Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 24, 2008

The fight in the SWP, part four (Alex Callinicos)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

When you read Alex Callinicos’s reply to John Rees on the Socialist Unity blog, the first thing you note is the well-placed reproaches. As somebody striving to hold high the banner of proletarian discourse, Callinicos is disappointed that Rees “has had to engage in quite a lot of inflation, distortion, and innuendo.” Unlike Rees, Callinicos assures his readers that he’ll “try to stay on the high ground.”

Whenever I read this sort of nonsense in a Marxist polemic, I cannot help but think of Seth Pecksniff, one of Charles Dickens’s most memorable characters who inspired the term Pecksniffian, which Webster’s defines as unctuously hypocritical. I couldn’t describe it better, especially when you keep in mind that Callinicos was the hatchet-man responsible for booting the American ISO out of their international movement.

Callinicos in fact directs a spitball at the ISO in the course of answering Rees’s charge that the SWP was dragging its feet in its response to the financial crisis:

In the first place, I completely reject the claim that the present leadership has been slow to face up to the impact of the crisis. As a theoretical tendency we have consistently defended an analysis of the prolonged period of crises and slow growth that capitalism entered at the end of the 1960s as a result of a pronounced fall in the general rate of profit against bourgeois boosters of globalization, sundry reformists and academic leftists, and even some of our sister organizations (this analysis was an issue in the debates with the International Socialist Organization in the United States at the end of the 1990s).

Now it is not exactly clear whether Callinicos is making an amalgam between the ISO and “bourgeois boosters” et al, or just stating that they have the same theoretical weaknesses on this particular question. More to the point, the real issue was not theoretical but the ISO’s refusal to bend to the will of the SWP’s Central Committee. After they built the largest group on the left in the U.S., why should they allow themselves to be bossed around, even if they relied initially on the support of the SWP?

For all of their knowledge of revolutionary history, it is too bad that the SWP leaders have learned nothing from it. Indeed the complaints of the ISO leadership sounds exactly like that of the German Communist Party in the early 1920s with respect to the Comintern:

The politics and organization of international socialism have suffered a severe blow. The tragedy is not the alleged hopeless sectarianism of the ISO, but the fact that the SWP failed to provide the leadership necessary for the tendency to grow in the 1990s. This is not a crime. The crime is to cover up that failure and then search for scapegoats abroad. In spite of our expulsion, we remain proud adherents to the traditions and politics of the international socialist tendency, and will continue to work with any organizations who are willing to have open, fraternal relations with us, whatever our disagreements may be.

There is no precedent for expelling an organization wholesale from the tendency in this manner-and we intend to answer the slanders about us, defend our organization and urge others to join us in fighting the bureaucratic degeneration of the tendency’s leading group.

The SWP leadership has now been involved in six splits in as many years in IS Tendency groups internationally. Whatever the immediate cause of each split, these splits point to a method that the SWP has applied throughout the tendency. For all the talk of nonsectarianism and of new methods of work, our expulsion has been conducted along the lines of the worst traditions of the sectarian left.

Judging by the sharp tone of Callinicos’s reply to Rees, one might expect a seventh to be in the works.

On the question of whether or not the SWP reacted to the financial crisis in a timely fashion, it would of course be inappropriate for me to render an opinion. Much of the discussion taking place between the SWP leaders involves difficult issues of strategy and tactics that would remain challenging even if they dumped their sectarian framework. My only interest in the fight in the SWP, of course, is to highlight the sectarian misconceptions in the hope that some of their members who read my blog will be in a position to influence things in the right direction.

For Callinicos, and every other SWP leader involved in the debate, the problem is fundamentally one of growth. They are agonizing over the fact that they are stuck in a kind of rut. For Davidson, the failure to grow is a function of misguided strategy. Obviously, for people in a position of authority like Callinicos, the fault must be displaced outside of the Central Committee. He explains the low growth rate as a function of a benign intention to make the party more immersed in the mass movement. Rather than having the party being based on branches, the SWP simply assigned its members to organizations in the mass movement like Respect or the antiwar coalition. Callinicos states:

But the collapse of the branches meant that all sorts of other party activities were undermined. The distribution and sale of party publications was, for example, badly weakened. In his effort to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the present CC majority, John complains about the chronic difficulties of party finances. This is surprising since these difficulties date back at least a decade, and John has, like the rest of us, taken part in many discussions about how to overcome our financial problems.

I will have much more to say about this question in my final post, but at this point must simply point out once again that the concept of “recruitment” which remains at the heart of self-described Leninist organizations today guarantees that they will never reach mass proportions. When people decide to join the SWP, it is with the understanding that they will be expected to defend the party line in public, including all the shibboleths of “state capitalism”. In their desire to create an ideologically homogeneous “vanguard party”, the SWP fails to understand exactly how the Bolshevik party emerged out of a mass movement. In the early 1900s there was widespread sympathy for socialist ideas in Czarist Russia and Lenin sought to build a nation-wide organization that united socialists in action. There is no evidence that Lenin had a “program” of the sort that defines all of the Marxist-Leninist groups today. As Peter Camejo once told me, a program only emerges through a dialectical interaction of theory and activity. To build a party on the basis of a pre-existing “program” that includes all of Tony Cliff’s sacred texts is nothing but idealism and an obstacle to the kind of massive growth that these SWP comrades so desperately seek to achieve.


  1. Having had a few go-rounds as would-be member of the ISO,the branch here in Seattle in particular, I’ve not been paying much attention to SWP goings on other than here when you try to recap them at your site. I work with some ISO members in the Union Democracy Caucus, which is our opposition current in the Seattle Ed Association. My main trouble with them these days is that they have a tendency to want to “bend the stick” too far to the right, that is, they do seem to have gotten a little soft in the head as regards the “democrats”. But so long as we’re all taking on the supes and her school closure plans- a lot of us think she’s softening us up for a Green Dot incursion- all I’ve seen from a few ISO folks lately is some pretty conscientious work. The state capitalism thing can get duked out later.
    But I’m gunshy, having been worn out by these folks a few times previous.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — December 24, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

  2. I’ve been reading Louis’ writings with interest for several years (since 2004 or so), also the ones on the Marxmail list about DSP etc. As I don’t really know so much about the parties that he’s discussing, I can’t know how spot-on his analyses are in this respect, but I find the general organisational questions very interesting, also re what I’m involved with at the moment.

    However, having much less experience with being involved in organisations (apart from volunteer based and rather loose NGOs or various kinds, plus some ineffective communist organisations), I think Louis is discussing only one side of the issue. I guess that’s called bending the stick, but to a person with less experience, it would be interesting to read also about the other side, i.e. what is it that is valid in “organisation building” or whatever you want to call it..? To me Louis seems to emphasise first and foremost what SHOULDN’T be done (and a lot of that I find persuading), but I can’t be sure just what he takes for granted in “organisation building” so that it doesn’t need to be mentioned.

    In particular I’m thinking, when the organisation has developed so that it has physical assets like buildings and business activities to raise money for political activities, surely there has to be some principles to defend these resources from takeover etc. Who can be trusted with control over these resources etc., surely political questions have to play a part there too. Also I’m not sure how Louis sees the issue of “professional revolutionaries”, i.e. people getting paid by the organisation to do political work for the cause.

    It’s entirely possible that he has dealt with these issues, at least in some lenghts somewhere, but I haven’t had the eye to see it.. apologies in advance if that’s the case.

    Comment by laijo — December 25, 2008 @ 10:49 am

  3. I will be dealing with these issues at some length in my final post. In the meantime, you can read my ideas along these lines in the context of a speech that I would have given if I had been Jack Barnes.


    Comment by louisproyect — December 25, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

  4. Louis writes: “There is no evidence that Lenin had a “program” of the sort that defines all of the Marxist-Leninist groups today. As Peter Camejo once told me, a program only emerges through a dialectical interaction of theory and activity.”

    The historical claim about Lenin is nonsense. A large substantial proportion of his writing in CW is about the party program, i.e. a short concrete written document (modelled on the German Erfurt program) which expressed what the RSDLP stood for and which was voted on and amended at party congresses.

    The substantive claim for which Camejo is cited is, of course, Cliff’s position too …

    The *absence* of a short voted-on program document is precisely part of the process which leads to Cliff’s writings on the “whole history” of the individual group becoming a “program”, i.e. – as Louis writes – idealism.

    Comment by Mike Macnair — December 31, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  5. In response to #4. The “program” of the Bolshevik party was nothing like that of Leninist parties today. When Trotskyists talk about defending the “program” from various internal threats such as Max Shachtman or Bert Cochran, they are talking about a rather encyclopedic edifice that includes positions on a wide range of historical and international questions–such as WWII, the Kronstadt rebellion, etc. You can actually read the draft programme of the Bolshevik party here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1902/draft/02feb07.htm. It focuses not on the sort of ideological “litmus tests” that the American SWP or the British SWP dwell on, but simple demands intended to break the back of Czarism and create the conditions for proletarian emancipation. You will note the absence of hair-splitting that typifies the sectarian left:

    …the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party advances as its immediate political task the over throw of the tsarist autocracy and its replacement by a republic based on a democratic constitution that would ensure:

    1) the people’s sovereignty, i.e., concentration of supreme state power in the hands of a legislative assembly consisting of representatives of the people;

    2) universal, equal, and direct suffrage, both in elections to the legislative assembly and in elections to all local organs of self-government, for every citizen who has reached the age of twenty-one; the secret ballot at all elections; the right of every voter to be elected to any of the representative assemblies; remuneration for representatives of the people;

    3) inviolability of the person and domicile of citizens;

    4) unrestricted freedom of conscience, speech, the press and of assembly, the right to strike and to organise unions;

    Comment by louisproyect — December 31, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  6. I agree entirely with #5. But this approach is counterposed in practice to the doctrine that “a program only emerges through a dialectical interaction of theory and activity”. It is equally counterposed to all the fancy elaborations of ‘first four congresses of the Comintern plus [insert preferred sect views here]’.

    But the “dialectical interaction of theory and practice” produces either [insert preferred sect views here] by way of the role of theory in this ‘dialectic’; or merely dedicated followers of fashion who tail-end whatever is currently popular. This leads nowehere (clearest in the Mandelites).

    We should indeed be proposing “simple demands intended to break the back of [the two-party system of political corruption, the military-bureaucratic hierarchy and the judicial power] and create the conditions for proletarian emancipation” …

    Comment by Mike Macnair — December 31, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

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