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International Socialist Organisation

P O Box 6157,

Dunedin, New Zealand.



Open letter to:

The Steering Committee,

International Socialist Organisation,

P O Box 16085, Chicago, IL. 60616




Monday 19-3-2001



Statement in Defence of the International Socialist Organisation (US)



Dear Comrades,


Let us state at the outset that we in the International Socialist Organisation of Aotearoa/New Zealand (ISO NZ) are appalled by the actions of the SWP CC. In our view, the attempted expulsion of the ISO US from the IS Tendency is completely inconsistent with the most basic principles of democratic centralism.  Even if all of the specific accusations made by the SWP CC were true, and we doubt this, they in no way provide sufficient grounds to justify the expulsion of an entire organisation from a socialist tendency that claims to be continuing in the tradition of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky. After all, these accusations amount to little more than stating that the ISO US has developed an interpretation of the significance of the anti-capitalist movement for the wider class struggle, the ISO's own approach to campaign work, and the setting of strategic priorities for party-building that the SWP CC doesn't agree with. Hardly convincing grounds for expulsion! 


Clearly it would be inappropriate within the limited framework of this letter for us to attempt a full scale critique of the documents produced by Alex Callinicos and the SWP CC to justify the expulsion. In our view, because they are so transparently at odds with Lenin's theory of the party and the actual historical record of the Bolsheviks with respect to inner-party democracy, convincing critiques will undoubtedly be forthcoming in the near future. Rather, we will simply take the opportunity to briefly highlight the extent to which the SWP CC's actions in expelling the ISO are fundamentally undemocratic and, further, argue that the effective demise of internal democracy within the IS tendency is inextricably linked to the continued advocacy of a broad perspective that grossly exaggerates the scale of the anti-capitalist movement and the industrial class struggle.


The Demise of Democracy within the International Socialist Tendency


1) This is not the first time that SWP CC has expelled a group from the tendency - the SWP CC unilaterally expelled the New Zealand ISO in April of 1997. Alex Callinicos, on behalf of the SWP CC, wrote that the decision of the ISO comrades to end the attempted merger (from February 1995 to March 1997) with the CPNZ  meant that "They have cut themselves off not simply from the SWO [in April 1997 this was the former CPNZ plus two former ISO members], but from the International Socialist Organisation in Australia, and all the other groups in the IS Tendency across the world". We were not contacted by Callinicos or any other member of the SWP CC for our side of the story, nor given any opportunity in any possible forum within the Tendency, such as an international meeting, to defend ourselves against this unilateral decision to expel us. The recent claim by Callinicos that within the Tendency "each organization is autonomous and therefore must make its own political decisions" is thus a gross distortion of the truth  in reality the SWP CC utterly dominates the broad perspectives and decision-making processes of the Tendency as a whole.


2) The International Socialist Organisation of Aotearoa/New Zealand (ISO NZ) is the original and longest standing socialist group operating in this country on the basis of the politics of the International Socialist tradition. The Socialist Workers' Organisation is nothing more than the "ex-Stalinist" Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) in opportunistically altered ideological garb. The SWO's internal regime has altered little since the days of the old Communist Party, and despite the leadership's duplicitous claims to the contrary, is fundamentally undemocratic. The most recent proof of this is the fact that the SWO uncritically endorsed the SWP CC's attempted expulsion of your organisation without any serious internal discussion in a matter of days. (In stark contrast, we have taken the time necessary to fully discuss and debate it amongst our entire membership. This letter has the unanimous endorsement of our membership.) It is also revealing that the SWO National Committee states in its servile letter supporting the SWP CC that "We will be voting this way at the next IST international meeting"  that is, its position has been fixed prior to listening to the arguments of the ISO US representatives and participating in the meeting itself.


3) We will discuss the differences in perspective between the SWP CC and the ISO US shortly, suffice to point out that the existence of such differences within an international socialist tendency and/or within a revolutionary socialist organisation is not sufficient grounds for expulsion. The historical experience of the classical Marxist and Leninist tradition highlights the crucial importance of internal democracy within the socialist organisations that we are trying to build. A healthy degree of internal democracy is essential so that the organisation can correct its mistakes, clarify its perspectives, learn from the struggles of workers and others fighting oppression, and intervene effectively in struggles and campaigns. As Lenin wrote in 1907, "there can be no mass party, no party of a class, without full clarity of essential shadings, without an open struggle between various tendencies" (cited by Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, p.52).


4) The British SWP CC claims that "the argument between the ISO and the IS Tendency was more than a disagreement over political perspectives of the kind that goes on all the time" and advocates the expulsion of the ISO on the additional grounds that the ISO leadership: (a) expelled six members "for agreeing with the rest of the Tendency"; and (b) was involved "in encouraging a split in the Greek SEK" (SWP CC  12 March 2001).


We have no way of knowing how accurate these claims are from this distance. But we can highlight the blatant hypocrisy involved in the SWP CC using (a) and (b) as grounds for expelling the ISO US from the IST. The truth is the SWP CC has behaved in precisely this manner itself when trying to enforce its perspective on other groups in the IST. For example, in 1995 the SWP CC prompted the National Committee of the Australian International Socialist Organisation to expel the political leadership of the ISO in Melbourne which resulted in over 1/3 of the national membership leaving in protest to form Socialist Alternative. Around the same time it had placed similar pressure on the Canadian IS leadership to marginalise David McNally and other leading members in Toronto  again leading to another major split resulting in the formation of the New Socialist Group. More recently, in New Zealand the SWP CC uncritically endorsed the SWO National Committee's decision to expel five members in March 1997.


This highlights the fact that: (a) the SWP CC has not only endorsed expulsions of members who were critical of its "1930s in slow motion" perspective, it has actively promoted these in a number of countries; and (b) the SWP CC has repeatedly meddled in the internal affairs of smaller groups in the Tendency, prompting splits in Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa, and elsewhere.  If expelling members who dissent from the leadership perspective and meddling in the internal affairs of sister organisations are sufficient grounds for excluding a group from the IS Tendency, then the British SWP should be the first to go after the forthcoming International Meeting! 


5) One of the most chillingly pernicious aspects of the Callinicos penned justification of the expulsion of the ISO US (The Anti-Capitalist Movement) is evident in the conclusion to the document:


"...the fate of the ISO is no reason for complacency on the part of those who have avoided it this time.  Even the vast majority of the IST that have avoided the ISO's fundamental error and recognised and sought to relate to the anti-capitalist movement face an enormous challenge in carrying this through. The ISO's metastasis into a sect is an extreme case of a tendency present in all our organizations. We will all have to fight to overcome this tendency and transform ourselves into an effective part of the movement that is burgeoning beyond us".


As anyone who has worked politically with the SWP CC will be well aware, this statement has a clearly discernible subtext - if individual members, or members of the leadership of individual groups in the tendency, or even an entire organisation, dare to seriously criticise the British SWP's perspective on the anti-capitalist movement then they can expect to be expelled, sooner or later.  If the ISO US is expelled from the IS Tendency, then it is hard to imagine the leadership of any other group in the Tendency being prepared to develop and articulate a perspective on any major issue in the future that is at odds with that of the SWP CC. Therefore what we are witnessing is the effective demise of any meaningful kind of democracy within the IS Tendency.



A World-Historic Turning Point?


6) The demise of democracy within the IS Tendency and the SWP CC's interpretation of the current historical period as the "1930s in slow motion" are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. With breakthroughs towards mass membership always just around the corner, the SWP considers that it is legitimate to cultivate obedient leaderships in each IST group in order to ensure that the opportunities are not missed. The older (and more independently minded) cadre within the organisations of the Tendency has become a barrier to growth - "so ossified that they are unable to relate to the revival of the left for which they have waited for decades" (Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement). The only exception being the SWP itself. Hence the SWP CC's active promotion of splits within a number of groups in the IST in order to remove this barrier, and clear the way to the predicted massive growth of the groups concerned.  The expulsion of the ISO US is thus merely a continuation of the SWP CC's flawed, and fundamentally undemocratic, 1990s approach to party building.


7)  The highly successful protests at Seattle were inspiring precisely because, as Callinicos points out, they brought together "organised workers and anti-globalisation activists". The ensuing emergence of an anti-capitalist movement is an important development that does create real opportunities for socialists to build the movement and their own organisations in the process. In our experience it is the case that it is generally "through being the most dynamic and militant force in building the movement in question that we distinguish ourselves and draw new people towards us". But it is also the case that we can only convince these people to join the ISO if we can convey to them a clear sense of what's wrong with the world, why it is like this, and how we can change it. And we have found that this requires much greater emphasis on the "battle of ideas" than was the case during the early to mid 1990s when we recruited largely on the basis of political activism.


There has, even here in New Zealand, been a noticeable shift in the consciousness of the students and young workers that we come into contact with. We have found a growing interest in socialist ideas, and during the past two years our membership and periphery has grown substantially, both in terms of numbers and the development of a cadre.


We have both recognised and successfully related to the new "mood" that Callinicos refers to. In the light of this experience we do not reject everything that he and the rest of the SWP CC has to say on the matter. However, the comparisons that they make between the current anti-capitalist movement and the international upturn in class struggle from the late 1960s to mid 1970s are overblown and unconvincing.  Consider the following remarks: "This is, as they said in 1968, only a beginning. Anti-capitalism is most widely diffused internationally as a mood"; "What this amounts to is the birth of a new left on an international scale"; "this is the greatest opening for the left since the 1960s"; "there can be no doubt about the scale of the movement - there has not been such a resurgence of activist energy since the Vietnam War". Obviously our geographical isolation makes it especially difficult for us to gauge the accuracy of such claims (unfortunately no such qualifications are apparent in the SWP CC's intervention in the affairs of the ISO in the U.S.). However, it is, surely, evidently false to compare Seattle, however inspiring, involving 60-80,000 people (ISJ 86, p.13) for less than a week to May '68 involving millions of workers for several weeks, or the anti-capitalist movement to the much larger anti-Vietnam War movement.  It seems to us that the ISO US has provided a much more realistic and balanced assessment of this movement than the SWP CC, recognising that it does provide important opportunities for socialists to intervene and recruit, but that we should also retain a capacity to make open-minded and realistic assessments of the relative weight of anti-globalisation protests compared to other struggles that we can and should involve ourselves in.


Of even greater concern is the complete failure to provide any systematic empirical assessment  of the extent to which the so-called "anti-capitalist mood" has generated, or has failed to generate, a significant revival in the industrial class struggle of the advanced capitalist societies.


Certainly here in New Zealand strike activity has actually fallen since 1996 and, despite a number of important strikes breaking out over the past few months, remains at the lowest level recorded since the 1930s.


Strike Activity in New Zealand:  1966-77 compared to 1996-2000


Total number of workers involved:


1966 33,132            1996-42,307

1967- 28,490           1997- 7,646

1968- 37,458           1998- 15,205

1969- 44,041           1999- 10,747

1970- 110,096         2000- 2,423 (first three quarters)

1971- 86,009

1972- 60,249

1973- 115,865

1974- 70,904

1975- 74,820

1976- 201,085

1977- 159,407



In light of the fact that levels of industrial class struggle are so low (for example, the number workers involved in strikes in 1997 was the lowest since 1936), we  are clearly not in the midst of a major upturn in class struggle in this country (although we do expect a significant revival in the industrial class struggle during the first half of this decade).


It is realities like these that have to be faced in developing a Marxist interpretation of the "new anti-capitalist mood" in other countries. In contrast, the Rees article in ISJ 90, "Anti-Capitalism, Reformism and Socialism"  devotes less than three pages in a 37 page article to this question, contains a graph (UK Labour Disputes  Working Days Lost, 1951-1998) that contradicts the central thrust of the analysis in the section, and completely fails to provide a convincing account of the overall state of the industrial class struggle in Britain in recent years. Certainly in contrast to the deficiencies of the Ree's article and the exaggerations of Callinicos in The Anti-Capitalist Movement there appears to be a much healthier degree of realism evident in the ISO Steering Committee's perspective documents.


8) By grossly exaggerating the actual scale of the "anti-capitalist movement", and the extent to which this has already generated a revival of the industrial class struggle, the SWP CC is promoting a perspective that will: (a) make it more difficult for groups in the IS Tendency, and especially the smaller groups, to independently and accurately identify, and prioritise their group's involvement in those struggles actually taking place in the countries concerned; and (b) has the potential to be utterly demoralising for the members of groups where the projected massive growth fails to materialise.





9) For all of these reasons we condemn the SWP CC's attempt to expel the ISO US from the IS Tendency and express our support for the ISO US. We call on other International Socialist groups around the world to do likewise. Those IS groups who uncritically endorse the SWP CC will stand exposed before the wider international left in the following respects:


* They will have fundamentally broken with the Leninist and Bolshevik tradition. In particular, they will have contributed to the complete abrogation of the rights of dissenting minorities to continue to exist within the IS Tendency.


* They will have demonstrated that their leadership is incapable of thinking and acting independently of the analysis and associated dictates of the SWP CC. Since no socialist organisation can be built in the long term in the absence of an independent Marxist analysis of the concrete conditions prevailing in the particular society in which that organisation is operating, they are thereby condemning themselves to a future of stagnation and/or decline.


10) We sincerely hope that, unlike some groups that have been forced out of the Tendency, your politics, like ours, will remain firmly based on the broad politics of the IS tradition. We do not regard the present tragedy as being in any way an inevitable outcome of the attempt to build a revolutionary socialist organisation committed to the cause of working class self-emancipation within the Leninist tradition. Rather, it is the most disastrous result to date of the mutually reinforcing combination of an overblown perspective and lack of serious commitment to the most basic principles of democratic centralism on the part of the SWP CC.


11) In this ideological struggle, the SWP CC has obviously attempted to bully the democratically elected leadership of the ISO US by threatening the organisation with international isolation. We think that there are now grounds for those groups who have been excluded from the IS Tendency to consider establishing solidaristic relations with each other. In our case, we have for the past three years maintained a sisterly relationship with Socialist Alternative in Australia which also operates on the basis of the politics of the IS tradition, while not being formally recognised by the SWP CC as part of the IST.


12) More concretely, and perhaps less ambitiously, we would welcome any reciprocal approach from your organisation, either to establish friendly relations between our two groups, or simply to discuss the issues raised by recent events and what this means for the revolutionary socialist movement. We thank you for sending us your newspaper, and will continue to send a copy of our publication to you. If you would like extra copies of Socialist Review, we would be most happy to provide these.


We are only a small group, but during the past two years we have grown substantially and this has been due, at least in part, to the greater degree of realism that we have been able to develop outside of the IST and at a distance from the increasingly disorientating leadership of the SWP CC.



Yours in solidarity,

the ISO NZ