The following article is from Proletarian Revolution No. 61 (Summer 2000).

ISO vs. SWP: Who’s More Opportunist?

Early this year a fierce faction fight erupted within the International Socialist Tendency (IST), between its U.S. affiliate, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and the IST’s dominant center, the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The SWP leadership accused the ISO of adopting a sectarian and abstentionist attitude on the Seattle street battles last fall, as well as on last year’s imperialist war against Serbia. The ISO in turn accused the British of making false charges, bureaucratically intervening in the U.S. group behind the backs of the leaders, and hiding the collapse or disappearance of groups in other countries.

Both leaderships kept these arguments hidden from their members for months. Then, shortly before his death in April, the IST’s leader and theoretical guru, Tony Cliff, co-signed letters denouncing the leadership of the ISO. This opened the floodgates. The British sent documents directly to the ISO’s membership attacking the American leaders. The Americans responded in kind. One group claiming to be an opposition inside the ISO posted the documents on the internet and promised to wage a factional struggle of its own.

Cliff’s denunciation of the ISO leadership is hardly without precedent in the IST. Condemnations by the SWP of individuals and groups in the tendency are common and are almost always followed swiftly by expulsions. The British SWP rules over the IST on a totally undemocratic basis. There is no leading international committee; the SWP deals separately with each national section without informing the others of political issues in dispute, splits, etc. Its excuse is that the IST is not a genuine International, a self-fulfilling argument which in its essentials the U.S. leadership accepts.

But a number of factors set this fight apart. First, the SWP leaders have not formed a strong alternative leadership inside the ISO with which to replace the current leaders. Indeed their bureaucratic attacks seem to have united the U.S. leaders against the British. Second, Cliff’s death has robbed the British SWP of the authority that enabled them to dictate to the national sections. As we will see, such bureaucratic rule is essential to holding the IST together through its many opportunist twists and turns.

Third, the fight broke out at a time when the SWP is taking a sharp turn to the right—to parliamentarism, a form of reformism it has historically denounced. It is also a time of deepening opportunism for the ISO, both in the campaign against the death penalty and in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, in which it is considering supporting the pro-capitalist and nationalist campaign of Ralph Nader. Finally, this fight follows a number of splits of groups or whole sections from the IST in affiliates as widespread as Australia, South Africa, Germany, Greece, Belgium and Canada.

Not With a Bang but a Whimper

The IST is a notoriously opportunist tendency. Like all those whom Lenin and Trotsky labelled centrists because they vacillate between revolutionary rhetoric and reformist practice, the IST habitually sacrifices its purported revolutionary views whenever it sees an opportunity to cozy up to reformist union and political leaders. Its priority is to sweep up new recruits through militant cheerleading of reform struggles. The IST rejects the revolutionary approach of combining proposals for the immediate workers’ struggles with political challenges to the reformist leaders designed to expose their reluctance to lead the struggles to victory.

The faction fight seems to have ended as quickly and arbitrarily as it started. In the face of such sharp differences, any genuine revolutionary would want to argue them to a clear conclusion. The ISO leaders defended themselves against the SWP’s charges but aimed to avoid a fight; they never addressed what was behind the SWP’s attacks. In one of the internet documents, they whimpered:

We do not believe that there are principled differences between the ISO and the SWP. Nor are some of the issues raised … matters that require complete political agreement between revolutionaries, especially between revolutionaries in different countries. … We do not want a faction fight and have sought to avoid one.

That is: we don’t criticize your perspectives and activities, so why don’t you return the favor? That way we can stay together, doing whatever we want in our respective countries.

Little more than two months later, with the SWP leaders intransigent, there are hints that the ISO leaders are preparing to split from the IST. They have reportedly broken all forms of regular cooperation with the SWP, from sending literature to participating in their annual conference. They have dodged a faction fight because they wanted to avoid the political debate that a fight would have meant. In the end, a split may be the only way for them to avoid a debate.

Of course, the SWP leaders were not interested in a political struggle either. Their criticisms of the ISO were aimed not at politically persuading the ISO leaders but simply at hammering them into line as obedient yes-men and -women.

Nor have the reported opposition groups inside the ISO followed through on their promises. At the ISO’s Summer School in Chicago June 8-11, where numerous sessions provided an opportunity to reach the group’s national membership, no ISO or ex-ISO opposition raised its voice. The only challenge to the ISO’s opportunism came from the League for the Revolutionary Party. And our supporters were answered by the ISO leadership not with politics but with attempted slander, threats and finally a physical attack.

The fact that the faction fight seems to have ended with no clear resolution makes a discussion of the issues all the more important. Over the years, the ISO’s concentration on upper-class college campuses has supplied it with many basically liberal members with no real interest in revolutionary Marxism or political debate. But it has also attracted some people genuinely searching for revolutionary socialism, some of whom we met at the Summer School. We hope that these comrades will find ways to learn and stand up for revolutionary politics; the purpose of this article is to assist in that struggle.

The SWP Tails Left-Labourism …

A hallmark of Cliffism is sudden and arbitrary changes of perspectives that are enforced on the members by a bureaucratic regime. Such a turn is the background for the recent falling out.

For years the SWP had declared that the class struggle was in a “downturn,” during which revolutionaries could play only a minimal role in the working class. Rather it worked mostly in middle-class protest campaigns. Thus it played a negligible role in the great British miners’ strike of 1984-5, while it put its efforts into building fronts like the Anti-Nazi League.

But in the mid-1990’s, the SWP announced a turn toward the working class and mass recruitment. This turn was driven not by any massive upsurge in workers’ struggles in Britain (the workers’ movement there remains on the defensive), but by the collapse of the Labour Party left typified by figures like miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and the “Trotskyist” groups that were inside the Labour Party—the traditional trap for radicalizing workers. The SWP hoped that as disenchantment with the right-wing “New Labour” government of Tony Blair grew, it would fill the vacuum. Its method has been simply to pose as the militant alternative to Blair.

For genuine Marxists the crisis of left-Labourism offered a great opportunity to expose reformism and win workers to revolutionary communism. But for the Cliffites it meant adapting to Labourism and presenting the SWP as the home for reformists who are being driven out of Labour. As one SWP leader told the party’s 1996 conference:

There are tens of thousands of workers questioning their allegiances to the Labour Party. Tony Blair is depriving them of their natural political home. This presents a historic opportunity for socialists in Britain, we have a chance of growing considerably.

Most recently, this perspective has led the SWP to make a sharp turn to parliamentarism. The SWP has throughout its history refused to run electoral campaigns against the Labour Party, preferring to encourage workers to vote for Labour because it’s “their” party. In this way, they avoided an open struggle against the Labour Party leadership and its henchmen in the union bureaucracy and instead have recruited by appearing as the “best militants."

In 1996, Blair had inflicted a massive defeat on the Labour left, removing the party’s constitutional clause committing it to nationalized property and a redistribution of wealth. Scargill responded by splitting from Labour and initiating the ill-fated Socialist Labour Party (SLP) to challenge Labour in elections (See "Death Agony of the Labour Left” in Proletarian Revolution No. 52.) Scargill’s bureaucracy, which the SWP had no interest in challenging, was able to suppress the far left, and he still enjoyed support among a layer of industrial workers the SWP had remained aloof from. The SWP reacted in familiar fashion, opposing the SLP with rhetoric that condemned socialist participation in elections as inevitably leading to reformism, and instead pinned its hopes on a revival of extra-parliamentary struggle after the election of a Blair government:

In words it is possible to talk about combining serious intervention in the elections with struggle outside the [House of] Commons. In practice the two pull in opposite directions. The search for votes pushes a party towards a softening of its message, towards a search for accommodation with the union leaders in order to secure backing and finance. The alternative is to center on struggle and to recognize that in any situation short of an insurrection revolutionary socialists will appeal to only a minority of the class. (Socialist Worker, Nov. 25, 1995.)

The upsurge of struggle expected by the SWP did not materialize, but a new move toward a left electoral alternative to Labour did. The popular left reformist Ken Livingstone, deprived of Labour’s nomination for mayor of London by the Party’s right-wing leaders, ran an independent campaign. Livingstone enjoyed popular support among workers, but, unlike Scargill, he did not control even the semblance of an organizational structure that could prevent the SWP from recruiting among his base. So the SWP responded in typically opportunist fashion, dropping its anti-electoralist rhetoric and jumping on the Livingstone bandwagon. It campaigned for Livingstone virtually uncritically (despite his anti-working class bloc with the bourgeois Greens and a bitter attack on his socialist cheerleaders), and led an electoral bloc, the London Socialist Alliance, which ran a purely reformist campaign for local offices.

Although the LSA did rather poorly in the vote, the SWP (and other centrists) hailed the result. Now the SWP seems to be pushing for the LSA to become a permanent electoral front or even a new party. The SWP’s policy confirms the prediction we made in our PR 52 article: faced with the collapse of Labour reformism, the centrist left would seek not to organize a revolutionary burial team but rather to revive left reformism in the form of a new reformist party.

To cover this right turn, the SWP developed a perspective that the world has entered a period like the 1930’s—in “slow motion.” But this is absurd: our times are not like the 1930’s, with massive class struggles between forces of revolution and counterrevolution. The current period is only transitional to such a time; in the imperialist countries it is characterized mostly by defensive working-class struggles. The underlying contradictions of the world economy are producing crises throughout the “third world” and the weaker imperialist countries, and the biggest imperialist powers’ uneven prosperity is only temporary. A new worldwide “Great Depression” and profound mass upheavals lies ahead but is not yet here.

… While the ISO Tails Middle-Class Protests

The ISO has tried to combine the SWP’s opportunist turn to workers’ struggles and mass recruitment (see our polemic, "ISO’s Right Turn to Labor,” in PR 51) with its focus on various middle-class campaigns, like anti-sweatshop campaigns on college campuses and the liberal campaign against the death penalty.

When the Americans refused to blindly follow the latest directive from London, they were attacked by the British leaders for not throwing enough forces into the Seattle protests last fall and in general for not adapting enough to an allegedly new mass anti-capitalist consciousness. No doubt the Seattle protests were an important expression of a confused, populist militancy—primarily among layers of students and the middle class. But the SWP hailed them as evidence of an “anti-capitalist mood” internationally that represents a “profound shift in working-class consciousness.” (Socialist Review, January 2000.) The ISO defended its approach, claiming on the one hand that it did the best it could in Seattle, while on the other arguing that the British mistake a “reformist mood” for a revolutionary one.

Opportunism is inevitably nationalist, because it means capitulating to reformist forces which always take forms specific to each country. What set the leaderships of the SWP and ISO against one another is their different national opportunist interests. The British grossly exaggerate the radicalization that led to Seattle, but it is not simply a misjudgment; it is a necessary rationale for their domestic right turn. After all, Cliffite leaders in both Britain and the U.S. have often justified “throwing open the doors of the party” by referring to supposedly similar turns made by Lenin in 1905 and 1917. In the absence of actual revolutions like those in Russia, they invented the “strong anti-capitalist mood” and “major political turning-point” of Seattle.

In the U.S., however, the limitations of Seattle are too clear for even the ISO to base a new perspective on. Moreover, a radicalization in the U.S. cannot be expected to go in the same direction as that which the SWP expects in Britain. Without a Labour Party or a left-reformist layer of union bureaucrats to adapt to, the ISO can only maintain its focus on middle-class campaign movements.

Different Pespectives, Same Opportunism

The differences over perspectives belie the fact that both leaderships share the same opportunist approach. Even on Seattle—while the ISO now says that the anti-globalization protests are evidence only of a new reformist rather than a revolutionary mood, last fall it hailed Seattle just as uncritically as their comrades in Britain, writing that “the main trend … in Seattle was firmly anti-capitalist."

Of course, the ISO follows the same method of watering down criticisms of reformist misleaders and posing as the “best builders” of reform movements as the SWP. For example, in its current focus of activity, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the ISO moved to the right at the first chance of uniting with liberal politicians. When demands for the abolition of the death penalty coincided with scandals that exposed outrageous frame-ups and wrongful convictions of death row inmates, some Democratic and Republican politicians began to talk of the need for a moratorium on all executions. This move was designed to head off a potentially mass movement to abolish the death penalty and to institute reforms that would strengthen it against future challenges. The ISO responded by downplaying their slogan for abolition of the death penalty and uncritically hailing the idea of a moratorium. While a moratorium would be a temporary victory, by not warning of its dangers the ISO continues to help the bourgeois politicians divert the struggle. (See "Death Penalty Moratorium Debate" in PR 59.)

More generally, signs of what the ISO’s future capitulations will look like are already appearing. In the May 12 issue of its newspaper, Socialist Worker, the ISO came out very mildly against Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy. Its criticism focused on his style and some of his non-progressive positions, rather than on the crucial question of the middle-class character of his campaign and party. (See our article on Nader on in this issue of PR.) The ISO also claimed he wasn’t linked to any movement: “A real left-wing alternative would be a welcome change in U.S. politics. But it’s not clear that Nader is really interested in that."

No, it is perfectly clear that Nader is running a leftish bourgeois campaign and seeking middle-class votes and activism; the ISO is not concerned about that but only about the amount of middle-class support he attracts. What he’s not doing is building a working-class alternative.

In our Bulletin for the ISO’s Summer School, we foresaw that the ISO might opportunistically have to change its line:

The ISO … has to worry that this campaign is aimed at its own target audience of students, middle-class activists and union members. How hostile it remains toward Nader will be determined by how big a middle-class and labor-bureaucratic groundswell develops. … Given the character of the ISO’s recruitment, it is quite possible that a substantial portion of its transient membership will vote for Nader.

Thus it is not surprising that less than a month after its initial statement against Nader, the line has opportunistically changed. The June 9 Socialist Worker editorial discussed Nader’s campaign without much criticism, now noticing that he did have the makings of a movement behind him:

Nader’s track record is mixed. In 1996, he was the Green Party presidential candidate, but he barely ran a campaign—and in the end told voters to support Clinton if Bob Dole had a chance to win. But if Nader remains serious about this run—as he has so far—his campaign could become a focal point for all the newly radicalized people who took to the streets in Seattle and Washington DC.

That would mean that real issues important to ordinary people—like corporate greed and the destruction of the environment—would be on the table in Election 2000. And that would be a welcome change from the usual election-year doubletalk.

And at the Summer School, any number of ISO members, including leaders, argued for “critical” support. Clearly the ISO is considering encouraging a vote for Nader. And judging by the editorial just cited, along with the entire history of Cliffism’s attitude towards reformists, it will be barely critical.

This is not simply a tactical mistake. It is a violation of a basic principle of Marxism—uncompromising struggle for the organizational and political independence of the working class. Lenin and Trotsky, for example, explained that critical electoral support could be considered for bourgeois-led workers’ parties like British Labour, with the purpose of exposing their leaders. But for Marxists to endorse outright bourgeois parties would mean supporting the class enemy.

If the Cliffites offer political support to Nader, it will not be the first time they’ve crossed the class line. Recent years have seen them vote for the bourgeois ANC in South Africa (after splitting over the question), as well as regularly encourage a vote for the liberal capitalist PASOK party in Greece. Today at latest report the IST section in Zimbabwe is supporting the bourgeois-democratic, pro-IMF Movement for Democratic Change in the upcoming election.

The Kosovo War Issue

Another issue between the SWP and ISO leaderships was the imperialist war against Serbia, although their differences were hard to see in public. Both groups campaigned against NATO’s bombing, but neither went beyond “Stop this War!” rhetoric to stand for the defense of Serbia against imperialist attack and thus for the military defeat of the NATO forces, as was the duty of revolutionary internationalists. Likewise, neither the SWP nor the ISO gave anything but paper support for the right of self-determination for Kosovo, despite the SWP’s claim that the ISO went overboard on this question. But the most important issue regarding the SWP-ISO squabble over the war was only hinted at, in the documents’ references to the role of the U.N.

Since the U.N. is just as imperialist an organization as NATO, it was necessary for revolutionaries to combat those opponents of NATO’s war who saw the U.N. as an acceptable alternative for bringing peace to the Balkans. The SWP complained that the ISO made too big a point of this, since the U.N. played little role in the war. But in fact the ISO was no less opportunist than the SWP. During the war the ISO mostly criticized NATO and the U.N. as incompetent peacekeepers, not imperialist warmakers.

The U.N. indeed was bypassed to a degree at this stage of the Balkan war, but other imperialist outfits were on the scene. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for example, policed Kosovo for the imperialist powers before NATO’s bombing got under way. During the bombing, Pierre Bourdieu, a prominent French left intellectual, circulated a petition among his fellow academics condemning NATO but calling for finding “elements of a multi-national police force (embracing notably Serbs and Albanians) in the ranks of the OSCE to enforce a transitional agreement.” This letter was signed by Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the SWP, the IST’s International Tendency Organizer—and the co-signer of Cliff’s letters denouncing the ISO for, among other things, being “sidetracked by questions such as … the United Nations."

For a socialist to advocate any kind of imperialist intervention means crossing the class line. Callinicos did it, the SWP agreed to it, and the ISO leadership covered it up. None of them was sidetracked from trying to unite with every pro-imperialist pacifist they could find by the task of standing firm against imperialism. They are all contemptible traitors to the “international socialism” they preach.

Cliffism vs. Revolutionary Marxism

One question that is raised in every political struggle inside the IST is democracy, or rather the lack of it, inside the international tendency as well as its national sections. What any would-be revolutionary in the ISO must realize is that the bureaucratic regimes of all Cliffite groups, and the SWP’s colonial rule internationally, are necessary expressions of their basic politics. Even after Cliff’s death it is impossible to have what many dissident ISTers have searched for in the past, a “Cliffism without Cliff"—that is, a tendency not run bureaucratically.

The increasingly frequent shifts that mark the IST groups’ tailing of petty-bourgeois reformists demand heavy restrictions on democratic decision-making. You can’t arbitrarily change your line on parliamentarism or Nader overnight and allow serious debates with members who still believe the line in yesterday’s newspaper. Similarly, the policy of recruiting members on the basis of abysmally low levels of political understanding, plus the emphasis on activism at the expense of cadre education, inevitably opens IST groups to rampant political confusion and instability; this can only be compensated for by a bureaucratic regime.

A break from the worst bureaucratic and politically opportunistic features of Cliffism demands a break from the core theoretical and programmatic positions that define it. Those in the IST who want to take up this struggle will have to compare the IST’s politics to the revolutionary tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. They will also have to reject the sectarian self-censorship promoted by the IST leaders, who advise their members to sneer at other leftists and ignore what they say. ISO members should consult the views of all groups and make up their minds for themselves. To this end, we conclude with a brief review of the characteristic IST positions that sharply conflict with a revolutionary Marxist understanding of the world.

  1. Cliff’s Bankrupt Theory of Stalinism

    Cliff and the IST are best known for their theory of Stalinism as “bureaucratic state capitalism.” While the theory’s anti-Stalinism allows the Cliffites to claim it as a serious Marxist analysis confirmed by the demise of the Stalinist states, in fact the opposite is true.

    Our book, The Life and Death of Stalinism , presents our understanding of Stalinism as a deformed statified capitalism resting on the usurped gains of the 1917 revolution, most importantly nationalized property, that made the Stalinist system an especially crisis-ridden form of capitalism. We analyze Cliff’s theory (as well as various “deformed workers’ state” and “bureaucratic collectivism” theories) and explain why Cliff’s was useless for foreseeing the demise of the Stalinist system. Cliff predicted that Stalinism would triumph over traditional capitalism, since bureaucratic state capitalism was “the highest stage which capitalism can ever reach.” It followed that “From a state-owned and planned economy there can be no retracing of steps to an anarchic, private-ownership economy.” Reality said otherwise.

    When Stalinism collapsed in East Europe and the USSR, the IST refused to defend the surviving working-class gains and applauded the “death of Communism.” Privatization, they said, was not a defeat for the workers but a “step sideways” in which the workers had little interest. Cliff’s theory of state capitalism thus proved bankrupt both as a tool for predicting the course of events and as a guide to action.

  2. Rejection of the Leninist Struggle Against Reformism

    The entire history of Leninism and Trotskyism is one of a relentless struggle against reformist misleaders of the working class. One of the formative struggles that shaped Bolshevism was that against “economism"—the view that workers should be approached essentially with slogans and arguments for immediate struggles and not bothered with criticisms of reformist leaders or with political slogans that they are judged not ready to immediately accept. One such view prominent among socialists is that the working class can become revolutionary “spontaneously"—on the basis of its day-to-day struggles alone, without the educational assistance of the organization of the most class-conscious workers, the vanguard revolutionary party.

    Lenin argued that the economist strategy amounted to refusing to challenge the reformist leaders and thereby helping them control the workers. For both Lenin and Trotsky, the working class could only come to revolutionary class consciousness if it could combine its own experiences of the struggle with the revolutionary party’s relentless efforts to expose the misleaders and the limited possibilities of reforming capitalism.

    Cliffism explicitly rejects such an approach. As we have seen, its method is to try to be “the best builders” of reform struggles while refraining from any serious criticisms of the reformist leaders that could make bureaucratic cooperation more difficult. Since the working class can become “spontaneously revolutionary” through mass struggle, there is no need to launch an open struggle for a revolutionary program against the reformists, nor to raise any demands or arguments that seem to be “ahead” of most militant workers’ current levels of understanding. This approach, of course, encourages reformist at the expense of revolutionary consciousness. And given the propensity for reformist leaders to betray struggles, it is not at all the best way to build the workers’ movement but rather a sure way to lead it to defeat.

    Genuine Marxists see a fundamental difference between workers’ desires to fight for reforms and reformism—the ideology that opposes revolution with a program for the reform of capitalism. But the Cliffites (like most centrist groups) really believe that workers must go through a stage of reformist consciousness before they can embrace revolutionary views. To speed this process up, they encourage support for reformists in the hope that will encourage militancy among workers.

    Thus, as the crisis of reformism deepens, the Cliffites are increasingly led to prop up and even replace the weakening reformist misleaders. Thus in Britain, just as the Labour left enters its death agony, the Cliffites rush to support a purely reformist—in fact, popular-frontist—electoral campaign in the image of “old Labour.” Similarly in the U.S., as the crisis of Democratic Party liberalism deepens, the ISO is drawn to support the man who is trying to revive it, Ralph Nader. The Cliffites think they will build up reformist leaders today only to outsmart them tomorrow by recruiting their supporters. But all they really do is help revive reformism and build it into a force capable of leading more struggles to defeat.

  3. Rejection of the Leninist Vanguard Party

    Lenin’s conception of the vanguard revolutionary party is based on the need for the most class-conscious workers to organize themselves as an alternative leadership of their class in open and uncompromising struggle against the reformist leaders. Cliffism rejects this approach in favor of posing as a better leadership for reformist struggles; the revolutionary party is seen as a “network of militants,” not conscious revolutionaries. This leads directly to watering down the purportedly revolutionary program to allow socialists to unite with “militants” and to recruit members on the basis of minimal political agreement. The only guarantee of the supposed revolutionary character of the organization thus becomes an all-knowing leadership ready to bureaucratically enforce each new twist and turn.

  4. Rejection of the Theory of Imperialism

    Despite the evident bleeding dry of the “third world” through miserable wages and onerous debts, the Cliffites deny that the workers and peasants of Asia, Africa and Latin America are superexploited. They regard the poor countries that contain the great majority of the world’s population as inessential for international capitalism and basically extraneous to it. Originally the Cliffites denied Lenin’s theory that imperialism characterized the “highest stage of capitalism"; later they resumed using the term but without its content.

    This attitude gives the IST a justification for not opposing imperialist wars when doing so would isolate it from its reformist allies. Thus the Cliffites did not defend Korea against the U.N.’s attack in the 1950’s, but they did take Vietnam’s side in the 1960’s when there was a mass anti-war movement in the West. The SWP refused to take sides when Britain and Argentina went to war over the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands in 1982—but finds it easy to denounce imperialist attacks against Iraq and Serbia when they are led by the U.S.

  5. Denial of the Existence of a Labor Aristocracy

    For genuine Marxists, reformism is not simply a problem of bad ideas; it has a material basis in capitalist society. Marx and Engels analyzed the corruption of the British workers’ movement in the late 1800’s. Lenin later made this a central element in his theory of imperialism, explaining that the super-profits drawn from the colonies allowed the capitalists to sustain a layer of relatively privileged workers with a stake in capitalism—a labor aristocracy. This layer formed the social foundation of reformism and opposed the revolutionary interests of the most exploited and oppressed workers.

    Lenin understood that while subject to oppression and exploitation by capitalism, in the absence of working class leadership the labor aristocracy (and the petty-bourgeois middle strata of society in general), will defend their temporary and partial interests in the capitalist system at the expense of the masses of workers. Because the most oppressed workers have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the overthrow of capitalism, their immediate interests represent the historic interests of the working class as a whole, and it is they who must play the predominant role in leading the rest of their class. To build a party which could be depended on to fight for revolution meant always fighting for the party to sink its roots deeper in the most exploited layers of its class.

    The most obvious symptom of the Cliffites’ warped perspective is the social character of their membership and the political views it embraces. While the IST may in theory ignore the existence of the labor aristocracy and the middle class in general, in practice it is linked to them. The fact that the ISO draws so many members from elite college campuses goes a long way toward explaining their snotty, know-it-all attitude. It also determines their comfort with a political perspective that treats workers as children who will be scared by being told hard truths—that socialism is necessary for human survival and that a vanguard workers’ party is necessary for socialism. Instead, the IST expects workers to be led unconsciously toward socialism by making them jump through the hoops of only the most immediate and partial demands.

  6. Labor Aristocratic Contempt for the Oppressed

    In the United States above all, a basic understanding of racial oppression is an absolute necessity for any revolutionary. The racial division of the working class works to turn people of color into a source of superexploitable labor while contributing to material privileges enjoyed by white workers, which encourages their support for capitalism and hostility to united working-class struggle. Thus capitalism divides the working class and uses the competition between both groups to lower all workers’ wages and conditions.

    But for the Cliffites, racism is little more than a set of bad ideas in white workers’ heads. Callinicos wrote: “At most what white workers receive is the imaginary solace of being members of the superior race, which helps to blind them to where their real interests lie.” (Race and Class, p. 44.)

    Only the most privileged and smug “socialists” could not see that workers of color are more exploited and more impoverished than white workers, that white workers enjoy advantages in every aspect of life, from employment, housing, education and freedom from the worst police harassment. White workers will only be broken from the racist or just plain conservative views that many hold by an uncompromising struggle against every form of racist oppression and privilege. Despite the ISO’s opposition to racism, their theory will inevitably misguide them when Black and Latino struggles come up directly against the interests of the labor bureaucracy. Their growing support for Ralph Nader, whose disdain for the struggles of the oppressed is palpable, is an indicator.

  7. The ’Socialism from Below’ Sham

    The IST sums up its political view as “socialism from below.” This, they think, distinguishes them from all sorts of “socialisms from above” like Stalinism and electoral reformism. Indeed, this democratic, popular and activist formula can indeed seem like a healthy, pro-working class alternative.

    But Cliffism’s “socialism from below” is really an expression of their lowly estimation of the working class, an elitist conception of their own role. We have seen how the Cliffites betray their supposed commitment to the masses with their contemptible attitude toward the oppressed and their whitewashing of imperialism. And how by refusing to challenge the reformist illusions workers hold, the Cliffites only encourage support for the reformist leaders who help keep the masses enslaved.

    Similar formulas were raised in Lenin’s day. When ultra-leftists who rejected the need for revolutionary party leadership in the name of socialism coming “from below"—from the masses and not leaders—Lenin dismissed the whole idea in the harshest terms:

    We hope that the reader will understand why the Russian Bolshevik, who has known this mechanism [the relationship between the revolutionary party and the masses] for twenty-five years … cannot help regarding all this talk about “from above” or “from below,” about the dictatorship of leaders or the dictatorship of the masses, etc., as ridiculous and childish nonsense, something like discussing whether a man’s left leg or right arm is of greater use to him. (’Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder)

    If only to refute the Cliffites’ own misleading formulation, it can be said that Lenin understood that revolutionary class consciousness comes from both below and above: from the immediate interests and struggles of those most oppressed masses in the depths of the working class, and from the most class conscious workers organized in an “elite,” vanguard revolutionary party; from the lessons taught by the party and from the way they are confirmed by the masses’ experience of struggle.

    In this struggle, Cliffism actually stands in the middle, between the open reformism of social democrats and genuine revolutionary Marxism. This is only an expression of the petty-bourgeois classes Cliffism really rests on, the intelligentsia and the labor aristocracy they deny exists.

Return to LRP homepage | Write to the LRP