The ISO replies to the British SWP

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Jun 23 13:43:14 MDT 2001

The ISO (U.S.) and the International Socialist Tendency

The attempt by the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party
(Britain) to justify its decision to break relations with the International
Socialist Organization (U.S.) shows contempt for the truth-and contempt for
members of the ISO, the SWP and the rest of the International Socialist
Tendency as well. (See "Statement on Relations Between SWP (GB) and ISO
(U.S.)," SWP Web site, March 12, 2001.)

Essentially, the CC statement gives two reasons for our virtual expulsion
from the Tendency: (1) That we "deny" the significance of the Seattle
demonstrations and particular struggles and (2) that we "encouraged a
split" in the Greek Tendency organization, SEK. Both accusations are
patently false. As the overview of our publications and work since Seattle
makes clear, no one without a factional axe to grind could argue that the
ISO is "sectarian." Moreover, the split in SEK was an outgrowth of a crisis
in that organization, and took place without any involvement from ISO members.

In fact, the split in Greece follows that of a number of Tendency
organizations-including France, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey and South
Africa. These took place as a direct result of the intervention of the SWP
CC as it sought to impose its failed perspectives and organizational
methods on those groups. In each case, the CC bestowed recognition of
Tendency status on one side over another. All this makes the charge that
the ISO "encouraged" a split in Greece hypocritical, to say the least.
Moreover, it seeks to make the ISO the scapegoat for the fact that the
Tendency's failed perspectives means that most Tendency
organizations-including the SWP-are smaller today than in 1995.

The SWP CC was so determined to effectively expel the ISO from the Tendency
that it declared its intention to support six former ISO members as the
"real" Tendency organization. Apparently, the CC would rather have six
unquestioning followers in the heart of imperialism rather than a dynamic,
youthful and growing organization of more than 1,000. This approach to
international leadership-if it can be called such-has grave consequences
for every organization in the Tendency and its continued existence.

Two years of factional war on the ISO

We have answered the CC's baseless charges about our work in previous
documents. The latest statement from the CC, however, compels us to do so
again. The CC declares that "this split can be traced back to the great
demonstrations at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in
Seattle at the end of November 1999." Yet this same Web site features a
lengthy article by Alex Callinicos that repeats the SWP's criticisms of the
 ISO's work on the Kosovo war as sectarian-an absurd charge that we
formally debated at that time. Anyone can see that the SWP CC's relentless
attack on the ISO began at that point.

Indeed, thanks to Alex Callincos' habit of e-mailing factional documents to
our members, anyone can read the relevant material on various sectarian Web
sites from anywhere in the world.

Given that the earlier document by Alex Callinicos had already announced
the severance of relations with the ISO by the SWP-and urged other Tendency
organizations to follow the CC's lead-the question arises as to why the
Central Committee issued a second statement at all? Apparently, the CC felt
the need to try to explain its unprecedented and reckless actions  without
all the absurd charges, false historical justifications and  sectarian
attacks in the lengthy Callinicos article. Without that  smokescreen,
however, the CC's action stands exposed for what it is: the culmination of
two years of factional attacks on the ISO with an attempt to unilaterally
expel us from the Tendency.

The CC statement begins-once again-with the falsehood that "the ISO
Steering Committee have refused to recognize the significance of Seattle."
Yet the CC-like the Callinicos document-avoids all reference to our
publications on this point.

And no wonder. Here is what we said immediately after the Seattle protest:
"The WTO protest showed a huge sea change in people's attitudess.
Crucially, the WTO demonstrations showed that it is possible to build a
united struggle composed of diverse forces with differing political views."
"WTO: Crashing the Bosses' Party," International Socialist Review 10
(Winter 1999, Available at Can any serious person
call this a "refusal" to recognize the significance of Seattle? The SWP CC
has ignored this article-even though it has been available on the ISO Web
site for more than a year.

Furthermore, the ISR, Socialist Worker and internal perspectives  documents
have detailed our views of the new radicalization that has expressed itself
in several ways. Since the protests in Seattle and Washington, we have seen
national demonstrations against racism and the brutality of the criminal
justice system as well as a large protest against U.S. militarism at the
School of the Americas. We saw the Nader campaign as a reflection of the
widespread anger against corporate greed that goes far beyond the
politically active minority. (See Joel Geier, "Nader 2000," ISR, 13,
August-September 2000.) Thus in our view, the formula "anti-capitalist
mood/movement" actually understates the scale of the radicalization taking
place by focusing only on one current within it. Moreover, it says nothing
of the balance of class forces, the state of working class consciousness
and the level of struggle-all of which will shape the development of the

But for the SWP CC, our rejection of its phrase "anti-capitalist" is
tantamount to a sectarian attack on the movement. To make that case, the CC
not only hides what we said but also denies what did. The ISO was
instrumental in organizing the A16 demonstration in Washington against the
IMF and World Bank and had our largest contingent ever on the protest. Far
from denouncing the protest as a "failure," as the CC alleges, Socialist
Worker (U.S.) argued that it was a success even though the official
meetings were not disrupted. Socialist Worker and the ISR prepared a
special section on the IMF, World Bank and WTO for the A16 protests. The
following issue hailed "The New Movement Against Globalization." Ahmed
Shawki, editor of the  ISR, participated in a debate with the World Bank's
chief economist for Africa. Leading ISO members have since then spoken at
conferences and teach-ins alongside Kevin Danaher, Medea Benjamin, Bob
Naiman, Njoki Njehu, Sarah Anderson, David Bacon and other leading global
justice activists. Moreover, Socialist Worker and the ISR published
positive reports from the demonstration in Nice and the World Social Forum
in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

As for our shorthand characterization of the movement as
"anti-globalization" instead of "anti-capitalist," this is apparently only
a crime when the ISO does it. See British Socialist Worker: "15,000  March
Against Globalization" (Feb. 24, 2001), which refers to ATTAC as an
"anti-globalization organization". Similarly, the SWP CC criticizes the ISO
for relating to anti-globalization as "one movement among many-" as if
something is wrong with relating to other expressions of radicalization and

Moreover, the CC also ignores our central involvement in both the
Philadelphia and Los Angeles protests against the Republican and Democratic
conventions (including speakers on the main platform). The facts don't fit,
so the CC simply denies the facts. The accusation that the ISO used the
Nader campaign to "raid and recruit from" is laughable-not to say ignorant.
ISO members served in the campaign's national office, ran the California
student campaign and initiated campus and neighborhood Nader committees
across the U.S. In any case, since when does building revolutionary
organization while working in the broad left constitute "raiding," an
epithet long used by anti-Leninists against our tradition?  Indeed, the SWP
had to defend itself against similar charges from activists who leafleted
the Globalize Resistance conferences ("Are the SWP Vampires," Socialist
Worker (Britain) February 17, 2001).

The CC's criticisms of our Nader work are nothing more than factional myth
making. After all, SWP National Secretary Chris Bambery encouraged SWP
comrades to download the ISR articles on Nader. Alex Callinicos praised our
work in the Nader campaign in his intervention at the ISO Convention. But
now the CC has declared a split, so all of this is denied. This method of
"debate" is the reason why the SWP CC long ago lost all credibility with
the ISO membership.

Furthermore, the CC displays appalling political ignorance when it declares
that "as soon as the presidential election was over, the ISO dropped the
Nader campaign, preferring to orient to liberal Democrats angered by George
W. Bush's stolen victory."  Does the CC really believe that the ISO should
ignore Gore voters-who include the vast majority of African Americans and
millions of trade union members? Green Party activist Howie Hawkins-quoted
approvingly in the Callinicos' document-noted that the anti-globalization
movement is "predominately white" and that "the Greens should connect to
the rank and file" of liberal Black organizations as well as the feminist
groups and unions that supported the Democrats (Independent Politics News,
Winter 2001). That is why the D.C. Statehood Green Party backed the
Congressional Black Caucus' efforts to make an issue of racist vote fraud.
In fact, California Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, Medea
Benjamin-who worked closely with ISO members in her campaign-traveled to
Florida to help organize protests there. Indeed, the need for Nader
activists to relate to Black and labor audiences is commonly accepted on
the left in the U.S. In rejecting this approach, SWP CC shows that it is
incapable of making any serious assessment of the situation in the U.S.-let
alone of passing judgement on the ISO.

Far from exhibiting a "refusal to recognize the way the world is changing,"
as the CC alleges, the ISO is in the thick of the movement against
corporate globalization and much else besides. Not only are our Northeast
branches deeply involved in the protest against the Free Trade Area of the
Americas, ISO comrades have been crucial to organizing cross-border
protests in the Pacific Northwest-and, in a major breakthrough for the
left-a bi-national protest on the U.S.-Mexican border. At the same time, we
are centrally involved with the National Organization for Women's march for
abortion rights in Washington, D.C. We continue to be centrally involved in
the movement against the death penalty. The substantial growth of the ISO
over the last year is itself an expression of this new radicalization. That
is why not even our biggest critics in the U.S. would accuse the ISO of
being the "ossified sect" that Callinicos purports to describe in his

The SWP's crisis of perspectives

The CC's relentless attack on the ISO serves as a substitute for coming to
grips with the SWP's own failed perspectives in the 1990s. The Tendency
accepted the characterization of the 1990s as the "1930s in slow motion" to
summarize our shared expectation of prolonged economic crisis, a rise in
class struggle and the growth of revolutionary socialist organization to
compete with and even displace Stalinist and social democratic parties. In
Britain there was the expectation of a sharp rise in class struggle
following the election of the Labour government in 1997-that Blair would
have no honeymoon and that there would be an explosion in struggle. As Tony
Cliff put it in an interview with Socialist Review (November 1996): "The
situation there [in France] is extremely volatile, with very big strikes
going on at the same time as support for the right. When Blair comes to
office here we will see similar volatility. There will be a race between
the far right and the far left to win workers to their politics." This is
the politics of "1930s in (not very) slow motion." Cliff generalized this
view in the conclusion of his 1999 book Trotskyism After Trotsky by
declaring that "capitalism in the advanced countries is no longer
expanding" so that Trotsky's 1938 Transitional Program "that 'there can be
no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses'
living standards' fits reality again" (pp. 81-82).

But as Cliff himself pointed out years before, "the basic assumption behind
Trotsky's Transitional Demands was that the economic crisis was so deep
that the struggle for even the smallest improvements in workers' conditions
would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved
the assumption the ground fell from beneath the program." (Trotsky: The
Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star, p. 300). Duncan Hallas made the
same point even earlier. He argued that the perspectives reflected in the
Transitional Program "made sober and realistic assessments of actual shifts
in working class consciousness, alterations in the in the balance of class
forces, and tactical changes to gain the maximum advantage from them (the
essence of Lenin's political practice) extremely difficult for Trotsky's
followers."(Trotsky's Marxism, 1979, p. 103-104.)

The notion that the Transitional Program "fits reality again" has
contributed to a crisis of perspectives in the SWP. The CC has never come
to terms publicly with the fact that the catastrophist perspectives of the
1990s-have been proven wrong. The economic boom in the U.S., while
exacerbating class polarization, nevertheless reduced unemployment to the
lowest level in 30 years. While unemployment remains higher in the European
Union, it has dropped at a faster rate than in any economic recovery in the
last 30 years (see The Economist, Sept. 14, 2000). In France-where a
recovery has cut unemployment to the lowest levels in more than a
decade-workers succeeded in winning some reforms, such as the 35-hour
workweek.  The far right is split and the conservatives are in disarray. In
Britain, unemployment fell to the lowest levels in more than two decades.

Nor is there a race between the "far right" and "far left." Blair is poised
to win re-election rather easily. Qualifications such as "slow motion" do
not make comparisons to the 1930s, still less the Transitional Program,
relevant to the political situation in the second half of the 1990s.
Moreover, it is telling that in the second half of the 1990s the
International Socialism journal failed to publish an article analyzing the
boom in Britain, Europe or the U.S. It devoted its only lengthy article on
economic issues to the East Asian financial crisis (Winter 1998). The title
of the article by Alex Callinicos-"World Capitalism at the Abyss" reflected
the SWP's catastrophist perspective. Indeed, it included a discussion of
the UPS strike in a section titled "Wars and Revolutions," which gives some
indication of the disorientation caused by the SWP's perspectives.

The ISO came to grips with the situation in the U.S. in a series of
articles on the American economy in the International Socialist Review
(including one praised as an "excellent analysis" by Alex Callinicos in the
journal Historical Materialism (Summer 1999, p. 21). We shifted our
political perspectives accordingly, as detailed in our 1999 Convention
document, "Assessing the 1990s," which discussed the political impact of
the boom in the U.S. and the advanced Western countries. Moreover, we
rejected the mainstream view of "contentment" in U.S. politics and oriented
toward what we called a "political awakening" months before the Seattle
protests-all of which was discussed in our August 1999 National Committee
documents. (Ironically, the Callinicos document attacks our analysis of the
coming recession as "catastrophist," ignoring our published views. (Paul
D'Amato and Joel Geier, "The End of the Miracle Economy," ISR,
February-March 2001).

In Britain, unfortunately, the SWP's perspectives led to serious
organizational decline to perhaps half of the 10,000 claimed in the
mid-1990s-exact figures are no longer given-as comrades understandably
became disoriented and inactive. A series of organizational formulas-such
as very small branches, for example-apparently compounded the problem. In
the late 1990s the SWP CC's insistence on its perspectives and
organizational prescriptions was a decisive factor in a series of splits in
Tendency organizations, including France, Turkey, New Zealand, Australia
and South Africa. That is why the charge that the ISO "engineered" a split
in Greece is not only a lie, but reeks of hypocrisy. The split in the Greek
organization SEK was a result of a debate on perspectives in that
organization, which took place without the involvement of anyone in the
ISO. Both SEK and the group International Workers Left claim to stand in
the tradition of the Tendency. But apparently only the SWP CC is allowed to
proclaim which group is the "real" Tendency organization following a split.
  (We also note that SEK itself maintained fraternal relations with two
groups in Turkey following that split, and of course was not expelled from
the Tendency.)

None of these splits in the Tendency in the late 1990s involved a deviation
from the principles and politics of the International Socialist Tendency,
but concerned organizational perspectives. The Callinicos document
attempting to justify the SWP's split with the ISO tries to dress up this
method with a pseudo-history of "sectarianism" in revolutionary
organizations. The Callinicos argument boils down to this: every serious
turn in a revolutionary organization requires splits. While this may
provide the CC with a convenient explanation of the decline in the size of
the Tendency since the mid-1990s, it has nothing in common with
revolutionary political leadership. Consider Trotsky's account of the
methods of the Bolshevik Party: "The chronicle of the year 1917, the
greatest year in the history of the party, is full of intense internal
struggles, as is also the history of the first five years after the
conquest of power' despite this-not one split, not one major expulsion for
political motives." (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p. 110.)

It is in this context of decline and splits in the Tendency that the SWP's
factional war on the ISO began. The protests in Seattle and the emergence
of an international anti-globalization movement-a radicalization that we
all agreed was taking place and all related too-should have been an
opportunity for greater collaboration. Instead, we were told that unless we
accepted the "anti-capitalist" characterization and highly specific
organizational conclusions (i.e., we must view our audience as having "90
percent agreement, 10 percent disagreement") that we were somehow
abstaining from the movement. Even worse, the SWP CC has systematically
campaigned against us throughout the Tendency, asking the leaderships of
various organizations to take positions against us-exactly what Cliff
criticized Trotsky for encouraging in the original Fourth International.

Only one group in the Tendency is exempt from such scrutiny-the SWP itself.
Even though the organization has taken a series of major organizational
shifts- seeking to enter the multi-tendency Scottish Socialist Party or
dissolving branches for the London and now national elections-they are
carried through with virtually no discussion in the Tendency and relatively
little in the SWP itself. Thus we have the specter of the SWP merging with
other tendencies in Scotland even as it pushes a split with the ISO.  And
since reports on various groups stopped being issued at Tendency meetings
years ago, comrades in various organizations are expected to pass judgement
on us-and one another-with virtually no information other than the CC's
version of events.

The future of the International Socialist Tendency

Anyone who knows our history must reject Callinicos' charge that we seek to
"destroy" the Tendency as rubbish. We have been proud members of the
Tendency. We helped build support for comrades facing prosecution in Greece
and South Korea and raised thousands of dollars to help build in South
Africa. It is the CC, which has led the Tendency and presided over repeated
splits and decline. Now it has openly attempted to foment a split in the
ISO-from the "open letter" e-mail to members of the ISO a year ago to the
CC's declaration of support for six discredited former members-all before
the split in SEK. If anyone is to be found guilty of the charge of
"splitting" the Tendency, the CC does not have to look across the Atlantic.
  Indeed, the SWP CC's method of splitting with the ISO makes a mockery of
serious international revolutionary work. Alex Callinicos, the
International Secretary for the CC, publicly vowed to "save" the ISO at the
SWP National Conference. Yet he managed to attend the ISO Convention for
only one of three days. Can this be taken seriously as revolutionary

And now we have the summary removal of the ISO from the list of Tendency
organizations on the SWP web site in a virtual electronic expulsion.
Compare this to the CC's 1995 statement on the informal IS List e-mail
network: "The IS Tendency is not an international organization but a
current composed of independent organizations who share the same politics.
We therefore lack the means to make the [e-mail] list accountable to the
organizations making up the Tendency. Political debate is essential in a
healthy revolutionary organization. But that debate takes place through
party branches and at national meetings and conferences, where all comrades
can participate directly or through their elected delegates. Irresponsible
gossip by a self-selected and relatively privileged clique is no substitute
for discussion in a democratic centralist organization." Clearly the CC has
moved a long way since then-and in the wrong direction.

The Tendency now faces a severe crisis. Rather than try to come to grips
with the reasons for this, the SWP CC has made the ISO a scapegoat simply
because we asked why-and worked to answer questions for ourselves in order
to build our organization. And now, having failed to split the ISO, the SWP
CC has parted ways with the second-largest organization in the Tendency-a
dynamic, growing and young organization of more than 1,000-to embrace a
handful of ex-members who got zero support at the ISO convention. To
explain the lack of support for their perspective in the ISO, the SWP CC
has invented the charge of thuggish and undemocratic behavior. The only
conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the SWP CC seeks total
obedience in place of genuine debate and collaboration among
revolutionaries-and not just in the U.S. Thus the Callinicos document
concludes with a crude factional threat: "The ISO's metastasis into a sect
is an extreme case of a tendency present in all our organizations. We will
all have to fight to overcome this tendency and transform ourselves into an
effective part of the movement that is burgeoning beyond us." Therefore
anyone who questions the SWP CC for pushing this split is a "sectarian" to
be gotten rid of. This method is wholly alien to our tradition.

We intend to answer all the slanders about us and defend our organization.
We further appeal to comrades in the International Socialist Tendency to
oppose the SWP CC's attempt to effectively expel the ISO. If there is to be
a Tendency meeting to deal with this matter, as the CC suggests there will
be, it should be based on an open debate in which all points of view can be
aired. Instead, the leadership of Tendency groups have already broken
relations with the ISO with no attempt to discuss the issues with us-and no
prior internal discussion in their own groups. And now the CC is calling on
every Tendency group to sever ties with the ISO immediately-to reach the
verdict before the trial.

Such developments can only have a negative impact on the development of-and
fraternal relations between-all Tendency organizations. Finally, despite
our effective exclusion from the Tendency, we have continued to build the
ISO's international links. As we wrote to ISO members, we remain proud
adherents to the traditions and politics of the International Socialist
Tendency. We will continue to work with any organizations who are willing
to have open, fraternal relations with us, whatever our disagreements may be.


Steering Committee,
International Socialist Organization

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list