A reply to the ISA leadership’s distortions regarding the recent split
Vlad B. (ex-ISA in the Spanish state)
In the last week of June, most of the members of the Tendency for Internal Democracy and Unity (TIDU) that had developed inside the International Socialist Alternative (ISA) left the organisation. Among those to leave were the sections in Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, a number of comrades from England, Wales & Scotland (EWS) and Belgium, as well as the majority of the section in the Spanish state (Socialismo Revolucionario), myself included. A statement that explains this departure can be read here. A few days later, the ISA leadership published its own statement regarding this split. Under the veil of a largely well-crafted text, this statement contains so many distortions and such an astounding lack of self-awareness, that I felt the urge to address them and use this opportunity to expand on the reasons for leaving the ISA.
Distortion no. 1: “…we lose an opportunity to consider their contributions to the important discussions which remain necessary: about how we view the current world situation…”
The debate inside the ISA on world perspectives started more than one year ago, a debate in which many members of what would become the minority tendency (TIDU) engaged from the very beginning. Overall, we took part in over 20 debates in various national and international bodies of the ISA and wrote nearly a dozen texts as internal documents or public articles on the issues at hand. So the leadership had numerous opportunities to consider our contributions on world perspectives. The problem is that it chose not to truly consider them at all, but defend its own position and prestige at all costs, as developed below.
Distortion no. 2: “…full democratic rights were given to the minority which developed and has now decided to leave.”
Only in the most formalistic sense “full democratic rights” were given during this debate. In reality, the leadership repeatedly obstructed a fully democratic and open debate. It did so, to start with a personal example, when it suspended my invitations to the IC meetings as soon as I expressed in our section a different view on the question of “the end of neoliberalism”. It did so when it failed to invite to the annual IC meeting from February 2021 any non-IC members of the minority, while inviting dozens of non-IC members supporting the leadership. When we raised this point, the leadership replied that it was the IC members of the minority who should have done that. But the job of a real leadership is to ensure a balanced participation and representation of all views in the most important meeting of the year rather than act in a factional way.
The leadership also obstructed a democratic debate when it repeatedly refused to publish our views on perspectives on the international website (even as part of an ‘Opinion’ section), in contrast to the Bolshevik tradition, where debates were very often public. For instance, my article was denied publication even as an opinion piece, despite being based on a contribution to the international members’ bulletin signed by three of the four leading members in the Spanish state; instead, the article of the fourth leading member, the only one supportive of the leadership position, was published on the central column of the international website. Given the lack of an opinion section, articles are read as representing the views of the author’s section, which clearly was not the case in this instance. Last but not least, what “full democratic rights” can we speak of when the leadership refused to hold a debate on perspectives at the Virtual Marxist University from early 2021, despite 27% of the IC members proposing it, on the lazy pretext that it was too late to change the agenda several weeks before the event (when, in reality, the agenda continued to be changed up to 3 days before the event)?
Of course, all of this was just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath it, and away from the eye of the wider membership, there was a constant stream of character assassinations, ranging from the traditional slander of being ‘un-Marxist’, ‘pessimistic’, ‘liquidationist’, ‘academic’ etc. to the more original slur ‘snakes’ and ‘weirdos’. The latter did not come from some erratic supporter of the majority after a long night out but, even if on informal channels, from a leading member of the EWS section and of the International Executive.
Formal democratic rights are of little value in any organisation when the underlying internal culture displays such a toxic atmosphere and unhealthy methods.
Distortion no. 3: “Our perspective was that there would be a retreat from the neoliberal orthodoxy of the past decades. … While there are differences, limits and exceptions on a national level, internationally the dominant trend is away from neoliberal hegemony in capitalist policy as has been most clearly illustrated by Biden’s massive stimulus programs.”
No, the perspective of the leadership – albeit held inconsistently depending on the audience – was that of “the end of neoliberalism” or “the end of the neoliberal era”. This is not the same thing as a retreat from neoliberal orthodoxy, which we consistently acknowledged in the context of Covid. For example, in an article from December last year, I pointed out that “today we are witnessing large-scale state intervention triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, in sharp contrast with the neoliberal myth of the ‘self-regulating free market’.” But we also argued that this retreat will be limited, in both geographical scope and duration, and will therefore not lead to an end of that ‘orthodoxy’ in the coming period.
More precisely, as formulated in the last World Perspectives document, the ISA leadership maintains that “the dominant trend in the world economy will be towards intensed [sic] state intervention —politically and financially— with less weight given to the classical “neoliberal” dogma of cutting deficits”. This claim is, however, contradicted by comprehensive data that we put forward. Such data indicates that the large scale state intervention seen last year in response to the pandemic was temporary, that the vast majority of countries will be looking to return to austerity as early as this year and, therefore, that Biden’s investment plans areprecisely one of those “exceptions on a national level” rather than the reflection of a truly global trend.
IMF data from April 2021 forecasts a reduction in public spending this year compared to 2020 in all the groups of low- and middle-income countries. In some macro-regions, public spending on average will drop very close to the pre-pandemic levels (Latin America and the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa) or even below those levels (Middle East and Central Asia). Even advanced capitalist states, such as the UK or Sweden, illustrate the ongoing prevalence of neoliberal fiscal policy, alongside other key neoliberal policies such as labour flexibilisation, privatisation, financialisation, deregulation etc.
Distortion no. 4: “Despite the fact that we do not agree with their criticisms, the comrades who have broken away from ISA also played a valuable role in this, in challenging our analysis, forcing us to dig deeper to refine and develop our conclusions.”
The ISA leadership somewhat inadvertently tells the truth here: they were solely interested in refining and developing their starting conclusions rather than allow the debate to reassess those conclusions in the light of the arguments and evidence put forward. On all the issues at hand (neoliberalism, Keynesian policies, protectionism, de-globalisation, US-China tensions, consciousness, prospects for struggle etc.), the leadership distorted, disregarded or, at best, cherry-picked what we said to suit their position. This comes from a deeply unhealthy understanding of debate as a tool to score points and (artificially) reinforce the leadership’s authority rather than an opportunity to improve our collective understanding. All this, in turn, is rooted in this leadership’s limited political authority and self-confidence, as it lacks the track record of the previous CWI leadership and, with few exceptions, any significant experience in the workers’ movement. It also lacks any systematic know-how (as we all do to one degree or another) of developing world perspectives, since that used to be the prerogative of the omniscient former leader rather than a product of a genuinely collective and dialectical internal process.
However, instead of admitting these inherent weaknesses, the ISA leadership doubled down on their (wrong) perspectives, chiefly among them that we are witnessing the end of neoliberalism and the beginning of a new era of state intervention (some sort of “Keynesian variant”), with protectionism and deglobalization as the dominant trends internationally. Thus, as illustrated at the previous point, they refused to make any concession even when proven wrong by hard facts.
This opacity to empirical evidence was shown not only in relation to austerity but also when we provided data on the strong rebound of the world trade and the prevalence, even during 2020, of trade-facilitating measures over trade restrictive (or protectionist) ones – all as part of a broader upward trend in world trade during the past five years. This of course contradicts their claim (which for some reason is left out from this present statement) about protectionism becoming the new dominant trend in the global economy. Similarly disregarded was the evidence we brought to amend the one-sided perspective of decoupling between China and the US, as we pointed to the deep economic ties between them and theclear splits within the US capitalist class over China. The list of such examples can continue on several pages.
Distortion 5: “Whereas we stressed the radicalising impact of the pandemic on mass consciousness, they stressed the opposite — the pandemic would be a “complicating” factor, which would allow the capitalists to dodge the blame for a new wave of crisis.”
While we acknowledged the potential for struggle during the pandemic, we also brought up a series of obstacles that we see in the objective situation in order to balance the over- optimistic perspectives of the leadership. We were accused of “pessimism” and of “demoralising the membership”, as though the membership is like a child that has to be constantly reassured that everything is OK. Those obstacles were, once again, either overlooked or superficially acknowledged, but without any serious analysis or discussion: the absence of mass workers parties; the political and organisational weakness of the trade unions; the failure of new left parties and leaders and their impact on consciousness (especially in terms of an anti-party mood among the youth); the lack of democratic structures of movements like BLM that would enable them to develop a political alternative; the ongoing rise of populist and far right (including in countries like Spain and Portugal, where the far right was very marginal in the previous crisis); the increasing authoritarianism of the capitalist state, including police oppression as well as a wider break with traditional tenets of liberal democracy.
When events would invalidate the over-optimistic perspectives of the leadership, at best the analysis would acknowledge the obstacle but not the weakness of the perspective that had failed to truly recognise and discuss that obstacle. There never is any admission of being wrong. If events contradict perspectives, there is a way to dress it as though the perspectives had always anticipated that to happen. An example of that was the article about the crushing victory of the right in the regional elections in Madrid, written by the staunch supporter of the leadership in our sections, where he acknowledged, without conceding so, the very point that we had been making in the debate for months against his own arguments: that due to the lack of a left alternative in countries like Spain, the main beneficiary of the anti-establishment mood fuelled by Covid on a short-to-medium term would likely be the populist and even far right.
More often, though, there would be a total denial of the complications in the situation, particularly with regards to consciousness. This happened, for instance, with the failed unionisation campaign at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama, which was entirely attributed to the flaws of the union driving the campaign and the underhand methods employed by the company – both clearly significant factors but which don’t fully explain the low turnout and the categorical defeat. The previous decades have left deep marks on consciousness, which socialists still need to acknowledge and tackle despite the outstanding shift in consciousness to the left in the US over the recent years. False consciousness is not an invention of cynical Marxist academics but an obstacle that Marx and Engels noted and explained at length. We believe all socialists need to gain a profound understanding not only of the opportunities present in the situation, but also of the problems, precisely so that they don’t becomedemoralised when those problems will sometimes provoke defeats or retreats for our movement.
Distortion 6: “They criticized the majority for suggesting that health workers had been ‘growing in combativity even before the pandemic, but now these workers will not be prepared to go back to ‘normal’. They will demand better conditions, pay rises, extra staff and more resources for healthcare… They could be catapulted into the vanguard of the global labour movement soon after the lockdowns are lifted’. This perspective written over a year ago has been confirmed by protests and strikes by medical workers in over 80 countries, perhaps most spectacularly by the heroic Myanmar doctors and nurses who initiated the mass movement against the military coup.”
Not really, we only criticised the last sentence of the quote included in their statement here. And we still do. The protests and strikes of health workers notwithstanding, can anyone seriously say that they are the “vanguard of the global labour movement” and, moreover, insist on the validity of this hyperbolic prediction one year later? The authors of the statement seem to lack a full understanding of both “vanguard” and “global movement”. Among those struggles “in over 80 countries” they included even failed attempts to mobilize the health workers in any significant way, as was for example the case of Greece or the UK (despite the massive underlying popular support for public healthcare). But even in countries where the mobilizations were more or less successful, how many of them saw the health workers take the leadership of the labour movement, leading the way for generalised forms of protests or/and industrial action? And what is the “global labour movement” that the ISA leadership talks about? A global movement entails, by definition, some degree of integration and coordination, both of which are dramatically absent in the current situation and which the ISA leadership are once again oblivious to. Indeed, the ISA is completely disconnected from ongoing efforts to organise transnational labour solidarity and action.
Distortion no. 7: “ISA has developed a Code of Conduct to serve as a clear and effective political as well as concrete framework for dealing with such situations. The former comrades’ opposition to this, which included arguments about ‘cultural differences’ in different countries, stems, in our opinion, from a lack of understanding of just how central an issue this is for Marxists as well as a certain fear to take those issues up…”
Someone reading this might think we opposed any kind of codified mechanism to deal with cases of abuse, as though a “code of conduct” (CoC) would be the only possible such mechanism. Instead, female comrades from the minority, with rich experience in the women’s movement in their countries, believed the CoC proposed by the Women’s Bureau did not go far and deep enough in explaining and safeguarding against abuse inside the organisation. They pointed out several flaws with the proposed CoC: the lack of focus on the idea of consent, which should be central to discussions around sexual abuse; the lack of any clear checks and balances on the leadership, to which the CoC seems to give overriding powers in relation to the special committee meant to investigate allegations; the very problematic idea that at the end of an investigation the leadership will decide the course of action “on the basis of the best interests of the organization moving forward”, instead ofputting the best interests of the victim first, as it should normally happen; the complete lack of references to other types of abusive behaviours, such as bullying or corruption (both of which happened before in the CWI) etc. Like with the other topics of discussion, all these important points were met with total defensiveness rather than a genuine attempt to engage with them. Moreover, the idea to have a charter of principles rather than a code of conduct was misinterpreted, and still is, as a denial of the need to have mechanisms in place to deal with cases of sexual abuse and, indeed, of the importance of this problem.
Distortion no. 8: “Nor were the same democratic rights given to the ISA majority in Cyprus and Turkey, nor in the Spanish State where no debates took place.”
This is a blatant and easily disprovable lie. In the Spanish state section, we had two debates: one on Spanish state perspectives but feeding into the broader discussion on consciousness and prospects for struggle, which took place in August 2020 and gave plenty of speaking time to members of the international leadership and their supporters; the other one on the world economy, which took place in December 2020 and had two guests from the international leadership majority out of a total of five participants to the debate. On top of that, there were several exchanges of documents between the majority of the section and the one comrade supporting the international leadership’s position. Both sides wrote articles on the matters at hand, although only the one by the supporter of the leadership was published on the international website.
In effect, almost every political discussion we had in the meetings of the section or the editors’ group fed into the debates taking place. In time, the polarisation increased from both sides and led to a collapse of trust between the majority and the one supporter of the international leadership.
When we decided to leave the ISA, we chose to announce it through a statement signed by all sub paying members apart from the one majority supporter. We preferred this to what would have most likely been a toxic and fundamentally futile meeting, ridden with wild accusations of “liquidationism” and “resigning from class struggle”. Such a meeting, though, would have allowed us to formally split and take with us the name, the social media and website, and of course the financial resources. We chose instead to leave the name and online outlets to the one remaining ISA member, while making him what we think to be a fair offer of splitting the funds in half. More than two weeks later and our offer is yet to receive a response from the remaining ISA member controlling the bank account of the section, despite repeated messages from us. We still hope, in the democratic spirit invoked by the ISA statement, that he will do the right thing and not steal the resources as the CWI minority did in the 2019 split.
Distortion no. 9: “In our opinion, behind this false narrative lies a deeper disagreement over what sort of international organization we need to build. After a minority split away from the Committee for a Workers International in 2019 the majority, which renamed itself the ISA in 2020, sought to reestablish the best political and organizational traditions of the CWI. However, at the same time we were determined to change the way in which the organization had been led in recent yearsby a top-down and increasingly old and out of touch leadership based in one country, and where national sections were increasingly left to “do their own thing”, while joint discussions and work relating to party building were absent or lost importance.”
There is certainly something true in this: as the debate developed, it became increasingly clear that we deeply disagree over what sort of international organisation we need to build. The leadership started to shift the focus in explaining the 2019 split from the lack of internal democracy (which there was a strong consensus about within our ranks at the time of that split) to the problem of federalism, as defined in the quote above.
We could perhaps see a case of federalism, for example, in how the majority of ISA members in Taiwan suddenly left the organisation in February 2021 after almost one year of internal tensions in their section, during which there was no discussion of the matters at hand on the international bodies of the ISA. But this is in fact a symptom of a much deeper problem. Indeed, if federalism was the main problem in the CWI, then why was it allowed to take hold over the years? Why wasn’t the international leadership at the time challenged directly and openly over this.
One of the members of the current international leadership and leader of the Belgian section responded to this point by saying that “you pick the battles you can win”. This sums up perfectly the fundamental problem in the CWI and now the ISA (of which federalism is one among other symptoms): the lack of a healthy internal culture where comrades “pick the battles” because they believe they have a legitimate reason to do so and not because they are sure they can win them! The hard pill to swallow for the ISA leadership is that they assisted passively to the prolonged political and organisational degeneration of the former CWI leadership and only opposed it in the eleventh hour. There is no willingness to even acknowledge that fact, not to mention learn from it.
The idea of “picking the battles you can win” may sometimes be correct externally, in the class struggle or inside the broader movement (though not usually, as most of the battles are defensive, i.e. imposed on the movements). But it should never be a principle of action inside a revolutionary organisation, where any comrade should feel empowered to raise any criticism of the leadership, even if that leaves them in a minority of one. The entire internal culture inherited by the ISA from the CWI is ridden with instruments of class struggle that are used internally: the united fist approach, where the majority agrees in perfect unanimity on everything against the minority, which was in full display during these debates and fuelledthe polarisation; the demand for loyalty, which internally should only be to the facts andarguments that enable us to understand the objective situation and our tasks in relation to it as revolutionary socialists; the constant hyperbolic self-appraisal, where almost everything we do and say is ‘fantastic’, ‘excellent’, ‘heroic’ etc. and which betrays a fundamentally patronising attitude towards the rank and file; the obtuseness towards other ideas and practices on the left and rigid approach to our own (e.g. accusation of ‘un-Marxist’ influences for merely using terms like ‘core’ and ‘periphery’); the deep seated fear of opendisagreement and exchange of views. The latter, I believe, is what fundamentally prevented the vast majority of the membership to actively engage in these debates, out of an understandable but misguided desire to avoid polarisation, which in fact only fuelled it by allowing the entrenchment of two main, opposing positions.
Of course, all of us who have been members of the ISA and before that of the CWI (or other similar organisation) embody these problems at various times and various degrees. Nobody is immune to them. The key question is whether we are in denial about it or we acknowledge it and try to build a healthier internal culture. The ISA leadership is in denial.
Distortion no. 10: “In our view, while arguing against this approach to building, those who now departed made important political mistakes. Democratic discussion is necessary and enriches our understanding. However, without formal decisions and conclusions and unity in action, democracy would be rather senseless. There should at least be preparedness from all, after a decision is made, to test out the course agreed by the majority, while the minority retains full rights to continue raising its opposition internally. So called ‘horizontal democracy’, based on informal discussion as opposed to clear and accountable decision-making processes for common debate and accountable decisions, in practice tends to lead to a few individuals imposing their view, despite claims to the contrary.”
Nowhere did we say or imply that we should not test out the course agreed by the majority after a decision is made. We have constantly and explicitly stated that we understand and defend democratic centralism as the maximum of freedom in discussion internally and the maximum of unity in action externally. We did not leave the ISA because we refused to test out the course agreed by the majority (although it is not clear what ‘course’ the statement refers to here). We left because of the unhealthy methods that I have outlined here and which the ISA statement embodies.
Nowhere did we talk of ‘horizontal democracy’ either. We do believe in increasing and enabling horizontal communication across the organisation, among members from different branches and different sections. But that is not the same thing as what is called ‘horizontal democracy’, something which we do not advocate. We have repeatedly challenged the false dichotomy posed here by the ISA leadership, whereby informal discussion is for some reason opposed to a clear and accountable common debate. Why not both? One doesn’t have to replace but should complement the other. Rich informal discussions are inevitable and can be valuable, as they can allow the participation of people who might struggle for various reasons to take part in the formal discussions.
Internal bulletins alone (once every 6 weeks) and a tightly controlled Facebook group in which discussions are simply prohibited, are not enough in 2021 to answer the need for such freedom of discussion and debate. We proposed more than once the solution of a secure internal website, where informal discussions could be held in a more organised way and also where important international documents could be instantly uploaded so that they do not have to always go through the national structures, often delayed by weeks. This proposalwas never taken up by the leadership.
Finally, it is true that we called for unity when we launched the tendency. We did so in the genuine hope that a significant layer of the membership will join the debate, whether on our side or by developing a third, a fourth etc. position, as it should be the case in a healthy and vibrant revolutionary organisation. That did not happen, while the opacity to other arguments and increasingly personalised toxicity of the leadership and its supporters continued onvarious channels, including the main Facebook group of the organisation. Thus, it became obvious to most of us in TIDU – much sooner than we would have thought or hoped for – that it is better to leave and try to build something new on a healthier basis.
Nevertheless, some TIDU members have decided to remain and continue the efforts of reforming the ISA. We understand that and wish them the best of luck. We believe that we will re-join forces one day in a mass revolutionary international, together with the best elements of other tendencies and traditions and of the new movements and struggles that will emerge in the coming years. One of the unhealthy traditions we want to break with is that one whereby, following a split, former comrades become mortal enemies. Even if we have differences with the current ISA leadership, some of them fundamental, we are still comrades as part of the broader movement that fights for the same goal of a socialist society. We should not allow ourselves to forget that once the heat around this split is gone.