The debate with the US ISO remains a source of much controversy, having ended with the biggest split from the Tendency to date. This makes it worth exploration and, I believe, it is an example of the way in which the SWP’s growing bureaucracy negatively impacted the IST. However, both of the dominant narratives of the events leading up to the ISOs expulsion are, in my view, one sided. The main IST narrative is that there was a debate and the ISO responded by intervening in a crisis in the Greek group, engineering or giving credence to a damaging split. The ISO view is that they were victimized by the haughty Brits (Ahmed S once said, more or less, that “someone should tell Callinicos that America is no longer a British colony”) and expelled for refusing to submit to direction from London. The truth is more complicated than that, in my view.
The ISO were the favourite children of Tony Cliff, and Ahmed S was the favourite son. His love for them was a bit of an eye-roller to us to be honest. And it meant that the ISO’s practice was never challenged. They were bringing IST politics into the heart of the beast and, at least in the English-speaking world, they were the second largest group. No doubt these things were to be lauded and their leadership were charming and smart. As our “big sister” next door we had a close relationship with them and always sent people to their version of Marxism in Chicago. When we had a crisis at our 1994 convention – the cage match of the cliques – Ahmed and Sharon came up to try and prevent a damaging split. But there were significant differences of approach to campaigns and struggles that were worth debating. We had debated the Americans over the question of NAFTA (the continent-wide free trade agreement) in which we opposed NAFTA and they abstained with an abstract (in my view) plague on both your houses attitude given the nationalism of much of the opposition. Earlier, the Canadians had gotten an earful from the Brits for abstaining in the constitutional debates going on around Meech Lake – before I was a member – and the organization’s position had changed as a result. The ISO didn’t get an earful over their NAFTA position.
So, it must have been a shock after so many years on a pedestal to be called out on their orientation beginning with NATOs war against Serbia in 1999. We also disagreed with the ISO who pushed for two slogans in the anti-war movement: no to NATO and self-determination for Kosovo. Our view was that the second slogan was a shibboleth that would be an obstacle to the participation of Serbians who still clung to some nationalist ideas but who were moving towards anti-imperialism. Secondly, we felt like it was a hostage to fortune to raise the slogan under which NATO was attacking Serbia. As the debate over the war blended into the debate around the significance of the WTO protests in Seattle, it got uglier. In sum, we felt that the Brits were right – the ISO were being sectarian and abstentionist towards the emerging anti-globalization/anti-capitalist movement. But the missives that were fired at the Americans from across the water were haughty, arrogant and condescending. They were careless about the details, used quotes from us in a half-baked way that damaged our relationship with the Americans, and were generally just shit. They were penned by Callinicos but (as an ISO comrade recently pointed out to me) signed by both him and Cliff. Every time one of them landed in the IS office we would sigh because we knew it would generate more heat than light. It didn’t help that, increasingly, the Brits were screwing around directly in the ISO – backing some members who were expelled for behaving in ways that the Brits would never accept (“Facebook 4” anyone?), trying to split the leadership of the ISO and get Ahmed booted from their Steering Committee. But the ISO was also petulant and sulking that they would ever be treated this way (like the Canadians, for example). We ought to have said something but the general feeling amongst everyone on the Steering Committee was that we didn’t want to get caught in the middle of what seemed like a schoolyard shoving match. A letter that was sent from the Greeks at the time was probably the best thing that was written and didn’t have the arrogant tone of the British letters, though it was firm in its criticism of the ISO’s position. Now, the exact nature of the ISO’s relationship with the Greek faction isn’t known to me. What is clear is that Ahmed was listed as a speaker on the poster announcing the formation of a new group before even the Greek SEK’s convention where the faction had full rights. To say that was a breach of solidarity is an understatement. I personally believe that the Americans figured that the Brits were preparing to toss them anyway (remember Bambery’s admonition about implementing perspectives to stay in the Tendency?) and decided to strike first. Whatever the truth, they surrendered what should have been the high ground. But the silence from the rest of the Tendency, including us, has to be considered as having contributed to their sense of isolation and siege mentality, even given that their action was a shitty thing to do and that they were wrong (in my opinion) on the key questions of orientation to the struggles of the day.
The overall point of this recollection is that so goes the Brits, so goes the Tendency because they retain sole authority to intervene in groups of the IST. I’ve explored three different examples of how they intervened and I’m sure there are more but these stood out in my recollections. The splitting of branches and, later, the dissolution of branches were tactics generalized from the SWP CC throughout the Tendency. The attack on the ISO was a generalization of the method of treating the membership as a problem that needed to be corrected. This is not, it must be said, an argument against sharp political polemic but, rather, against a method of argument that disrespects groups and their traditions. If these were the result of a one-sided analysis, flowing from the SWPs bureaucratization, as I’ve argued, you can see why other organizations in the Tendency have a very direct interest in challenging the SWP CC when they are wrong. Similarly when they act in a high-handed and condescending fashion. It is not simply that if the SWP fails or collapses that the morale, theoretical infrastructure, and prestige of the Tendency with its (imho) unique theoretical contributions will be damaged. It is that the practice of each and every group will be distorted along the way. And any future, direct intervention by the Brits will be distorted and reflect their bureaucratic methods at home. There are now several long-standing groups with extensive, albeit mixed, experiences building revolutionary organizations and building struggles. They shouldn't be shy about raising disagreements. As I suggested previously this doesn’t mean intervening every time there is a debate. Leaderships need to be mature enough to know when a debate has international significance.
Finally, I heard that the Australian IST group came out in support of the CC around the present crisis and have heard rumours that the Irish group sent a resolution from their NC privately criticizing the SWP CC. However, outside of these two there has been silence as far as I’m aware. But there are three additional reasons (at least) why there ought to be an open discussion of the present crisis. The first is that open discussion and debate educates the cadre, teaches them in the application of the Marxist method. The second is that if shockwaves of the crisis spread internationally (in the era of the internet, how could it not?), you want to be on the record and be clear about your position so that the membership can tackle questions they face with confidence from allies and members. The third reason is that if there had been greater solidarity with the opposition – with whom I obviously sympathize – this would have strengthened their hand to challenge the kind of bureaucratic maneuvers that we are seeing. It would have made a split less likely as the comrades would have seen that there were allies within the Tendency willing to back them in challenging the high-handed bureaucratic maneuvers of the SWP CC. And it would have given pause to thought of some of the membership who ended up in the “loyalist” camp – just as it would have if we’d been more forthright during the crisis with the ISO. Not only is silence consent and agreement in this instance, it is also a submission to a problematic and damaging method. Personally, I think that it’s not too late. But it most definitely is late enough to have exacted a price already. Any “solidarity” that is based upon my "party right or wrong" or silence because we ought not to criticize the official leadership of the SWP is both a bureaucratic conception of solidarity and unhealthy for the IST. As Lenin wrote, the history of Bolshevism is a history of controversy.
NEXT: Is the SWP A Dead Duck?