the LT leaders do have a heavy responsibility for what happened next. The two Baltimore critics were summarily excluded from the group. As far as we can tell, there was no vote or other procedure. The comrades were simply cut off the LT e-mail discussion list.

It has to be said that this has certainly reinforced the concerns that had been expressed earlier about the absence of democracy within the group. It is simply amazing that most of the founder members should have taken such an arbitrary action in the light of the fact that they themselves had been expelled from the ISO (US) barely two years earlier (though it has to be said that the ISO at least paid lip service to the formalities of constitutional procedure). This episode Ė and the subsequent decision to break with the IST Ė underline that the decentralized structurelessness characteristic of many anti-capitalist networks isnít necessarily more democratic than the representative structures traditional inside the workersí movement.

In any case, it seems to have been the catastrophic meeting in Washington that decided the leaders of Left Turn to force a break with the IST. This decision involved no discussion with the SWP or any other sister organization. Beyond a brief e-mail by Bilal to IS Canada blaming them for what happened in Washington, the first communication with the rest of the IST after the meeting was his e-mail of 2 September announcing their decision to break. Sasha and Legba in their subsequent e-mail say that this was "a democratic decision of Left Turn membersí taken by "consensus". Once again itís hard for an outsider to be sure, but one is entitled to be dubious about this claim. Mike Davis, for example, Left Turnís best known member (who shared our concerns about the groupís evolution), only learned about the decision from me. It seems as if the "consensus" was one of those in the loop.

Plainly, however arrived at, the decision is one that we can only greatly regret. It is natural to ask ourselves whether, in hindsight, there was anything that we could have done to prevent to this outcome. It is hard to see what this would have been. Given the hypersensitivity to criticism that Bilal displayed after Marxism 2002, any attempt to pursue the argument more vigorously would almost certainly have precipitated an earlier break. Perhaps we could have tried harder to persuade the comrades in Baltimore to avoid any confrontation with the dominant figures in Left Turn. But this would probably have simply postponed the break.

This would have been a better outcome than the present one, since it would have allowed the debate carry on. It wouldnít have changed the basic fact that Bilal, Brian, and the other leading comrades in Left Turn have drifted quite a long way politically from the IS tradition. They have committed the opposite mistake to that made by the ISO (US) leadership. Rather than build a sect isolated from the movement, they have liquidated themselves into the movement. This error implies an assumption as present in that made by the ISO (US) Ė that revolutionary Marxist politics necessarily take a sectarian form, so that we have to choose between this politics and the movement. As I have already pointed out, this is a false dilemma that we have rejected. To be a real Marxist today you have to be fully involved in the movement.

Left Turnís departure is certainly a sad loss for the IST, but Left Turn will lose out as well. They are cutting themselves off from the Tendency at one of the most exciting moments in our history, when we are expanding dynamically thanks to our active involvement in the movements against global capitalism and war. Having made a significant impact at last yearís European Social Forum and the World Social Forum, particularly in making them the launching pads for the global day of anti-war protest on 15 February, we are preparing our interventions at the forthcoming ESF in Paris and the WSF in Bombay. Many of us will be involved in further protests against the occupation of Iraq on 27 September. And of course we are in the thick of the struggle in our different countries. What a pity that Left Turn is opting out of the Tendency now!

The comradesí regrettable decision doesnít mean that the US is a closed country to the IST. We continue to have our supporters there Ė most notably Mike Davis. Our Canadian comrades have many connections with activists in the US, as does the SWP through the international anti-war movement. And the door is always open to the Left Turn comrades Ė individually and collectively Ė to rejoin us as the opportunities for revolutionary socialists continue to widen in the new century.

Yours fraternally,

Alex Callinicos,
for the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain)