The Split in the CWI: Lessons for Trotskyists

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The Committee for a Workers International (CWI) has split in two. Is one side adapting to identity politics and abandoning the working class? Is the other losing touch with new mass movements against oppression? 

Kshama Sawant (Socialist Alternative, U.S.) and Peter Taaffe (Socialist Party, England and Wales) in better times. Photo: Paul Mattsson

By some measures, the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) could be considered the largest international Trotskyist tendency in the world. The CWI, which traces its roots back to the Militant tendency inside the British Labour Party, claimed to have sections in 35-40 countries, some of them with several thousand members. [1] On July 21, the CWI’s British section, the Socialist Party, declared it would “sponsor an international conference to reconstitute” the CWI. On July 26, the majority of the CWI’s International Executive Committee (IEC) accused them of a “bureaucratic coup” and a “split.” This was the culmination of an eight-month faction fight. Numerous internal documents had leaked, but neither side had publicly acknowledged the internal struggle. [2]

Over the course of 2019, the CWI was divided into warring factions with equally unappetizing names. On the one hand, the CWI’s International Secretariat (IS) in London, the permanent leadership body under 77-year-old Peter Taaffe, formed the faction: “In Defence of a Working Class Trotskyist CWI” (IDWCTCWI). The majority of the members on the IEC (representing a pretty clear majority of the membership) were thus forced into opposition. They did not form a faction of their own, but the IS titled them the “Non-Faction Faction” (NFF).

Now they are two competing organizations, and the names are not quite clear, with the IS planning to “reconstitute” the CWI, while the majority wants to “continue” it. In order to avoid confusion, we will use the names of the internal factions. The IDWCTCWI is supported by the majorities of the sections in England, Wales and Scotland, as well as the very small groups in France, Chile, and India, plus less than half of the German section, with shaky support coming from some of the groups in Africa and Asia. The NFF, in contrast, is supported by everyone else, including the larger sections in Ireland, the U.S., Greece, Sweden, and Belgium.

The crisis broke out when the IS began to criticize the Irish section (also called the Socialist Party), which has had some important electoral successes in recent years. Taafe accused them of “making concessions to identity politics”while abandoning work in the trade unions and the working class in general. The Irish had founded ROSA, a socialist-feminist front, and this concept was copied by the Belgian section. Taaffe’s faction also took particular umbrage at too much of a focus on women’s rights, criticizing the Irish SP for running a “socialist feminist” candidate in the EU elections. [3] The NFF responded that the IS is underestimating the potential of “movements taking on new and innovative forms around the world, often but not always outside of the formal structures of the official labour movement.”

There have been a number of crises of Trotskyist organizations in recent months, including the dissolution of the ISO in the U.S. and the split of the PO in Argentina. In order to get to the roots of this crisis, and draw the right lessons from it, we need to first look at the history of the CWI.

From the USec to the CWI

The CWI traces its legacy back to the South African Trotskyist Ted Grant (a pseudonym of Isaac Blank), who became a leading figure of the Trotskyist movement in Britain during the Second World War. In the post-war period, the leadership of the Fourth International under Michel Raptis (Pablo), Ernest Mandel, James P. Cannon and others, developed a strategy of entryism.

Entryism was originally a tactic. In the 1930s, Trotsky proposed that revolutionaries should briefly join mass reformist parties in a state of ferment, in order to win their members over to revolutionary politics. According to Pablo’s vision in the early 1950s, however, Trotskyists were supposed to join social democratic or Stalinist parties and remain there for decades. This was not compatible with the defense of a revolutionary Marxist program, of course. The Trotskyists would need to operate in secret and present themselves as left reformists. “Deep entryism” or “entryism sui generis” was part of the post-war degeneration of the Fourth International into centrism. Pablo defended this strategy because he believed there was no time to build revolutionary parties since a new world war could break out at any time. Grant, in contrast, advocated long-term entryism in expectation of a period of capitalist growth and stability.

Grant and his followers worked diligently within the Labour Party. By the mid-1960s, the leadership of the Fourth International (now the United Secretariat or USec under Ernest Mandel) was beginning to move away from its work buried deep inside social democracy. The youth radicalization was taking place largely outside the old reformist parties, and the USec slowly began to form independent revolutionary youth organizations. Grant broke with the USec in order to continue his work in the Labour Party. The Militant thus broke off on its own in 1964, and founded the CWI as an international tendency in its own image a decade later. Thus, Militant and the CWI represent a remnant of the most conservative phase of the centrist degeneration of Trotskyism in the post-war period.

Party and Program

Over the years, Militant’s patient work in the Labour Party allowed them to win control of the Labour Party Young Socialists, elect three members of parliament and even win a majority in the Liverpool city council. But it goes without saying that a reformist party bureaucracy would not tolerate revolutionary Marxists for decades and as a consequence Militant was forced to make significant revisions to the program of Trotskyism in order to remain in Labour. To name just three examples:

  1. They posited that socialism could be reached via a peaceful transformation, as long as socialists won a majority in parliament, passed an “Enabling Bill” to nationalize the 200 largest corporations and mobilized the working class. [4]
  2. They refused to oppose Margaret Thatcher’s imperialist war against Argentina over the Islas Malvinas (i.e. Falkland Islands). Instead of calling for the defeat of their own ruling class, Grant claimed that Argentina was also “imperialist.” He wrote that attempts to organize workers’ resistance to the war in the UK were “ludicrous.” [5]
  3. Instead of calling for the abolition of the police, they took up the demand for “community control” over such a reactionary institution. They wanted the police to be organized in trade unions, and in recent years, the CWI in Britain organized the general secretary of the prison guards’ “trade union.” The CWI’s representative on the Seattle city council, Kshama Sawant, even went so far as to vote for a new police chief because of her popularity in the community.

Militant was also deeply hostile to the self-organization of the specially oppressed. They opposed attempts to create special structures for women or Black people in the Labour Party, and had a reputation for homophobia. [6] A member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners recalled in an interview the homophobic climate in Militant. It wasn’t until almost 20 years after Stonewall that the CWI took up the banner of pride. This question is reflected in the current split, with the NFF criticizing Taaffe for arguing that there is a “‘conflict of rights’ between trans people and other sections of the working class.”

Rise and Fall

The height of Militant’s influence came in the second half of the 1980s, when it won control of the Liverpool city council, and played a leading role in a mass movement against Thatcher’s attempt to introduce a poll tax in 1990. But both of these opportunities were squandered. Militant failed to link its fight in Liverpool to the simultaneous strike by the National Union of Mineworkers. Even worse, when over 200,000 people converged in Trafalgar Square on March 31, 1990 to protest against the Poll Tax, the police attacked the demonstration and provoked a riot. A Militant spokesperson went on to blame “anarchists,” promising they would “hold an enquiry and name names.”

This is when the Labour Party bureaucracy decided to rid themselves of the Trotskyists they had tolerated for so long by expelling Militant’s leadership. Some prominent members proposed a counter-offensive, which would lead to a split with Labour and a new organization of perhaps 10,000 members. But Militant’s leadership answered that for every worker who would perhaps support an independent party, “there would be another five, ten and perhaps one hundred at a later stage who would move into the official Labour Party” [7]. This is entirely in line with the historical schema Grant proposed decades earlier. Thus, rather than take a stand, Militant tried to burrow deeper into the Labour party, still hoping they would be able to take it over sooner or later. This defensive policy led to demoralization and, before long, an exodus of members.

By the early 1990s, Militant was crumbling. Its sprawling apparatus—Militant employed over 250 people, more than the Labour Party itself! [8]—needed to do something to preserve its dues base. Peter Taaffe, the head of this apparatus, broke Militant away from the Labour Party. They first created Militant Labour, then the Socialist Party. Most of the other CWI sections followed this course and abandoned the social democratic parties they were in. This was justified by Taaffe’s theory that all these parties, once called “workers’ parties with bourgeois leaderships,” had more or less simultaneously morphed into bourgeois parties. A minority around Ted Grant, however, opposed “destroying 40 years of work” and chose to stay in the Labour Party, leading to a split with the CWI. Since Grant’s death in 2006, the resulting International Marxist Tendency (IMT) has been led by Alan Woods.

Since 1992, the CWI under Taaffe’s leadership has called for the construction of new workers’ parties. These are conceived as being neither reformist nor revolutionary—the CWI would join them and work inside them as a revolutionary wing, as they did for so many decades within the Labour Party. This is why, to cite just one example, the CWI has been part of the reformist party Die LINKE in Germany since its foundation in 2006.

The CWI had no success creating such a party in Great Britain. Instead it formed electoral alliances with post-Stalinist trade union bureaucrats. These election platforms, such as “No2EU,” combined social demands with a program for more national sovereignty. It is in this framework that the CWI has opposed the Marxist position in favor open borders.

The British section of the CWI has, however, had successes inside trade union bureaucracies. The Socialist Party won a majority of seats on the national leadership of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), representing workers in the public sector. While they were certainly on the left of the trade union bureaucracies in Great Britain, there was nothing remotely “revolutionary” about this leadership—and it appears they accepted the exorbitant salaries paid to trade union bureaucrats. In the last few months, however, the CWI lost most of its members in the PCS leadership. While refusing to join the Labour Party, the Socialist Party has been enthusiastic in support of left reformist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

For 100 years, the socialist movement in the U.S. has opposed both parties of the bourgeoisie. In 2016, Socialist Alternative (the CWI section in the United States) began to support Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, while simultaneously calling on him to run outside the party. They formed what they called a “Movement4Bernie,” arguing they were not actually supporting the candidate, just the “movement” around him, and carried banners with Sanders’ “We Need a Political Revolution” slogan. They have raised nothing but the mildest criticisms of Sanders who, among other things, consistently votes to fund the U.S. military. Socialist Alternative’s “Bern Turn” won some new recruits, but also drove out many long-term members. In the course of the CWI’s split, the IS started to voice criticisms of the pro-Sanders cheerleading. But until the U.S. section went into opposition against the faction, the entire CWI leadership had supported this orientation vigorously, both internally and externally.

This support for bourgeois politicians is part of the shared legacy of all organizations that base themselves on Ted Grant’s legacy. The IMT, for example, correctly criticizes the CWI for supporting Sanders—but just a few years ago were enthusiastic cheerleaders for Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his “Socialism in the 21st Century.” The CWI, for its part, did not support Chávez but does support Sanders. Both CWI and IMT agree in their support of Mexico’s center-left president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Ted Grant’s Theories

The original concept of “entryism sui generis” or “deep entryism” as developed by Pablo was conspiratorial. In the 1950s, when Trotskyists entered social democratic or Stalinist parties, they would present themselves as left reformists, but also maintain secret Trotskyist organizations that defended their “real” ideas. For example, the British Trotskyists published the reformist “Socialist Outlook” while their group was known only as “The Club.”

Grant, in contrast, built Militant as a single organization without a secret Trotskyist core. But how could an organization claim to be revolutionary and simultaneously remain in the Labour Party for decades? Grant justified this by revising the concept of the Transitional Program. As it was developed in the third and fourth congresses of the Third International, and later completed by Leon Trotsky, a transitional program “[stems] from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably [leads] to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”

For the CWI, in contrast, a “transitional demand” refers to any demand that would require a struggle to be won within the framework of capitalism. The CWI’s programs invariably consist of popular reformist demands, but the amounts are several times higher than in the version presented by reformist bureaucracies. Such a list is crowned with a vague call out to “socialism.” They never include a word about the conquest of power, i.e. about the historical necessity for the working class to smash the bourgeois state and create a government based on organs of working-class power. Grant assumed that workers’ consciousness would radicalize more or less automatically as the class struggle developed, eliminating the need for clear revolutionary propaganda.

Grant’s concept of a program called for a kind of calculated ambiguity, so that it could generously be interpreted as revolutionary, but without offending the sensibilities of reformists. He advised his followers to orient to what they presumed to be the median consciousness of the working class in any given moment, rather than the objective necessity. This is why, for example, the CWI rejects the socialist demand for open borders, as this would supposedly “scare off” workers. Trotsky emphasized the exact opposite:

We have repeated many times that the scientific character of our activity consists in the fact that we adapt our program not to political conjunctures or the thought or mood of the masses as this mood is today, but we adapt our program to the objective situation as it is represented by the economic class structure of society. The mentality can be backward; then the political task of the party is to bring the mentality into harmony with the objective facts, to make the workers understand the objective task. But we cannot adapt the program to the backward mentality of the workers, the mentality, the mood is a secondary factor – the prime factor is the objective situation … This program is a scientific program. It is based on an objective analysis of the objective situation. It cannot be understood by the workers as a whole.

Ted Grant further postulated a “historical law” that whenever workers radicalize, they would, at least initially, pour into “traditional organizations.” This is why he believed that Trotskyists always needed to be inside mass reformist parties. There are certainly several historical examples of radicalizing workers joining reformist workers’ parties in large numbers. But revolutionary situations since 1945 have shown far more examples in which radicalization has taken place outside these organizations. To name just one example, it was precisely the fact that the West German Trotskyists were buried inside the social democracy in 1968 that led them to miss out on the most important phase of the youth radicalization.

A similar thing happened to Militant: Even though it played a leading role in the movement against the Poll Tax in 1990, it could hardly recruit, since the best activists against Thatcher had no desire to join the Labour Party. Now we are seeing how neo-reformist phenomena, such as Syriza and Podemos, are emerging as new organizations outside of and opposed to tradition social democracy. Grant took a tactical moment that can be temporarily useful in certain, exceptional situations and turned it into a “law.” Grant’s contributions to Marxism thus largely fall into the category of justifications for long-term adaptation to social democracy.

Class vs. Identity

The debate that split the CWI is partially a reflection of a wider debate that has disrupted the international left: the relationship of class and identity. Social democrats (represented in the U.S. by Bernie Sanders, the DSA leadership, Jacobin etc.) do not put a priority on questions of oppression. Instead, they focus on “universal demands” that would benefit all working people, assuming this would go a long way to solving the problem of sexism, racism, LGBTQ+ oppression etc. In opposition to this, there is a radical-liberal tendency that focuses on identity politics, seeing the exploitation of the working class as just one more element in an infinitely complex web of different forms of oppression.

The CWI’s two factions reflect this in a muted form. The IDWCTCWI stands for the CWI’s traditional economism, downplaying the struggles of women, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+ people, confident that struggles around economic demands will unite the working class. This reflects the prejudices of the bureaucracies that live off the workers’ movement. The NFF, in contrast, has a stronger orientation to the real movements taking place today. But just as their opponents adapt themselves to the union bureaucracies, the NFF tends to adapt itself to the bureaucracies of the social movements (in the form of NGOs). This was reflected by ROSA’s failure to call for free abortion on demand: Feeling that this would be too far ahead of the existing movement, they limited their call to a right to abortion for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Despite their differences, both sides embody the fundamental method of Ted Grant: adapting themselves to existing bureaucracies and positioning themselves slightly to the left of what they consider the “masses’ consciousness,” careful not to say anything that might upset more backwards sectors. The differences that led to the split in the CWI are fundamentally about which bureaucracies to adapt to: those of the old social democratic trade unions or those of the new social movements. So in a sense, the criticisms that each faction raises of the other are correct.

Is there a way to square this circle? We think Trotskyism does provide a solution. Struggles against oppression do not divide the working class. Rather, it is oppression itself that divides us. Struggles against every form of oppression are necessary to unite the working class in our fight against the capitalists. But this cannot be conducted in an isolated fashion. Revolutionaries need to be at the forefront of anti-racist, feminist and queer struggles, while fighting for these movements to orient toward the working class.

The struggle for proletarian hegemony in all movements against oppression needs a material basis. It cannot be an alliance with the trade union bureaucracies nor an alliance with the NGO bureaucracies—rather, it requires independent revolutionary fractions in the workers movement and all social movements. It is true that working in the new women’s movement creates huge pressures on revolutionary organizations—just as work in trade unions or work in any other movement does. The starting point for resisting such pressure can only be a Trotskyist fraction that understands the objective tasks of the movement.

A Moment for Trotskyism

Ted Grant presented himself as an “unbroken thread” of continuity going back to Trotsky, Lenin, Marx and Engels. In reality, his legacy represents the centrist degeneration of the Fourth International after the Second World War.

Now there are at least five tendencies based on Grant’s legacy:

  1. the IDWCTCWI (reconstituted CWI);
  2. the NFF (majority CWI);
  3. the IMT, formed after Grant broke with the CWI in 1992;
  4. Izquierda Revolucionaria, which split from the IMT in 2009, later joined the CWI and now split from it again;
  5. the splits from the CWI, Reform and Revolution in the U.S. as well as Lernen im Kampf in Germany.

Many opponents of Trotskyism will laugh, some comrades will lose a sense of purpose, and there is a great danger that both sides of the former CWI may move further from independent working-class politics. But in the context of a historic and ongoing crisis of capitalism, we believe that the program of Trotskyism is more relevant than ever.

The experience of the Workers Left Front (FIT) in Argentina shows that it is possible to reach a mass audience with an unapologetically revolutionary program. There is no historical necessity for revolutionaries to organize inside reformist parties or with a program that splits the difference between reform and revolution.

There are real opportunities for uncompromising revolutionary factions in the workers’ movement and in the social movements. To name just two examples:

  1. Trotskyist workers in the Madygraf printing shop were able to organize protests in favor of the rights of a trans colleague, which was part of a process that included strikes, an occupation, and production under workers’ control.
  2. Trotskyist women, organizing in the international socialist feminist women’s movement “Pan y Rosas” (Bread and Roses), fight for the feminist strikes to mobilize the entire working class, including male colleagues.

This is the basis for our proposal to build a Movement for an International of Socialist Revolution. For us, this means refounding the Fourth International with its historical program. With the humble forces at our disposal, we want to regroup Trotskyists in a new international project. In our opinion, this is the only progressive solution to the CWI’s crisis.

Notes

[1] The United Secretariat of the Fourth International probably has more members than the CWI, but it lacks any kind of common policies. If one were to only count tendencies from a Trotskyist tradition with some kind of central political leadership, then the CWI might have been the largest. The documents of both factions, however, have revealed that all CWI groups are smaller than they claim. While the British section (the Socialist Party), for example, claims to have “over 2,000 members,” only about 300 have participated in the recent debates.

[2] Some reporting on the CWI crisis has been provided by Paul Demarty in the British newspaper “Weekly Worker” since March of this year.

[3] In “Women’s oppression and identity politics – our approach in Ireland and internationally” in “Members bulletin Documents on the dispute that arose at the IEC,” the IDWCTCWI wrote:

In 2018, every one of the monthly public meetings advertised on the Socialist Party Ireland Facebook Page has been related to women’s or LGBTQ+ oppression… we think that is going too far. There is a danger that … we could become perceived by a layer of workers for whom that is not the only or primary concern as ‘not for them.’

Weeks before either side publicly acknowledged the differences, the Socialist Party in Ireland defended the “socialist-feminist” slogan, while the IS published a criticism.

[4] Militant International Review, 22, June 1982.

[5] Ted Grant, “The Falklands Crisis – A Socialist Answer,” Militant, May 1982.

[6] The Militant tendency wrote in a pamphlet from 1976:

‘gay liberation’ belongs to the sphere of personal relations. It is necessary to maintain a sense of proportion. Certain dilettantes, notably in the NUS, have exploited the diversionary value of this issue to distract attention from more important issues which cause them political embarrassment. Serious socialists will recognise that ‘gay liberation’ cannot provide the slightest social basis for an independent contribution to the labour movement. The various exotic theories and emotive arguments that are sometimes advanced to prove otherwise are simply symptoms of the utter confusion and lack of perspectives that still prevail in purely student politics.

See also: Colin Lloyd and Richard Brenner, ”Militant After Grant: The Unbroken Thread?”, Permanent Revolution 10.

[7] Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn, Liverpool: The City that Dared to Fight (London 1988). Quoted in: ibid.

[8] The CWI continues to have huge numbers of full-timers. The IDWCTCWI claims that the Irish SP has 27 full-timers for 100 members, while the NFF answers that the British SP has 50 full-timers while only 300 members are really active in the organization.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners was driven out of Militant due to homophobia. They have informed us that they resigned for other reasons.

About author

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and will be published in English by Pluto Press in October 2019. He is on the autism spectrum.