The recent convulsive faction fight and split in the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), driven by Peter Taaffe, the General Secretary of SPEW, the Socialist Party of England and Wales, is now plastered all over social media for the world to see. Despite the stream of allegations coming from the Taaffe faction, and the rebuttals from the other side, the dispute in reality centres around prestige politics, a highly pernicious tendency that is invariably fatal in a revolutionary organisation.
It occurs when somebody places his or her personal prestige above all other considerations.
Prestige politics is closely connected with personal ambition, self-promotion and delusions of grandeur. These things have characterised Peter Taaffe from the very beginning. At first they generally passed unnoticed. Most members of the Militant were unaware of them. But to those, like myself, that worked closely with Taaffe on a daily basis for some years, they soon became quite evident.
Unlike Ted Grant, who was a Marxist theoretician of considerable stature, Peter was a very superficial thinker with no ideas of his own. Insofar as he expressed any, they were all filched from Ted. But Taaffe felt no gratitude to Ted, of whom he was intensely envious. On the contrary, he spent most of his time systematically undermining Ted behind his back, whispering in corners to his group of adepts that Ted was “impossible” to work with.
What Taaffe wanted was an organisation of yes-men and women – unconditional supporters who would never contradict him. Lenin once warned Bukharin: “If you want obedience, you will get obedient fools.” That reads like the epitaph on the grave of the CWI. Over a period, the yes-men and women in the Militant – raw, young careerists, politically ignorant, but greedy for personal advancement, crystallised into a clique, which, behind the backs of the elected bodies, was deciding everything.
That was the real basis of the 1991-1992 split. The rest is pure fable. After nearly 30 years, it is about time we put the record straight.
In the last big conflict in 1991-1992, we experienced first hand the bullying, intrigues and underhanded methods of Peter Taaffe and his bureaucratic regime. This also involved such “democratic” niceties as slander, character assassination, harassment of young female oppositionists, expulsion, non-payment of wages, and many other hooligan and gangster methods. Such methods are from the school of Stalinism.
Peter Taaffe had nurtured resentment for Ted Grant for many years before the crisis. He felt overshadowed and his talents not sufficiently appreciated. Taaffe also felt threatened by Alan Woods in the International, and manoeuvred to isolate him. In order to squeeze him out, Taaffe’s supporters put pressure on Alan by exerting pressure on his partner Ana, who also worked in the International centre. It was thanks to this constant harassment, designed to demoralise and undermine, that Ana suffered from deteriorating health and experienced a nervous breakdown. Such were the methods of the regime.
Ana had worked in underground conditions during the Franco period. She had been arrested and beaten up in the cellars of the police under the dictatorship. But she said her experience at the hands of the clique was far more painful, as she never expected to be treated in this way by her own comrades, so-called. The most vicious role in this vile affair was played by one of Taaffe's most servile acolytes and main hatchet-man. Nowadays, under the pseudonym of Vincent Kolo, he is a leading figure of the Majority CWI faction. But what confidence can one have in any International that tolerates the presence of a man with such a record in its ranks? And how can anyone believe that these comrades have really learned the lessons of the past, when they systematically cover up the shameful role of their leading people in these things?
Taaffe had succeeded in tightening his grip over the British organisation and wanted to do the same in the International. It was Taaffe’s efforts to sideline or remove Ted and Alan that eventually burst out into the open in April 1991. The open challenge to Taaffe’s authority brought the clique to its feet and served to accelerate the degeneration in the ruling circle. All that operated in the shadows now emerged fully developed. The clique became fully conscious of its interests and prestige, which it ferociously defended with all the means at its disposal. As a result, they did everything to discredit Ted Grant, the founder of the tendency, and Alan Woods, a leading comrade who had joined in 1960. The rumour mill worked overtime in this regard.
The crisis in fact broke out at the top of the organisation and the rank and file were completely in the dark. In a meeting of the International Secretariat in April 1991, Ted and Alan accused Peter Taaffe of organising a clique within the International. They claimed that, a) a clique existed at the top of the organisation, which operated outside the formal structures of the tendency, and had usurped the functions of democratically elected bodies, b) that through these Zinovievist measures, which included the advancement of certain individuals on the grounds of clique loyalty, they had done enormous damage, c) that they systematically shielded individuals from criticism and concealed abuses and, d) carried out the systematic elimination of any critical, independent-minded or “dissident” comrade who stood in the way of the clique and its operations.
Taaffe launched a counter-offensive, hoping to use his dominance in the British organisation to discredit Ted and Alan. It was an all-out war. The May European School was abruptly cancelled, at great financial cost. They needed time to prepare the ground. The first part of the plan was for Taaffe to call a special British CC meeting to condemn Ted and Alan, which took place on 17 May 1991. A ringing endorsement for Taaffe there would then be used to convince a reconvened IEC meeting.
In the CC “debate”, a resolution submitted by Alan and Ted summed up the alien atmosphere operating in the tendency at that time:
“We condemn unreservedly the scurrilous campaign which has been unleashed against comrades Ted Grant and Alan Woods, two comrades whose joint membership of this organisation adds up to more than 80 years.
“We specifically repudiate the charge that Alan Woods and Ted Grant took the initiative for taking the discussion outside the International Secretariat (IS). In fact, immediately after the IS finished, Peter Taaffe discussed the meeting with Lyn Walsh and Keith Dickinson, who subsequently put around the building the lie that Ted Grant had allegedly threatened to split.
“We also condemn the London Regional Secretary who for the past three days, and contrary to the letter and spirit of the position put by the group of Regional Secretaries last Thursday, has been using the London full-time apparatus to organise factional meetings directed against Ted Grant and Alan Woods.
“It is totally unacceptable that slanders be directed at comrades who raise differences, with a view to discrediting them and silencing them.”
At the time I was the National Organiser of the tendency, but I supported Alan’s and Ted’s allegations, describing the situation in the British organisation as an “unhealthy regime”. At the CC meeting, called to rubber-stamp the Taaffe leadership, members were pressured to fall into line. They voted to dismiss the allegations of a clique, with the only votes against being Ted and Alan, and myself abstaining.
Alan and Ted were forced to go into writing to fight back against these attacks, and exposing the regime, which we recently republished. For this “crime,'' they were viciously attacked and censured. The fight against a bureaucratic clique at the top of the organisation was soon caught up in a fight over the “Open Turn”, the proposal to break from the Labour Party and set up an open independent organisation, starting in Scotland.
This in turn fed into a heated dispute over whether to stand a “Real Labour” candidate against Labour in Walton in the summer of 1991. In a healthy organisation, such differences would have been handled and debated without resort to bureaucratic threats, reprisals or repression. Such methods were completely alien to us. But it was precisely these methods that the Taaffe gang used. My opposition to Walton and the “Open Turn” sealed my fate as far as the General Secretary was concerned. As a member of the British EC and as National Organiser, I was regarded by him and his acolytes as a “traitor” and was therefore targeted for special treatment.
While I was prepared to go to Walton, I had a problem of serious illness in my family, especially with my baby son. The leadership were fully aware of this, but it did not stop them from personally attacking me for my absence. This, together with other invented “misdemeanours”, including “gross misconduct”, became the subject of a whole session at the July Central Committee, which Alan Woods compared to the “hate session” in George Orwell’s 1984. A really vicious atmosphere of witch-hunting hysteria and vitriol was whipped up against me. It was very clear that CC members had been primed to lead the assault.
In reply, Ted made the shortest speech of his life. He rose and went to the front, papers under his arm. “I have seen all this before,” he said. “This is Healyism. This is Zinovievism. This is Stalinism. With these methods you will build nothing. All the apparatus in your hands, the press, the building, everything, all this will be turned to dust with such methods.” He then sat down to a stunned audience. But the regime was determined to press on regardless, passing a motion of censure against me by 42 to 2. A comrade was put in place to “shadow” me and all my area responsibilities were removed.
At that point, the organisation in Britain had some 200 full timers, 100 at the National Centre. They were fully mobilised to “defend the organisation against attack” and to rout the Opposition. A few had the courage to refuse to play this dirty game. There were a handful of Oppositionists at the Centre, one of whom was on maternity leave. We were immediately isolated, with few prepared to speak to us or even say “hello”. Even the newest full-timer was trained to howl with the rest of them, as a way of earning their spurs.
The Opposition full-time comrades were harassed whenever possible. Those who fought back were brought before the EC to explain themselves and threatened with disciplinary measures. We were stripped of any responsibilities, as we were told we could no longer be trusted. Then – unsurprisingly – accused of not carrying out our responsibilities! All this crap was spread around the organisation. Votes of no confidence were regularly passed against us at the EC and CC, where we were in a small minority. Such things became a ritual. Even individual departments, such as the Finance and Print/Production departments, passed motions of “censure” unanimously against me, without me being present. Ironically, this was at a time when we were demanding natural justice from the Labour Party.
Stephanie Harrison, a young female full-timer, who sympathised with the Opposition, resigned in early August due to the unbearable level of harassment. She wrote:
“I do hold reason to feel harassed. The atmosphere throughout the organisation, particularly the Centre, is of a deteriorated character with leading comrades stooping to low levels of abuse. Any comrades holding different opinions or points of view are automatically assumed to be part of the faction, or supporting the faction, are in some way in what I’ve seen harassed and victimised on a personal level by leading comrades in different ways.”
This poisonous atmosphere was systematically cultivated by Taaffe and his leading circle. Opposition full-timers were even taken off the night duty as we were considered a “security risk”. “Majority” full-timers were encouraged to spy on Oppositionists and report on their activities. The conversations of Opposition comrades were monitored through the central call-logger and computer printouts studied for information of who we were talking to. A printout of Ted’s calls was discovered on the top of the desk of Peter Taaffe’s secretary. Of course, all this was kept from the knowledge of the membership, who would have been deeply shocked to hear of these methods. They were kept completely in the dark.
The same Stalinist methods were replicated in the regions, where Opposition branches were closed and “merged”. Hit lists were drawn up of suspected faction sympathisers, who were constantly fed the lies and gossip about the Opposition leaders, if not to convince them, then to demoralise them. Opposition supporters were worn down by constant “discussions”. One comrade in Birmingham counted 17 hours of individual “discussion” with CC members. A layer, alienated by such behaviour, resigned from the organisation in disgust.
The victory of Taaffe was not a victory of ideas, but a victory of the apparatus. There was no “democratic” debate, but only an attempt to crush the Opposition. In the past, our tendency had a clean banner and completely rejected such methods. Now they had become common practise under the Taaffe regime. When a comrade from Paisley personally asked Taaffe at the September Scottish Aggregate meeting if there was any solution to this crisis, he was told that “the only solution was for the Minority leaders to repudiate publicly and in writing the allegations that they have made.”
While the Majority full-timers could do anything they wished and travel anywhere to defend their position, all expenses paid, our every movement was severely restricted and constantly challenged. They wanted to keep us cocooned in the National Centre, allowing them a free hand.
Initially, when the allegations of a clique were being debated, the IS Majority imposed a rule that only IS members could address meetings on this subject. As Ted was ill at the time, it meant that only Alan could travel to different sections, which was a physical impossibility. This was used to stifle any discussion.
Over the “Open Turn”, the Majority sent their representatives everywhere. While Dave Cotterill (Liverpool), Alan McCoombes (Glasgow), Nick Wrack, Soraya Lawrence, Tony Saunois and Peter Taaffe went to Spain on behalf of the “Majority” to address meetings, when the Opposition agreed to send Davy Brown to Germany for a single debate, he was dragged before the British EC and condemned for “leaving his post”, although they had been duly informed.
On several occasions, while the Opposition comrades were restricted in travelling, Majority speakers would attend meetings to “defend” both points of view!
In particular, my movements were closely monitored, on a daily basis. Even holidays were scrutinised. Of course, no other member of the EC was monitored in this way, and could come and go as they pleased. I attach a photocopy of the “report” on myself drawn up by Keith Dickinson, that was sent on behalf of the British EC to members of the International Executive Committee “for their information”. It is an example of the police-like surveillance of the Opposition:
Click to expand:
The full-time apparatus was used as a battering ram to smash the Opposition. Many resisted, but it obviously took its toll. The atmosphere was becoming intolerable, especially at the National Centre. We demanded a Control Commission to investigate the allegations of intimidation of Opposition full-timers. But this was of course refused.
How to rig a conference
The so-called debate on the “Open Turn” had nothing in common with a genuine debate. In my own branch, as in many others, individuals were put up to stage provocations, lower the level and poison the discussion. Of course, such individuals, given their dirty role, soon dropped out in disillusionment after our expulsion.
Taaffe organised his “crushing majority” at the special conference in November 1991, where he got 93 percent of the vote by using the pressure of the full-time apparatus. Instead of electing delegates on a proportional basis, which would be the normal procedure in such a situation and had been requested by the Opposition, the leadership decided to “leave it up to the branch”. Of course, with 98 percent of full-timers supporting the Majority faction, and where there was one full timer for each branch, it was not too difficult to appreciate the meaning of “leave it up to the branch”.
When a branch favoured the “majority”, the full timer argued for “winner takes all”. When a branch favoured the “minority”, the full timer argued for a proportional slate basis. As a result, although the Opposition was in a minority, the conference was unrepresentative of the real balance of forces within the organisation. For instance, the Opposition in London had reasonable support, but only one conference delegate out of 43 from London was an Opposition supporter! When Ted learned of these manoeuvres, he was astonished: “It’s unbelievable,” he said, “He’s [Taaffe] got more tricks than a monkey in a box. He must think that is what politics is all about. That means he is just a provincial politician.” And that just about sums him up.
Pre-arranged motions appeared on the agenda of the special conference condemning the Opposition for all kinds of things, especially the Opposition full-timers. For instance, one, from North Shields, concludes: “We demand that should these comrades persist in their actions that the EC suspend them without pay until such time as they give a full commitment to carry out all tasks asked of them in line with their positions as full-timers.”
These threats, encouraged by the Taaffe leadership, became commonplace. The growing intolerance towards those with political differences was reflected in the hissing, booing, shouting and heckling of Opposition speakers at conference, including towards international comrades. Although many Scottish speakers were called, not a single Opposition comrade from Scotland was allowed into the discussion. Again, no Opposition supporter was called from Merseyside to speak on Walton. The whole thing was stage-managed from beginning to end. In the farcical “balanced debate”, which lasted seven hours, only four Opposition comrades were called from the floor, two of whom moved resolutions!
The full-time apparatus was used to deliver the vote at the conference, which it did. As with all insecure people, Taaffe needed to demonstrate he had a “crushing majority”. Trotsky’s biography of Stalin reveals a similar psychology. His elections regularly produced “majorities” of around 98-99 percent, especially against the Left Opposition. In the recent SPEW conference Taaffe only managed to get 84 percent of the vote. He must be losing his grip in his old age.
But that 84 percent will not save him any more than the 93 percent he got last time around. After the expulsion of the Opposition, the affairs of Militant (later the Socialist Party) went from bad to worse. Following 1992, the organisation suffered a massive collapse, including the loss of whole areas like Merseyside and Scotland. Now the Taaffites are about to experience another much bigger collapse.
After the 1991 conference, the clique stepped up its assault against the Opposition. The atmosphere in the Centre was poisonous. When we turned up for work we were shunned. We were treated like lepers. We were of course excluded from all meetings. They locked our offices, took away our computers, phones, etc. They made life impossible for us. They also tried to change our signatures on the organisation’s bank accounts, which was clearly a preparation for a split. But we refused.
Under those circumstances, turning up for “work” became increasingly difficult, even pointless. A few weeks before Christmas 1991, our attendance became less frequent. Soon we received notices saying that we were sacked, without any compensation. Some were paid for the month, but others received nothing, despite having children to support. This affected Alastair Wilson, who was forced to seek legal action to get his back wages. He threatened to take the Militant to an Industrial Tribunal for what they owed him. Before the Tribunal began the Taaffites decided to pay the money to avoid public embarrassment.
This withholding of wages also affected Alan and Ana in the International Centre. Again, as they were both full-time and had no other income, this led to hardship. When they were sacked, the few personal possessions that they had in their office soon “disappeared”. The same thing happened to Ted.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel, Taaffe even threatened to stop the maternity payments to a female Opposition full-timer. On 28 November, Linda Douglas, who was on maternity leave, went to the Centre to discuss her future return to full-time work. Instead, she was faced with threats. Linda, who had been a member for 12 years and full-time for eight-and-a-half-years, had also served as the first black member of Labour’s NEC.
Her partner described what happened:
“At present, Linda is eight-and-a-half-months pregnant, expecting another child in January. We already have a two-year-old daughter. We are dependent for our existence on our wages as full-timers, who have dedicated our lives to the organisation.
“Two months ago, it was agreed that Linda should receive maternity pay and maternity leave… On the 28th November, Linda and myself went to the Centre as arranged to obtain the wages already owing to Linda and to finalise the amount of maternity pay she would receive and the date when she would recommence full-time work.
“To our astonishment, we were intercepted by comrade Nick Wrack, who asked us to attend a discussion in Francis Curran’s office. Present were Nick Wrack, Francis Curran and Brian Ingham [from the EC]. At this meeting we were informed that unless comrade Rob Sewell signed various documents resigning from positions in the tendency (and unless we put pressure on him to do so) then Linda would receive no further pay.
“All that they were prepared to offer was the pay already owed to Linda up to the 30th November, but on the fundamental question of maternity pay, not only would this not be paid, but there would not even be any discussion on the subject.”
Linda was sacked and expelled while still on maternity leave. She got some money from the minority comrades to help her and her partner, but our resources were very meagre.
“At lot of people knew what was happening and said nothing,” explained Linda recently.
“There were a lot of lies circulating about my situation, but only one person ever called me to check the facts, Robbie Seagal, bless her. I actually had to get on with things and never really processed how awful it was what they were doing to me. So many things happened; no wonder people found it so traumatic.
“Many refused to believe it, and I got expelled by my branch with no one supporting me. I was unable to attend due to having just given birth!
“I wasn't bothered by then! Except some good 'friends' were involved in these actions.”
So much for these charlatans – great defenders of women’s rights! This was a clear illustration of how low they were prepared to go.
“A siege mentality”
On 29 November, the Administration department, overseen by Keith Dickinson, passed a resolution for the attention of the EC. It proposed:
“The immediate suspension from work with pay of all full-timers who are members of the minority faction, with the right of appeal to the CC. While under suspension, they are not allowed access to the Centre or any other building of our organisation unless they are accompanied by a CC member. The CC should meet immediately to investigate the suspensions and if it decides that the minority full-timers have not been fulfilling their role in the period after the Congress, then they should cease to be paid by the organisation and will no longer be considered as full-timers.”
A “siege mentality” was created at the national headquarters as a means of deepening the harassment of the Opposition. When I tried to take my books home – my own personal property – from the Centre, I was stopped. On 25 November, the EC had issued a circular stating that no personal property could be taken from the building without prior consent. Every book (several hundred in total) had to be individually checked in case I was engaged in smuggling material out. Two EC members, Dickenson and Wrack, took turns to flick through every page, volume by volume, to find something suspect. It took a great deal of time and was like the actions of a police investigation. When I brought the books down from my office in boxes to the front of the building, I had to go through a picket line of about 15-20 full-timers who stood near the exit, hoping to intimidate me. Normally on a Saturday morning only two full-timers would be present on the front desk. That day, I was honoured by these mass ranks. Intimidation was a key part of the toolkit of Peter Taaffe, who must have organised the ‘welcoming’ committee. It was typical of the thuggish behaviour of the Majority leaders.
In a fit of spite, the General Secretary proposed to the print shop that the Opposition full-timers, Davy Brown and Alastair Wilson, be transferred to there, where they should be given “the most menial jobs until they leave”.
On Monday 2 December, the EC met to discuss the “work records” of the Oppositionists, and then sent each of us the following letter:
“The EC has met to discuss your record of absence from the national centre and your continued failure to fulfil your obligations as full-timers.
“We demand you give an answer to the following:
“1. Can you explain your persistent absence from the national centre?
“2. Can you explain why you have not contacted us with an explanation for your non-attendance?
“3. Will you categorically deny that you have been working from separate premises during normal working hours?
“4. Do you think it correct that you should continue to be paid when you appear to be boycotting the national centre and only to engage in factional activity?
“5. What is the reason for your absence from the national centre today (2nd December 1991) and what activity have you been engaged in instead?
“Signed: Keith Dickinson for the EC.”
Despite our comprehensive replies, the EC felt obliged to send a further letter on similar lines on 11 December, demanding answers to the same and other questions. This was to be the ‘legal’ pretext for the issuing of sacking notices.
When Ted Grant went to the Centre on 3 December to complain about the treatment of his secretary, Alastair, the EC majority called a special meeting – an ambush in effect – where Ted was given the “third degree”. They then sent out a circular the following week to all branches reproducing the recorded interrogation. Once again, this revealed the real nature of the Taaffeite apparatus:
“Peter Taaffe: So you don’t recognise the decisions of the CC as the decisions of the CC?
“Ted Grant: No. It is a decision of the Majority faction.
“Mike Waddington: So the CC no longer exists?
“Ted Grant: It doesn’t, because the CC met, the Majority faction decides everything before the CC meets.
“Peter Taaffe: Well, let’s get this clear. The CC does not exist as far as you are concerned.
“Ted Grant: No. The Majority faction of the CC takes all the decisions before the CC. The CC is a rubber stamp.
“Peter Taaffe: I repeat again: you are saying the CC doesn’t exist?
“Ted Grant: I didn’t say that.
“Peter Taaffe: You said it, actually.
“Ted Grant: I didn’t.
“Peter Taaffe: It’s all on record.
“Ted Grant: When?
“Peter Taaffe: It’s all on tape.
“Ted Grant: I said the CC didn’t exist?
“Peter Taaffe: Yes.
“Ted Grant: Now?
“Peter Taaffe: We’ve asked you: do you say that the CC does not exist?
“Ted Grant: I didn’t say that."
(From national circular, “In answer to Ted Grant, a reply from the General Secretary”, issued 10 December 1991)
The Centre full-timers were instructed not to talk to us. Comrades we had known for years would not even say: “Good morning.” It was a systematic, organised campaign of harassment, designed to break our will and undermine our morale. It was hard, but it failed in its objective.
The EC went on to pass a resolution “on security”, demanding that all full-timers leaving the headquarters would have their bags searched – an unheard-of procedure. Ted objected as this was clearly aimed at the Opposition full-timers, as was shortly revealed. When Ted Grant and Alastair Wilson were leaving the building, they had their bags searched, while others left freely without being searched. Ted was then physically blocked from leaving. “I proceeded to open the door in order to leave,” explained Ted, “when a full-timer slammed the door shut and interposed himself between me and the door, physically preventing me from leaving the premises.”
Despite having found nothing in his bags, he was forced to wait “until an EC member came and gave permission for him to leave”. This was a cowardly and disrespectful act. This was not the fault of the full-timer on the front desk, as he was only acting under instructions from the General Secretary. It is Taaffe who bears the full responsibility for this criminal behaviour. However, we refused to be cowed by this bullying and intimidation, which was characteristic of the regime of Gerry Healy.
“At this moment in time, I feel unable to go to the National Centre,” wrote Ted, “because the present climate of hatred towards the Opposition, which has been deliberately whipped up by the EC-majority, means that my physical integrity and personal dignity can no longer be guaranteed. I am further recommending to other comrades of the Opposition, who have also suffered systematic harassment, that they should avoid going to the Centre until satisfactory assurances are given by the EC-majority that these provocations shall cease.”
How the Opposition was expelled
Taaffe could not tolerate a democratic debate on the issues raised by the Opposition. Ted Grant, despite the surreptitious slander campaign, still enjoyed great authority and respect in the ranks, and Taaffe could not be confident of the result. He was, nevertheless, forced to take the fight into the International Executive Committee (IEC). Here, 40 percent of the June IEC supported the allegations of a clique. With such a large international opposition against him, Taaffe and his henchmen, regarded this struggle as a fight to the finish. As with the most recent dispute, they were prepared to split the International.
There was no question of a democratic debate in the International nor a World Congress to decide things. In fact, the very first action of the clique was to cancel the May European School. They made sure that the Opposition was denied a platform and the majority of the membership were kept in ignorance, while being fed a steady stream of lies and calumnies by the apparatus in London.
There was a real avalanche of slanders. Allegations were constantly repeated that Ted Grant was clinically “senile”. This was the man who founded and built the tendency from scratch in the most difficult years, its chief theoretician and the author of all the main perspectives documents that were approved year after year in the congresses of the British and International organisations. To their shame, together with Taaffe and his clique, were many individuals who now form the leadership of the current “anti-Taaffe” faction.
Incidentally, those who seek to falsify history should at least get their dates straight. The struggle against the Taaffe clique began not in 1992, but in April 1991. The leaders of the Opposition, Ted, Alan and myself, did not leave or split from the Militant or the CWI. We were expelled at a meeting in Hepscott Road on 16 January 1992, accused of creating a “party within a party”. This decision was ratified at an emergency CC meeting on 20 January. This in turn opened up a purge within the organisation.
Let us be clear, it was the Taaffe gang that took the initiative to split the CWI at that time.
A few days before Christmas 1991, myself and two other full-timers were informed by registered letter that we were suspended from work. In January, myself, Ted and Alan were called before the EC faction and expelled on the “evidence” of an unnamed informer. True to the methods of the apparatus, acting on instructions, this informer was sent into the Opposition as a stooge to gather evidence towards our expulsion. Doctored materials were used to frame us.
The expulsions (described as “desertions”) were fed to the capitalist press. We had apparently “placed ourselves outside the ranks of the tendency”, which was simply a dishonest method of expulsion with no right of appeal. “We regret that Ted Grant has split in this way,” cynically stated the Militant, which served to cover up the truth. The members, whatever their views, were faced with a fait accompli.
On the day of the expulsions, comrades who spent decades building the tendency were refused entry to the national headquarters and were kept waiting at the “tradesman’s entrance” before being expelled. The petty, vindictive and spiteful attitude of the Taaffeite clique was on full display. Ted Grant, a 78-year old man and founder of the tendency, was not even allowed to use the headquarters’ toilet facilities without those on the front desk needing to speak to Peter Taaffe personally to get his permission. This incident speaks volumes about the disgusting regime that operated at the so-called Centre.
A purge then took place within the organisation, where Opposition comrades were expelled or driven out.
For example, Kevin Fernandes, an Opposition comrade from Lambeth, received a letter from his Lambeth Branch Committee (dated 30 January 1992), asking him to attend an interview. The letter reads as follows:
“The purpose of this Branch Committee is to interview you, as a supporter of the minority in the branch, allowing you the opportunity to clarify your role – if any – in the setting up or supporting of this new organisation. It is to give you a chance to disassociate yourself from this new organisation and its supporters. You will be asked a series of questions as listed below:
“1. Are you prepared to be a loyal supporter of this Tendency?
“2. Will you continue to sell the paper?
“3. Will you pay regular subs?
“4. Will you raise the Fighting Fund?
“5. Will you recruit to this Tendency?
“6. Will you publicly advocate the majority political position of the Tendency?
“7. What is your view of the new organisation?
“8. What role – if any – have you played in setting it up?
“9. Do you support the setting up of a separate paper?
“10. Will you be selling this journal?
“11. Will you be providing financial support for this journal?
“12. Will you attend internal meetings/conferences of the new organisation?
“The Branch Committee is not here to expel you. The answers you give will allow the Branch Committee to determine if you have left the Tendency. The Branch Committee will accordingly report back to the branch.”
Such McCarthyite investigation techniques took place all over the country. The degeneration was complete. Taaffe and his acolytes were firmly in the saddle, for now.
For the record, the most fanatical and vicious of the witch-hunters was an Irishman by the name of John Throne. Nowadays he denies it (don't they all?), but his hypocritical denials will cut no ice with anybody who was around at that time. Later "the man with the cemetery smile", as he was known in Opposition circles, got a taste of his own medicine when Taaffe, having utilised his services to hound, attack and expel Ted Grant and his supporters, turned against him and kicked him out. That was one expulsion that was richly deserved.
In the past, the clique operated behind the scenes. Now their bureaucratic methods were on full display. Taaffe was no more than a provincial politician, which accurately reflected the outlook of the apparatus. They continually referred to themselves as the “Majority”, a title that somehow meant that they were inherently correct. These petty-minded individuals could not tolerate being in a minority. They had forgotten that Marx and Engels, who defended their ideas, were in a minority for most of their lives. The same can be said of Lenin, and especially Leon Trotsky, the founder of our movement.
Of course, the Taaffeites could not even tell the truth about our expulsion. Instead, we were deemed to have “placed ourselves outside the organisation”, a bureaucratic trademark of the Taaffites, used to expel any opposition without any right of appeal. Sound familiar? Yes, these are the very same dirty methods that are now being used against the Irish and other comrades.
Are you really surprised at this? Did it come like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky? Surely it can hardly be a surprise to you, because it is exactly the same clique, composed of more or less the same people, led by the same man. The only difference is that these same methods seemed OK to you then, but suddenly become not OK when you are on the receiving end!
The emperor with no clothes
One of the Fables of Aesop concerns a frog who puffed himself up, bragging he could be as big as an ox. The frog, as we know, eventually came to a very unfortunate end. After nearly three decades, Peter Taaffe’s bubble has well and truly burst, exposing the hollowness that always lay behind the façade. The General Secretary, to quote another sad tale, ended up as the emperor with no clothes.
The oft-repeated bombastic claim of “more than 2,000 members” in Britain was exposed as the fiction it is. The reality is that SPEW has become a dwindling force of only a few hundred or so active members. That was shown by the numbers attending their recent aggregate meetings. The rest is smoke and mirrors.
Taaffe was always a showman, anxious to attract a big crowd. The trouble is that the showman has nothing to show any more. He has achieved nothing in three decades except for the destruction of his own organisation. There is no need to speak of theory, an area where he never had anything to say worthy of note: not a single book or even article of any worth in three decades.
Since he has nothing new to report, he is obliged time and gain to repeat the old clichés about Liverpool City Council and the Poll Tax Campaign (“we brought down Margaret Thatcher, don’t you know”). But having squeezed these old stories now for more than a quarter of a century, he will find that they have no longer a drop of sustenance left in them. These stories have become as tedious and predictable as a repeating groove in an old LP record.
He attempted to cover his bare backside by latching onto the “successes” of the Irish and American sections of the CWI (a councillor in Seattle and 3 TDs and some councillors in Ireland). But these “successes”, instead of boosting his sagging authority, began to pose a threat to the prestige of an increasingly insecure General Secretary.
Taaffe suddenly discovered that these “successes” were based (surprise, surprise!) on an “opportunist” deviation, something the SPEW leadership, for some reason or other, was not aware of before – although it was hardly a new phenomenon. In any case, Taaffe himself is well acquainted with opportunism. Up until quite recently, such “crimes” were quietly and conveniently swept under the carpet, for fear that they would tarnish the image of the General Secretary.
Now Peter Taaffe and his clique, who became a minority within the CWI, have conveniently used these allegations of opportunism, identity politics, etc. to expel the majority of the CWI. Yes, that’s right: the minority has expelled the majority! That is an interesting idea. But it is not really novel. In plain English, that is called a split. But Taaffe does not call it a split and has a morbid fear of being in a minority.
This essentially cowardly and bureaucratic mentality is in complete contrast to the methods of the great Marxists of the past. Late in life, Engels wrote: “Marx and I were in a minority all our lives, and we were proud to be in a minority.” And Trotsky was not afraid to stand against the might of Stalin’s monstrous murder machine: one man against the whole world. But for Taaffe, it is essential that he remains in charge, the permanent, unmovable, all-powerful General Secretary. Always in the Majority!
Moreover, being in control of the CWI involves a matter of principle – a very lucrative principle. By getting rid of the real Majority, the Taaffe gang have appropriated the funds of the CWI, as well as the website of their former comrades. He also clings to the name. He then carried out the expulsion of the minority within SPEW who were in opposition. Naturally, according to Taaffe, they have not been expelled at all, but had simply “placed themselves outside of the organisation”. This approach was best summed up in the immortal words of Alec Thraves, the Welsh Secretary of SPEW: “Goodbye and good riddance!”
Prior to this denouement, Taaffe had already kicked out two oppositionists from the SPEW executive committee and tried to withhold their wages. Likewise, the two full-time workers of the CWI who supported the “majority” were ostracised and their wages withheld. One had a new baby to support. These comrades had experienced at first hand the full weight of the Taaffe apparatus, systematically isolated and then unceremoniously sacked.
Thus, the Majority of the CWI were given the grand order of the boot by the Minority. The bitterness and hatred displayed against this Majority from their former comrades was so intense that they felt that under different circumstances their “betrayal” would have been met with a bullet!
Learning the hard way?
The present crisis within the CWI comes as no surprise to us. The only surprise is that it did not come sooner. With sufficient material resources, a rotten regime can last quite some time, as we saw with the Healyites. But in the end, it fell to pieces. This will be the fate of the CWI.
The methods of Taaffe were the same monstrous methods of Gerry Healy and Co. Once the prestige of the ruling group was threatened, they were quite prepared to stoop to such methods. They showed that they were a million miles removed from the genuine methods and democracy of our movement. But the crisis of 1991-1992 was no accident, and neither is the present crisis that has effectively wrecked the CWI.
That organisation was built on rotten foundations, and this is the inevitable result. It is now dead, and it cannot be resurrected. In order that something positive can come from its wreckage, the first need is for an honest reckoning with the past. Without such a reckoning, not a single step forward can be taken. In the words of George Santayana, he who does not learn from history will always be doomed to repeat it.
The Majority of the CWI have had a taste of the crude gangster methods of Peter Taaffe and his acolytes. Today, they are up in arms at the way they were treated and describing what had happened to them as a “bureaucratic coup”. Very good. But we are entitled to ask them: what lessons have you learned? Those who claim today to uphold the “democratic traditions” of the CWI should be reminded of their own past roles. But their current attempt to hide their real history is a clear indication of their reluctance to meet up to this responsibility.
Far from drawing an honest balance sheet, the CWI Majority wish to prettify the past and wash away their own record. They are striving with might and main to present these bureaucratic methods as very recent deviations. For instance, in a statement entitled Bureaucratic Coup Will Not Stop CWI Majority from Building a Strong Revolutionary Socialist International (26 July), they assert that previously the CWI was based upon “democratic traditions”, not on bureaucratic centralism.
This fairy tale is very convenient. But fairy tales are for little children, and the members of the CWI are not little children. They want to know the truth. However, what they are given by the leadership is not the truth but what is known as a whitewash. The reality of what happened is very different, as many older members of the CWI can testify (to their credit, some have already done so).
For the record, it must be made clear (because now they are attempting to deny it by spreading all kinds of ridiculous distortions) that these methods were wholeheartedly supported by many of the leading figures in the current CWI Majority, who are loudly complaining about these very same methods at the present time. What they have just experienced at the hands of Taaffe is precisely a dose of their own medicine.
For many years, the likes of Vincent Kolo, Per-Ake Westerlund, Eric Byl, Andros Payiatsos, and many others, as well as their counterparts in Ireland and the USA, were complicit in the crimes of the rotten regime of Peter Taaffe. In 1991-1992, they were howling and baying for blood alongside the rest of the pack. They willingly participated in this disgusting spectacle that dragged the clean banner of Trotskyism in the mud. Ever since then, they have been systematically repeating a pack of lies about Ted Grant, Alan Woods and the Opposition. Today, the very victims of Taaffe – leaders of this CWI “Majority” – are distorting history to cover up their past roles, beginning with new slanders against Ted.
For example, the Majority CWI statement explains:
“In our 45 years of existence we have had to fight this phenomena [bureaucratism] at various levels, and mostly we were able to correct them without too much damage. However, at times it has required the intervention of a politically conscious membership against a degenerated central leadership to safeguard the CWI’s programme. This was the case when a big majority of the CWI rose up against the leadership around Ted Grant in 1992, and has unfortunately had to be the case with the leadership around Peter Taaffe this year.” [Our emphasis]
This statement stands the truth on its head. The idea that the ranks of the CWI “rising up against the leadership around Ted Grant in 1992” is a complete fabrication. There was certainly a “rising up” – namely, the rising up of the Taaffeite apparatus – to silence and crush the Opposition with disgusting hooligan methods copied from the school of Stalinism. Those who signed (“provisional committee”) the above statement know just what we are talking about, because they participated in these activities, some maybe reluctantly, but most with the utmost enthusiasm.
For the International Marxist tendency!
When Ted and Alan denounced the activities of his clique, Taaffe reacted by declaring war on his accusers. He immediately mobilised the full force of the apparatus to isolate and destroy them. That was the real meaning of the “rising up”, which was about as “spontaneous” as a mass protest demonstration in favour of the Beloved Leader in Pyongyang. The rank and file could not have “risen up” for the simple reason that they knew nothing about it. It took them completely by surprise. But Taaffe’s “cadres” were ready and waiting to “rise up”. They had been “put in the picture”, well in advance.
The Opposition was expelled, not only in Britain, but internationally. These forces, who fought relentlessly against the alien methods and bureaucratic degeneration of Taaffe, went on to found the International Marxist Tendency. In the face of persecution, we defended the real principles and genuine heritage of Marxism. We have faced adversity and overcome enormous obstacles, but we rebuilt the tendency on the granite basis of Marxist theory.
Our recent International School, which celebrated the centenary of the Communist International with the participation of 400 enthusiastic Marxists from all over the world, was a tremendous success. That was shown in a record collection of almost 136,000 euros (over £125,000). The IMT is building on solid foundations: we stand for the genuine ideas of the original CWI and Militant: the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and our founder, comrade Ted Grant.
The IMT is the only organisation in the world that can lay claim to that great heritage. Beware of imitations!
As Trotsky explained, “most of the sectarian groups and cliques, nourished on accidental crumbs from the table of the Fourth International, lead an ‘independent’ organisational existence, with great pretensions but without the least chance for success.
“Bolshevik-Leninists, without waste of time, calmly leave these groups to their own fate.”
This is a very brief outline of the crisis of 1991-92 and our fight against the regime of bureaucratic centralism. We will release more material in due course.
A problem of prestige: the crisis within the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)
Documents of the Opposition in the “Militant” in 1991-92
CWI faction fight: Spanish section walks out