Is the International Socialist Tradition finished?

[I wrote the first draft of this essay as a report for the Renewal Faction’s second in-person meeting in late December 2013 and completed the draft below by the end of January. Although it is written from the perspective of someone still formally within the IS Tradition, it expresses a deeply critical attitude towards it–and a desire to transcend it. I have reproduced it here without revisions; even though some of the formulations are clearly outdated, I think it may still be useful to comrades who are navigating these issues. –SJ]

Given the crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the series of crises and splits in the International Socialist (IS) Tendency, and the problems we ourselves are confronting in the US International Socialist Organization (ISO), it is natural for comrades to ponder the fate of the “IS Tradition” generally. One may even ask: is the IS Tradition finished? This is, of course, an ironic nod to Alex Callinicos’s “Is Leninism finished?” but by no means do I wish to repeat the hoary IS device of asking the question in a purely rhetorical way in order to refute it.

In the first place, it’s a serious question that ought to be seriously considered. In the second place, I think that the IS Tradition is indeed finished in a quite substantial sense, as I’ll argue here.

The Word in Deed

Let’s first consider the IS legacy in the organizational sense, since political traditions are necessarily carried collectively. Now due to the way “international work” has generally been regarded as something either beyond the ken or beneath the interest of the rank-and-file member, assessing the state of the IS Tradition internationally involves some amount of guesswork unless one is “in the know” (which I am mostly not). What nonetheless seems clear is that in almost every country with a substantial organized IS presence, there are at least two (relatively) important IS or IS-originated organizations; this is the case in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Greece, and Zimbabwe. (That said, one may reasonably decline to put the US on the list, since the American ISO and Solidarity are not both “Cliffite” organizations. However, I am increasingly of the view that the factional operations of the British International Socialists/SWP inside the American International Socialists/ISO previewed their later interventions across the Tendency.)

How is it possible to speak of a single, coherent IS Tradition when it is “carried” by a cluster of mutually-hostile organizations? The way the problem has been solved practically is through the establishment of a “Real IS Tradition” with membership adjudicated by a single leading group; I am speaking here of the IS Tendency “proper” and the British SWP, respectively. But the decline and fall of the SWP has made this solution unviable.

The SWP story is by now well-known to us in all its tragic and hideous dimensions. The crisis burst into the open in late 2007 with Galloway’s move against the SWP in the Respect Party; and the SWP has been in essentially permanent crisis up to the catastrophic rape cover-up of the present day. By the spring, I expect the SWP to have dwindled to under 500 members with strong cultish elements. It will act no longer as a pole of attraction, but rather a pole of repulsion, to sophisticated militants, meaning that the Party’s audience will become even more the “low-hanging fruit” of inexperienced, uninformed, and isolated radicals.

Regarding the SWP diaspora, I consider it deeply unlikely that these comrades will be able to regroup in the short- or medium-term; indeed, I am not even convinced that this is the correct strategic goal, although naturally I’d be pleased if it occurred. But whether it’s correct or not, I find it unlikely on every level: politically, culturally, organizationally, psychologically. Hence the emergence of a new “franchise-holder” from the diaspora is, in my estimation, excluded; nor is anyone else in the IS Tendency strong enough to assume the mantle.

In fact, the heir apparent of the “Real IS Tradition” is none other than the plucky American ISO–of which our leadership is, I think, entirely aware. This is part of why the emergence of the Renewal Faction has been most inconvenient to the leadership faction: it has put the lie to what the leadership faction has attempted to project about the ISO’s enlightened, democratic nature. From calling for a broad spectrum of “inputs” in determining the perspectives of the organization at his much-hailed talk at Socialism 2013, Ahmed S has been reduced to explaining (in a talk for the Boston district) that an open, debating internal culture is impossible to implement given the presence of “parasites,” “entrists,” and a “fifth column” in the group. In other words, “debate” is fine–provided that only one side is organized and has any chance.

Thus the Renewal Faction has, un- or rather contra-intentionally, furthered the degeneration of the ISO’s political culture in a context of great (and appropriate) sensitivity towards questions of political culture. This in itself would probably be not sufficient to prevent the ISO from spearheading IS Tradition 2.0, given how marginal we in the Renewal Faction are, but it does tend to throw light on the more significant problems. Like the fact, for example, that our leadership structures are basically identical to (because inherited from) the SWP; that our finances are equally (or truthfully more) opaque and beyond the membership’s control; that theoretically the group has minimal autochthonous resources (an unsurprising consequence of its anti-intellectualism); and so on.

And there is, finally, the question of the group’s size and impact. A lot of games have been played with the categories of “quantitative” and “qualitative” since Convention, as if these have nothing to do with one another. In particular, while it is now basically admitted that the ISO has shrunk over the last several years, the leadership faction claims that the group’s “quality” has improved. Now it is theoretically possible for a group to decline in numbers and grow in strength–if, for example, ten “random” comrades quit and we recruit five people in a single important workplace, we probably would be stronger–but the implications of what comrades are saying in the concrete context are really quite chilling. That is, it is being argued that shedding cadre is neither bad nor even neutral, but a positive good.

In truth, the ISO has declined quantitatively and qualitatively since 2008, just like the international left generally. The fact that this has happened to basically everyone indicates that powerful “objective” factors are engaged; the decline in itself is arguably not a sin. What is a sin–always and under any circumstances–is lying to oneself about it.

The Word, Indeed

Having looked at the “operational” part of the IS Tradition, let’s now turn to its “ideal” part; ie, its theory. Even if we admit that the IS Tradition is in a bad way organizationally, is it possible that its theory provides a basis for reconstitution? Such things are not unknown: both Marxism and syndicalism have been reincarnated from organizational ruin many times on the strength of their fundamental concepts. Yet I think even here things look grim for the IS Tradition.

By its own accounting (which one admittedly should not take for granted), the “three whales” of IS theory are: state capitalism; the permanent arms economy; and deflected permanent revolution. All of these theories are rather obviously irrelevant to the analysis of modern capitalism. We’ll take them in reverse order.

The theory of deflected permanent revolution was, in my view, never completely worked-out or convincing, although it did “give answers” that meshed well with the overall attitude of socialism from below. But whether or not deflected permanent revolution was a correct theory, it was manifestly predicated on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution–which is no longer relevant, as Neil Davidson and others have argued.

Combined and uneven development is a permanent feature of capitalism, but in the century since the Russian Revolution, capitalism has achieved social hegemony not just in the global whole, but in virtually every country individually. (Indeed, the Russian Revolution itself accelerated this process by impressing on the capitalists the necessity to achieve the monopoly of the state power. Similarly the Paris Commune compelled French capital to consolidate the bourgeois republic and abandon the monarchy forever.) Thus the preconditions for permanent revolution–the coexistence of feudalism and capitalism economically and politically–do not apply; a fortiori, deflected permanent revolution is irrelevant.

The theory of the permanent arms economy gave an explanation of the long stability of postwar capitalism, explaining how overaccumulation was prevented by waste production for arms in the most advanced countries, particularly the United States. Although one may question whether the robustness of this explanation–as the theory’s originator, Michael Kidron, eventually did–it at least made an insightful connection between two major phenomena of the postwar era. But the theory can by no means play the role it once did.

In the first place, while arms spending is still lavish, it is a much smaller percentage of the economy than during the Cold War. Secondly, tax burdens have shifted decisively away from capital and onto labor, undermining the role of arms production in preventing overaccumulation. Third, the defense sector is nowadays strongly “capitalized,” with much defense spending quite consciously designed to incubate the accumulation of private capital (eg, funding for basic research later to be commercialized). For all these reasons, arms spending cannot possibly play the role attributed to it by the permanent arms economy theory.

Finally we have the theory of state capitalism, which is something of the “crown jewel” of IS politics. Yet the only state in the world today that still resembles the bureaucratic Stalinist regime described by Cliff is North Korea–a hidebound, insular, and totally dependent nation. I still think the theory was correct, but belief in the theory no longer indicates anything about politics. This is why we have, for example, an “orthodox Trotskyist” in our faction (Paul H); a bureaucratic collectivist who shouts about our disloyalty (Joel G); and a Cliffite who threatens us at every opportunity (Ahmed S). The idea that Ahmed is more “libertarian” than Paul H because of what he thinks about Stalin or Cuba or something is really very dense.

Now the political problem this all raises is, for example, why are we the International Socialist Organization? What is it that demarcates us, and why is it important? If the answer is: state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution, etc, then we are a sect, because we define ourselves in terms of theories that are no longer politically salient, whatever their historical importance (which I believe was substantial). If, on the other hand, we can’t give a political answer, then we are not even a sect.

(This explains, incidentally, a very funny incident in the lead-up to the ISO National Convention 2011, when the group was debating removing state capitalism from “Where We Stand.” The most vociferous proponent for keeping it in was…Joel G, who thought it was wrong! This puzzled me for a long time, until I realized that the comrade was merely trying to keep us up to the standard of a sect, regardless of whether or not he agreed with the sect principles. It was a bit of sectarian wisdom, so to speak, although I’m ultimately glad we didn’t follow it.)

All this is to say that the dialectic between organization and ideas in the IS Tradition has broken down; or to put it another way, has become a dialectic of decline. The organizations are too weak and reified to refresh the ideas; and the ideas are too weak and reified to orient the organizations. In this sense (to borrow and adapt a point made by John Game about Leninism) the appearance or republication of unorthodox, highly sophisticated writings on the British IS in its libertarian and better days, while incredibly useful, is also a sign of the decline of the tradition: comrades are trying to find wisdom in the “bits left out” precisely because the “bits left in” have failed.

So my own view is that the IS Tradition ought to be dissolved as an organizing principle, its positive elements–which one sees, these days, primarily in its “dissidents”–entering into the stream of the radical left to recombine organically with hitherto “alien” elements. In that sense the IS Tradition can and should live on; but the IS Tradition as such is finished.

Shaun Joseph

3 thoughts on “Is the International Socialist Tradition finished?

  1. Yes, I think the IS is finished as a viable theoretical and practical trend.
    I don’t know of any of the left organizations/parties that have grasped a practical understanding of many of the key theoretical points of Marxism-Leninism. One, that both the ISO and the RCP failed on, is the relationship between cadre and leadership. In both organizations, this relationship was based on an incorrect application of democratic centralism. Democratic centralism is a contradiction, a unity of opposites. The principle aspect of this contradiction is democracy. Centralism is the secondary aspect of the contradiction, until such time as centralism becomes principle, mainly during times of crises, or revolutionary periods. Or, once practice has been democratically summed up and sent up through the channels of the organization, concretized into further developed theory to be put into practice, and then sent down to cadre to be carried out. Those are the usual times when centralism is principle. Otherwise, the majority of the time, democracy should be primary. We didn’t experience that in the RCP, and from what I’ve learned from comrades from the now defunct Renewal Faction, neither did the ISO comrades.
    Mao said, “Let a hundred flowers blossom, let a thousand schools of thought contend”. We would be wise to try to understand that. rf

  2. Very very interesting. In New Zealand, of the three major revolutionary organisations, two of them see themselves as part of IS politics, and the third has several “state-caps” in its leadership, including myself.

    For me, your point that “I still think the theory [of state-cap] was correct, but belief in the theory no longer indicates anything about politics” is right on the money. I feel much more comfortable in my organisation with CWI or Workers Liberty supporters, supporters of Cuba, soft Maoists etc than I would with people who believe identically to myself on paper. The dividing line is how we organise and our attitude to the actually-existing class struggle.

  3. Pingback: The SWP crisis: accounts and resources « Jim Jepps

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