SWP splits with US supporters 

Alex Callinicos

The following letter from IST secretary Alex Callinicos to members of their international tendency explains the SWP split with Left Turn, the group formed in the US out of their previous split with the ISO. The methods of building a national Marxist organisation explained by Callinicos seem utterly reasonable, indeed self-evident. The problem is that the same methods are absent from the IST's conception of how to build an International.

Left Turn and the IS Tendency


This letter accompanies some correspondence between the Socialist
Workers Party in Britain and the comrades of Left Turn in the United
States. As you will see, the bottom line is that the comrades have
decided to dissociate themselves from the IS Tendency and have
therefore asked us to remove them from the list of IST organizations
on our web-sites. We have, of course, complied with this request, and
we must ask you to do the same. In an apparently related move, the
original description of Left Turn on the group's website as 'a
network of anti-capitalists and revolutionary socialists' has been
modified by the removal of 'and revolutionary socialists'.

This is a very unwelcome development, and one that requires
explanation. This is particularly so because the rather curt tone of
the Left Turn communications implies that their decision was the
outcome of a long and acrimonious debate between them and the SWP.
This is not so. As I said in my initial reply, the decision came to
us as a bolt from the blue. To understand what happened some
background is necessary.

Left Turn was formed in the early months of 2001, on the initiative
of several comrades who had been expelled from the International
Socialist Organization, which had been, till then, the US affiliate
of the IST. This was the result of a debate between the ISO (US) and
the rest of the IST. At the heart of this debate was the ISO
leadership's rejection of two propositions accepted by the rest of
the Tendency: (i) the Seattle protests marked the emergence of a
movement against global capitalism and, more generally, the beginning
of a new phase of radicalization; (ii) revolutionaries should
accordingly make themselves part of the movement, starting not from
their disagreements with other activists, but from the much larger
area of agreement that united the entire movement.

History - particularly the Genoa protests of July 2001 and the
emergence of the anti-war movement after 11 September - has
decisively settled who was right in that debate. The ISO (US)
leadership's refusal to recognize reality reflected a larger
sectarian turn by the group. The founders of Left Turn were expelled
because they expressed views similar to those shared by the rest of
the Tendency. Their expulsion and the ISO (US) leadership's role in
helping to engineer a split in the Greek Socialist Workers Party
(SEK) prompted an IST meeting held in July 2001 to exclude the ISO
(US) from the Tendency; that same meeting invited Left Turn to attend
meetings of the Tendency.

Though there had been comparatively little contact between the SWP
leadership and the founders of Left Turn before the latter's
expulsion, there was some intensive discussion between us as to the
nature of the new group. We encouraged the comrades not simply to
form a new revolutionary socialist organization (a New Model ISO) but
rather to create a looser anti-capitalist network. Our thinking was
that through an organic involvement in the new movements the comrades
(who were already active in different networks) could begin to
crystallize around them a cadre of revolutionary activists unscarred
by the sectarianism of the ISO (US). We took it for granted that
building such a network was a means to developing a much more healthy
revolutionary Marxist organization in the United States.

Initially all seemed to go very well. Very early on Left Turn
comrades based in New York began producing a magazine of the same
name. This made a considerable impact: the group began to attract
activists repelled by the sectarianism of the established left
organizations but wanting more than the cult of spontaneity dominant
in the anti-capitalist networks. Bilal Elamine in particular played a
leading role in organizing a very successful conference on
Globalization and Resistance in New York in November 2001 that helped
to rally the local left after 9/11. This dynamic start did great
credit to the comrades after the bruising experience they had
suffered in the ISO; it also reflected the strong support they
received from the IST and its sympathizers.

Relations with the rest of the Tendency were initially excellent. A
relatively large number of LT members attended Marxism 2001. Some of
them stayed on to join in the IST intervention at the great Genoa
protests. I spoke at the New York conference and afterwards took part
in an excellent caucus with about 20 LT comrades. We all shared in
the grief when one of the group's founders, Pete Moore, died in a car
crash in September 2001.   Anothing founding member, Brian Campbell,
wrote to me after attending the IST meeting in London in January 2002
to 'say how useful I found the international meeting'.

In the early months of 2002, however, it began to become clear that
significant disagreements were developing between Bilal, Brian, and
other leading Left Turn activists, on the one hand, and the two IST
organizations in closest contact with them, the British SWP and the
International Socialists in Canada. The comrades were resistant to
public sales of Left Turn (for example, at the anti-WEF demo in
February 2002) and to organizing any forms of Marxist discussion
within the group.

It slowly emerged that the comrades conceived themselves as a loose
network of experienced activists involved in different single-issue
campaigns (Palestine, Colombia, etc.). Some of these activists had
been in the ISO (US); others were members of orthodox Trotskyist
tendencies. They didn't need Marxist education, it was sometimes
argued. At other times, it was argued that it was too 'early' to
start trying to create a larger core of revolutionary socialists.
Like all stages theories this suffers from the difficulty that if you
don't start the way you mean to carry on, you don't get to where you
intended.

Inevitably, practice reshaped theory. Having deferred building a
revolutionary Marxist organization to the future, the comrades came
to abandon it altogether as an objective (cf. Sasha and Legba: 'the
majority of Left Turn members do not see building the revolutionary
party as the project of our organization.') Logically enough, the
idea of recruiting new members came to seem an unattractive one.
Recruiting young radicalized students became associated with the ISO
(US)'s sectarianism. But what was wrong with the ISO's methods wasn't
recruiting youngsters, but rather trying to enclose them in a
hermetically sealed, intellectually arid organization, instead of
encouraging the new members to develop themselves through actively
participating in the struggles and debates inside the movement.

Clearly one driving force in this process was a perfectly
understandable reaction by the founders of Left Turn to the sectarian
practices of the ISO (US). But in an important sense they are still
accepting the terms of debate set by the ISO. Effectively the ISO
leadership posed a dilemma: either a 'hard' Leninist organization or
the loose, fluffy 'movement of movements'. What the rest of the IST
did was to reject this dilemma. We say that the only way to build
serious Marxist parties today is to be thoroughly in the movement.
The SWP, for example, is being transformed through our role in
building the Stop the War Coalition and other movements such as
Globalise Resistance.

What Left Turn has, in effect, done is to accept the dilemma posed by
the ISO (US) leadership: the difference is that the comrades have
opted, not for a sect isolated from the movement, but for liquidation
into the movement. In a certain sense this too is understandable. The
movement is diverse, lively, dynamic; in the hands of many far left
groups, Marxist theory is dull and dreary. The same temptation to
dissolve ourselves into the movement has been felt elsewhere in the
IST: it was, for example, one factor in the very serious crisis that
afflicted Linksruck in Germany in 2001-2. And in a more mundane
level, most groups, in turning towards the movement, rightly
dismantled existing routines and structures that were an obstacle to
this turn but didn't replace them with new ways of organizing
appropriate to the changed situation - a failure for which we have
paid a certain price, even though we are now trying to correct this
mistake.

But simply to become part of the swarm is a form of surrender. As I
have tried to show in An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto, the development
of the anti-capitalist movement has posed a series of tough
theoretical and strategic problems: the state, imperialism, reform
and revolution, party and movement. The revolutionary Marxist
tradition - creatively applied to the present - can help activists to
address these questions. The movement needs Marxism - Marxism of the
right kind, a Marxism that is rooted in an active and organized
participation in the movement.

Politics abhors a vacuum. The failure of the leaders of Left Turn to
address these strategic problems is reflected in a certain decline in
the political quality of their magazine, which has tended to become a
collation of articles on specific issues lacking a coherent focus.
Thus last autumn Left Turn led on Enron rather than the coming war in
Iraq that was evidently becoming the dominant issue in world politics
and subsequently producing a huge anti-war movement in the US. The
latest issue reflects a certain adaptation to the kind of libertarian
politics dominant in many anti-capitalist networks in the Americas -
celebrating the 'horizontalism' of the movement, as if decentralized
structures are sufficient to take on global capital. Rejecting
revolutionary Marxism isn't adopting a neutral stance but opening up
to other forms of politics.

The emergence of these divergences put the SWP leadership in a
quandary. A relatively brief and (for our part) amicable meeting
between Bilal of Left Turn and John Rees and me for the SWP at
Marxism 2002 produced such a vehement response from Bilal that we
decided to pursue our disagreements with great caution. Martin
Smith's offer of a speaking tour was turned down by Left Turn, but
his visit to the West Coast last autumn involved friendly and
positive contacts with LT comrades in San Francisco, Seattle, and San
Diego.

During a visit to New York in March I had a frank but perfectly
friendly discussion with Bilal, Brian Campbell, and another comrade.
I made clear our desire to pursue the discussion in a constructive
and non-confrontational fashion and within the framework of LT's
continued connection with the IST, despite the ambiguities arising
from the participation of supporters of other currents in Left Turn.
The comrades did not dissent from this approach. Chris Harman on a
visit to New York a few weeks later had similarly friendly contacts
with Bilal and Brian (with whom he stayed), and later pursued the
discussion by e-mail.

So why this sudden and brutal break a few months later? It is hard to
be sure looking in from the outside, but the driving force seems to
have been tensions within Left Turn itself. A scattering of comrades
around the country expressed two sorts of overlapping concerns.
First, some at least shared our worries about LT's failure to pursue
the project of building revolutionary socialist organization within
the movement. Secondly, there were concerns about the internal
democracy of Left Turn. The main complaint was that control of the
magazine and over broader decisions (or non-decisions) about the
development of the group seemed to be in the hands of a few founding
members based mainly in New York and Washington DC with no way for
the other members to hold them accountable.

Argument over these issues seems to have produced growing tensions
between the leading comrades and in particular some activists in
Baltimore. The latter successfully pushed for a national meeting in
Washington DC in July. This initiative had nothing to do with the
SWP. When we learned about it we were concerned that, given the
defensive way in which Bilal had responded to John's and my
criticisms, such a meeting would only intensify the tensions within
the group and between LT and the rest of the IST.

We made these concerns clear to the three members of LT who attended
Marxism 2003 in London this July (none of the leading comrades from
New York or Washington came). At a meeting with them, Martin Smith
and I underlined that focusing on organizational questions is usually
not the best way to pursue an internal argument. We stressed that the
broader debate on the future of Left Turn should be pursued on a
long-term and fraternal basis and that confrontation should be
avoided at the meeting in Washington.

Because two of the Baltimore critics had connections with IS Canada
(an ex-member of the group and her partner), our Canadian sister
organization had been blamed by Bilal and his co-thinkers for the
confrontation that did develop at the LT national meeting. IS Canada
has an entirely legitimate interest in the fate of the Tendency in
the US, given the very close links between the workers movements and
anti-capitalist networks across North America. Two leading members of
IS Canada, Michelle Robidoux and Paul Kellogg, attended the meeting
with LT comrades at Marxism 2003, and argued along the same lines as
Martin and I did. Michelle put this approach at length on the phone
to the ex-IS member in Baltimore before the national meeting.

Despite all this (what seemed to us) good advice, the meeting was a
disaster. A bitter confrontation developed between the dominant
comrades in Left Turn and the two Baltimore comrades linked to IS
Canada. It is impossible to say at this distance whose fault this
was. But the LT leaders do have a heavy responsibility for what
happened next. The two Baltimore critics were summarily excluded from
the group. As far as we can tell, there was no vote or other
procedure. The comrades were simply cut off the LT e-mail discussion
list.

It has to be said that this has certainly reinforced the concerns
that had been expressed earlier about the absence of democracy within
the group. It is simply amazing that most of the founder members
should have taken such an arbitrary action in the light of the fact
that they themselves had been expelled from the ISO (US) barely two
years earlier (though it has to be said that the ISO at least paid
lip service to the formalities of constitutional procedure). This
episode - and the subsequent decision to break with the IST -
underline that the decentralized structurelessness characteristic of
many anti-capitalist networks isn't necessarily more democratic than
the representative structures traditional inside the workers'
movement.

In any case, it seems to have been the catastrophic meeting in
Washington that decided the leaders of Left Turn to force a break
with the IST. This decision involved no discussion with the SWP or
any other sister organization. Beyond a brief e-mail by Bilal to IS
Canada blaming them for what happened in Washington, the first
communication with the rest of the IST after the meeting was his
e-mail of 2 September announcing their decision to break. Sasha and
Legba in their subsequent e-mail say that this was 'a democratic
decision of Left Turn members' taken by 'consensus'. Once again it's
hard for an outsider to be sure, but one is entitled to be dubious
about this claim. Mike Davis, for example, Left Turn's best known
member (who shared our concerns about the group's evolution), only
learned about the decision from me. It seems as if the 'consensus'
was one of those in the loop.

Plainly, however arrived at, the decision is one that we can only
greatly regret. It is natural to ask ourselves whether, in hindsight,
there was anything that we could have done to prevent to this
outcome. It is hard to see what this would have been. Given the
hypersensitivity to criticism that Bilal displayed after Marxism
2002, any attempt to pursue the argument more vigorously would almost
certainly have precipitated an earlier break. Perhaps we could have
tried harder to persuade the comrades in Baltimore to avoid any
confrontation with the dominant figures in Left Turn. But this would
probably have simply postponed the break.

This would have been a better outcome than the present one, since it
would have allowed the debate carry on. It wouldn't have changed the
basic fact that Bilal, Brian, and the other leading comrades in Left
Turn have drifted quite a long way politically from the IS tradition.
They have committed the opposite mistake to that made by the ISO (US)
leadership. Rather than build a sect isolated from the movement, they
have liquidated themselves into the movement. This error implies an
assumption as present in that made by the ISO (US) - that
revolutionary Marxist politics necessarily take a sectarian form, so
that we have to choose between this politics and the movement. As I
have already pointed out, this is a false dilemma that we have
rejected. To be a real Marxist today you have to be fully involved in
the movement.

Left Turn's departure is certainly a sad loss for the IST, but Left
Turn will lose out as well. They are cutting themselves off from the
Tendency at one of the most exciting moments in our history, when we
are expanding dynamically thanks to our active involvement in the
movements against global capitalism and war. Having made a
significant impact at last year's European Social Forum and the World
Social Forum, particularly in making them the launching pads for the
global day of anti-war protest on 15 February, we are preparing our
interventions at the forthcoming ESF in Paris and the WSF in Bombay.
Many of us will be involved in further protests against the
occupation of Iraq on 27 September. And of course we are in the thick
of the struggle in our different countries. What a pity that Left
Turn is opting out of the Tendency now!

The comrades' regrettable decision doesn't mean that the US is a
closed country to the IST. We continue to have our supporters there -
most notably Mike Davis. Our Canadian comrades have many connections
with activists in the US, as does the SWP through the international
anti-war movement. And the door is always open to the Left Turn
comrades - individually and collectively - to rejoin us as the
opportunities for revolutionary socialists continue to widen in the
new century.


   Yours fraternally,
   Alex Callinicos,
 for the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain)