Thursday, August 8, 2013

Seattle Socialist Votes. Reflections.

By John Throne (Sean)

We had a piece on this blog yesterday congratulating Kshama Sawant on her campaign for Seattle City Council. Kshama is a member of Socialist Alternative, the US section of the Committee for a Workers’ International. I am a former member of the CWI spending 25 years of my life as a full timer for that organization.  I first met the group in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s. 

Myself and some other socialists, some who left the CWI and other groups voluntarily and others like me who were expelled or driven out, have drawn the conclusion that the failure of the left to build a serious revolutionary or left current within the working class is not entirely due to the objective conditions or false perspectives. I have come to the conclusion that the internal life of left/socialist groups (including the CWI of which I was a member) is seriously flawed.  The leadership’s of these groups adamantly refuse to discuss in any serious way the internal life of these organizations, the mistakes we made, and how we came to this point and how we can correct the situation. And I know we made very serious errors.

I unconditionally supported and support the campaign of Kshama Sawant in Seattle despite my refusal to keep quiet about what I consider to be the incorrect internal life and the left sectarianism of the CWI, the organization to which she belongs.

I would also say that I have always said that I consider this incorrect internal life and left sectarianism applies to all the revolutionary left groups. I have had more emphasis on the CWI because that it the organization with which I have had the greatest experience and also because it was arguably the most successful of the revolutionary left groups for a period. It led the poll Tax struggle that was instrumental in bringing down Thatcher. It was the main force in the Liverpool City council struggle. It had a number of people elected in the Scottish and the English and Irish and European parliaments. Of the revolutionary left groups it has been amongst the most successful if not the most successful. But we need to have a balance.

I am presently writing a book on my political evolution. I discussed with most of the sizeable left groups after being involved in the Derry uprising in 1969. I joined the Militant, the British section of the CWI and was its first member in Southern Ireland and its first full timer in Ireland as a whole. We started out with about 6 or 7 members in 1970 and when I left Ireland to work internationally we had about 400.

I did not join the CWI by accident. I joined it for its good points. It had a generally correct worldview for the three decades following World War 2. This was crucial. However, in the course of events, it became apparent to me that this worldview, that capitalism was in crisis and was headed for a cataclysmic crisis and along with this, Stalinism was in turmoil and also headed for a major crisis amounting to a race between the political revolution in the East and the socialist revolution in the West, was not correct.

This is to put it mildly. It is also necessary for me to say and to emphasize that I share responsibility for the CWI developing this incorrect worldview and more responsibility than most other members as I was on the leading bodies of this organization.

The CWI argued that capitalism could not be returned to the Stalinist world as capitalism itself was in such an extreme crisis. Our argument was that the workers in the Stalinist world would rise up and establish democratic socialist societies and if the workers in the capitalist world had not already established democratic socialist societies these political revolutions in the East would spread the revolution to the West. In the 1980's we spoke of 5 to 10 years to the world socialist revolution.

We were very, very wrong with this perspective. This major mistake in perspectives hit the CWI like a wrecking ball. And this is where the incorrect internal life came in. There had always been an incorrect internal life in the CWI. It was, as they all are, too top down with an aversion to genuine probing and internal debate and a ferocious opposition to factions. The internal life of the CWI was a break from the methods of the Bolsheviks in their healthy period where debate and factional struggle was the norm and setting up a faction was no crime against the revolutionary party. Trotsky wrote in 1935: “During the 17 years when Bolshevism arose, grew and gained strength and came to power factions were a legitimate part of Party life.”  Trotsky talks about there even being factions inside factions in the Bolshevik Party. Engels wrote that internal conflict was the law of development of the revolutionary party. There were always factions and even factions within factions.

The internal life of the CWI was also a break with the norm of the Bolsheviks in their healthy period when all debate was public and available for all those interested to read. Some comrades have asked me where I was when this incorrect internal life was the norm and the comrades are entirely correct and justified in asking this question.

I made a major mistake over this period. The perspectives were being confirmed by events. The CWI was going from strength to strength. Issues such as internal life and left sectarianism did not seem to be problems. It was just a question of organizing and building on the existing ideas. But then the world changed. Capitalism was restored in the former Soviet Union, a development we categorically denied could happen. This development in the old Soviet Union, the rise of new technology and the boom that accompanied it in the west and the assault on the working class worldwide gave capitalism a new burst of energy. 

Of course, capitalism remains in a major crisis and will enter a new economic crisis soon, and without doubt the crisis of climate change threatens life on the planet as we know it but for a while it appeared that capitalism had triumphed. The Wall Street Journal gloated in its editorial heading when Stalinism collapsed: "We Won."  Boasting that finally, the critics had come to realize how the “world really works.”

These mistaken perspectives we held in the CWI need not necessarily have had such a devastating affect on the group, major splits and a collapse in membership from around 14,000 to about 2,000, if the internal life had not been so unhealthy. This internal life was not accustomed to internal struggle and debate. What was needed was for the organization to be thrown open to the most democratic and public debate on the major mistakes made and why these had been made. Unfortunately the majority of the top leadership of the CWI did not take this road. They maintained the extremely damaging view that they had never made any mistakes or it was the other faction that had made the mistakes and by that time there were two major factions, both of which wanted to split to set up their own organization.

So the most undemocratic practices developed with full power. The leadership and its hangers on waged a war against any member or members that threatened their positions. Dirty maneuvers, slander and all sorts of personal attacks and lies were hurled against anyone who disagreed with them including expulsions and in the midst of this debacle the majority of the membership walked away. The incorrect internal life prevented the CWI membership from correcting the ideas and developing a new perspective and this was for amongst other reasons because the majority of the top leadership would not admit to making any mistakes, they saw themselves as teachers of the organization as opposed to being in a democratic interaction with the membership.

Some of us began to see this for what it was. We set up a faction in North America. Every lie that the top leadership of the CWI could think up was thrown at us and we were expelled and denied our right to appeal. The idea that the majority of the top leadership had made major mistakes, that we all had major mistakes had to be squelched at all costs.

But having said all this why did those of us like myself and Richard Mellor who also writes for this blog and was a CWI member and well known activist in the trade union movement join  the CWI and not some other group? We did so because of its good qualities. Firstly, the CWI held correct perspectives up until the 1970's. But also, and of extreme importance, is its orientation to the working class. That is its belief that only the working class could change society and it’s basing itself concretely on this position. Most left groups do not have an orientation to the working class. They have an orientation to the left petit bourgeois or the left liberal wing of the trade union bureaucracy. The CWI have never made this mistake. More than anything else this is why many others and myself joined the CWI. I am very pleased to see from afar that it looks as if the CWI has maintained this orientation. I see on the website the posters in Seattle with the emphasis on the $15.00 and hour minimum wage. I see in Minneapolis the emphasis on stopping an eviction.  This is good.

I also see that when struggles develop such as the Bart and transit situation in the Bay Area that comrades such as Richard and myself maintain our orientation to the working class as a class and refuse to be silenced or to silence ourselves in the interests of some sort of alliance with the left groups and the left liberal bureaucracy. The orientation to the working class also helps maintain a successful struggle against ultra leftism, both in demands and methods of struggle.  

For us the main issue therefore is the need to maintain an orientation to the working class. This means starting from the needs of and the consciousness of the working class and developing a program and demands based on taking this consciousness forward. The CWI is superior in this area. That is why people like myself joined it. In the past we did not capitulate to the idea that the students could change the world, we did not capitulate to the idea that the Provisional IRA and their methods could solve any of the problems in Ireland, we maintained our orientation to and belief in the working class. And we still do. This is and as far as I can see remains the great advantage of the CWI over other groups.

However and of course there is a however, and not only with regards to the internal life. By the way, on the issue of internal life, this is not irrelevant to the new members the CWI is getting, and the success of winning its new MP in Germany. The CWI just lost its two women MP's in Ireland. I wonder has this new women MP in Germany met and discussed with the two former women CWI MP's in Ireland. But this issue of internal life will come up the more the CWI grows and it will have to deal with it and explain what happened to its new members such as its candidates in Seattle and Minneapolis and other areas. This will create serious problems. The more the CWI grows the more different views will develop and the more the rigid incorrect internal life will come into conflict with this growth. The more splits and expulsions will take place unless the internal life is changed. This is why I think I am doing more to help the CWI in the long term than those members of the CWI who refuse to take up this issue of internal life. Members of the CWI who are conscientiously looking to the interests of that group should be fighting to change the internal life of that group.

There is the issue of a balanced and collective leadership. It is very good that the candidate in Seattle is a woman Comrade. It is very good that the new MP in Germany is a woman Comrade. But why have the most well-known and leading women MP Comrades in Ireland, Joan Collins and Clare Daly, former members of the CWI, not been able to stay in the CWI? I believe thare is a problem of insufficient attention being paid to the need to struggle against the special oppression of women in the CWI. Half the world's factory workers today are women. This is an issue that will not go away. Then there is the issue of collective leadership. It is still, particularly in the older sections of the CWI the one-man band, (almost always a man) leadership.  The leader of the CWI, Peter Taaffe has been in that position for 50 years. This is common with most of the left groups, a dominant male figure for decades.  Comrades, it is not a healthy thing for any political organization to have the same leader for 50 years, it reflects an unhealthy internal life and this will not go away, especially in this new era of the new technology and social media.

And to the issue of left sectarianism. I get the impression that the work in Seattle and Minneapolis of the CWI there is moving away from the worst of the left sectarian attitudes in other sections. This is very welcome. But maybe there is some way still to go. We have contacted them and offered them our help on a number of occasions but we have never received and answer. But in both cities where they have candidates they do seem to be prepared to work in more of a united front way to get their people elected and to build a united front of struggle. If this is the case this is a very good and important development.  I hope it continues and spreads to other areas.

However and back to another however. In Ireland the United Left Alliance was set up with either five or six members of parliament. It was a united front with some resources which gave hope to many tens of thousands of workers given the terrible betrayal of social democracy there. There were different groups which set up this alliance. A small local based group was the first to break this alliance and walk out. The second was the CWI section. It too, with its members of parliament walked out of the ULA, leaving it close to a broken weapon of struggle and leaving the tens of thousands of workers who had begun to look towards it very disillusioned. This was a left sectarian action and very damaging to the movement. So while there does seem to be a movement away from left sectarianism in Seattle and Minneapolis this does not seem to be the case in other sections. I hope I am wrong. For example in Europe now the CWI has three members of various parliaments, there are two ex members of the CWI in the Irish parliament, there are other left MP's in Europe. A non left-sectarian approach would be to try and bring these forces together in a united front of struggle around concrete demands and in mass direct action struggles.

So these are some thoughts on the CWI and where it seems to be at now. I have much more in common with the CWI than other left groups due to its orientation to the working class, its struggle to have a dialogue with the working class not see itself as the teachers of the working class and how this helps it struggle against ultra leftism and its belief that it is only the working class that can change society.

As I have said before I would be prepared to rejoin the CWI but on a number of conditions: that free and open and public discussion would be allowed without slander and lies and expulsions and the denial of democratic rights. That it would be openly accepted that these false methods were used in the past, and that myself and any member would be able to state their views and that it was accepted that factions were a normal part of the building of a revolutionary organization. 

The CWI and the left groups in general were never like the Bolsheviks in their healthy period. This will have to change if the revolutionary left are to become mass organizations. The larger they get the more pressure will arise for discussion and debate and unless the internal lives of these organizations can allow and facilitate this, then they will shatter once again into splinters or remain becalmed at best in stagnant pools. .

1 comment:

surendra pratap said...

John Throne
While reading you I felt as if you are talking about my experiences with a left group in India I was associated with for a long period; and was thrown out after I raised similar concerns. While reading I also felt as if you are giving voice to my views. This problem is so common and deep rooted in current left groups.
Let me also congratulate Kshama Sawant. Hope such developments may not only accelerate the growth of workers movement but also bring such initiatives to adress the above problems of the left movement.