A problem of prestige: the crisis within the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

The following statement by comrade John McInally is a personal account of the nature and reasons for the degeneration of the Socialist Party (SP) and Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). John was a member of the SP (and before that Militant) for more than 40 years, before he came into conflict with the leadership and was deemed to have "placed himself outside" of the organisation.

He is a longstanding activist in the civil service union, PCS (and before that the CPSA). He was a past Vice-President of PCS and is currently a member of its National Executive Committee. John's statement is an important and welcome contribution, based upon personal first-hand experience. We publish it here for the information of our readers.

The recent split in the forty-year-old Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) followed the declaration of a Faction by Peter Taaffe and his supporters on the International Secretariat (IS). This occurred after they lost a vote at the International Executive Committee (IEC), which is the organisation’s leading body, other than the World Congress itself. The Faction claimed major “political differences” with their opponents on the IEC who represented a considerable majority of national sections and members of the CWI. The Majority were accused of abandoning work in the trade unions and, in a calculated provocation, of capitulating to Identity Politics and “petit-bourgeois Mandelism” i.e., to a reliance on social forces other than the working class. The United States of America and the Irish sections were specifically targeted as culprits.

In affecting to “call things by their proper name”, the Faction described the Majority as a “Non-Faction Faction”. This opportunist and unintentionally comical characterisation did not honestly reflect the nature of the CWI Majority either politically or organisationally. There was no fully formed and homogeneous “Non-Faction Faction” but a non-factional opposition with a number of different trends representing some quite diverse trains of thinking. A healthy regime, based on the principles of democratic centralism, would have viewed the emergence of “political differences” as a prelude to a patient extended debate in an attempt to identify and resolve these differences, not a precipitous rush to a split in order to prevent what the Faction themselves described as “regime change”. Whatever “political differences” that may or may not exist, they could never justify the crude organisational methods employed by the Faction to split the International before every last avenue had been explored in an effort to resolve the areas of contention. In splitting the CWI, they were responsible for an act of political nihilism in which nothing mattered except their own status and political self-interest.

Peter Taaffe in 2006 Image public domain"The recent split in the forty-year-old CWI followed the declaration of a Faction by Peter Taaffe and his supporters... This occurred after they lost a vote at the International Executive Committee (IEC)" / Image: public domain

The Faction argued the Majority had betrayed the political principles on which the CWI was founded. Defining differences in a false or exaggerated fashion, without full debate, in order to justify a split is the false method of bureaucratic, not democratic centralism. The Faction leadership had no real intention of resolving these “political differences”, real or manufactured, as evidenced in an email inadvertently copied by them to their Majority opponents in the midst of the internal “debate” itself that openly raised the question of their expulsion.

The Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP), of which Taaffe has been general secretary since the mid-1960s, held a conference in late July of this year that was quickly followed by an “international conference” consisting almost exclusively of English and Welsh members, at which a newly “reconstituted CWI” was announced. Those in England and Wales who support the CWI Majority were told at the SP conference they had “placed themselves outside the party” i.e., subjected to administrative expulsions without the right of appeal. At the “international” conference, a World Congress of the “re-constituted CWI” was announced, which meant the inevitable expulsion of the rest of the Majority internationally. The SP leadership took administrative action against leading supporters of the Majority in England and Wales, including removing them from positions and withholding their wages. In pursuing such tactics, the Faction demonstrated its over-arching imperative was the maintenance of power and to secure for themselves the resources of the International, including its considerable finances and the CWI “brand” itself. These actions constituted a “coup” by the IS and SP leadership group, the same people in reality, against the overwhelming majority of the CWI.

In making the maintenance of status, power and position their key imperatives, the Faction employed a “rule or ruin” methodology, which constituted the worst type of sectarianism and which in this instance meant they calculated splitting the International was a price worth paying to retain their leadership position and – not a secondary consideration – the money. In the process of splitting the CWI, they have also split the SP in England and Wales, in which they have lost some of their best activists, including some of its more youthful elements.

Methods of bureaucratic centralism

Before the CWI debate was cut short by the “coup”, a number of national sections had raised detailed criticism of the Faction’s position, laying out its failure to develop perspectives and its increasing adoption of a “one-size-fits-all” strategic approach to an increasingly volatile and complex world situation, which is witnessing a stepping up of attacks on the working class and oppressed layers, but which also opens up tremendous opportunities for the ideas of socialism. To short circuit such an important debate, they simply dismissed their opponents as Mandelites, i.e., unredeemable heretics not worth discussing with, in order to secure their hegemony in a “reconstituted” International. This is indicative of a bureaucratic degeneration and a sectarian mindset bordering on cultism, which characterises this tendency. The “regime” that the Faction is trying to preserve has been brutally exposed by the methods they employed in this struggle, namely those based on bureaucratic centralism and prestige politics, which elevates status, position and control above political principle. In addition, it jettisons the dialectical method of analysis for formalist “power politics”. It is also a surrender to the obnoxious mentality that “the ends justify the means”.

Taaffe himself condemned this very behaviour in his pamphlet Socialism and Left Unity, (2008), in which he wrote, “A serious examination would show that the SWP in its fundamental ideas, its approach, and above all its method has been found wanting.” In an important section on Party Rights and Factions, he says: “A politically self-confident, clear leadership of a Party, which enjoys authority on the basis of its political standing in the eyes of its members – rather than on ‘statutes’ in general, has demonstrated in practice the correctness of its perspectives, tasks and organisational methods to the members. It therefore turns to organisational sanctions only as a last resort. Only when political argument and persuasion fail and there are clear breaches of organisational norms should disciplinary measures be resorted to. While politics is primary in a healthy revolutionary organisation, this does not mean that organisation is secondary or unimportant. The internal character of a party or organisation – and particularly on the question of democratic rights of the members vis-a-vis the leadership has always been vital in the history of the Marxist movement”. He went on to condemn the SWP’s “high-handed, rapid expulsion of leading dissenting members”, providing the example of them expelling en bloc their 1,000-strong American Section, the ISO, concluding that “Nothing could be more calculated than examples like this to give Marxism and alleged Trotskyism a very bad name – in fact a taint of Stalinism – of intolerance towards opposition, including summary expulsions. These disputes highlighted the false methods, and the unhealthy internal regime, as well as the utter bureaucratic confusion on how an International, from a Trotskyist tradition should operate.”

In order to expose, challenge and defeat the methods of bureaucratic centralism and prestige politics and to build a revolutionary International on a principled basis, an in-depth and thorough critique of how the leadership of the CWI, now embodied in the Faction and the SP, came to this stage is not only required, but is an essential step. As part and parcel of such a process, the question must be posed, just how far have these methods infected other sections of the CWI politically and organisationally, and for how long have they been festering unchallenged? It is also vital, as part of such a process, that the Majority seeks to understand and properly assess the dangers that this descent into sectarian self-interest has had for, amongst other areas, united front work in the industrial and political field, for example, events in the UK-based public sector trade union, the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), considered later in this contribution.

The CWI Majority must urgently re-assess the false argument, already evident in some comments by their supporters, that the bureaucratic degeneration, represented by the Faction in the struggles within the CWI, only occurred in the last year or so, as if it appeared almost in the manner of an unidentifiable virus. Such a view is both nonsensical and dangerous. Such a process of degeneration must, almost by definition, have deep roots. It is one of the major strengths of Marxism that, when faced with such a problem, it provides the tools to analyse and re-orientate by carrying out the most honest, rigorous criticism, including self-criticism.

Members of the CWI in Britain have issued a statement on their “World Socialist Alternative” website responding to the split by characterising the crisis in the early 1990s as a “rank and file uprising against the bureaucratic leadership of Grant and Woods”. Those of us who were actually involved in that struggle and who, for the record, supported the political stance of the party leadership on issues like the “Open Turn”, cannot support such a distorted version of events, which is redolent of those revised versions of “history” in which all the sins of the “victors” are transposed to the vanquished. It was in fact a complete shock to the vast majority in Militant (predecessor of the SP) when the existence of the rupture in the leadership became known. Ted Grant was deeply respected and had enormous political authority for his understanding of world events. The differences that emerged had not been aired within the membership in any great detail, or at all, and the trigger for the dispute came from the top down rather than upwards from the membership.

If the CWI Majority are serious about rebuilding an international based on sound methods, they must surely start with a critical assessment of how to avoid the errors of the Faction. A first step has to be in rejecting the closed, bunker-style mentality that characterised the Faction and to look afresh, with a clear eye and an open mind, at what the real issues were in those past disagreements within the CWI. In doing so, they need to reject the view which the Faction leaders have instilled in a miseducated rank and file that there is no value in listening to irreconcilable “enemies”. It has been precisely that type of defensive and paranoid fear of “ideological” infection that has turned “analysis and debate” within SP ranks into an echo chamber, resonating with tired formulations and spiced with endless reminders of decades-old achievements like the Liverpool and Poll Tax struggles, like rousing hymns to lift the spirits of the faithful.

Parallels with the 1991-1992 split

One does not have to agree with the political stance of Ted Grant and Alan Woods in the 1991-1992 split to recognise the similarities in recently republished material (“The Case Against Bureaucratic Centralism” by Alan Woods) with the methods of today’s faction fight. These methods culminated in the expulsion – they too apparently “placed themselves outside the party” – of Grant, Woods and the Opposition. The documents claim they faced tactics including distortion, slander, the non-payment of wages, withholding maternity pay, sackings and physical searches – many of the hallmarks of the current dispute. Today, such practices can be easily revealed to a wide audience through social media, but in 1992, exposing such behaviour was not so easy.

Woods wrote in 1992: “Zinovievism, at basis, is the attempt to solve political problems by organisational means. It is characterised by the use of the apparatus in internal political disputes, and the attempt to slander and distort the arguments of opponents. All these methods have been employed against the Opposition by the present leadership in the most shameless fashion”. Written thirty years ago, these words deserve to be taken very seriously in the light of recent developments if a proper assessment is to be undertaken and understanding reached as to how committed revolutionaries allowed such a distortion to arise in the SP and CWI, to which so many comrades have given their lives. The negative effects and consequences of the Faction’s sectarian acts will not be restricted to the CWI, but will resonate in a discordant manner across the entire movement, and most damagingly in relation to the mass organisations of the working class, namely the trade unions. A foretaste of the same bureaucratic centralist methods and prestige politics employed in the CWI was fully evident in the destructive and divisive sectarian actions of the SP in the PCS union.

Militant rally Image fair use"One does not have to agree with the political stance of Ted Grant and Alan Woods in the 1991-1992 [Militant] split to recognise the similarities... with the methods of today’s faction fight" / Image: fair use

It is a fair assumption that most CWI members who actually took the time to look at the struggle in PCS uncritically accepted the “analysis” set out by the leadership of the SP. It may be understandable that those comrades with no direct involvement in the PCS dispute and who did not have full knowledge of the issues would simply accept the narrative of the leadership. However, it must also be stated, that if those in Britain who cheered on the same leadership that has just expelled them had properly engaged their critical faculties at the time, they may have far better prepared for the onslaught that awaited them. What’s done is done, but if the Majority supporters in Britain, and elsewhere for that matter, continue to uncritically accept the SP leadership line on the struggle in PCS, with perhaps this or that minor “adjustment” to demonstrate their “independence”, and fail to appreciate the core issues that were at stake, they will, however unintentionally, be validating, endorsing and defending the same false analysis and methods used against themselves – that is neither a credible nor sustainable position.

The struggle in PCS is neither tangential nor irrelevant to that in the CWI. If the CWI Majority do not undertake a serious reassessment of that struggle, then there is a real danger that, by accepting the SP leadership’s false narrative, based as it was on the same rotten method of sectarianism and prestige politics that led to the split, they will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes, and their efforts to develop consistent, principled united front work in the mass organisations of the working class will be hidebound from its inception.

The struggle against the Socialist Party’s false method and sectarianism in PCS

The struggle that unfolded in PCS is an issue of serious concern for the wider left and socialists in general, not just for the CWI alone, not least of all in the trade union movement in Britain. Important questions have been raised by these events, including how best the left builds the strongest possible united front based on socialist policies; how to build effective union organisation and industrial action to defend our class from the incessant attacks they have faced over many decades; how best to defeat cuts and privatisation and win on the industrial field; how to ensure a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government can be secured, and how to defend it in the face of the inevitable onslaught that will come from the British ruling class and the multi-nationals as it attempts to implement progressive policies. Despite the scale and importance of these tasks the right for socialists to express legitimate concerns and criticisms must be fully defended. But there can be no place for the type of sectarian self-interest and rule-or-ruin prestige politics exhibited by the SP in their recent actions in PCS.

By way of background, PCS is the largest civil service union the UK. The SP and its predecessor Militant were a major force in the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA), the predecessor to PCS, since the early 1970s and owed its influence and authority to its long-term strategic approach, based on building principled left unity through the united front tactic and the patient, determined commitment of many comrades, past and present. This correct consistent approach led to the eventual defeat and organisational destruction of the Moderate grouping, one of the vilest right-wing bureaucracies in the movement with direct links to witch-hunting, anti-socialist organisations, the British and American states and international big business. This victory paved the way to building a democratic, militant lay-led union. Over the past twenty years PCS has been the principal and most consistent force in the British trade union movement against the cuts and privatisation agenda of various governments, including New Labour under Blair and Brown.

The dog-whistle slander that those of us who opposed the SP leadership had “capitulated to reformism, opportunism and the union bureaucracy” was intended to disguise the fact that our principled refusal to follow their line was solidly based on a rejection of sectarian prestige politics. The concrete issue from which these underlying antagonisms emerged was our refusal to support fellow SP member Chris Baugh, who held the five-yearly elected position of PCS assistant general secretary (AGS) for fourteen years. He had, over an extended period of time, consistently and persistently undermined the union’s socialist general secretary, Mark Serwotka, the elected lay leadership, his own SP comrades and democratically decided union policies and strategies. Also, and in some respects more critically, he was opposed on the basis of his conservative approach to industrial and political strategy.

The SP leadership claimed all this represented a direct attack on the SP itself. In doing so they attempted from the outset to define the debate in terms of betrayal and loyalty. This was designed to obfuscate and deflect from the real issues at play and to avoid the scrutiny that must be part of a genuinely considered democratic debate and to prepare the ground for an eventual recourse to organisational solutions, always on the basis of a “majority”. Furthermore, it was an attempt to define opponents not as comrades who were raising legitimate questions for debate, but enemies who must be crushed – even by the most unprincipled of methods. These methods, justified on the basis of “defending the party”, included denial and evasion, distortion and misrepresentation, lies and slander, ostracising and targeting individuals personally as well as expulsion. SP members were told that, in opposing the party, they would “place themselves outside the party”.

PCS Image Socialist Appeal"[T]here can be no place for the type of sectarian self-interest and rule-or-ruin prestige politics exhibited by the SP... in PCS" / Image: Socialist Appeal

SP leaders knew that it was those leading lay union officials and SP members who had worked most closely with Baugh who were the first to oppose his re-election, not Serwotka. Over many years they had attempted, with the full knowledge of the SP leadership, to manage Baugh’s destructive undermining behaviour and conservative approach to industrial and political strategy. Positioning Serwotka as a capricious bureaucrat, and claiming it was merely a “personality clash” was a cynical play to party loyalties, as was their endlessly repeated formulation “nobody tells us who our candidate will be”. In fact, Baugh’s behaviour had been consistently raised over many years, and Taaffe had met Serwotka to discuss the issue, with the former giving assurances that he would work constructively. However, despite scoldings from Taaffe, he continued as before.

Until the dispute arose, Serwotka was regarded by the SP leadership as their “closest ally in the trade union movement”. PCS itself was regarded as a “beacon of resistance”. All this recognised as recently as 2016 in Peter Taaffe’s From Militant to the Socialist Party (p493-4, p574.) In a remarkable turnaround, the SP leadership began denouncing Serwotka as a “bureaucrat” and the record of PCS was besmirched – despite the fact that every single aspect of its policy and strategy was agreed by these same leaders. In the launch of Baugh’s bid for re-election at the union’s 2018 conference, both he and Taaffe incredibly made the false claim that, despite these antagonisms stretching back many years, they didn’t know what the objections to his candidacy were all about.

The true nature of a regime is only fully exposed in the course of a political struggle itself. That was the experience of the opposition to the SP leadership in PCS. We did not engage in that struggle with an antagonistic view of the party leadership. On the contrary, we considered ourselves amongst the most loyal of party comrades. Our views about the nature of the SP leadership developed in the course of the conflict in a process that presaged and closely mirrored the way in which the Faction’s Majority opponents drew the same conclusions – through the hard experience of confronting the methods of bureaucratic centralism and prestige politics in their most naked form.

It is a legitimate criticism to be made of the opposition to the SP leadership in the PCS that we wrongly sought to maintain unity, in both PCS and in the SP, for far too long.

There is a perverse and ironic contradiction in the SP leadership’s behaviour. While they were prepared to risk major splits on the left in PCS, causing avoidable division in the union in the process, they never once over the years backed Baugh on any matter of substance relating to policy or strategy. Yet in order to protect his “job” and preserve their own prestige, because they would not tolerate Serwotka “dictating to us” (which was a cynical narcissistic distortion of reality), they were prepared to betray the very rank-and-file lay activist comrades whose long-term, self-sacrificing commitment and activity had done so much to enhance the party’s reputation in PCS and the wider trade union movement.

SP reputation damaged

The SP’s false methods in PCS led to the defeat of Baugh in the union election. Had he won, as the SP confidently predicted, the Faction would have ruthlessly used it as “evidence” of their correct orientation toward trade union work and as a rebuke to those they accuse of abandoning work in the unions. In fact, their “strategy” was the polar opposite of how Marxists should work in the unions and caused catastrophic damage to the SP’s reputation within the union itself and the wider movement. Many socialist activists in the British trade union movement have been stunned and disgusted in equal measure by the actions of the SP in PCS, and its dizzying descent into sectarianism and opportunism.

Socialist Party Image public domain"[S]ocialist activists in the British trade union movement have been stunned and disgusted in equal measure by the actions of the SP in PCS, and its dizzying descent into sectarianism and opportunism" / Image: public domain

The methods used by the SP were characterised by the rewriting of history for temporary factional advantage, denial and evasion, abandonment of principles around the workers’ wage and election of full-time officials, elevation of prestige politics and sectarian self-interest above the principled building of left unity, manufacturing of “differences”, distortion of the principles of democratic centralism, opportunism, cover-up, openly lying about points of material fact, the forging of unprincipled alliances, including Blairite elements, gossip, slander and the unscrupulous pressuring of comrades who opposed them. All these methods are familiar features of a bureaucratic regime in which the leadership elevates the short-term imperative of “winning” its position over the necessity to conduct an honest democratic debate, regardless of the short or long-term consequences of their actions.

The leadership view prevailed in the internal debate, the SP (E&W) National Committee (NC), which is composed almost entirely of full-time party workers, and in two PCS caucuses. But that formal fact cannot disguise the real nature of the debate itself, in which any argument used by the leadership, no matter how unprincipled, inconsistent, patently false or downright dangerous was uncritically accepted and endorsed as good coin in the most supine fashion, without the least hint of serious scrutiny or challenge. A major consequence of allowing the most egregious “arguments” to go unchallenged was that they were repeated, parrot fashion, in the wider campaign within PCS, where their rottenness was fully exposed, with the result that an indelible stain has been left on the reputation of the SP. A few examples require highlighting.

“A legitimate tactical consideration”

We raised as evidence of Baugh’s conservative and timid attitude to industrial strategy the fact that he had, a few years earlier, argued for the union to surrender the redundancy rights of PCS members in workplaces with under thirty staff to “show the union can do deals” with the then-Coalition government. The SP leadership claimed that, in expressing such a view, Baugh was simply making a justifiable contribution to a “legitimate tactical discussion”. This really is truly shocking. No genuine trade unionist, left or socialist, and certainly no revolutionary, would ever have dreamed of making such a proposal, even as a “tactical” consideration. To suggest such a course of action showed a clear willingness and intention to consciously betray workers’ rights. Even the most hardened and cynical right-wing union bureaucrat would have paused before suggesting such a treacherous action. Yet in two caucuses and at the NC of a supposedly revolutionary party, this was passed over almost without comment by those who backed the leadership.

The industrial backdrop to developments in PCS was the pensions defeat of 2010/11, which saw some leaders of public sector unions, as well as the Trades Union Congress (TUC), reach a “settlement” quickly after the public sector-wide strike on 30 November 2011 that buckled to the government’s slashing of pensions rights. The strike had given a significant glimpse of the potential power of the movement acting together on the basis of coordinated action, something that terrified many union leaders more than it did the government. That strike would never have taken place without the tremendous intervention in fighting for and achieving coordinated action by the PCS, with Serwotka himself playing a critical role. PCS and some other unions fought on for some months following the betrayal of the pensions battle, but to no avail, and the changes were imposed. PCS was then singled out in traditional Tory “enemy within” style and subjected to a vicious assault by the government in an attempt to smash it, an attempt that was defeated by the union, but at considerable cost, effort and sacrifice.

History rewritten

In The Real Issues at Stake, SP deputy general secretary Hannah Sell and industrial organiser Rob Williams make the bizarre claim that Serwotka and the PCS leadership were responsible for downplaying “co-ordinated strike action against austerity”. Specifically, they go on to claim that, despite motions to the TUC and generalised calls for co-ordinated action, PCS was to blame for not launching action from below, alongside other unions. This situation, they claim, had been the case since the defeat of the pensions strike of 2011. They say that “there has been no serious attempt to create a ‘coalition of the willing’, prepared to act together as a lever on other unions as in 2011 and 2012 – both by publicly appealing to the union tops and by inspiring their rank and file to make demands from below” and that Mark Serwotka failed to act on actions beyond “appeals to the TUC”.

These claims turn reality on its head. There were two attempts at co-ordinated action in 2014: when PCS members took strike action alongside other public sector unions in July, and again in October of that year – the second of which was hit by the late withdrawal of the largest public sector union UNISON from a three-day rolling strike. The positive role of Serwotka and the PCS leadership in leading the call for and building co-ordinated action was highlighted in a double centre page article in The Socialist entitled “Lessons of the N30 pension strike” by McInally & Williams in 2016, in which none of these criticisms were raised.

Following the 2014 campaign, the union’s key priority was to defend itself from a full-scale attempt by the Tory government to smash it, a priority fully supported by the SP at the time, but apparently now to be written out of history as it no longer fits the narrative of their “differences” with Serwotka.

The Labour Party: the SP conundrum

In order to explain the “attack” on the party and the capitulation to “reformism” of the lay SP leaders who refused to support Baugh, the leadership introduced the argument that, as both Jeremy Corbyn and Serwotka were “reformists”, that when a Corbyn-led Labour government came to power and buckled under pressure from the bankers and the capitalist class, Serwotka would sell out PCS members and the wider class. To condemn Serwotka for the future “sell-out” of his own members and the class generally is a malicious, calculated slander with no basis whatsoever in his history of activity. It could equally be argued and with more basis in actual experience that, when a Corbyn-led Labour government inevitably came under pressure, it would be leaders like him and unions like PCS that would form the bedrock of opposition to such attacks.

The “sell-out” slander used by the SP leadership is entirely devoid of content, and follows in the footsteps of all past sectarians. It is a caricature of serious Marxist analysis which, in this case, reduces the often-repeated formula that “betrayal is inherent in reformism” – true in itself – to empty phrase-mongering, indicative of a formalistic rather than dialectical method of thought. It is a “method” that surpasses even the crudest and most fatuous sectarian formulations of the Healyites.

Corbyn rally Image Flickr Jenny Goodfellow"The SP leadership has never come to terms with the election of Corbyn as Labour Party leader, an 'accident' no-one had predicted or expected" / Image: Flickr, Jenny Goodfellow

Serwotka and the lay SP leaders in PCS were consistently to the left of Baugh in terms of political strategy. His conservative approach to political strategy led him to describe as “ultra-leftism” the development of the union’s political strategy under the Blair/Brown Labour government that would have allowed PCS, which is not affiliated to the Labour Party, to support candidates committed to policies in defence of the public sector in parliamentary elections, including against Labour candidates. PCS, in the light of Corbyn’s election as party leader, is now developing a political strategy correctly aimed at giving whatever support it can to secure the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government. The same SP leadership that years ago dismissed Baugh’s conservative approach to political strategy now collude with him in spreading the totally untruthful charge that this present strategy is part of an attempt to affiliate to Labour by backdoor methods. This brazen lie is nothing more than poisonous slander intended to create a false narrative to undermine the union’s strategy and leadership, regardless of the damage it does to the campaign to secure a Corbyn-led government.

The SP leadership has never come to terms with the election of Corbyn as Labour Party leader, an “accident” no-one had predicted or expected, which partly explains the SP leadership’s failure to develop a coherent and strategic approach to this development. Corbyn’s victory changed everything. Though initially welcomed by the SP, it posed a serious problem for its leadership. It raised the dilemma and contradiction of how to respond to the fact that the battle had shifted in large part back into the Labour Party, the traditional political organisation of the British working class. Scotland being a substantially different case, where Labour’s disastrous strategy of standing four-square with the British establishment in the Independence Referendum of 2014, and its continued inability to develop a correct stance on the national question, has seen it stripped of support in large sections of the Scottish working class.

The SP dilemma is this: how can they build their party in the face of this Corbyn surge? Can the party engage in the struggle in support of Corbyn and also carry out united front work in the wider movement whilst maintaining its profile, prestige and even the very forces of the party itself? The SP leadership’s inability to tackle and develop a coherent and confident strategy in response to Corbyn partly explains their destructive strategy in PCS, and also in the CWI itself. The SP leaders are now strategists without a strategy.

The SP leadership’s dilemma has driven them into a retreat characterised by a reliance on a “tried-and-tested” orthodoxy, which disdains open critical thinking. It is reflected too in a bunker-style mentality that sees every nuance, let alone difference, especially if it originates from outside the party, as a threat and cause for suspicion rather than an opportunity to debate and clarify perspectives. This has led to stultified formalism.

The SP leadership’s sectarian strategy toward the Labour Party reduces their engagement to the side-lines, disabled by the same mindset of prestige politics exhibited so disastrously in PCS and in the CWI. An example of the leadership’s confused perspective, that demonstrates a strategic lack of conviction, was the demand that the SP be admitted on a federal basis into the Labour Party, like the Cooperative Party. But as Taaffe himself said in internal discussion, if the SP actually was allowed to affiliate it would be the worst thing that could happen, due to the dangers it would pose in maintaining the party itself. This inability to formulate a coherent and consistent strategy to fully engage in the class battles in full swing within the Labour Party has left the SP rudderless, with its reputation deeply compromised in the movement. The brutal reality is the SP leadership, obsessed with maintaining their political and personal “status”, and consumed with their own self-importance, are simply incapable of devising a principled re-orientation toward the Labour Party.

Election of full-time officials

The SP leadership consistently accused those criticising Baugh of “character assassination”, a charge currently echoed in respect of their opponents in the CWI dispute. At no point in the debate has his considerable contribution to building the left in the union been challenged or “written out of history”, however no-one can simply rest on their previous record. Representing political criticism in this way is a bureaucratic trope, simply employed to avoid scrutiny and derail honest, democratic debate. Politics is conducted by people and it is impossible to discuss it without reference to individuals and their actions, and what they represent. And this particularly applies in relation to the following section on the questions of the workers’ wage and election of full-time officials. Our criticisms are not character assassination but perfectly valid political analysis based on factual events and actions, to which the SP and Chris Baugh are absolutely entitled to respond. It is lamentable this even has to be pointed out.

In a lengthy piece penned after the dispute became public by Hannah Sell and Williams, entitled “PCS, the Real Issues at Stake” in Socialism Today (September 2018), they correctly say that our role in trade unions “is to fight for the maximum possible democracy and against any elements of privilege or bureaucracy.” The position of the SP, explicitly set out in its “What We Stand For” and carried in every edition of The Socialist newspaper, is the demand: “Full-time officials to be regularly elected and receive no more than a workers’ wage”.

The SP leadership were prepared to abandon these core principles to cover up for Baugh. At the NC meeting, they argued that an incumbent “left” senior union officer should only be challenged if there was evidence of “financial irregularity or inappropriate behaviour”. This meant effectively justifying a job for life. Such a formulation could have come from the mouth of Tom Watson or any other Labour Party or union bureaucrat. It is the precise opposite of genuine democratic accountability and scrutiny and reflects an arrogant self-entitlement that should be rejected by socialists. It is little wonder the SP and Baugh continuously referred to his AGS position as his “job”. That such a formulation could be considered valid by the supposedly experienced leaders of a supposedly Trotskyist revolutionary party is staggering.

Chris Baugh Image PCS Midlands"SP member Chris Baugh [former PCS assistant general secretary]... consistently and persistently undermined the union’s socialist general secretary, Mark Serwotka, the elected lay leadership, his own SP comrades and democratically decided union policies and strategies" / Image: PCS Midlands

A letter from Baugh supporters in the Left Unity (LU) (the union’s broad left) states: “We think someone has to have behaved pretty badly to deserve being removed from a position, especially when that would also lose them their job. That could be justified by them no longer supporting the policies of the left in the union, by laziness, incompetence or improper behaviour.”

It was one of the great successes of the Militant and the left in securing the election of senior full-time officials in PCS’s predecessor union CPSA, in the face of virulent opposition from the right-wing “Moderate” grouping, the reformists and full-time officers themselves. We took on this fight and won it because of our correct position that senior posts in the union are not “jobs” but should be elected positions subject to the fullest possible accountability and scrutiny of members. If that applies in the union, how much more so when the left chooses a candidate, not on the narrow limits set out by the SP or in the extract quoted above, but on a whole series of criteria, including, but not exclusively, electability, how they work with other comrades, industrial and political judgement, and the capacity to unify on the basis of open, critical debate.

To its eternal shame the SP, including full-time party workers, claimed that, if he was not re-nominated for his “job”, Baugh was being “sacked”. Comparing his situation to that of a victimised worker or activist revolted many union activists, who instinctively understood that such an assertion denigrated the principles of the wider movement’s democratic traditions. That such a cynical assertion could be made is symptomatic of a leadership regime so detached and arrogant that it is prepared to use any unprincipled formulation for electoral or factional advantage. This also shows an underlying contempt for their own members, whom they expected to uncritically parrot this contemptible line which, sadly, many did.

Bureaucratic centralism produces the most unhealthy and destructive relationship between the leadership group and the rank and file. This type of regime developed as a result of more than a generation of “activism”, greatly prioritised and elevated above theoretical education, and also the abandonment of long-term, patient work within the trade unions. The pursuit of leadership positions in unions is now prioritised by the SP, without the necessity of those aiming at those positions to prove themselves as workplace organisers or strike leaders, on the arrogant assumption that membership of the party is credential enough to earn such positions. The relation between the SP leadership and its membership is no longer that of revolutionary leaders to a cadre of disciplined, but independent-thinking Marxists, but increasingly resembles that of the guru to the acolyte.

The workers’ wage

An article on the SP website entitled Reply To Socialist View, 13.9.18 says: “When Chris first stood for AGS he pledged to move to London, relocating his family at considerable expense and upheaval, in order to be based in the union HQ and be able to do his job effectively. Despite the financial demands of relocating, he pledged in his election address – with the agreement of other Socialist Party members including Janice Godrich – to repay part of his salary to union funds and make regular donations to strikes and labour movement causes in Britain and internationally. Chris has consistently met that pledge.”

Some perspective is required in relation to this quote from Sell and Williams. Baugh was AGS for fourteen years on a salary that placed him in the top 1 percent of earners, and in a union of generally low-paid members, at a differential of up to 8-1. At the time of seeking re-election, his salary was just under £95,000 p.a. The question of his refusal to abide by the workers’ wage pledge was consistently raised with the party leadership over the years and the claim his position on the pledge was agreed by “other Socialist party members” is a plain lie barely worth refuting, as is the bogus claim about relocation, as assistance would almost certainly been part of any such transfer arrangements.

At a Left Unity meeting in Glasgow, Baugh’s refusal to abide by the workers’ wage was justified by an SP member on the basis that “living in London is expensive”. At a London hustings, Baugh told an audience of low-paid workers that the AGS salary “didn’t affect [his] lifestyle”. He also point-blank refused to answer whether he actually paid into the union strike fund. SP leaders refused to answer our query as to whether or not, over the period of his incumbency, he had consistently paid subscriptions to the party. There is not a single scrap of evidence that he contributed a penny more than would be expected of any low-paid activist into the union or the wider movement. When we argued back-sliding on the workers’ wage pledge must cease, and that its acceptance must be a precondition for party support in the election, the SP leaders supported Baugh’s refusal to do so. What a contrast with the principled position of Dave Nellist, who when he was a Labour MP was widely admired for his commitment to the workers’ wage. But even more so with CWI comrades around the world, working in the most difficult of circumstances, who abide by this pledge.

Allegations of bureaucracy in PCS – organising versus bargaining

For the last twenty years, the socialist leadership of PCS worked unstintingly to build a democratic, lay-led, militant trade union. The old right-wing bureaucracy and its apparatus was systematically dismantled and the union transformed, including the culture that elevated the power and authority of full-time officers over that of the activist layer with the primary aim of policing activists and frustrating militancy. Full-time officers were invariably recruited from the left, former union activists in the main, including proven organisers and strike leaders. It was one of the few unions in which recruitment of SP members and a connection with the “hard left” was no impediment to being employed. The charge of a developing bureaucracy within PCS only emerged when the internal dispute became public. Until then, Baugh’s “analysis” was correctly rejected by SP leaders who had accurately characterised the existence of a “left officialdom” in PCS. Devoid of a firm political basis to explain how the situation in PCS had reached such a critical state, they opportunistically capitulated entirely to the “bureaucracy” narrative.

The nature and characteristics of trade union bureaucracy can be defined in a narrow and impressionistic manner by some socialists, particularly those who have no direct experience in union work. While it is undoubtedly true the bedrock of union bureaucracies is to be found in the cadre of self-interested full-time “professionals” whose first loyalty is to the “management” and their own “careers”, that is not the whole picture. Within unions there invariably exists a bureaucratic layer amongst the lay activists themselves.

Employers are skilled at applying pressure on lay reps through inducements as well as threats or open victimisation, turning such lay officials into the worst type of bureaucrat, the labour movement “diplomat” hovering between the interests of the employer and the workers, but inevitably furthering those of the former rather than the latter. Union facilities, release from work for union duties, is a hard-won concession to conduct collective bargaining and other tasks. But long-term release can be problematic unless there is a continued commitment by activists to engage with members in the workplace and avoid a culture of “sorting things out with the employer”. Socialists were not exempt from being pulled into this culture of “bargaining” and “good industrial relations” as ends in themselves, and in the process developing the view that their “skills” and “rational arguments” are the most critical factors in winning concessions and preventing attacks rather than the strength of union organisation itself.

PCS pay rise Image Socialist Appeal"The SP pay 'strategy' [in PCS] is a prime example of how short-term opportunism, which is the hallmark of unprincipled sectarianism for factional advantage, will develop a manufactured difference regardless of the potential division and damage it could cause" / Image: Socialist Appeal

This culture was embodied in the British civil service with the Whitley system, introduced in the early 20th century as a bargaining mechanism to stem the rising tide of union militancy, which saw some of the newly-formed civil service unions take industrial action and even affiliate to the Labour Party. Such a system can only deliver for “skilled negotiators” in periods of relative stability and investment in the public sector. Those days ended as long ago as the 1970s, when the capitalist class nationally and internationally embarked on its reactionary strategy of cuts and privatisation, aimed at the systematic destruction of the gains made by the labour movement over many decades of struggle.

A fuller analysis of lay bureaucracy is required, but in the context of the division in the SP in PCS, this question was a key factor. It was precisely in the interests of “bargaining” that Baugh attacked the union “bureaucracy”. He was actually attacking the democratically decided strategy to build an “organising union” in a period where concessions could only be secured by building workplace strength to deliver effective industrial action. He created a false dichotomy in counter-posing bargaining and organising to justify what was actually a manufactured difference. Bargaining and organising are not separate processes, they are contingent one on the other with the aim of advancing members’ interests. Rather than work in a collegiate fashion to resolve the type of tensions that arise in any union over the allocation of resources, he and his supporters, in the most opportunistic fashion, exacerbated them to maximise division.

The demand for more bargaining resources was not an abstract question as it concretely meant less for organising. In fact, the union was meeting bargaining demands by assessing where and when certain areas needed to be prioritised. On the basis of his profoundly mistaken approach, which actually exposed the fact Baugh simply didn’t understand the union’s organising strategy and to justify the poisonous narrative of “bureaucracy”, the SP, in the most opportunistic and populist fashion, sought to portray him as the “champion of the lay activists”. In articulating his own failure to understand and adapt to the new industrial realities, and in particular the fact that Whitleyism was effectively dead, he reflected a lack of confidence amongst a certain small but significant layer of activists. In a union where the right wing had been organisationally neutered, he and his supporters became the principal advocates of a backward and defeatist approach.

SP attacks on “bureaucracy” were an invented, inverted and distorted image of their own surrender to the most timid and conservative elements within the activist base, of whom Baugh himself was the major example. The SP leadership were warned repeatedly of the consequences of capitulating to this conservative milieu. But even those of us who issued these warnings did not anticipate the depths to which the infection of prestige politics had reached and how it had so utterly distorted the perspectives and strategic approach of the SP in PCS – until their betrayal of the national pay campaign.

Rule-or-ruin sectarianism: betrayal of the national pay campaign

In 2018, PCS became the second union in the UK that attempted to beat the un-democratic Tory anti-union law, which makes it a legal requirement to reach a 50% threshold of members voting in a ballot in a national industrial action ballot. The threshold was not reached but confidence remained high on the basis of the union strategy of prioritising building and strengthening workplace organisation to reach the threshold. A second ballot was attempted in 2019, during the period in which the struggle to decide the Left Unity candidature for AGS was ongoing.

As the ballot approached, Baugh, the union’s second most senior elected full-time officer, chose to openly flout the agreed strategy democratically decided by the union’s national conference, and the NEC, and endorsed by an extensive process of branch consultation. It was also the democratically decided policy of the Left Unity conference. He argued for a failed and rejected strategy of a disaggregated ballot with an additional raft of terms and conditions added, something he knew full well did not constitute a legal national ballot and which would have allowed the government to divide departmental group from group by offering minimal concessions. This “strategy” had no echo whatsoever amongst the activist base or members.

No serious industrial or strategic justification was offered for this “strategy” other than the dishonest formulations this “alternative” was about “flexibility” and that “differences are healthy”. Such formulations are precisely the type of vacuous liberal-style “principles” and arguments used by every unscrupulous opportunist who resorts to such hackneyed, platitudinous banalities to cloak their cynicism and pessimism when incapable of providing a coherent critique of a democratically decided strategy. Such phrases are repeatedly aired by right-wingers and union bureaucrats seeking to derail industrial action and to avoid implementing militant strategies. It is an indelible stain on the reputation of the SP that, for totally opportunistic factional and electoral advantage, they defended his treacherous actions, which was a surrender to the defeatist narrative that victory on national pay bargaining could not be achieved.

This “strategy” would have meant abandoning the national pay campaign and a retreat into concentrating efforts on achieving whatever concessions may be possible at departmental group level, with the clear consequence that, in doing so, the devil could take the hindmost. It would have meant the most serious issue concerning the overwhelming mass of union members, their living standards, would be put in effective cold storage. This was a genuinely shocking betrayal of members’ interests. In fact, so much so that it must be stated in fairness that even the bulk of Baugh’s supporters, including some SP members, distanced themselves from this “strategy”. Despite the tremendous effort of activists and full-time officer cadres, the union narrowly missed the 50% threshold. At the PCS conference, held in the wake of this disappointment, SP activists acted as mouthpieces for demoralisation and pessimism, cynically playing on the understandable deflation felt by many hard-working activists.

The SP pay “strategy” is a prime example of how short-term opportunism, which is the hallmark of unprincipled sectarianism for factional advantage, will develop a manufactured difference regardless of the potential division and damage it could cause. While the right wing had been organisationally destroyed in the union, the social base that underpinned their existence still exists and could be regenerated and re-established in organisational form. Ignoring such dangers, SP speakers provided “left” cover for demoralisation and defeatism in the “parliament” of the union. That is truly unforgivable.

The SP calculated it could be sold as Serwotka’s personal failure that the legal threshold wasn’t reached and could be used to damage him in the upcoming general secretary election. This has found virtually no echo. This “plan” has already gone further awry as the SP candidate in the LU nomination stage to choose the left candidate has had to humiliatingly withdraw before the process has even finished due to an embarrassing lack of support. Of course, the reasons publicly given are devoid of political content and rely on unfounded allegations of procedural breaches in the process itself.

Double standards on identity politics

One of the most serious charges against the CWI Majority is their so-called capitulation to Identity Politics, a central feature of Mandelism. There is a real necessity for the issue of identity politics to be fully discussed within the movement generally and by Marxists particularly, in the light of the reactionary assault on the rights of oppressed layers. Rights won over many generations are again under threat, with a section of the ruling elite exemplified by Trump on a clear path to abandoning any pretence of their commitment to “liberal values”, which were never in any case anything more than concessions given under pressure. In this context the Faction presents no strong material evidence to support their charge, what they do offer is fragmentary, selective, grounded in the “narcissism of small differences”, unconvincing and certainly no justification for a split. The CWI Majority presented strong arguments to refute the accusation of “Mandelism” but in reality the only serious way to resolve any such differences can be on the principled basis of patient, rigorous debate, not by the Faction’s bureaucratic methods of distortion and false positioning.

The debate on trans rights has caused division within the movement, with differences between some sections of the trans movement and socialist feminists. While such differences cannot be swept under the carpet on the basis of summary de-legitimisation, such as through “no platforming”, socialists must start unequivocally from the standpoint of being the most consistent advocates of the rights of oppressed layers.

The SP has been criticised for its lack of understanding of and commitment to equality issues. Some of this criticism is unfair but is not without foundation. In the late 1980s and 90s the now long-defunct Women’s Bureau carried out some ground-breaking work, not least in the trade union field with, for example, the Campaign Against Domestic Violence and the production of the CPSA Women’s Charter. But this area of work was only reluctantly supported by the leadership and not least of all because of an innate suspicion that any concentration of activity on equality issues contained within it the seeds of “Mandelism”. No consistent work on equality issues has been carried out by the SP since those days and what has been almost entirely directed at party building. This has led to a deficit in responding theoretically to the development of debate on these issues in the way the Irish section have at least attempted to do.

An example of the Faction’s “tin ear” approach was their comments on the Irish CWI section’s assessment of the repeal of the abortion laws in the Republic that exposed either a failure or, more likely, a conscious refusal to acknowledge the scale of that achievement. Such a victory in Ireland, given its history and the reactionary role of the State and the Catholic Church, cannot be overstated. Repeal was a massive victory for the Irish working class. The Faction’s failure to properly recognise this, even to the point of ignoring evidence of the strong vote for Repeal in working-class areas, is deeply disturbing. Attempting to diminish the importance of this victory by begrudgingly and unfavourably weighing its relevance against “future” mass movements was a sly inference that overstating its importance was evidence of a capitulation to identity politics.

Idpol 2 Image public domain"Serwotka and the wider leadership [of PCS] have unstintingly prioritised the fight for equal rights, fully recognising these struggles are not isolated and separate from the wider attacks on our class and that they are... an integral part of the struggle for a socialist society itself" / Image: Pixabay

Lay leaders like PCS president Fran Heathcote along with Mark Serwotka and the wider leadership have unstintingly prioritised the fight for equal rights, fully recognising these struggles are not isolated and separate from the wider attacks on our class and that they are concrete trade union issues and, more than that, an integral part of the struggle for a socialist society itself. What’s more, these leaders support such struggles without conceding an inch to the type of “big tent liberalism” that reflects the capitalist elite’s attempt to dilute and eliminate any socialist content to these struggles on the basis of a false and empty identification of interests that supersede the class antagonisms from which inequality and oppression arise.

A letter signed by Serwotka, along with other union general secretaries, condemning the use of violence against women activists by trans activists, was regarded as one-sided by some PCS activists. Strenuous efforts were made by the union leadership to resolve the matter, including fully engaging with PCS Proud. The approach of SP members on the union’s national committee was reflected in a deplorably cynical section of a document by Taaffe against the CWI Majority in which he echoes their posture that they were defending trans rights against the “transphobe” Serwotka. Rather than working with the union leadership to resolve the issue, the SP leadership urged their activists in PCS to opportunistically weaponise the issue for electoral and factional advantage. In exploiting the cause of trans rights, for which not one of them had shown any previous interest, they demonstrated not the slightest concern for the daily struggles of oppressed trans people themselves by consciously whipping up division rather than attempting to achieve unity on the matter under dispute.

The Socialist carried an article from these PCS SP activists, cleared by the leadership, entitled “Liberation Struggle Is Class Struggle”, (10 July 2018). Had such a “Mandelite” formulation appeared in a CWI Majority publication, it would be used as Exhibit A in evidence of their embrace of identity politics.

An article by SP executive committee member Sarah Sachs-Eldridge in Socialism Today (Issue 223, November 2018) says: “the debate around the GRA has been toxic…Groups and individuals who both support and oppose the right to self-identify have adopted methods including no-platforming, shutting down meetings, threats of violence, intimidation, shaming and so on. These methods only create an atmosphere of fear where people feel they cannot voice their concerns and are an obstacle to collective solutions being found” and goes on to agree that “There is a real basis for women’s concerns that their rights, access to services and safety are being compromised”. In reply to a letter received by a NEU activist responding to this article, which amongst other things raised broadly the same points as those in the letter signed by Serwotka, Sachs-Eldridge welcomes his contribution and concludes “hence the importance of trade unions democratically debating and formulating a programme that can win all sections of the working class to a programme of demands that shows how the needs of all can be met. It is important that such a debate allows all views to be heard. There is nothing to be gained from an atmosphere or language that contributes to people fearing intimidation for expressing their fears or views”.

The contrast with the SP approach in PCS could not be starker and sums up the approach of a leadership that is either completely oblivious to its own double standards – or simply does not give a damn.

“In the interests of The Party”

If it were possible to sum up in one phrase the false nature of the SP approach, it would be the formulation used in one of the internal debates by Hannah Sell, who said “What is in the interests of the revolutionary party is in the interests of the working class”. Putting to one side the context of the debate (whom the party should support in a trade union election), this could have been uttered by any labour movement bureaucrat, company executive, religious or cult leader to an internal challenge, in which they imperiously claim the sole right to embody the wider interests, while those who dare disagree with them are enemies of such interests. To claim the interests of the working class reside in the SP alone – or to be more accurate, the leadership group itself – is an arrogant and narcissistic self-delusion. It is a caricature and distortion of the type of healthy Marxist method that must of necessity possess a sense of proportion about its place at any given time in the class struggle and which is the hallmark of a confident revolutionary leadership and organisation.

Implicit in this philistine utterance is a demand for blind loyalty and uncritical obedience: it represents a censure against the type of independent critical thinking any socialist requires to fully and properly assess often complex situations and arrive at considered and rounded conclusions on the basis of democratic discussion. It also subconsciously reveals a deep lack of confidence in the methods and arguments put by the SP leaders themselves; it is the mindset of sectarianism and the closed, bunker-style mentality of bureaucratic rather than democratic centralism.

It is quite scandalous that in the NC debate a roomful of supposed Trotskyist revolutionaries (the vast majority of them full-time party workers), not one of them challenged the contentious, and in some instances ludicrous assertions of the party leadership on the question of the election of full-time officials, the back-sliding on the workers’ wage, the dog-whistle accusations of “bureaucracy” in PCS, the selling of redundancy rights as a legitimate “tactical” discussion, the hard evidence of undermining of not just Serwotka but the leading lay SP comrades, and of Baugh’s timid and conservative approach to industrial strategy. In their uncritical acquiescence, they endorsed the leadership’s slander that those lay union leaders who had fought attack after attack, and unflinchingly endured sacrifices, were allies of “bureaucracy” and had capitulated to “reformism and opportunism”. As one comrade commented after the debate – “The world turned upside down”.

This acquiescence does not arise from lack of understanding alone. Members of the NC are in the main long-standing, self-sacrificing and committed revolutionary socialists and it certainly was not because none had doubts about the leadership’s position. This mindset partly reflects the present, relatively weak influence of Marxist ideas within the mass organisations of the working class and the fact the SP activist base is on the whole relatively detached from trade union work and totally divorced from work and influence in the Labour Party. The full-timers also had a personal vested interest in following the leadership line, not only because they were reliant on the leadership for their positions but because they instinctively understood the consequences of stepping out of line.

The SP full-time staff is grossly over-bloated as against the activist layer, which is numbered in the mid-to-high hundreds and not the artificially inflated claim of around two thousand members. This unhealthy balance of internal forces has, over the course of decades, produced a situation where debate is conducted not exclusively but mainly at a national level by the full-time apparatus, who “report back” to an activist base. The SP NC has become an organisational insurance policy to obviate dissension in party ranks and to prevent (or at minimum mitigate) splits, in which the need for open critical democratic debate has been relegated way below the imperative for “unity” on every issue, whatever its overall significance. The SP leadership have created a regime that places centralism and orthodoxy far above democracy and critical thinking, and as a result has seen its shrinking activist base become increasingly inward looking. The CWI split was a long time in the making and the surrender to bureaucratism was hiding in plain sight in the organisational form of the SP in England and Wales itself.

All members of the SP over the past thirty years bear responsibility for allowing this situation to develop, including those of us principally focused on the trade union field. No revolutionary organisation’s leadership should, except in the most critical of circumstances, consist almost entirely of full-time party workers and in such proportions to its activist base – such a relationship inevitably opens the door to bureaucratic and centralist distortions. What has been shown in the SP is not only a failure to strike a principled, workable balance between the two imperatives of democracy and unity in action, but an abandonment of democracy in favour of a rigidly centralist approach.

Abandonment of consistent work in the trade unions

The over-inflated view of the SP position and influence in the wider movement, nurtured by the leadership, has led to a misguided short-term approach, based on quick results and winning positions, something particularly evident in the trade union field. Solid trade union work can only be properly developed on the basis of long-term strategic planning, and decades of dedicated work, with party members in their union roles building in their workplaces, leading strikes, winning the trust of activists and members, and on the basis of a correct approach of applying the united front tactic to build principled left unity. Prioritising winning national leadership positions over workplace building and “advising” comrades that, even before they have won respect amongst their fellow workers as union activists, they should carry out “union work” by pushing the latest SP campaign, does not represent a strategic approach.

The parlous state of understanding amongst the most recent generation of activists was reflected in a comment made by a party full-timer in a debate at a branch meeting on the lessons of the 2011 Pensions strike, who said, “It is our job to remove the Serwotkas and the Wracks” (Matt Wrack is the socialist leader of the Fire-fighters union). This reflects a profound lack of understanding of the united front tactic itself, the current conditions that prevail in the British trade union movement and what SP priorities should be.

Mark Serwotka Image Flickr Glastonbury Left Field"Serwotka was regarded by the SP leadership as their 'closest ally in the trade union movement'. PCS itself was regarded as a 'beacon of resistance'... In a remarkable turnaround, the SP leadership began denouncing Serwotka as a 'bureaucrat' and the record of PCS was besmirched" / Image: Flickr, Glastonbury Left Field

Measured against the yardsticks of status and prestige, to which the SP leadership are now completely wedded, the work of the National Shop Stewards Network has been a success, and it has certainly made some impressive interventions which have led to affiliations from a number of left-led unions. However, these interventions have been made in the main on the basis of existing disputes and the work of full-timers. The SP is neglecting and in fact failing to build a cadre of union activists within its own ranks capable of the type of orientation that won over the PCS, and which it has held for the left in the past twenty-year period – demonstrating a real dislocation of priorities. The accusation that the CWI Majority has abandoned trade union work is a reflection of its own abandonment of consistent work within the wider organisations of the working class, as well as a proper approach to the united front.

In From Militant to the Socialist Party, Taaffe outlined the Party’s approach – “Principled left unity is essential in maximising the potential within the unions and on a political plane. But it involves a willingness to collaborate in pushing the interests of the left to the fore without being obliged to dismantle the different left organisations. The Socialist Party has always argued for unity and, moreover, has demonstrated it in action within the PCS with the formation of Left Unity, for which the Socialist Party was mainly responsible and which also led to Mark’s victory against the right in the Union.”

The sectarian rampage

The destructive sectarian rampage over the past year in PCS has been viewed with deepening concern and anger by socialist activists in the wider trade union movement, the very people with whom the SP must build or retain relationships on the basis of the united front. In order to “protect” its prestige, it has been prepared to divide the left in PCS with no regard whatsoever for the potential consequences. The SP had built a high degree of trust and respect amongst the left in the unions and, irony of ironies, this has largely been based on the work of the lay leaders in PCS whom they expelled. The squandering of that respect will result in an increasing descent into isolation and sectarianism.

SP actions in PCS were sarcastically but accurately described as “the biggest temper tantrum on the British left in fifty years”. The behaviour demonstrated toward the Majority in the CWI and the methods used has not gone unnoticed in the wider movement either and the question is being openly asked now – how can they be trusted? The disastrous SP strategy in PCS was no aberration. It is a serious warning to the left that the pursuit of status and prestige leads inevitably to destructive sectarianism. Having failed to learn any lessons from their defeat in PCS, it is not just likely but certain this will have the most negative impact on SP conduct in the trade union field in the coming period.

Sectarianism, amongst other things, is an outlook, and one of its features is a chronic inability to behave and respond to differences in a rational and proportionate manner. The CWI split was driven by a Faction leadership that has lost a grasp of unfolding and changing circumstances. Fearful for its own future power and status, it lashed out through the methods of bureaucratism and expulsions at those who are prepared to confront and develop perspectives and strategies to meet these challenges.

Amongst the characteristics of sectarianism is an utterly closed mentality to how actions appear to others. Amongst other things the Faction leadership is completely blind to the fact that everyone else can see that their pusillanimous phrase, that those who oppose them are “placing themselves outside the party”, means expulsion. As Robert Burns wrote in his poem “To A Louse” – “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us; To see ourselves as ithers see us!”.

Against this background, it is fair to ask why the SP leadership took this approach in PCS, and by extension, why the Faction acted even more calamitously in the CWI itself? It certainly wasn’t to strengthen PCS as a militant union and its ability to fight the many attacks it faces, nor to strengthen the left itself or the SP position in the union. No, the work of half a century has been sacrificed by the pursuit of the false methods of bureaucratic centralism and prestige politics by a leadership that has lost any sense of proportion, and which sees its twin obsessions of status and control as far elevated above the imperative to build principled left unity on the basis of the method of the united front.

These events mark a critical juncture in the affairs of the SP, which under its current leadership is marked for a process of inevitable descent into irrelevance and isolation. If the leaders of the new International that is emerging from the CWI Majority are to place themselves on a principled, non-sectarian basis, they must do more than denounce the false methods that led to this split. They must examine and re-examine the whole history of the CWI over the past thirty or more years in particular, including the crisis of 1991-1992, to trace just how this bureaucratic degeneration developed. Only on that basis will they make the contribution they are capable of in the coming period.

John McInally, August 2019

an “accident” no-one had predicted or expected, which partly explains the SP leadership’s failure to develop a coherent and strategic approach to this development. Corbyn’s victory changed everything. Though initially welcomed by the SP, it posed a serious problem for its leadership. It raised the dilemma and contradiction of how to respond to the fact that the battle had shifted in large part back

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