Revolutionary Internationalist League’s 1995 Critique of Workers Power: The Roots of Degeneration
One general feature has become steadily more pronounced however, the adaptation to the feeling among sections of liberal western opinion that ‘our’ governments must ’do something’ – a sentiment that plays directly into the hands of imperialism. So now we have the ludicrous position of the LRCI [forerunner of Workers Power/ LFI] trying to sound revolutionary, and calling for the UN and NATO out of the Balkans and condemning the bombing, while at the same time demanding that ‘our’ government sends arms to the Bosnian forces and opens the borders to Islamic ‘volunteers‘ going to fight with them. In other words Workers Power does not want the imperialists to fight in the Balkans; they just want them to get their clients and proxies to do the fighting! – [Much like their apraisal of Lybia today]
The Revolutionary Internationalist League was formed in November 1984 as the British section of the International Trotskyist Committee, the renamed Trotskyist International Liaison Committee (TILC). Its origins lay in the Workers Internationalist League, (WIL) which was founded in 1983 by a Faction of the Workers Socialist League. The WIL split a year later into several factions and dissolved. It was one of these factions that formed the Revolutionary Internationalist League.
The VOAG doesn’t necessarily endorse all the positions of the RIL and doesn’t know the differences between these groups. What is of interest to the VOAG is the RIL’s 1995 critique of Workers Power (re-published below), which the VOAG supports. The document is as relevant today as it was in 1995 and explores the roots of Workers Power’s present tragectory, recent splits, and current politics. I have to warn the reader that this is a rather long document, but should be of great importance to members of Workers Power and any one interested in their politics. So grab a coffee, make yourself comfortable, it’ll be worth the effort.
Introduction – Who are Workers Power?
Workers Power in Britain is one of the many ‘left’ organisations that likes to call itself Trotskyist (Revolutionary Marxist). On paper, they like to appear as the ‘purest’ of Marxist, but like so much of the rest of Britain’s left they have gone through a steady process of political degeneration and opportunist adaptation. Increasingly they have become just another irrelevant sect, more interested in selling their paper than building any real struggles that can forge a new revolutionary vanguard and party.
They have built up an ‘international’ in much the same way as British groups like Militant, and their own former ancestors, the SWP: Instead of developing a genuine democratic internationalist party, they have set up ’satellite’ sections who must follow the line of the British leaders. They call this the ‘League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI), but as we shall see in this document the LRCI is no more than the extension of Workers Power in Britain. [Since this document was published the LRCI has been renamed the LFI, League for the Fifth International.]
Over the past few years and in particular since the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, Workers Power has rapidly speeded up its process of political degeneration and decay. It has come out with more and more rotten positions, it has developed an undemocratic and unhealthy internal regime and it has made a complete mess of just about every major area of practical work it has engaged in. Today, Workers Power holds out no hope of winning militant workers and youth to its organisation, it has become part of the British left’s living dead.
Worker’s Power’s Centrist Method
In essence Workers Power’s centrist method can be reduced to a sectarianism towards the working class and youth, which characterises its passive propagandistic, arrogant and literalist approach to class struggle. Increasingly, Workers Power has been further characterised by a total capitulation to bourgeois democracy, and middleclass public opinion. This adaptation to middle class public opinion has reached its peak in regards to the pro-imperialist policy Workers Power advance in relation to the war in Yugoslavia. But it goes back to their fears of raising the demand ‘victory to Iraq’ during the Gulf war and their constant refusal to defend the gains of the October workers revolution in the former Soviet Union from capitalist restorationism and counter revolution, which cloaks itself in the hypocritical gown of western ‘bourgeois democracy’.
The present leadership of Workers Power and the LRCI has for years been advancing the policy that it is correct to fight for bourgeois democracy within degenerated workers states. This shows a remarkable ignorance of class rule in capitalism, an ignorance all too often shared by groups like the USFI and Matgamna’s Socialist Organiser, who are desperate to prove to the middle classes that socialists are more in favour of bourgeois democracy than the bourgeoisie.
Since its first progressive period during the English Civil War and the French revolution, bourgeois democracy has always been the political system to which capitalist exploitation is best suited. It is about abstract ‘human rights’ that hide class power. Counter revolution within the workers’ states, whether healthy or degenerate, was always going to be best disguised in bottles marked ‘democratic rights’, especially when the so-called Communists are so eager to swallow the whole bottle without studying the ingredients.
What is the relevance of Workers Power?
Workers Power is a perfect example of a sect. There might even be ten times as many members of Workers Power as are in the RIL, but when did they last lead a struggle, when did they last even organise a march? Increasingly, Workers Power hasn’t done anything. They can go to other peoples meetings and marches, criticise everyone else, and sell a few papers, and that to them is active political work. No wonder Workers Power has never tried to even talk to the working class youth, they know those youth wouldn’t be in the slightest bit interested in a group of people who treat revolution like an interesting schoolboy hobby.
Workers Power has become a sect; if it had the 9000 members the SWP boasts of it wouldn’t be any better. It has no perspective of winning or even leading anything. And not surprisingly the sect has become a clique (the term cult might imply something more exciting than the mundane existence of this increasingly irrelevant group). A clique of leaders and full timers who go back years with one another run the group and demand personal loyalty from all its members. Some of the material from the recent splits will make that so apparent we need not comment further.
So, you may ask, if Workers Power are increasingly so irrelevant why waste our time writing about them? The conservatism, routinist sect that Workers Power has become only serves as an example of how not to build a revolutionary organisation, how not to win workers and youth, how to abstain from struggle and criticise everyone else, how to turn revolution into its opposite – into a drinking club for left wing people who want a hobby and like to sound sanctimonious and a little bit intellectual.
Workers Power is not just Workers Power in Britain, it is the principal section of the League for a Revolutionary Communist International, which as an international organisation claiming to be Trotskyist has attracted small but important groups of revolutionaries in a number of countries. We believe the recent split of the Latin American sections from Workers Power, following closely on the split of the New Zealand section to be a decisive turning point for the LRCI. There is no longer any national section within the LRCI that can fight to reverse the degeneration. The regime will no longer allow for that, and most of the remaining members are too crushed and tied in terms of personal loyalty to do anything except leave.
We don’t gloat at this depressing spectacle, nor do we wish any harm to those comrades who have chosen to go down the road of degeneration. Frankly, we would be wasting our time to do either. Rather, we feel the recent split demands the drawing of a balance sheet, the learning of lessons – especially important to those youth getting involved in politics for the first time, and for those ex-members and ex-sections of Workers Power which must now ask themselves where to go next.
The recent splits in the LRCI – Austria
In spring 1995, the Austrian section of the LRCI, Arbeiter-lnnenstandpunkt split. In 1992 Arbeiter-Innenstandpunkt was the largest far left group in Austria, bigger than either the Militant or the Austrian RKL. Arbeiter-lnnenstandpunkt had won a number of youth who were quickly turned into sectarians.
The final straw in the degeneration for the Arbeiter-Innenstandpunkt group came when they joined a right-wing Serbian monarchist demonstration in Vienna. They shared the same platform with the apologists, monarchists and clerical counterrevolutionaries from the former Yugoslavia, and failed to utter a word of criticism of Serbian nationalism. The only Serb member of the LRCI did try to make some attack on the monarchists and was promptly beaten up by Serb nationalists.
Workers Power have refused to ever make any public or internal correction to this complete debacle. It is bad enough to make such a mistake but to go on defending it years later spells disaster. The Austrian group ceased to grow and conservative pessimism set in. Earlier this year, the LRCI held what appears as a ridiculous debate to anyone outside the sect. They had an almighty argument about whether the political period in the world was counter- revolutionary with revolutionary potentials, or whether it was revolutionary, within a counter- revolutionary situation.
Such nonsense denotes an organisation that has lost any grip of Marxist dialectics. The world political situation is extremely contradictory. The collapse of Stalinism and the rightward shift of social democracy has intensified both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary pressures. The world is a more unstable place. But to generalise that it is either revolutionary (which clearly it is not) or that it is counter-revolutionary (suggesting the complete victory of reaction and the impossibility of making any practical revolutionary developments in the immediate future) is a nonsense. It is a classic attempt to try and make an abstract schema fit a complicated and concrete world.
Workers Power in Britain decided the period was now revolutionary. This has more to do with their celebration of the collapse of Stalinism than anything that existed in the class struggle, or that they thought they could actually do anywhere. A section of Arbeiter-Innenstandpunkt, decided it was counter-revolutionary and that, in fact, there was nothing much that could be done except make propaganda. This ridiculous argument led to the first of this year’s splits. The result is that there are now two tiny sects in Austria both of which are in reality sterile passive propaganda groups.
New Zealand and Latin America
In September 1995, the ’Proletarian Faction’ in the New Zealand section split. This was followed in October by the departure of the Peruvian and Bolivian sections, the only two Latin American sections of the LRCI and their only groups in neo-colonial countries. The two splits have different origins and some important different positions. They also share a great deal of correct criticisms of Workers Power and the LRCI.
The points of agreement include opposition to Workers Power’s counter-revolutionary positions on the war in former Yugoslavia, where Workers Power have called on imperialists to give military support to the Bosnian state and supported the Bosnian army, whilst refusing to defend Serbs from NATO bombing.
They opposed Workers Power’s support for the counterrevolutionary government in Lithuania, and their call for the Thatcher government to provide military aid to the pro capitalist government there to use against Soviet forces. They opposed Workers Power’s ‘united front’ with Boris Yeltsin in the 1991 August coup in the USSR. Workers Power had demanded socialists take sides with one section of the old bureaucracy, the more openly pro-capitalist counter revolutionary and pro bourgeois democratic one, against another which was more anti-democratic but wanted a slower process of capitalist restoration.
Both opposed the insane line of the LRCI which stated that the Bolivian working class had suffered an historic defeat on the scale of the Paris Commune! They resisted this defeatism until the LRCI forced it to be finally published in Bolivia- on the eve of a one month general strike! They opposed Workers Power’s positions on Haiti and Rwanda where Workers Power rejected elementary Marxism in failing to distinguish imperialism, refusing to allow for the possibility of ever supporting the Haitian government against a US military invasion, and backing the British and US sponsored Tutsi RPF in Rwanda during the mutually genocidal civil war with Hutus.
They opposed Workers Power’s call for a ‘democratic’ Popular front with the far right Islamic fundamentalists against the reactionary regime in Algeria. Many of them had opposed Workers Power’s backsliding during the Gulf war between imperialism and Iraq. Workers Power quickly retreated from demanding the victory of the oppressed nation, Iraq, once the war was in full swing.
In all these conflicts, we are completely with the sections that have split from the LRCI, in so far as we have been able to study their positions. Many of these criticisms have been made by us for many years, and they are developed in this pamphlet. Workers Power did not tolerate this opposition and it is clear that the internal regime of the LRCI made it increasingly impossible to wage these struggles from within. Bureaucratic suspensions and expulsions combined with splits became inevitable.
In practical terms Workers Power’s centrist method has made it redundant. But the most important point leading to the split for us is not the struggle over Eastern Europe or Yugoslavia, centrally important though these questions are for Trotskyists, but the resistance to the attempts of the LRCI leadership to impose an analysis of the political situation in Bolivia which would rule out any intervention in the class struggle.
The episode is an example of Workers Power’s rotten method. According to the LRCI the Bolivian working class has, since 1986 suffered a strategic and historical defeat with the massive cutbacks in the mines and privatisation. Workers Power said this defeat was as deep as that of the French working class after the Paris Commune was smashed and drowned in blood in 1871. They equated a series of important defeats of a combative working class – which had not lost its combatively – to the world historical defeat of the World’s first attempt to establish a workers’ state.
The Bolivian comrades recognised that the workers had suffered serious defeats and setbacks, and that the bourgeoisie was on the offensive with further large-scale privatisations. But they knew that to accept the LRCI’s analysis would condemn them to a passive, propagandist existence in the face of a reality that was much more complicated and where the working class had not yet been crushed.
Despite heated protests against this new line dictated by Workers, the Bolivian section was finally forced to swallow it. Their resistance brought them up against the bureaucratic internal regime of the LRCI. They were told that they would be suspended from the LRCI if they did not print the ‘official’ line in their Bolivian paper. They printed the line earlier this year, just before the outbreak of the General Strike in Bolivia. Such an obviously foolish line must have made the Bolivian comrades look like clowns in their own class struggle.
The Latin American comrades clearly saw that the un-Marxist methods of the LRCI would destroy the possibilities of revolutionary work in their countries. And the internal regime was clearly making a fight against these methods impossible. The leadership tried to suspend José Ville, a leading Bolivian comrade in London for receiving a fax asking him to join the New Zealand faction. Then they suspended him for trying to go to the International Executive Committee, of which he was an alternate member, and where he would have had the proxy vote of two absent full members from Latin America, and said that he would be expelled if he went to the meeting. He was threatened with discipline for doing almost anything.
Workers Power’s gutter response
In typical fashion, Workers Power has attempted to obscure the real political disagreements with a cocktail of slanders, misrepresentations, character assassinations, appeals to moral hysteria and assorted gutter rantings. When all else fails the Workers Power leaders resort to labelling all opponents as individualistic, undisciplined thieves against the workers movement!
Villa was an “unreformable” cult leader hostile to discipline, so Workers Power tell us. But the most important thing is to come: “in the shortest terms our attitude to Poder Obrero depends on whether they possess a shred of revolutionary morality. The Bolivian section has kept the money sent to them for an air fare and have not to date returned it, despite many requests to do so. Clearly it they do not – and we still hope that they will despite their spilt – this would bring into the whole situation a question of their honesty and honour as revolutionaries”.
Once again, Workers Power seek to hide the political argument by whipping up a moral outrage for their version of revolutionary morality against a world of ‘thieves’ and ‘robbers‘. When Chris Brind split it was the computer, now it is an airline ticket. Any piece of tittle-tattle will do for the workers Power leaders to demand loyalty by creating an anti-political and hysterical atmosphere. In issuing such crap the Workers Power leaders display even more contempt for their own members than they do for Villa and those who have split. Because anyone who swallows all this in place of a political examination of the questions concerned must be a total wooden head.
The roots of the crisis
The LRCI’s recent series of splits is the result of the contradictions in its politics. These contradictions have festered because of its inconsistencies. Since the LRCI was built around, and has always been politically dominated by its largest section, Workers Power in Britain, the causes and history of its degeneration are fundamentally those of Workers Power.
Workers Power’s method has always been characterised by an `academic’, formalistic and essentially mechanical attitude to Marxist theory and programme. Now this method takes the form of conservative passivity in ‘practical’ work, and a literary output designed to provide a convoluted ‘Marxist’ cover for positions which are in fact an accommodation to the shifts of British liberal middle class opinion, principally with regard to developments in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
The roots of the crisis lie in the incomplete and partial nature of Workers Power’s break with the politics and methods of Tony Cliff’s International Socialists (subsequently the SWP) in the 1970s, and of its movement towards Trotskyism. The group’s early struggles undoubtedly had a generally positive character, both against Cliff and subsequently against the rightward moves of Matgamna’s International Communist League which they were briefly part of before its Socialist Organiser phase. In the course of these struggles they turned increasingly to Trotskyist positions and made correct criticisms of the theories and practice of many of the groups claiming to be Trotskyist. However, they always tended to approach struggles on the basis of abstract propaganda, interventions and ultimatums, like their `take-it-or-leave-it’ fusion proposal to the Workers Revolutionary Parry after its expulsion of Gerry Healy in 1985.
The inconsistency in the break with Cliffism was clear in three main areas: its understanding of the theory of permanent revolution; its attitude to the Fourth International and the Trotskyist Transitional Programme, and its essentially economistic approach to the special oppression issues (racism, sexism and anti-lesbian anti-gay bigotry). The last six years have also shown that the dominant leadership only partially broke from a Cliffite view of the formerly Stalinist-ruled states.
Workers Power and Permanent Revolution
The limitations of workers Power’s understanding of permanent revolution was displayed by its support for the Tutsi-dominated and pro-imperialist, Ugandan-backed Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) during last year‘s civil war. It was necessary for Trotskyists to fight for integrated workers’ and peasants’ defence organisations, independent of both sides and giving support to neither. A further example, is Workers Power’s call for a ‘united front’ (in fact a popular front) in Algeria, against the regime‘s state of emergency and military repression, to include the reactionary, fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
In neo-colonial countries it is essential to fight for a united front of the anti-imperialist forces of the working class and the peasants, the impoverished petit-bourgeoisie and the urban poor, fighting for their own interests against their own capitalists and landlords, Trotskyists have to fight for such united fronts, without which the revolutionary victory of the working class is impossible in the great majority of neo-colonial countries.
The leaders of Workers Power were incapable of making a clear, honest distinction between that vital, necessary line of struggle and the possibility of occasional, episodic blocs with the neo-colonial bourgeoisie, or sections of its forces, when they find themselves in temporary conflict with the imperialists. They are all ‘united fronts’ and all united fronts are they keep reminding us, just `tactics’ around immediate practical questions.
These ’theoreticians’ use such word—games to try and justify their confusion and the dangerously mistaken policies it has led to in the cases of Algeria and Rwanda arguing in favour of working class support for reactionary bourgeois forces which are not fighting imperialism but trying to control the masses.
In the way that opportunism and sectarianism are always opposite sides of the same coin, Workers Power’s failure to apply the method of permanent revolution comes out in a blind sectarian attitude to nationalist movements or struggles that are actually a focus for the struggles of the advanced workers and the fighting masses.
This has been particularly clear over questions of electoral support. An early example was the initial refusal of Workers Power and the Irish Workers Group to call for a vote to Sinn Fein in the north of Ireland elections in the early 80s, despite the importance of the Republican military struggle against British imperialism, let alone the clear indications of the strength of its base among the most oppressed and militant sections of the nationalist working class. Subsequently they changed their position, merely commenting that they had not realised that Sinn Fain would get so many votes, as though it was just the number of crosses on ballot papers!
Much more recently we have seen a similar example of this sectarianism in the South African elections though without any possible excuse that they did not know the ANC would get so many votes. Trotskyists have to fight to break the workers and the masses from the ANC. In the elections it was essential to fight for independent working class organisation and action, to expose the treachery of the ANC, and to call for the unions and mass organisations to build a Workers Party. But this fight had to be taken into the living experience of the masses, who saw a vote for the ANC as constituting themselves as a nation, voting for social change and defending ‘their’ elections against sabotage. That is why we understood that on that basis and as part of that strategy (and not for any other reasons) consistent Trotskyists had to be in favour of a vote for the ANC.
Not Workers Power though. They could not bring themselves to vote for the ANC. They can vote for any bunch of counterrevolutionary social democrats on the basis that they are a bourgeois workers party. But the ANC and Sinn Fern are not bourgeois workers’ parties. They are petit bourgeois or bourgeois nationalists and the ANC, moreover, is a popular front. That is how political arguments are settled by Workers Power: it is just a matter finding the right label. We are not quarrelling with the labels here, we are disagreeing with the LRCI’s un-Marxist method of settling questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics -put a movement in the right category and up pops the appropriate response. This is a sectarian method which ignores the real questions of the movement and consciousness of the masses, of the advanced sections of the working class and youth, of their relationships to the various organisations and leaders, and of finding the most effective and dynamic way to intervene in their struggles and change the consciousness of the advanced workers.
So in the South African elections the LRCI ended up calling for a vote for the Workers List Party, an electoral front for a small centrist sect which got less than 1% of the vote. Moreover they knew perfectly well that this group actually opposed fighting for the unions to form a Workers Party, and that their electoral adventure was part of their sabotage of the Committee for a Workers Party. But never mind – they were not nationalists and they were not a popular front!
In both cases the opportunism towards reactionary bourgeois forces and the sectarianism towards the masses, mechanical formulae have replaced Marxist analysis and revolutionary strategy. It is not surprising therefore, that the most important opposition to the dominant Workers Power leadership within the LRCI has come from its sections in neo-colonial countries.
Special oppression issues and the influence of economism on Workers Power
More than anywhere else, the continuing influence of Cliffite economism on Workers Power is shown in its analysis and policy on special oppression which it rather oddly prefers to call ‘social’ oppression (as though there are some sections of the working class and the masses who are not oppressed in class society!).
It has failed to develop a real Marxist analysis of the relationship between class exploitation and special oppression, which understands the roots of special oppression in the development of class society, the ways in which oppression on the basis of race, sex and sexual orientation is not directly reducible to class exploitation and the essential role of all these forms of oppression in maintaining class society.
The highpoint of Workers Power’s lesbian and gay work, and its final limit, was without doubt the Trade Unionists against Section 28 campaign in the late 1980s. Workers Power comrades were right to take a stand against Section 28, the most serious institutional attempt by the state to attack the gains of the lesbian and gay movement. The problem was that they limited this to a narrow trade union, workplace perspective. They called for non-cooperation by council unions, and for strike action to defend any workers who were discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation.
At the Trade Unionists against Section 28 conferences others argued that the biggest affect of the Section 28 would be in whipping up a reactionary anti-lesbian anti-gay climate, which would lead to an increase in physical attacks (this is exactly what happened, in fact). And proposed a motion calling for labour movement organisations to maintain and defend any lesbian gay facilities threatened with closure as a result of Section 28, and to organise the physical defence of lesbian gay centres, clubs, bars etc. from anti lesbian/anti gay attacks.
The other side of the economistic outlook which lay behind that decision was demonstrated at the founding conference of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation in November 1989. Delegates moved a motion stressing the importance of drawing the most oppressed sections of society into a truly integrated movement to smash the poll tax. The motion made it clear that this would be impossible without a fight against the influence of racism, sexism and homophobia in the movement, and that therefore racist, sexist and anti-lesbian anti-gay activity was incompatible with membership of the anti poll tax movement. Those words were chosen with care, because this was not a motion to automatically exclude anyone with backward ideas from the fight against the poll tax, which is how Workers Power misrepresented it when the opposed the motion.
The reverse side of this method is Workers Power’s repeated refusal to challenge the limited democratic politics of the petit bourgeois leaders of the lesbian gay movement. A national demonstration against Clause 25, a measure designed to restrict lesbian and gay adoption rights was called for February 1991. By the time of the demonstration, of course, the imperialist attack on Iraq was in full swing. Many took the view that the question of the war was of central importance for every struggle of the working class and the oppressed in Britain. and raised the slogan Victory to Iraq on the march. Workers Power members refused to join in the chant, but limited themselves to calls for ‘lesbian and gay rights’.
More recently, in antiracist and antifascist work, Workers Power has taken to using the slogan Support black self-defence. Of course this is something we have to support, as a basic civil right, and there are circumstances where we would be in favour of calling for it and organising it but it cannot be the programme that Trotskyists should fight for in general, because it leaves the black communities isolated and does nothing to mobilise integrated working class action. Yet when, two years ago, Workers Power put forward a programme for an attempt to set up a new London anti-fascist network, this was their only reference to organised defence. They opposed an amendment to change the demand to organise worker/community defence.
The developments of movements and struggles of the specially oppressed have been a significant feature of the period since the second world war, especially since the 1960s. These movements have by and large developed separately from the workers’ movements, and under the political domination of petit-bourgeois or bourgeois leaders, because of the unresolved crisis of working class leadership. Thus the ability to respond to these developments as revolutionary Marxists is a critical test of the political health of groups claiming to be Trotskyist. In this area, too, Workers Power’s break with its Cliffite background has been incomplete and it has imposed a confused half-way house of radical democratic and economist positions on the LRCI.
Workers Power’s practice; the united front
The key test of revolutionary organisations is what they do, not what they say. And it is in its practice in Britain, and most notably in its understanding, or rather misunderstanding, of the united front that its centrism and its general rightwards trajectory are most clear.
In the run up to the Iraq war, Workers Power argued that once war started, the position of the united front Hands Off the Middle East Committee should immediately be Victory for Iraq. Once the war started, however, Workers Power started to edge away from the priority given to that centrally important slogan. Workers Power increasingly accommodated to waveres on the HOME committee.
This became increasingly pronounced in the latter stages of the war when talk of a split in the popular frontist Committee Against the War in the Gulf held out to Workers Power the prospect of a broader campaign in which they could join with the SWP. Then we started to hear the argument that the slogan is less important than getting some action.
Of course we would support and build concrete action, including united fronts on a lower level than the Victory to Iraq slogan, wherever that would advance the struggle – but that would mean that it could not be at the expense of or counterposed to the central anti-imperialist demand. But as so often with Workers Power the possibility of a limited united front becomes an alternative or a block to raising vitally important elements of a Trotskyist programme.
Workers Power opposed the HOME committee, putting out a leaflet on the 2nd March CND demonstration opposing a motion that the committee should be based on “Victory to Iraq” and then voted for “Stop the War – Cease Fire Now” as the basis for the committee (before the war the LRCI had described this as ‘A hopeless pacifist slogan’).
The war demonstrated what were to become increasingly common features of Workers Power’s practice – accommodation to left-liberal opinion, which of course is an expression of bourgeois ’public opinion’ – and a view of the united front, which puts a dubious pretence of ‘unity’ above the fight to win the most advanced workers and youth to revolutionary politics.
After the war this became clear again in antifascist work, principally in Anti-Fascist Action (AFA). With the growth of racist and fascist activity in the course of 1991, AFA could have been an important organising centre for antifascist defence. However it was dominated by Red Action, a small splinter-group from the SWP which has a totally rotten, squadist and substitutionist approach to the political fight against fascism. It opposes building mass action as part of the fight against fascism and refuses to have any orientation to black and Asian youth under attack. It quite consciously states that its constituency is white working class youth. AFA was built on the basis of these politics and Workers Power did not challenge them and went along with their squadism. The argument was that this was a specific limited united front for the purpose of confronting the fascists. However it was built on a definite political perspective that excluded mass action and an orientation to the black communities, and its outlook was promoted in a regular magazine sold by Workers Power members. For Workers Power the united front had to be kept on the level of their allies.
It was clear that without an anti-racist perspective it is not possible to have an orientation to the black and Asian communities, or to build an integrated movement, or to combat fascism ideologically, or to build mass working class action. Red Actions ‘orientation’ to the white working class (which, of course, meant that they never won any white workers or youth) was an absolute obstacle to building an effective anti-fascist movement.
The story of the Workers Power involvement in AFA indicates many of its basic political problems ~ its opportunist and limited view of the united front tactic, its inability to understand the importance and relevance of the struggle against special oppression, and its leaders’ arrogant refusal to give an honest account of political mistakes.
Workers Power and the transitional programme
Revising the fundamental starting point of Trotsky’s Fourth International, the Transitional Programme, Workers Power challenge the notion that the crisis of humanity can be reduced to the crisis of proletarian leadership. The LRCI’s Trotskyist Manifesto boldly declares:
“However today it would be wrong simply to repeat that all contemporary crises are ‘reduced to a crisis of leadership’’. The proletariat world-wide does not yet face the stark alternative of either taking power or seeing the destruction of all its past gains. Nevertheless, in many countries and, indeed, whole continents, the crisis of leadership does reach such a level of acuteness”.
This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Trotskyism. They are saying that the crisis of leadership can only be central in revolutionary type situations. But what factors push society from nonrevolutionary to revolutionary and from revolutionary to counter-revolutionary situations? And what factors are responsible for the low levels of class struggle and political activity by the working class in nonrevolutionary periods. The question of leadership is fundamental to this. The central factor remains the crisis of proletarian leadership.
Trotsky never meant that only the crisis of leadership was important and when that was resolved all other factors would automatically fall into place. Such an approach, like Workers Power’s revision of Trotsky, shows an abandonment of dialectics and a refusal to understand the dynamics of struggle. The working class defeats suffered in recent years, the disorientation of workers’ organisations, the political demoralisation and disinterest on the part of some workers. all of these things are fundamentally caused by the crisis of leadership. The impact of defeats can reinforce that crisis, as the relationship between the class and its leadership is a dialectical and dynamic one.
However the essential point in this relationship is the crisis of proletarian leadership: the epoch we live in makes conditions for socialism ripe. The misleadership of the workers and oppressed movements is capitalism’s last salvage. The fundamental task of Trotskyists remains the resolution of the leadership crisis. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand the central basis for the creation of the Fourth International. The LRCI’s position on the crisis of leadership would suggest that the struggle for an international Trotskyist vanguard party is no longer of prime importance rather we should join up with reformist, Stalinist and centrist leaderships to ‘help’ the workers regain their combatively so that in future the crisis of leadership could once again be central!
Along with this revisionism Workers Power have a centrist approach to transitional demands. On paper they can raise many correct demands, but when faced with practice they backslide. This is shown in the example we have referred to before. Workers Power’s refusal to raise the demand of worker/community defence preferring all kinds of other more liberal sounding demands instead, such as ‘support black self-defence’ or ‘self-defence is no offence”.
The difference between these two approaches helps us understand the real practical importance of the transitional method. Because of the high level of organised racist attacks and murders on the black and Asian communities in parts of Britain, many youth have automatically been forced to organise some spontaneous level of ‘self-defence’. The demand for worker/community defence was able to intercept with the most militant vanguard sections – in this case the youth under attack – and take them forward instead of just giving them a slogan they already organised around. This demand posed the question of a political fight within the working class for active organisation against racist violence and fascist activity. It raised the fundamental question of who controls the streets, estates, schools, colleges or workplaces: The black and white working class, united in a struggle against racism and fascism, or the racist state which protects the fascist and racist gangs.
The slogan of worker/community defence is conceived from the standpoint of taking a struggle further, developing it into a greater struggle, broadening the involvement of sections of the working class and youth. lt is an immediately relevant concrete demand as well as one which ultimately leads to struggles that threaten capitalist power itself. It is a transitional demand the RIL has been able to organise mass mobilisations around, in Shadwell for instance on a scale Workers Power has never done.
The demand for ’self-defence’ on the other hand takes nothing forward. Of course we must support those who are defending themselves. But our task cannot be to simply support struggles as they spontaneously develop but to take them forward, to offer them a programme that raises the political level and broadens the struggle against the capitalist system, in other words to lead the struggles with transitional demands.
This is the difference between the transitional method, and the all too common understanding of it by centrists from militant to Socialist Outlook. We use transitional demands as immediately relevant ways of developing, broadening and raising the political level of struggles today. They see them as making a struggle slightly more ‘left-wing’, of demanding something capitalism cannot support, of making propaganda.
Whatever the abstract correctness of Workers Powers propaganda, when faced with sharp struggle, in the community campaign that drove the BNP off the streets in Brick Lane or in organising around racist attacks, Workers Power has constantly sided with the centrists and opposed transitional demands that could take the struggles forward.
The same is true about the worker/community tribunal following the police murder of Brian Douglas in South London this year. The aim of the tribunal was to go beyond the anger that many black youth and workers have towards the racist police, to challenge the illusions that somehow the state can achieve justice, and to create a movement that understands that only the working class and black communities can deal with racist police. Our whole conception was based on this, the struggle for a movement that wanted independent action against police and state murders as well as court cover ups.
Important sections of Lambeth Unison, the biggest trade union in Lambeth, organised such a public tribunal. Workers Power turned up and tried to close the tribunal down, stating that what was needed was an inquiry with a panel of ‘important figures in the black community’ that had established reputations in the eyes of black people (MPs etc.) to head the inquiry. This panel would pass verdict on the police, not the community itself. Workers Power said this might then convince more people that the police did murder Brian Douglas.
The problem was that we wanted to go beyond that, the overwhelming majority of black and white youth who had heard about it, knew the police were responsible for the murder. The question was what do we do about it. Our proposal for a tribunal was to aid the building of a movement that takes justice into its own hands. Workers Power’s craven opportunism was conceived from the standpoint of making attractive and acceptable propaganda. Workers Power’s proposals would have demobilised any struggle and given the bureaucrats the control back. We are not opposed to any number of liberal bourgeois inquiries, but to raise it in opposition to a workers/community tribunal, when that had already been established by the biggest trade union in the area, is the opposite of the transitional method. Unsurprisingly, all the rank-and-file workers from Lambeth voted down Workers Power’s right-wing proposal.
Electoral support and Workers Power’s conservatism – adaption to social democracy
The narrow understanding of the united front is reflected in a conservative application of the tactic of electoral support. We have already discussed an example of this in South Africa but the LRCI has made apparently opposite but in fact directly related mistakes in recent elections in Britain and France.
The only purpose of electoral support for the Labour Party, or any other bourgeois workers party, to break the most class conscious workers from reformism. (We know bourgeois workers parties once in power will always turn against the workers). Where sections of the working class are coming into political conflict with the reformist bureaucracy and are breaking from it electorally, Trotskyists should in general give critical support to those workers, and seek to develop such resistance.
On that basis the RIL called for a vote for all three Militant candidates in the last general election, because all of them clearly had a real base that was in conflict with the politics of the Labour leadership. And because of the importance of the anti-poll tax struggle which had brought millions of workers into conflict with the Labour politicians carrying out this Tory policy at local level, which Militant was campaigning against.
Workers Power only supported the two candidates who had previously been sitting Labour MPs and had been expelled by the party. For them having a base could only be measured formally in terms of Labour movement positions. They refused to support Tommy Sheridan the former chair of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation in Glasgow, even though Glasgow had had the highest non-payment of the poll tax, and had mass mobilisations to stop court officers removing the goods of non-payers.
Not surprisingly Sheridan got a substantial vote – 19%. Workers Power could only ‘apologise’ that they did not have anybody in Glasgow! But they have not learned. Whereas the RIL has had a general policy of critical support for Militant candidates in local elections, Workers Power has refused to do the same, even though they normally get between 10% and 20% of the vote, and in some cases more, representing a significant section of the most class conscious workers who are voting for what they see as a militant alternative to the Labour bureaucrats.
In the French presidential elections earlier this year the LRCI stuck to the same policy of backing the main bourgeois workers’ party, in this case the Socialists of the outgoing president, Mitterrand. They refused to call for a vote for the candidate of Lutte Ouvrière, an organisation which presents itself as Trotskyist and has a significant working class membership, which regularly picks up hundreds of thousands of votes in elections. Of course, Lutte Ouvrière got 6% of the vote. A significant section of the working class rejecting the established social-democratic and Stalinist leaderships. In these cases Workers Power’s mechanical ideas of electoral support which led it to call for a vote for the irrelevant ‘Workers List’ candidates in South Africa, meant that they ignored the development, among the most class conscious workers, of a resistance to the betrayals of the reformists.
The LRCI and the crisis of Stalinism
More than anything else it is the development of the crisis of Stalinism since 1989 that has accelerated the LRCI’s general rightward movement, and brought the crisis of the LRCI to a head. At every critical turn of events in Eastern Europe the Workers Power/LRCI leadership has junked Trotskyism and taken increasingly revisionist positions.
The RIL has consistently argued for an independent, working class, political-revolutionary line against all the forces of capitalist restoration in the degenerated and deformed workers’ states, from the upheavals of 1999, through German reunification, the crises in the Baltic and the Caucasus, the August coup and the break-up of the Soviet Union, to the wars in the former Yugoslavia. At every stage we have had to fight and expose the dangerous, reactionary direction taken by the LRCI.
The conflicts over these positions have been the main focus of opposition inside the LRCI. “We regard the opposition to the leadership over the questions of Lithuania, the August coup, and the civil war in Bosnia as an attempt to defend Trotskyism within the LRCI and in general share the criticisms of the Latin American comrades and the New Zealand faction. These events have shown very clearly that Workers Power has not completely broken from a Cliffite view of the Soviet Union and the east European states, despite its rejection of Cliff’s state capitalist characterisation of their economic systems. On this area, more than on anything else, its politics reflects the pressures of middle class `liberal’ public opinion.
The first sign of these problems was clear back in 1989. WP’s political analysis of the upheavals that swept eastern Europe in 1989 was seriously flawed. These upheavals were generally negative from the point of view of working class interests. They were pro-bourgeois democratic movements, looking to ‘the west’ and testing out how far they could go against the bureaucracy in this direction under the changed conditions of Gorbachev’s accommodation with the imperialist powers. As they became bolder, more openly pro-capitalist forces came to the fore, replacing the more cautious bureaucratic reformists, but the overall direction of these mass movements was established from the beginning, and the working class hardly ever played any independent role.
The LRCI on the other hand saw the upheavals in a far more positive light, as originally moving towards a political revolutionary situation, despite the lack of evidence of any struggle by the working class for its own interests. Later the LRCI had to change its assessment of these movements but of course it was not a change of policy by the LRCI, it was the movements that had changed their character like the Iran-Iraq war previously! Quite how ‘political revolutionary’ developments in the working class had been reversed by pro-bourgeois movements they were never able to explain.
It was not that the LRCI leadership mistook a cross- class movement supporting bourgeois democracy, pushing for the restoration of a capitalist market economy, for a working class movement fighting for proletarian democracy against the privileged bureaucracy. The LRCI described these events as positive, political-revolutionary developments because the Workers Power leaders saw bourgeois democracy as progressive in the degenerated and deformed workers states.
The evolution of the LRCI’s positions over the subsequent five years bear out the accuracy of this judgement, and of our judgement that the roots of their crisis lie in their incomplete break with Cliffism. Indeed they are rapidly following down the path beaten by Socialist Organiser back to their ideological roots.
The following year the tendency became clearer still as a result of German ‘reunification’, the capitalist takeover of East Germany and the developing crisis in the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union. The LRCI’s opposition to the process was notably ambiguous, declaring themselves against the “Undemocratic reunification’. The danger of slogans like this should be clear. Democracy is a form of state rule and cannot be neutral in class terms. This slogan left open the question of whose democracy, the bourgeoisie’s or the workers’? And of course reunification was ‘democratic’, in the bourgeois democratic sense; it was based on the results of bourgeois democratic elections in East Germany.
The capitulation to bourgeois democratic and bourgeois nationalist forces in eastern Europe led to the LRCI taking an outright counterrevolutionary position with respect to the Baltic Republics. In the course of 1990 openly pro-capitalist nationalist movements had come to power in the three Baltic soviet republics, and in March 1990 the Lithuanian government declared its independence from the Soviet Union. In the context of the overall negative development of the crisis of Stalinism, without any significant independent movement of the working class, and because of the real history of national oppression by the Soviet bureaucracy, these movements did have broad popular support. They were nevertheless counter-revolutionary movements which were in effect the cutting edge of the accelerating movement towards the breakup of the Soviet Union by the forces of capitalist restoration.
That is why the RIL opposed supporting or defending these governments. We argued for a programme of independent working class action, with workers’ control of industry to defend collectivised property from the restorationists, and workers’ defence guards. We supported the right of workers to establish independent socialist republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and argued for such republics to form a socialist federation of the Baltic. We did not call for Soviet troops to put down the Baltic regimes, and opposed the operations of the Soviet interior Ministry troops in the Baltic and their attack on the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, in January 1991. But socialists could not support the mobilisation against them by the reactionary government of President Landsbergis, that could only mean supporting the liquidation of the working class into a pro-bourgeois movement as a preparation for capitalist restoration. This should have been clear as crystal to Trotskyists but it was inconceivable to the leaders of Workers’ Power.
In May 1990 Workers Power, under the headline “Hands off Lithuania”, argued that, socialists should “Demand that the British government recognises Lithuania and supplies goods if requested by Lithuania without conditions”. They made it clear in the article that this absolutely included arms. So they had decided whose side they were on. They could only see a struggle between the forces of bourgeois democracy and the forces of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and in their view the former represented progress and had to be supported. If you did not make the same decision you were vilified and misrepresented as supporters of Stalinist repression.
Workers Power’s support for Yeltsin and counter-revolution in the former Soviet Union
After all this, it came as no big surprise when the LRCI capitulated to ‘democratic’ and imperialist pressures and backed the counter-revolutionary Yeltsin in the 1991 August coup in the former Soviet Union. The principled Trotskyist stand on this question was to see the refusal of the great mass of the Soviet working class to respond to calls for the defence of Yeltsin’s ‘democracy’ as essentially positive, though passive. The workers were certainly hostile to the coup, but did not see Yeltsin as offering any alternative that they were prepared to fight for. Trotskyists needed to turn this passive hostility to both wings of the restorationist bureaucracy into an active independent mobilisation of the working class.
Those groups in the Soviet Union who identified with Trotskyism should have called for workers’ councils to take control of the factories etc., organise a workers militia, begin a campaign of fraternisation with the soldiers to set up rank-and-file committees in the army, and prepare for a political revolution against both wings of the bureaucracy.
We opposed support for Yeltsin’s ineffective, and later rescinded, ‘general strike’ decree because this would subordinate the working class to the most open pro-bourgeois wing of the bureaucracy. We were against defending the Russian Parliament because this had nothing to do with democratic rights for workers. It was a bourgeois democratic institution which was a focus for capitalist restoration in a degenerated workers’ state.
Again, when it came down to it Workers Power were unable to fight for the independence of the working class, or see the connection between that and the defence of collectivised property. They could not think about the crisis in class terms at all. All they could see was a choice between bourgeois democracy and Stalinist repression. So in the words of one of their leading ‘theoreticians’, they “Stood arm-and-arm with Boris Yeltsin”. Of course, we can rest assured that it was Boris’s left arm Workers Power was linking with! And they would probably have held a red flag in their free hand too! They do have principles after all.
The Bosnian War
But it was over the long drawn-out civil wars in the former Yugoslavia – where the pressures of bourgeois opinion have been strongest – that the full extent of Workers Power’s retreat from Trotskyism has become apparent. The RIL has recognised that all the regional or ‘national’ capitalist-restorationist factions that have come to power in the republics of the former Yugoslav federation are trying to use ethnic divisions to carve out a base for themselves and establish their own privileged relationship with imperialism. The imperialists, in sofar as they have acted together, are trying to exercise control over the whole region by establishing a balance of power between these factions. For these reasons the RIL has refused to give support to any of the governments, or to take a defencist position in relation to any of them in the course of the wars between them.
We have argued that the only answer to their reactionary nationalism, is for integrated working class control of distribution; occupations of industries, and workers’ organisations in the different republics to build action against the war efforts of all the governments, and to take back the factories stolen by privatisation.
At different times Workers Power, too, has said many of these things, but they are flatly contradicted by the main line of Workers Power’s arguments, that has been for the defence of the pro-capitalist, pro- imperialist governments against its rivals. First it was for Croatia against Serbia, then for the Bosnian government against the Bosnian Serbs. Trotskyists support independent working class self-defence, but this is a far cry from the LRCI’s position of defend the Croatian or Bosnian governments.
One feature of WP’s positions has become steadily more pronounced: The adaptation to the liberal western opinion that ‘our’ governments must ’do something’- a sentiment that plays directly into the hands of imperialism. So now we have the ludicrous position of the LRCI trying to sound revolutionary, and calling for the UN and NATO out of the Balkans and condemning the bombing, while at the same time demanding that ‘our’ government sends arms to the Bosnian forces and opens the borders to Islamic ‘volunteers‘ going to fight with them. In other words Workers Power does not want the imperialists to fight in the Balkans; they just want them to get their clients and proxies to do the fighting! No wonder that this reactionary nonsense has blown the LRCI apart and exposed it as an unprincipled bloc.
Revolutionary Internationalist League, 1995