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Learning the lessons from the past
These comments are from a number of Comrades mainly from a CWI and IMT background. But we think they will find an echo with Comrades from many other left backgrounds. We have concluded that the internal life of just about every left group is unhealthy, overly centralized, too top down, even we would go so far as saying to some extent undemocratic. We believe that the internal lives of these groups draw from the period when the Bolshevik party was degenerating and being taken over by Stalinism and along with that became negatively influenced by many decades when they were isolated from the mass workers movement. The recent crisis in the IMT is a reflection of these false methods of organizing which are common to just about all revolutionary left groups. We try to discuss this here. We look forward to hearing from Comrades. See our Learning From the Past link and our blog address. John Throne.
Our "Learning From The Past Discussion List" is a small list of Comrades who are determined to rigorously examine, discuss and draw lessons from the manner in which the left groups have functioned over the past. These comments are not our complete thinking on the issue by any means but they are hopefully a contribution to the discussion that is and will be developing around the crisis in the IMT and hopefully around this issue in general.
COMMENTS ON THE CURRENT CRISIS IN THE INTERNATIONAL MARXIST TENDENCY
A statement by members of the ‘Learning From Our Past’ online discussion group:
It has recently come to our public attention that major divisions have broken out in the International Marxist Tendency (IMT). There will be some inside the IMT who resent the fact that their ongoing internal difficulties have become known outside the organisation. Some may look back with regret to the pre-internet years when internal disputes could be kept secret from the wider movement. At least until it was too late to do something about them. However, online communications are making futile all attempts to seal off members of left-wing groups and to stop individual socialists from talking to each other. This process will not be reversed. If anything it will accelerate. And far from regretting this development, we welcome it with open arms. It will inevitably encourage socialists to compare the operation of democracy inside their organisations and therein expose many of the damaging practices through which they have been held back for so many decades.
IMT Debate: In the main documents in the IMT exchanges, there are some interesting criticisms of its Spanish Section raised by the IMT leadership. These concern a range of issues: the need for organised entrist work in the Spanish Communist Party; a better approach to the Left leaders; mistakes made in organising the Spanish students strike last March, and in the approach to the one-day work stoppage in May in the Basque country. But these are tactical issues that can be discussed and learnt from. Not differences of fundamental principle that require the International Secretariat (IS) to come down on the Spanish comrades with an ideological sledgehammer. Indeed, the Spanish Section have been happy to discuss and in the main accept the criticisms. The IMT leadership’s document admits this in quoting the Spanish leadership: “In the EC of the Spanish section the views of the IS have always been received in a positive and comradely spirit, with the desire to learn from and correct errors we commit.” However, the IMT’s International Secretariat then move on to chastise the Spanish Section on aspects of emphasis in their public material, hardly a cause for a possible split. Nor can the IS complain that they have been denied access to the Spanish Section. They have been invited to address the national conference and CC meetings, and to have their documents circulated to the whole membership.
What then is the root cause of the crisis facing relationships between the Spanish Section and the IMT centre?
First off, it is obvious that this crisis is not really about external political principles or programme. The IS documents convey a definite air of artificial assault. An offensive designed not to solve political differences but to bring the Spanish leadership to heel by undermining them in the eyes of the Spanish members. It is often the case that matters of principle are used as weapons in a struggle for power. This appears to be the case in the IMT leadership’s campaign against the Spanish section. It seems that the Spanish leadership are no longer willing to carry on as the obedient pupil of the ‘all-knowing’ IMT leadership. No doubt this reflects the growing importance of the Spanish Section especially in the positive role they are playing in helping to build Latin American sections.
The approach of the IMT leadership in this dispute highlights serious bureaucratic, dogmatic and elitist tendencies in the way it practices internal democracy. The IMT leaders are not unique in this. The same problems to one degree or another exist in all of the groups on the revolutionary left. It is a fundamental reason why these groups tend to split again and again.
There is a natural inclination to look for fundamental differences in political principle behind such splits. Yet the question of democracy is itself a supremely political question. Democracy is the lifeblood of any socialist organisation. A democratic organisation that combines fraternal discussion with collective experience can have a healthy debate on any issue. It can take major differences in its stride. But without democracy an organisation will splinter at the first serious test.
The tendency we see in the revolutionary movement to repeatedly divide, each time amidst recriminations over a lack of internal democracy, points to a deep malaise in the structure and practice of the Leninist groups. While all these groups claim to represent the finest democratic traditions of the Bolshevik Party, in fact their party structures and practices are far closer to the bureaucratic centralist model established in the early 1920s under Zinoviev’s leadership of the Communist International. Instead of a vibrant internal life full of debates and tendencies reflecting the real choices facing the movement, we see a self-perpetuating leadership always striving to maintain one single monotone ‘true path’ towards the revolution.
Such leaders, usually ‘professional’ full-timers, take full advantage of their central position, their control of information and communication, and their long experience in speaking and writing to dominate the largely ‘amateur’ and less experienced members of their organisations. This reflects a deep-seated insecurity that underlies the thinking of the leadership. It also reflects a feeling that the organisation is theirs and that no-one is going to be allowed to take it away from them.
When individuals or groups of members start to raise questions or make criticisms they are seen as a threat to the coherence and success of the organisation. Often double-speak is utilised to mask the irritation and anxiety of the leaders. Phrases are thrown around such as ‘We are pleased that comrades have raised these questions.” Or “We welcome this opportunity to review a number of important issues” etc. Meanwhile, key people across the organisation are quickly contacted to ensure that they ‘understand’ the issues involved and are ready for the battle. The various collected works of the ‘great teachers’ are dusted down and combed through for appropriate quotations that show the deep errors that the comrades have fallen into. As the debate progresses, the tone rapidly degenerates. What might have been relatively small differences are exaggerated out of all proportion. Trotsky’s quotation ‘from a scratch to gangrene’ is wheeled out to warn members of the danger such ideas contain, with the implication that these are poisonous agents that must be cut out. The last step is usually to discover that these revolutionary discipline is being broken: subs are not being paid; communication channels are being subverted; comrades are talking to people outside the organisation. And so on. Expulsions quickly follow and a split results. The previous purity of the organisation is restored. Until the next time...
If this sounds like a caricature, sadly it is all too often an accurate portrayal of the typical struggles that break out inside the revolutionary groups. Instead of cultivating an atmosphere where comrades as individuals or in groups are encouraged to contribute towards the ideas of the organisation or to feel free to express doubts, we end up with the sterile atmosphere of a semi-religious sect. In such organisations, past leaders such as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are not treated as flesh and blood comrades but as saintly, infallible icons to be quoted as authorities by the ‘priesthood’. The IMT’s documents are peppered with quotations from Marx, Lenin and Trotsky to back up even the most mundane points. This turns any debate from one of ideas held by different comrades into who can come up with the best quotations. In such a contest the leadership are usually master performers. But using the authority of past leaders to back up every current idea shuts down debate. Younger comrades or those with less time to comb through the collected works will naturally be intimidated from contradicting the sacred texts.
To make matters worse, the IMT leadership is now attempting to canonise Ted Grant. He is increasingly presented as the fifth ‘great teacher’. His old articles are being carefully sifted through. Only those that have stood the test of time are being highlighted online. Those which were incorrect are left to gather dust. For those of us who know Ted and felt affection for him, warts and all, this is a nauseating and demeaning process. But it typifies their conservative, nay reactionary, approach towards the history of the revolutionary movement. Thus, rather than confront the pressing challenges of the world as it is, the leaders of the revolutionary groups see their role as ‘maintaining the principles of Bolshevik internationalism’, ‘upholding the flame of revolutionary marxism’ and so forth.
The Crisis in the IMT: At the heart of the current crisis in the IMT lies the question of how the International Secretariat relates to the different national sections. It has become clear that the IS has been working with a small group of disaffected Spanish comrades to campaign against the democratically elected leadership of the section. This has been made worse by the secrecy with which it was carried out. When this was uncovered through the publication of confidential emails between the IS and individual Spanish comrades it naturally embittered the situation.
It is likely, that the IS will see nothing wrong with such action. IS members feel entitled to interfere in any section to defend ‘the ideas of Marxism’. And why not? They are supposedly the leaders of one world party. But the reality is that attempts to impose one single line across the planet are bound to fail. National sentiments, languages, cultures and local conditions remain an extremely strong force in the world. Any attempt to develop a powerful movement in a country must know and build on its finest traditions. It must take into account the tempo of society and the state of its existing consciousness, struggles and organisations. While of course we always seek to develop our work on an international basis, the possibility of building one global political party with a single line on all the main policy and tactical issues is just not feasible. And the attempt to do so is fraught with dangers. The experience of the Third and Fourth Internationals was littered with the damage caused by attempts to impose a uniform line internationally. The idea that a central leadership will be able to direct operations across the world is utopian. It encourages a ‘one size fits all’ approach to programme and tactics. It lays the basis for the development of bureaucratic centralism. We saw exactly this in the CWI. And now there is a danger of it being repeated in the IMT.
Inevitable in the one world line concept is an enforcement system, open or by subterfuge, through which the international leadership feel able to change the officers of national sections to fit in with the prevailing political and organisational positions of the ‘worldwide party’. Despite the best of intentions, bureaucracy, manouvering and splits are the result. In the CWI, there were numerous efforts by Peter Taaffe’s group to remove the leadership in different sections using full-timers visits, contact with disaffected individuals etc. How much has really been learnt from these disastrous experiences in the IMT?
What To Do? We believe that a split within the IMT would be very damaging. Even the best of splits diminish both sides with many good comrades becoming demoralised and falling away. By far the best outcome would be for the rank and file of the International to take this opportunity to assert themselves and establish a healthy democratic organisation. For this to realistically happen, the existing leadership needs to start to take a back seat. Some of them have been at the helm in one form or another for over forty years. And if there are those among the old leadership who think of themselves as a modern Lenin they should remember Lenin’s oft-stated willingness to return to the ranks to fight for his ideas.
The old leaders need to show confidence in the good sense and understanding of the IMT membership. Socialist democracy requires humility. If you arrogantly believe that you alone have the answers, that you alone hold the sacred flame, what is the point of discussion? Democracy in our movement must be based on the belief that a genuine debate among many comrades will over time be superior to the views of one or two leaders.
Our democracy also demands flexibility. If you think that everything has already been said by the great teachers, their past works will ossify into commandments set in stone. All discussion becomes just one of interpreting their speeches and writings. Unable to respond to new developments and challenges, the organisation becomes brittle and all too easily fractured.
The IMT’s democracy also needs more appropriate structures. For instance, the International Secretariat is too centralised and its apparatus too dominated by the British comrades. In these days of instant, free communication the requirement to base an international centre in one country no longer applies. It would be much healthier if the functions of the International were distributed across the various national sections. Also, the rights of these sections should be more clearly outlined. In particular, it is essential that national sections can work free from the fear of factional intrigue by members of the International Secretariat. The IS already have enough advantages in any debate. It must respect the democratic channels within the national sections and the elected leaderships of those sections.
The structure of the IMT is too top-down. This is not the way to develop a cadre membership. Far more comrades need to be drawn into decision-making and in the process of drawing up political documents. Collective unified action comes best after the maximum involvement of members at all levels.
The IMT’s leadership in theory is democratically elected. Yet in practice it is self-selecting. That is why it has remained the same for so long. This self-selection is achieved through the system of drawing up leadership-approved slates and proposing them ‘en bloc’ to the members. This was not the system used by the Bolshevik Party. It is argued that the slate system allows for a ‘balanced team’ to be put forward but in practice it removes the accountability of individual leaders which is why they fear it. Worse still, it turns elections into a loyalty test under the control of the existing leadership.
The IS also needs to accept that the days of secret internal political discussions are gone. This requirement is not only increasingly unenforceable but it usually substitutes disciplinary action for political debate. Of course, there will be circumstances under repressive regimes where openness could endanger individuals. Everyone understand that. But in normal situations there is no need to hide significant differences. In fact, the IMT has nothing to fear from other socialists and workers knowing the political alternatives it is debating. The current case of differing views on China is a great example. Such openness can become a way to attract the best elements to the ranks of the IMT. The Bolsheviks in their healthiest periods published their internal material openly. The debates of the Third International were widely publicised. Except in the most extreme circumstances this should be the IMT’s model.
The old leadership should not see the existing situation as a threat but as a great opportunity for the organisation to flourish. The comrades don’t want anarchy or federalism. Just the chance to breathe freely the oxygen of democracy inside the International. Imagine a relaxed atmosphere where discussion over the issues of China, economics, tactics and so on could go forward without all the bitterness and insecurity that currently pervades every attempt to question existing orthodoxies.
But if the leaders maintain a siege mentality and cling onto their arrogant belief that they alone uphold the marxist tradition there can be no way forward for the IMT. A split will become inevitable. Hopefully this will not happen but if it does then all those comrades who are now struggling to assert their democratic rights should strive to ensure that any new movement begins by carefully thinking through what has gone wrong and why. In this way it will not just rush into replicating the same old bad practices as has happened after so many splits in the past. Rather it will be able to develop a new, more healthy tradition.
Capitalism is in the process of destroying the future of humanity. Indeed of all life. It must be replaced with a Democratic Socialist World. The force to do this can only be working people acting though independent mass industrial and political organizations. And the building of international unity between them. Our task is to be part of this process and help fructify these mass organizations with the ideas of scientific socialism. Central to this is the fight for the democracy within our own ranks and the workers’ movement as a whole.
After all, if we can’t achieve collective democracy within our own movement, how do we hope to be able to establish a democratic socialist society across the world?