ISO/SWP and the Barnesites

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Mon May 15 17:17:16 MDT 2000

Louis wrote:
>I just had a chance to take a brief look at an internal document from the
>ISO, the American affiliates of the British SWP, itself a fairly large
>group founded by the recently deceased Tony Cliff on the principles of
>'state capitalism.' (
>What's of particular interest is the browbeating the American group has
>taken from their big brothers in the British group over having "missed out"
>on Seattle. The explanation for this has to do with the Americans
>"underestimating" the period, which is referred to as the "theory of the
>1930s in slow motion". Well, I guess that is less egregious than Jack
>Barnes' "Imperialism's March Toward Fascism and War", first announced in
>1987 when the stock market crashed. (I guess it's a march a la andante
>To their credit, the American ISO'ers dropped the analogy, 'the 1930s in
>slow motion' as they "responded to the changing political situation." The
>nerve of some people, to actually change according to objective
>reality--don't they know that this what did the Mensheviks in. They write:
>"Of course, the state of the U.S. economy marks the biggest difference
>between the 1930s and today. In the 1930s, one-quarter of the U.S. working
>class was unemployed. Today in the U.S., unemployment stands at record
>lows. Between 1929 and 1932, the U.S. economy contracted by 30 percent. It
>did not recover until the Second World War buildup. In February 2000, the
>U.S. economy broke its previous record for the longest continuous expansion."

It's interesting to see a bit of independence being expressed in the
Cliffite camp.  Boy, are the ISOers in for a shock.  Since the Cliffite
organisation in Britain has an internal regime that would make a Stalinist
outfit blush, the poor Americans are likely to find that all kinds of
tactics are used to smash up whichever of their leaders have the temerity
to disagree with London and that a new leadership, handpicked by London,
will be placed in power in Chicago.  This is what happened in Australia
when Cliff decided to 'Bolshevise' the organisation there.  The Australian
IS has never recovered.

In New Zealand the Cliffite SWO hangs on every word of the London
leadership.  It is an interesting outfit here, because it used to be an
ultra-Stalinist group that swung from Mosocow to Peking to Tirana and then
to London/Cliff.  In the early 90s it was denouncing the fall of Albanian
Stalinism as a 'Trotskyite counter-revolutionary plot'.  Two years later
these Hoxhaite Stalinists were adopting the thoughts of Tony Cliff and
declaring that Stalin, whom they had worshipped for 65 years, was a
'counter-revolutionary'.  The reason they went for Cliff was purely that
the British SWP was the largest far-left group in the English-speaking
world.  It was either Cliff or Sendero Luminoso, and they opted for Cliff.

It was a great pity, because although I had little time for their
Stalinism, CPNZ did have some good people and their reconsideration and
rejection of Stalinism could have opened up a fruitful new departure and
led to something positive.  In fact, when they dumped Stalin, I thought
about joining them myself.  But instead of using that as a starting point
and trying to build something that made sense of the NZ reality, and was
not a blind follower of some foreign capital (whether it be Peking, Tirana
or London), they leapfrogged into Tony Cliff Thought and started adopting
whole big chunks of British SWP documents as policy!

Last year I went to their South Island-wide educational conference to see
if they had anything interesting to say, who they were attracting etc, and
found, to my further dismay, that session speakers were reading out
speeches written in London!!!

I used to read their paper from time to time but gave up in despair when,
several years ago, they had a huge front page heading announcing there was
a 'mass uprising' going on in New Zealand.  At the same time, the number of
days lost in industrial disputes was about the lowest in recorded history
and had fallen by 95 percent since the early 1990s!  There was bugger all
political protest going on.

I figured maybe, despite being Stalinists in the 60s, maybe the party
leaders had done too many drugs in that era and were still hallucinating.

Of course, it wasn't that - it was just them trying to find evidence in NZ
of Cliff's wonderful declaration that the 1990s were the '1930s in slow
motion'.  Which presumably means we should expect the ascent of fascism to
power in Germany about NOW and WW3 around 2010.

Just after their discovery of the 'mass uprising', they held a national
education conference in Auckland, their main national public event of the
year, and drew a mass of all of 25 or 30 people!  Maybe the attendees were
travelling in 'slow motion' too and never managed to get there on time.  Or
maybe people were too busy uprising all over the country.

>These are the same kinds of observations that Jose Perez made and which
>drove the Militant editor into a frenzy. Quoting the cult leader, Steve
>Clark writes:
>"Fascism and war is the logic of the march of finance capital," Barnes
>explained to participants in the Los Angeles gathering. "That is what
>imperialism has inflicted on humanity twice before in this century, and
>that is where capitalism is heading once again."

Isn't Barnes a treat?  Watching his descent into madness is kind of like a
re-run of the Healy phenomenon, except the Barnesites are far smaller and
less successful and therefore, thankfully, less damaging.  Ultimately, in
the Barnesite case, it is only the mental health of the cult members which
is at stake - they are not in a position to do any damage in the real
world, as the Healyites were.  If the Healy thing was a tragedy, the Barnes
thing is just a farce.

Moreover, the wooden prose of the 'Militant' is likely to induce sleep,
rather than frenetic activity, among its few remaining readers.  An email
acquaintance, and member of this list, told me a while back that the
Militant had won runner-up in some contest on a left-wing radio programme
for Most Boring Paper on the Left.  (Personally, I think they were cheated.)

It is an amusing diversion to watch the New Zealand Barnesites apply these
mad politics here.  Since Barnes thinks fascism is imminent, he keeps on
having to discover important fascists or proto-fascists in mainstream US
politics.  Buchanan was the big one for a while, then he discovered Jesse
Ventura.  Well, the New Zealand Barnesites then had to find a Down Under
equivalent.  There aren't any here, but that sure wasn't going to stop
them, so they zero-ed in on Winston Peters, a populist politician.

Now there were several problems with this.  One rather obvious one is that
Peters is Maori and his party - whose politics are mildly social democratic
economically, and whose appeal is to retired white folk and to Maori, but
with a certain anti-Asian slant - won all the Maori seats in 1996.  Even if
fascism were on the agenda in NZ, which it is not, it is unlikely - to say
the least - to have a mass base among Maori!!!

The Barnesites just looked mad - yet again! - when they tried to make out
Peters was some 'Bonapartist' and embryonic Nazi.

I've been too busy in the real world to look in on their planet and see if
they have found any more 'likely' candidates for this role recently.

>Let me tell you something. It is a formula for self-destruction to build a
>revolutionary party today on the expectations that we are somehow in a
>situation like the 1930s. It leads to all kinds of adventures and to
>imposing artificially high expectations on your cadre, which leads to
>burn-out and the reduction of the remaining members into a "hard core" who
>can not be expected to correct the organization from a path of folly.

It's also not good for the mental health of the remaining members.  They
become so odd themselves, that they simply cannot correct the
organisation's trajectory.  Besides, they have become so accustomed to
people being expelled for daring voice even mild disagreements, that
they're not likely to dare voice disagreement themselves.  In an outfit
like the Barnesites, which is entirely removed from reality and inhabits,
in Jose's memorable phrase, 'a parallel universe', there is *no corrective*
force at all.

Perhaps this also explains the rather over-the-top nature of Clark's reply
to Jose Perez.  Anyone who disagrees with the loons, like Jose did, is now
painted as part of some conspiracy to set up the Barnesites for violent
attack.  This is mad, mad stuff.

I interpret this as being evidence that they've now entered the paranoid
stage of their dementia.  I think one would need to be a psychiatrist
rather than a Marxist political activist to analyse the cult's further
evolution and final demise.

Philip Ferguson

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