Alex Callinicos on Regroupment (fwd)

Tony Tracy tony at
Wed May 23 10:31:41 MDT 2001

The International Socialist Tendency (IST) groups got this from Alex


17 May 2001

Dear Comrades,

1. Accompanying this document you will find some notes on international
regroupment on the revolutionary left. These originated as a letter that I
wrote in March to Daniel Bensaïd of the Ligue Révolutionnaire Communiste,
and they helped to provide the basis of discussions that took place
between members of the SWP Central Committee and the LCR Political Bureau
on 17 May. Also accompanying are the notes that formed the basis of Chris
Harman!=s presentation of the SWP!=s position at this meeting.

2. This meeting took place at the initiative of the LCR. The discussions
showed quite a high degree of agreement over the nature of the objective
situation ? there was, in particular a shared appreciation of the
significance of the movement against capitalist globalization. A number of
practical issues came up: it was agreed that the SWP and the LCR would try
to organize a far-left rally in Genoa; in addition to the presence of a
number of LCR speakers at Marxism 2001, we have been invited to attend the
LCR conference in June, to participate in the Fourth International Youth
Camp in Rome in late July, and to speak at the LCR Summer Camp at the end
of August. The possibility of the SWP being invited to the next
International Executive Committee of the FI was also mooted.

3. As my letter to Bensaïd makes clear, the starting point for any
consideration of regroupment on the revolutionary left is the changed
situation created by Seattle and the rise of the anti-capitalist
movement.. More specifically:

; The key test of left currents today is how they relate to the
anti-capitalist movement. As we know, the ISO (US), despite its history
and theory, failed this test, while currents much further away from our
tradition ? for example, elements from an orthodox Trotskyist background,
and even the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia ?  have not; ;
It would therefore be sectarian to insist that we will only work in the
same organization with revolutionaries who also accept the theory of state
capitalism (though the issue ? of course, closely related to Cliff!=s
theory ? of substitutionism is still very important); ; Because of the
prominence of international mobilizations and conferences in the
anti-capitalist movement, the different international revolutionary
tendencies are coming into contact with much more than in the past twenty
years. In the 1980s and 1990s each tendency ploughed its own furrow: we
are now entering a period more like the 1970s when the different
international currents interact much more, whether as allies or rivals (or
both). As in the 1970s, the British SWP, still much the largest group in
the Tendency, may have to make its own initiatives towards other big far
left organizations; ; The IS Tendency made a big impact on the European
left thanks to its interventions at Prague and Nice: because of this, and
because of the British SWP!=s electoral initiatives with the Socialist
Alliance and the SSP, we are being taken more seriously as an
internationally current. We can!=t any longer be dismissed as the SWP and
its tributaries.

4. In Britain the united-front approach that the SWP has been pursuing
since the outbreak of the Balkan War two years has helped to produce a
process of realignment on the left. To be precise:

The Socialist Alliance in England and Wales has brought together the bulk
of the far left in an electoral intervention that has begun to attract the
support of significant elements from a Labourist background.  Some
elements would like it to become a new party. We disagree, for the reasons
spelled out by Lindsey German in SW 5 May 2001. But we do envisage the SA
becoming an organization that campaigns on a broad range of issues after
the election; ; We have worked very well with some elements in the SA,
notably certain ex-Militant cadres and the International Socialist Group
(British section of the FI). We see no principled reason why they
shouldn!=t be integrated into the SWP. The ISG have said they will propose
that the SWP is invited to the next World Congress of the Fourth
International in 2002; ; The Scottish Socialist Party is a peculiar
formation: based on a relatively small group of ex-Militant activists
whose politics remains at best centrist, it has a very significant
working-class periphery thanks in particular to Sheridan!=s high profile
in Scottish politics. Their prominence is in part a consequence of our
past mistakes ? in particular the opening we gave to Militant through our
failure properly to intervene in the anti-Poll Tax movement in Scotland.
But the balance of forces on the ground between our Scottish comrades and
the ex-Militant cadres is much more even. The SSP hard core is divided
between sectarians who are irredeemably hostile to us, and key elements in
the leadership (notably Sheridan and McCoombes) who recognize the
contribution we can make to build a much broader workers!= party on the
basis of disillusionment with New Labour. Joining the SSP involves an
element of risk, but not to have done so would have thrown away an
unprecedented opportunity to reshape the left in Scotland.

5. The objective situation is thus posing the question of regroupment,
certainly in Britain and potentially internationally. It is important,
however, to draw distinctions between the various formations with which we
are coming into contact. For example,

The SSP is a special case rather than a general model. It is very
important to be clear about this, since what is happening in Scotland is
being closely watched internationally. Centrist parties with a high public
profile whose key leaders actually welcome revolutionaries joining them
don!=t grow on trees; ; The LCR is another kettle of fish altogether. It
is the USFI flagship in Europe, and did well in the recent municipal
elections. It is a highly heterogeneous formation, with members ranging
from left (and sometimes not so left) social democrats to genuine
revolutionaries. A leading FI member described it to me as ‘centrist!=. It
took an equivocal line on the Balkan War; LCR members have played an
important role in the ATTAC leadership, but the organization failed
miserably to mobilize for Prague or (worse still) for Nice. Our comrades
in Socialisme par en bas would be well advised to concentrate on building
the broader movement through ATTAC and sharpening the small revolutionary
axe within it rather than in getting involved in manoeuvres with the LCR.
The same is likely often to be true of the FI groups elsewhere, which are
often small and sectarian; ; The DSP is involved with the ISO (Australia)
in the Socialist Alliance, which is planning to stand candidates against
Labor. It is also linked to the SSP. The DSP has plenty of money and is
active internationally, notably in the Asia-Pacific region (e.g.
Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines). Its politics remains Stalinist ? it
has played a key role in encouraging the PRD in Indonesia to continue
pursuing a stages strategy. It is therefore definitely a rival rather than
a potential ally, but it is one that we must take seriously.

6. It!=s quite unclear where the discussions with the LCR and possibly the
FI itself will lead. But the idea might emerge of some larger
international far left grouping embracing both the FI and the IST, and
possibly other currents. At that stage, the Tendency (and it would, of
course, have to be the Tendency that decided) would have to make a
hard-headed assessment of the pros and cons of such a move.

7. What regroupment means in individual countries is likely to vary
tremendously because of the state of the local left and the situation of
our group there. It may mean nothing, either because our group is too
small or because the line-up on the left is pretty rigid. The very deep
crisis of British Labourism that Blair has accelerated won!=t necessarily
be replicated elsewhere. But the left internationally is in more flux than
it has been for decades. Individual groups need to think creatively about
how they can seize the opportunities that this situation may create for

Yours fraternally, Alex Callinicos


The starting point for our approach to regroupment is the new situation
created by Seattle and the development of the anti-capitalist movement
internationally. As I argue in my document, this conjuncture is creating
the conditions for a major revival of the left. Political currents must be
judged less on the basis of their history and more on their response to
the post-Seattle movement. It is clear that a process of political
realignment is under way. We can see this in Britain with the Socialist
Alliance, where very positive working relationships have developed between
the SWP and comrades from other Trotskyist tendencies (for example, the
ISG and some ex-Militant cadres).

This is one facet – intensified by the impact of New Labour on the left
and the working-class movement in Britain – of a much broader process. We
approach the question of regroupment with the framework of our
understanding of revolutionary internationalism. The experience of the
early Comintern is our model of how a real International develops. It
shows how major upheavals in the class struggle and the break by
substantial sections of workers with reformism are necessary conditions
for any attempt to create an international revolutionary organization. Our
criticism of the FI and of Trotsky before it has focused on the attempt to
Œdeclare‚ an International in the absence of these conditions (they were,
of course, completely missing in 1938; the upturn of 1968-76 provided at
best the first of these conditions and certainly not the second).

The experience of the Comintern also shows how a genuine International
must be a coalescence of currents with different histories – in that case,
for example, the Bolsheviks, Luxemburg and her supporters in Germany and
Poland, North European left-radicals, currents influenced to a greater and
lesser extent by anarchism and syndicalism (Gramsci and Ordine Nuovo in
Italy, ex-Wobblies in the US), centrists and left reformists (the USPD
majority). Of course, we don‚t think that 1917-23 is going to repeat
itself in any simple way – a new revolutionary period will take different
forms, and we are far from uncritical of the Third International even in
its early years (see especially Cliff, Lenin, vol. 4), but the three
elements I have referred to – social upheaval, big splits in the reformist
parties, and the fusion of diverse political traditions – would, we
believe, be features of any future International worthy of the name.

You said that we have moved from a pluralistic conception of the
International to one that is much more centralized than certainly the USFI
now accepts. As evidence for our earlier views, you cited the article Pete
Goodwin and I wrote for the 11th Congress of the FI in 1979. I had
forgotten what we said so I had to reread the article. What we argued
against then was the strategy that then seemed to prevail in the FI of a
regroupment of the international far left based on the orthodox Trotskyist
currents. We called this a Œdogmatic and triumphalist approach‚ both
because it overestimated the virtues of various orthodox Trotskyist
tendencies (we mentioned the Lambertists, but our reservations also
applied to the American SWP, then of course still affiliated to the USFI),
and dismissed the Mao-centrists (International Socialism, 2.6, pp.
110-1). This argument still seems to me correct: one of the key
developments of the IS Tendency was winning OSE (now SEK) in Greece, whose
key leaders had been strongly attracted towards Avanguardia Operaia during
the 1970s.

The IS Tendency developed as a serious current after this debate, during
the 1980s and 1990s. I am attaching a note I wrote on the history of the
Tendency for Cliff‚s autobiography, A World to Win (you will also find it,
with other information on our international work, in that book). It is
quite a politically homogenous grouping, for two reasons: (1) the
different groups largely originated in the same theoretical tradition,
defined in particular by Cliff‚s theory of state capitalism; and (2) we
came together, meeting annually from the mid-1980s, because we had
converged (partly independently, partly through mutual influence) on the
same propaganda perspective as a way of addressing the international
downturn in class struggle. Therefore our meetings have always discussed
not simply broad issues of analysis and strategy but more concrete
questions of perspective.

In consequence, the IST has gone through a series of reorientations based
on quite sharp debates, notably over our attitude to the final phase of
the First Gulf War (1987-8) and our response in 1993-4 to what we saw as a
new period of class polarization in Europe that developed in the wake of
German reunification. Nevertheless the IST is a political current uniting
autonomous organizations on the basis of shared theory and not a
democratic centralist international organization: the line taken at its
meetings do not bind individual groups, even though the discussions have
tended to influence their approach. It should be clear from my remarks in
para. 2 above that we do not regard the IST as an embryonic International.
The Tendency at least in Europe has developed a higher profile over the
past couple of years.

This is partly because it now comprises, in addition to the SWP in
Britain, a number of substantial organizations – notably in Germany,
Greece, and Ireland. But this development has also reflected events that
have required a more concerted international response – first the Balkan
War and then the Seattle and the crystallization of the anti-capitalist
mood. The result has been the IST mobilizations for Prague, Nice, and
Davos, and those we are preparing for Gothenburg, Barcelona, Salzburg, and
Genoa. This evolution shows how wrong Mandel was to criticize the SWP as
recently as 1992 for Œnational communism‚ (see International Socialism,
2.56). In any critical balance sheet of the performance of various
international currents in this period, we would want to point to what we
regard as the defensive and hesitant response of the LCR and other USFI
groups to the Balkan War, and to the LCR‚s failure to mobilize seriously
for Prague and even for Nice..

It has been against this background of the IS Tendency‚s clear emergence
as a major international revolutionary current that the differences
developed over the past two years between the ISO (US) and the rest of the
IST. In themselves these disagreements over perspective would not justify
a split, but it became increasingly clear that they were the symptom of a
more fundamental divergence. Faced with a new period, most organizations
in the Tendency have fought to reorient themselves; the ISO, by contrast,
has retreated into an increasingly sectarian approach which differs not
simply from the trajectory of the rest of the IST but represents a break
with its own past. This has been accompanied by the consolidation of a
quasi-Healyite internal regime.

The expulsion of IST supporters in the US and the ISO‚s role in provoking
a breakaway from SEK faced us with a choice: either accept a continuation
of this faction-fight, which would mean the progressive internalization of
the IST as the two sides struggled for influence within individual groups
(we had in mind the unhappy example of the struggle between the IMT and
the LTF within the FI during the 1970s), or make a break with the ISO,
with the implication that this would mean starting again in the US. In
taking the second course, the leaderships of the SEK and SWP have had the
support of the other main organizations in the Tendency. We do not believe
the conditions currently exist for an authentic International..

Nevertheless, we believe that the present situation makes it worthwhile
exploring the possibilities of international regroupment. The established
revolutionary organizations will prove whether or not they are alive by
how they respond to the post-Seattle new left. The split with the ISO has
shown us that past track record and even correct theoretical stance
doesn‚t guarantee that an organization will necessarily pass this test.
Currents from an FI or ex-FI background have reacted better to the
post-Seattle period than our former American confrères. This does not mean
that we think that the historical divergences within the Trotskyist
movement have simply become irrelevant: the theoretical understanding of
Stalinism provided by Cliff‚s analysis allowed the IST to resist the wave
of despondency that swept over the left after 1989 and to grow very
substantially in the 1990s (in addition to our European growth, the decade
saw the emergence of important sister organizations in the Third World,
for example, in South Korea and Zimbabwe).

Nor have various related issues disappeared – for example, what we regard
as the tendency of orthodox Trotskyists to search for substitutes for
working-class action (e.g. left governments) and the question of the
class-struggle left-wing approach versus our rank-and-file strategy in the
trade unions. But we wish to explore, with open minds and without making
these divergences a barrier, the possibilities for closer co-operation
between revolutionaries from different traditions. One issue that we will
have to confront is our differing understandings of democratic centralism.
The USFI has developed a conception of revolutionary organization as
involving permanent tendencies that we reject. We believe that this
approach tends in institutionalize a government-versus-opposition regime
that encourages members to interpret specific issues in the light of the
factional struggle. We permit factions only during periods of
pre-conference discussion. This does not mean we are hostile to internal
political debate: one of our main reasons for breaking with the ISO is its
suppression of such debate. We have a tradition of vigorous political
argument both within the SWP and in the IST more generally. But we think
such argument is effective when it arises from the specific issues at hand
rather than reflecting long-term divergences between institutionalized
factions. Alex Callinicos 2 April


We should begin by explaining how we see international situation of left.

2 First we need to look back over last two decades. From late 1970s to mid
1990s period which we called Œthe downturn‚. - Period of defeats and
demoralisation for the working class, even where there were bitter
defensive battles – from Chile and Argentina, through Fiat Turin to the
miners and printworkers in Britain to the isolation and absorption of the
guerrilla movements in Central America.

Period also of isolation and to varying degrees demoralisation and
fragmentation of revolutionary left – in Europe most spectacularly in
Italy and Spain, but also in Britain and France.

Then when the Stalinist regimes fell apart in Eastern Europe and the
formers USSR, despite the important role of workers struggles (eg the
miners‚ strikes in Russia), the only ideological alternative for the
democratic opposition seemed to be market capitalism – which then led the
oppositions to be absorbed by a wing of the nomenclature who had turned to
privatisation, the Mafia etc.

This further isolated the revolutionary left in the west and the third

All the pressure was on revolutionaries to make concessions to reformist
ideas, and, even worse, to post Marxism, identity politics, even
neo-liberalism. We analysed the beginning of the end of this period seven
or eight years ago. The absence of a left focus in the crisis of the early
1990s was encouraging the rise of far right groups in important European
countries. But it was also producing the first signs of a revival of class
struggle and of the left. This was clear in Germany , then Italy and
finally Britain and France.

The revival was both industrial and political (except tin Britain, where
the defeats of the 1980s meant a still very low level of class struggle).
The industrial revival showed itself in the public sector and metal
workers strikes in Germany, the mass strikes against the Belusconi
government in Italy, above all Nov-Dec 95 movement in France.

The political beneficiaries of the change were the social democrats –
despite their attempts to move to even more right wing Third Way
positions. But we argued the revival had a tendency to spill over to the
left of the social democrats, so creating a layer of disillusioned
reforests who were willing to work with revolutionaries and open to
revolutionary arguments.

Today this seems to us an important phenomenon in most European countries
– eg the openings for the left in France, the Socialist Alliance and SSP
in Britain.

At same time, new, often semi-spontaneous movements in a whole range of
third world countries – Indonesian revolution, Ecuador, Bolivia,
Argentina, Nigeria, Algeria etc

Finally, the sudden growth of a generalised movement to the left such as
we have not seen since the mid 1970s – the Œanti-capitalist‚ movement from
Seattle onwards.

Important as providing a focus for a minority which exists in every
factory, mine, office, school or college in the world.

Sudden Œrespectability‚ of anti-capitalist arguments.

Like movements in the US, Britain, Germany or Italy before 1968 – a whole
mix of different political positions – reformist, anarchist, revolutionary
Marxist, combinations etc - Just as you would expect in a new, spontaneous
insurgency –

Test for the revolutionary left is relating to the three new components –
the revival of the workers struggle, the overflow to the left from social
democracy, the anti-capitalist movement.

Central is seeing the anti-capitalist movement as key to other two – the
minorities it attracts among both youth and trade unionists can be key to
tapping move to left of social democracy and to new militancy in industry.

There are formally revolutionary organisations who are refusing to see
this.. Most notably LO in France. Did not understand importance of Nov-Dec
95. Attacks anti-capitalist movement. This has also been true of one of
the organisations in our tendency, the ISO in the US. Is refusing to shift
from the methods it developed in the early 1990s to relate to the new
situation, and is missing enormous opportunities..

Even for our members , the shift is not easy. Great danger of sectarian
response – veterans of the miners‚ strike dismissing 18 year old who are
impressed by Naomi Klein and Susan George – people who defended
independent revolutionary organisation for 20 years not seeing
possibilities with rise of layer who have half-broken with reformism.

There is also another danger. Pouring new wine into old bottles.  Eg
breaking movement down into one issues campaigns, or adoption of Œpost
Marxist‚ ideas and methods within movement (eg semi-autonomism, Ya Basta
etc) or adapting to reformist milieu (article n Labour left paper saying
we will inevitably do this!) – there will be pressures to do this we have
to resist – eg there are important people in SSP for whom all that really
matters are Scottish elections in two years time, not struggle in between.


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