Thoughts on the Relevance of the IS Tradition

The crisis in the SWP, which many of my readers are no doubt aware of in excruciating detail, has raised a lot of questions about the tradition it comes out of – the tradition of British International Socialism which I and many others in the ISO identify wholeheartedly with. I’m not in a position to comment on the crisis myself (though I will say I stand fully behind the statement made by our Steering Committee, as well as articles by Paul Le Blanc and Paul D’Amato). What I can contribute are some thoughts on the issues it raises with the general tradition.

The ISO has its convention coming up this weekend, and for our preconvention discussion I wrote a fairly lengthy document on the continuing significance of the IS tradition, with special emphasis on the British part of that tradition. My document is and will remain an internal matter, but some of my conclusions were along the lines of the following:

1) The conception of the IS tradition held by many in the SWP and even my own comrades is too narrow and restrictive. We can speak of a general International Socialist current in both Britain and America, although each differed in key conclusions made on matters of importance (i.e., seeing the Soviet Union as state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist).

2) Nevertheless these two united on a method that attempts to salvage the classical Marxist tradition in light of the crisis of Trotskyism, tied up with certain predictions Trotsky made toward the end of his life and the mistaken conceptions of which were compounded by his more devotional followers in the leadership of the Fourth International. We can call this the International Socialist method, which emphasized above all that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, leading to the slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism.”

3) Despite its current crisis, the British IS tradition out of these two was the only one to create something stable both in terms of intellectual output and organization, and therefore it’s vital we take on board much written in that tradition – methods of class-struggle unionism and Leninist party-building come to mind – even as we revise much of what is wrong our outdated in the writings of its leaders. This is the same approach Cliff and other leaders of the SWP used on Trotsky’s writings, and it would be in his words “the greatest tribute we could pay to them” to critically examine their ideas.

Suffice it to say, I think there is much valuable to learn from in the history of the British IS tradition, and it would dismay me to see comrades draw the lesson from this crisis that we need to upend our whole theoretical apparatus.

This is not to say there haven’t been major failings within the tradition. The fact of the crisis over “Delta” and that the CC have been able to use the word “feminist” as a curse word against the opposition draws our attention to something deeply disturbing within the SWP as regards its history on the question of women’s liberation. It is a fact that Tony Cliff had to be hit over the head repeatedly to see the importance of this question. And even when he did, this is what he came up with:

Only in the struggle to transform social relations do people change. It is the workplace that opens up to women the widest opportunities to struggle to organise and hence to change themselves. It is through involvement in social production that women, like men, are anchored as workers into the relations of production which are the pivot of class society. Marxism is about class power, and in the workplace this comes into sharpest focus.

In other words, Cliff’s position in Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, despite whatever historical importance the book has as a document, ends up reducing the fight for women’s liberation to a question of class, in which their oppression as women rather than as workers was negligible or could be discounted. I would hope that even members of the SWP as currently constituted would not share this position.

I would like to note in passing that in our tradition, thankfully others did not allow Cliff to have the final word. This includes the articles of John Molyneux in ISJ, who insisted again and again, as against Cliff, Lindsey German and Sheila MacGregor that there was in fact a real material advantage derived by working-class men in the oppression of women; David McNally, formerly of the Canadian I.S. has also done some interesting work in our tradition that engages with the work of Marxist feminism of Johanna Brenner and Martha Gimenez, with the conclusion that relations of labor to capital are all genderized as well as racialized. And to recent articles by Sharon Smith and Tithi Bhattacharya in our own SW.

Basta. While I’m deeply interested in the question of Marxism and women’s liberation (and I hope to have something more substantial to say about it here eventually), my aim here is a bit broader. I was interested to read the commentary of “Roobin,” an SWP member who maintains the blog “Through the Scary Door,” and has contributed to Richard Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb on occasion. Here is what Roobin has to say on the question of the relevance of our tradition:

The old ‘orthodoxy’ such as it was, was the three pillars of the IS, state capitalism, permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution. The last two are now void and the first isn’t such a tremendous intellectual head start any more. The SWP has no programme. What makes the party different and how? Why is it a distinct organisation?

This interests me because I worked toward the question of the relevance of our tradition in an almost entirely different way. But let’s take what he says as a useful starting point.

Roobin says that the permanent arms economy and deflected permanent revolution “are now void.” This may be true. I have yet to fully wrap my mind around the debate, but Neil Davidson’s notion of the fading relevance of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (as expressed in his article, “From the Theory of Permanent Revolution to the Law of Uneven and Combined Development” and his book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions) does seem to invalidate any future “deflected” permanent revolution as well.

To use one example Davidson gives, Paul Blackledge at one point refers to the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1978 as a “doubly deflected” permanent revolution.” In other words, Cliff’s original notion was that the permanent revolution had been deflected by conditions in the Global South guaranteeing the working class would be unready to seize power when presented with the opportunity. But in the case of Nicaragua, the working class remained for the most part passive throughout the whole conflict between Sandinistas and contras. Thus, “double deflection.”

But as Davidson says, this is conceptual overstretch with a vengeance. There are cases in which a permanent revolution was indeed deflected: the classic case of China in 1927, and one might also note Iran in 1979, in which the working class effectively crippled the Shah’s counterrevolution but did not possess the organization to contend for power properly. But can a notion of “deflection” really apply to cases in which the working class never entered the stage?

I would say this poses greater problems for Cliff’s theory than just irrelevancy. In fact I have written about one of the cases Cliff considered in his classic article: that of India, where the working class due to various reasons that he himself identified never played a consistent role in its bourgeois revolution from 1921-47. I would think the work of Davidson requires us to take a further step back from all notions of permanent revolution in the world today; much as Cliff’s article took a huge step back from Trotsky’s original theory.

As for the permanent arms economy. This was a notion developed mainly by Michael Kidron, and after he rejected its implications by Chris Harman; the idea being that during the postwar boom Western capitalism had avoided crisis by shoveling vast amounts of profits into arms, which counteracted the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. I agree with Roobin that this particular “old orthodoxy” is now entirely faded in relevance. It simply does not apply to our world anymore. We no longer live in a bipolar world of two capitalist camps, but in a monopolar world of increasingly multinational capitalism, and we require new theories to deal with this reality.

But I would reject any notion that because of this, we should no longer pay attention to the theory of the permanent arms economy. Although we live in a fundamentally different period, the method used in approaching this concept may still have a lot to teach us. Furthermore, it was the work of authors within the British IS tradition, Harman and Callinicos, who gave us the tools we need to understand the decline of the permanent arms economy. Their work points out the roots of the crisis of the late seventies and early eighties, in which the dominance of the US was challenged by the resurgent economies of West Germany and Japan, which relied on American military might vis-a-vis the Soviet Union while they expanded their exporting power against America itself. This might have a lot to teach us about the current period.

Roobin says of the last “old orthodoxy,” that of state capitalism, that it “isn’t such a tremendous intellectual head start any more.” I conceive that this statement is based on the collapse of the Eastern bloc; the notion being that Soviet-style state control of the economy is for the most part dead and buried. There are only five remaining Stalinist countries; of these three (China, Vietnam and the so often neglected Laos) have gone the way of the market, while Cuba is preparing to go on the same path. Which leaves North Korea all alone in an increasingly archaic form of state capitalism.

So it may be true that Stalinist-style state capitalism is dead. But saying this makes our theory of state capitalism irrelevant is to do the theory itself a great injustice. The theory as I understand it is, to abuse a phrase, that state capitalism is not a thing diametrically opposed to market capitalism, but a tendency inherent in all capitalist societies. Cliff’s original theory was based on the contributions of Lenin, who noticed the wartime management of the German economy; but more importantly Bukharin, who described the cartelization of capital and predicted a scenario in which a world economy could be made up of competing national capitalist cartels (nation-states). This, wrote Cliff, was what had come to pass in the Soviet Union, the glacis states, China, Indochina, Cuba and parts of the Middle East and Africa.

But to say this is the end-all-be-all of the theory of state capitalism would be doing it a disservice. After all, this type of state management of the economy was a tendency all over the world. Chris Harman during his polemics with the Militant noted, with not unjustified glee, that if countries like Burma and Syria which had nationalized “the commanding heights of their economies” were deformed workers’ states, then surely Britain, with its nationalized education, health and other sectors was a workers’ state as well. We could say that Keynesianism is an incomplete manifestation of the tendency toward state capitalism – one that in the current world is being very rapidly broken down.

But this leaves out other countries. India, my first love, has never gotten much attention in this field. But after the bourgeois revolution of 1947, India had a state sector that could compete on good terms with those of the explicitly Stalinist countries, and its leader Jawaharlal Nehru justified this in terms as explictly “socialist” as those of Stalin, Mao or Castro. It was a mixed economy, to be sure – but we should remind ourselves that Stalinist states such as China, Hungary, Yugoslavia were never themselves entirely free of the internal market compulsions.

What I’m saying, in other words, is that a lot of work still remains to be done on the question of state capitalism. We might use the insights developed by Cliff in analyzing the CP-led market economies of China, Vietnam and Laos. This is a gaping hole in our tradition. Or we might turn our attention to the various eras of state policy in capitalism – at one time, the vicious pursuit of primitive accumulation to establish it (developed by Davidson as well as Henry Heller), to the era of imperialism as described in Lenin/Bukharin, to state capitalism as pursued under Stalinist and Keynesian guises, to the current era of multinational capital and the state gutting itself under the doctrines of neoliberalism.

To summarize: I think that even if they are no longer relevant to the current era, the “old orthodoxies” of state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, and deflected permanent revolution may still have insights we would do well to take on in analyzing our current conditions. What I am asking for is for comrades in the IS tradition to employ the same critical spirit of comrades like Cliff, Kidron, Harman and Hal Draper used to establish solid understandings of their period and the kind of Marxism that was required for it – even as they revised the fundamental conclusions of Trotsky and those who went before them. This is nothing less than a plea for the dialectical method: concrete analysis of concrete conditions.

But even if we recognize that certain things in the history of the British IS tradition may have gone by the wayside in the grand historical sense, surely not all of it has. I found it particularly surprising that among all the numerous documents produced by members of the SWP opposition, no one has yet mentioned what the party was historically quite successful at. I mean its methods of class struggle unionism and of Leninist party building. I don’t have the time to develop these thoughts in depth. But it seems to me from my own time in the ISO, it is these two things that come up most often in our work, and go back to the direct experience of the British IS tradition.

Class struggle unionism as proposed by the IS tradition may seem like a fairly uncontroversial proposition. But given the state of the left, it clearly is controversial. The (minuscule, back-biting) American far left shows this well enough. There are any number of approaches to unionism – from that of the Militant tendency (in the US, formerly Labor Militant and now Socialist Alternative) which attempt to gain union office on principle as a way to advance class struggle, to that of the LRP, which punches above its weight if only on the internet, whose approach seems to consist of having their (being generous here) two rank and file militants call for a general strike every other week. This isn’t to speak of the numerous tiny ultraleft and anarchist groups (IWW, SEP, various unsavory groupings thrown up by Occupy) who consider unions a tool of the bosses.

It is only the ISO – the sole representative of our tradition in the US – whose members have engaged in successful class-struggle strategy in the leadership and union rank and file. Surely this is due at least in part to what we learned from the British IS – we certainly know their publications well enough, as they’re cited in all of our articles on the subject.

I don’t have time to go into depth on the question of party building. Last year there was a whole series of exchanges on the subject between Pham Binh, an ex-ISO member with an axe to grind, and Paul Le Blanc, one of our current leaders, formerly of the American SWP and Solidarity. Others contributed to the exchange, which was productive at some points and frustrating at others, particularly when Pham kept insisting despite all evidence to the contrary that there was no separate Bolshevik Party up till 1917. Underlying this is a basic mistake in methodology – a fetishism of organizational forms which may have been appropriate at a certain place and time (revolutionary Russia) but may not be incredibly helpful in 21st century America if we try to ape them exactly.

In other words, what I’m talking about is a search for Leninism as a method rather than a set of organizational forms or precepts. I think in this sense, Cliff’s Lenin biography has significant use, since it draws out Lenin’s method of problem solving in extremely concrete ways. Some have problems with Cliff, particularly his insistence on the notion of “stick bending. I think this is legitimate, as it is to question in general how the SWP ended up where it is now if they were formally at least following what he laid out. To my mind the best contribution on the topic so far is Le Blanc’s recent article “Leninism is Unfinished,” a principled and comradely reply to Callinicos’ “Is Leninism Finished?” which is all the more notable since it comes from outside our particular tradition.

We could note many other examples. I believe the analysis of political Islam in our tradition, provided by Chris Harman in “The Prophet and the Proletariat” is one of the most important of them. The analysis of other traditions has proven worse than useless, as they all end up believing in practice if not theory that Islamism is “fascist” or automatically set on course for the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Surely if once again practice judges the truth, it is no accident that the foremost left current in the Egyptian Revolution is the Revolutionary Socialists, an IST group.

I could go on. I have lots to say about current debates within the tradition – the analysis of the current world economy as in the debate between Dave McNally and Joseph Choonara, for instance. Another time. I think I have made my point – it is vital for everyone in the tradition who is not a bureaucrat, hack or rapist to renew the use of International Socialism as a living and vital Marxist method. Abandoning it would be lunacy.

Some references – I am in a hurry here with a new job and don’t have time to be as scholarly as I would like.

Tithi Bhattacharya, “Locating the source of oppression,”

Alex Callinicos, “Is Leninism Finished?”

Joseph Choonara, “Once more (with feeling) on Marxist accounts of the crisis,”

Joseph Choonara, “The relevance of permanent revolution: A reply to Neil Davidson,”

Tony Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party (vol. 1),

Tony Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

Tony Cliff, “The Employer’s Offensive,”

Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia

Bill Crane, “The Bourgeois Revolution in India (Part 2),”

Paul D’Amato, “The SWP Crisis and Leninism,”

Neil Davidson, “From the deflected permanent revolution to the law of uneven and combined development,”

Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Haymarket, 2012)

Chris Harman, “Better a valid insight than a wrong theory,”

Chris Harman, “The Prophet and the Proletariat,”

Chris Harman, “The Storm Breaks: Crisis in the Eastern Bloc,”

ISO Steering Committee, “The Crisis in the SWP – Britain”

Michael Kidron, “Imperialism – Highest Stage but One,”

Paul LeBlanc, “Leninism is Unfinished,”

Paul LeBlanc, “Revolutionary method in the study of Lenin: A response to Pham Binh,”

Pham Binh, “Mangling the Party: Tony Cliff’s Lenin,”

David McNally, Bodies of Meaning: Studies on Language, Labor and Liberation (SUNY, 2000)

David McNally, “Explaining the crisis or heresy hunting? A response to Joseph Choonara,”

John Molyneux, “Do working class men benefit from women’s oppression?,” International Socialism 2.25

Roobin, “An ounce of theory is worth a ton of action,”

Sharon Smith, “Marxism, Feminism and Women’s Liberation,”




Filed under Politics

4 responses to “Thoughts on the Relevance of the IS Tradition

  1. Timoteo Cozinheiro

    Nice contribution. I like what you have to say about the urgent need to update and redefine aspects of our theoretical tradition. I myself have been thinking of ways to update or rescue the theory of the permanent arms economy. While it’s clear that the budget for military in the U.S. has fallen dramatically as a part of GDP over the last 35 years, it remains unexamined the amount of other, equally wasteful department four investment and spending may be rerouting capital flows into a similar economic “safety swamp”. Thinking about the dramatic increase in spending on prisons, for example, might lead to some recovery of this theoretical ground, Anyways that’s the stuff I’m thinking about in terms of updates.

  2. I’m reminded of the IST/RS decision prior to morsi’s election victory, “to support the MB” , was this the lesser of two evils, or just an unprincipled error ? and what would they say about it now ? and this incident reminds me of the Greek elections about the same time and an equally unbelieveable suggestion to vote ‘other’ than for Syriza ? where was the logic ? and again what would they say now ? as the confidence was handed to the golden dawn

    • Hi, Martin. These are two distinct issues. On Egypt:

      In the first place, the Egyptian RS moved to support Morsi in a very brief few days last year when the key link was the conflict between him and the SCAF. For socialists this couldn’t be a matter of indifference. It would seem elementary to me that you oppose any action which strengthens the hand of the state, and support anyone who is trying to deal it a blow. When rank and file Islamists of the Brotherhood or even the Salafists stand against the army, which side are you on? In a situation in which the army was fully ready to break the back of the revolution (which for better or worse the rank and file Islamists were/are a part) can you really afford to be neutral?

      As I said, I think it is the IS tradition’s analysis of Islamism (particularly by Harman in conversation with Middle Eastern comrades) that gives RS the edge over other groups. The Egyptian CP, for instance, has long seen the Ikhwan as fascist and supported the state against them, even under Sadat and Mubarak. The same approach is true of a host of left-liberals, Nasserists and socialists who are part of the revolutionary camp. There was all sorts of consternation from the sectarian internet press when the RS made this principled decision based on united front tactics, but nearly a year later they have become the vanguard of resistance to the state as the key link has shifted to the revolution versus the MB. Anyone who isn’t blinded by preconceptions can judge who is right.

    • Second, on Greece:

      I think the SEK (Greek SWP) is still stuck in the ultraleftist notions that prevailed at the height of the global justice movement, namely that reforms within the system are impossible, the masses are ready to revolt, all that is needed is a determined push by the radicals to break through, etc. All this is a bastardization of our tradition, one facilitated by those who had done so much to develop it: Cliff at the end of his life, John Rees, Alex Callinicos. For the record it was this that caused the American ISO’s split from the tendency.

      But of course as we well know, leaving the official tendency doesn’t leave you outside of the tradition. In fact given the SWP’s degeneration I would say that it makes us and our sister groups the best prospect for breaking through its current crisis. For example our comrades in Greece (Internationalist Workers’ Left, DEA) is a founding member of SYRIZA, and they elected three MPs in the most recent elections. I think you’ll agree this is the right move.

      Of course given the ongoing polarization in SYRIZA, it raises some questions about the future. But surely being in a position where you are popular enough to become part of government is a good problem to have? For the record, I think a lot of understanding of SYRIZA (and the “broad left” parties in general) has been blurred by understandings of a previous period. For example when the prospect of SYRIZA being elected first came up, the reaction of the orthodox in the SWP was to refer to Harman’s article “The Workers’ Government,” which was about a fundamentally different period in Italy in the 1970s when the left was in decline and il Manifesto, Avanguardia Opereia etc turned to the prospect of a “workers’ government” including the CP, SP and maybe themselves in a time of desperation.

      Surely the question is very different when you have a prerevolutionary situation and the left is on the rise, as in Greece. I will say that I’m not at all satisfied yet by the analyses of SYRIZA that have been made by people within the tradition. Callinicos has proven himself worse than useless on the question as expected. The only one who gets it somewhat close in my opinion is Richard Seymour. But a lot of work remains to be done.

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