One of the most significant differences between the old International Socialists (IS) and today’s SWP is the question of international organisation. The IS had the modest view that their authority was very limited as they were not a mass party, nor had they led any significant victories, and therefore they had no authority to advise other socialist organisations internationally. They believed that any future socialist international would evolve out of the concrete requirements of international solidarity between mass organisation that had grown in different ways in different countries. For example, much of the international discussions of the IS during the 1970s were with soft Maoists organisations abroad.
At some time in the 1980s this changed, and the International Socialist Tendency (IST) became a more formal organisation, and as Cliff documents in his autobiography he started meddling in the internal life of sister organisations in France and Germany. (They must have been so pleased he didn’t have a passport!)
In 2001 the SWP formally split with the International Socialist organisation (ISO) in the USA. An organisation of about the same size as the SWP, but in a country with 6 times the population. Since when the ISO have carried out a “rectification” programme to rid themselves of some of what they regard as the more unfortunate traits they inherited from London, including the “Star system”, and the hopefully self explanatory “ful-timer bullshit” syndrome. They have started to orient on the Greens an important develpoment due to Peter Camejo’s leading involvement in the Green party
Interestingly the SWP’s own pretext for the split was the unfounded allegation that the ISO had precipitated a split in the Greek SEK. And indeed the SWP’s international affilates have seen split after split in recent years. As the ISO leadership astutely observed “In expelling the ISO, the SWP CC is applying a hypocritical double standard. The SWP leadership can, apparently, engage in factional intervention in the ISO, backing a tiny faction, and openly siding with that faction against the ISO, but our decision to send a comrade to Greece is considered grounds for expulsion from the Tendency.”
What is interesting is that although the argument was ostensibly about a difference of emphasis towards the protests in Seattle, these publicly expressed differences made no sense. They were not fundamental issues over which to split two sister organisations, as they revolved not over questions of principle but tactics. However as James P Cannon observed, people always have two reason for what they do, the good reason and the real reason.
The underlying tension seems to have had a financial basis. The leadership of the ISO had asked the seemingly innocent question of where all the money that had been raised for developing the IS Tendency internationally had gone to. To which Alex Callinicos rather grumpily replied that he was not accountable because the IST was not a formal international party. But it was a good question because a lot of money had been raised, especially for the development of the South African group, but nothing had come out of it.
There may have been a further underlying tension between the SWP and ISO, as I have heard rumours from two different sources of a dispute over a large financial legacy left to the SWP by an American comrade, who had been living in London when he made his will.
It is certainly reasonable to ask for some assessment about why, despite all the money and effort that has gone into building the SWP’s international links, the IST seems to be a shambles. Nowadays, almost every country where the SWP has an international affiliate also has a rival organisation with similar politics, and in many cases the unofficial group is bigger than the official one.
For example in Australia the Socialist Alternative is an IS derived organisation, resulting from the expulsion of the Melbourne branch including Tom o’Lincoln some years ago. Socialist Alternative are basically a propaganda group following a similar party building model to that adopted by the SWP in the 1980s. The expulsions seem to have been precipitated by an intervention from London, after a visit to Oz by Chris Bambury. Socialist Alternative can sustain themselves perhaps indefinitely on that isolationist, propaganda basis, but to what purpose?
In contrast the official SWP affiliate, the ISO, seems to be in terminal crisis. Within the last couple of weeks they finally formally resigned from the Australian Socialist Alliance (SA), however their participation had been problematic for a while, as they sought to apply perspectives from London which stressed the Coalition model that the SWP favoured for Respect. Their long term leading comrade David Glanz has now taken a backseat role, and I have heard rumours that some comrades may have resigned over the ISO leaving the SA.
In New Zealand, the propaganda version of the IS politics is called the International Socialists. It is significant that their web site links to the American ISO, and to the Australian Socialist Alternative, although I do not believe that the American ISO is fostering formal international links. For those familiar with the traditional British SWP of the 1980s and 1990s, the IS(NZ) web site has a comfortable feel to it.
The official IST affiliate in new Zealand, called Socialist Worker, have not updated their web-site for a couple of years, but are quite independent of the London line, and leading comrades like Grant Morgan have been regular attendees at events organised by the DSP in Australia. Socialist Worker’s orientation on left regroupment appears to be at odds with current London thinking.
Of course, the ISO of Zimbabwe also thinks independently, and has publicly disagreed with London over the issue of internal party democracy (they support the allowing of permanent factions) and over Alex Callinicos’s criticism of them for standing a candidate for parliament.
The French comrades of Socialisme Par en Bas (Speb) find themselves in the strange position of being a permanent tendency within the LCR. (they are no longer linked to from the SWP’s own web site) competing with the Socialisme Internationale group, comrades with almost identical politics to theirs, who were expelled by Cliff just for being too old and conservative. Yet even the British SWP have remarked that without experience the Speb comrades run round like head-bangers. Ostensibly the Speb are in the LCR to provide a revolutionary pole of attraction within an organisation that the British SWP regard as essentially a rightward leaning swamp. However entry into the LCR has its own problems, as the faction rights extended require that any meeting of the faction are open to all LCR members – including those that Speb have expelled!
The situation in Ireland is bizarre. For some reason the IST now advertise two organisations, one in the South and one in the North, although historically the SWP (Ireland) were a 32 counties organisation. The current elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly sees the SWP standing two candidates under two different banners. In Foyle Eamonn Mccann is standing under the Socialist Environmental Alliance banner, while in Belfast the SWP are standing a 19 year old student, Seán Mitchell, for the People Before Profit Alliance. Their electoral platform is against imperialism (in Iraq !!!) and for troops out (of Iraq !!!!). A few years back a group of SW members broke from Keiran Allen’s SWP and joined the USFI affilate, Socialist Democracy.
To finish on a positive note, In Germany Linksruck seem to be playing a mature and constructive role in the formation of a new party, arising from the merger of the PDS and WASG. But they will need to think entirely for themselves as the situation they are finding themselves in is very different from anything that the British SWP have been involved with. Models of behaviour derived from the experience in Respect in England or Solidarity in Scotland will not serve them well in a much larger party, where for example the PDS alone have 68000 members.