IS Network: Unity in the spring?
IS Network is in trouble again. Daniel Harvey looks at the regroupment efforts by the marsh
For those pulling out of the Socialist Worker’s Party into an uncertain political future, an unedifying prospect greets them in the shape of the previous split from earlier this year, now calling itself the International Socialist Network. Women’s liberation has become a political football in a deep-seated conflict between the right and the left in the organisation, with the regroupment of the marsh invitingly awaiting in the background.
Currently the ISN is shambling towards a merger with Socialist Resistance, a group which has mostly abandoned the pretence of revolutionary or Marxist politics. This has been pushed for by the ISN rightwing under the direction of Richard Seymour after rejecting out of hand offers for talks with other left groups, not least the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The present split emerged just in time for the flagging Anti-capitalist Initiative, the split from Worker’s Power led by Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper, which sought to ‘unite the left’ into a broad network. It liquidated itself at its December 7 conference in Manchester in order to join the ranks of ISN. Or, rather a part of the organisation liquidated itself, the more rightwing London centre led by Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper, but with the larger branches in Manchester and Birmingham containing more autonomists and left-communists dragging their feet.
At the same time, it looks as though Socialist Resistance is putting pressure on the other two groups to drive unification through. Their public letter of December 11 to the ISN stated, “we should continue to aim for a regroupment in the spring of 2014 rather than the longer timescale as proposed by the ACI comrades.”1 On top of this there’s a great deal of consternation about the possible involvement of Worker’s Power, whose ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism is a seen as a threat, as well as their organisation and obvious intention to continue in any new group as some sort of factional tendency.
In the last couple of weeks it would be fair to say that for the likes of Seymour and Tom Walker, and their allies in the London ACI, there is a new sense of urgency, with a combined political offensive that has moved on a number of fronts in trying to push things along before the “brief window of opportunity” closes. In other words, before Worker’s Power can gain too much influence, or the left of the IS Network can gain too much confidence or have time to think seriously about the reformist political trajectory they are being led into.
The left managed to embarrass the Seymourists at the ISN ‘politics conference’ on October 26-27 by narrowly defeating them on the question of rank-and-file organising and on regroupment, kicking the can further down the road with a motion calling for more talks. The resistance of the more libertarian wing of the ACI can be seen in this light, refusing to be bounced into unity with decaying Trotskyist formations with which they have very little in common.
So, Seymour’s group has changed tack. Unable to ram things through quickly, now they have no choice but to try to win the argument politically. Their opening salvo, The Politics of Anathema in the IS Network, has had mixed results.
The thrust of the article, behind its gnomic, almost cryptic tone, is that a culture of ‘personalised anathema’ is developing – meaning that individuals are becoming linked to political positions and people are opposing them on a personal basis. This is supposedly replicating the problem in the SWP, which excluded and vilified people seen as deviating from ‘the line’. Furthermore, the small and shrinking size of the ISN means personalised politics becomes sharper, and risks turning the group into a ‘sect’.
The only specific references are in a footnote where two cases are mentioned obliquely. ‘A comrade’ is called a sexist for shouting at a meeting; and the use of the word ‘trauma’ in an ISN bulletin piece about comrades getting over their experiences in the SWP was called ‘ableist’ and discriminatory towards people unable to get over their traumatic experiences.2
It can be revealed that ‘a comrade’ was actually Richard Seymour himself, who was challenged on social media after the politics conference for shouting in his contribution after another ISNer made a joke at the expense of Socialist Resistance. He was also attacked for using a phrase about the urgency of the ISN “getting out of the ghetto” of the left. This was considered a faux pas – like a white man belittling black experiences of marginalisation in ghettoes.
But the real target under fire in this article is the deployment of “enlightening epithets” such as “reformist” or “liberal”, which indicate a resort to “denounce[ing] political differences as if they were personality flaws worthy of execration” which “reeks of the politics of the sect.” Seymour, who helped draft the article, intended this as a political attack, albeit advocating an apolitical muzzle on the political discourse of his opponents.
A swathe of younger ISNers left the organisation in response, and others resigned their posts on the steering committee because of what they describe as being “patronised and reviled by older members, who can sometimes appear as though they see their views as more developed or more valid.”3
There has been a flurry of responses on the ISN website, but the discussion has entirely ignored the real political valence of the original article in favour of an increasingly absurd debate over female comrades’ participation in meetings under the rubric of intersectional awareness. Lisa Millbank’s advice has been a central point of contention, where she states, in a list of other helpful tips, that if you’re a man you should:
Assume you don’t have a right to be in the room or to express your opinion. Chances are, many of the women around the circle don’t. If you don’t either, then you won’t be placing yourself above them.4
That is, not only are you advised not to raise your voice, but also that “being abrupt, sarcastic, relaxed, angry, etc are all modes of power” and “you have easier access to the power modes as a man”, so you should “consider not using them” (my emphasis).
This approach has deep roots in the ISN, which, being formed in reaction to the Delta case in the SWP, is prone to some quite bizarre identity politics, including the proposed adoption of a “non-women caucus” with an agenda drawn up by women for the non-women to focus attention on their aberrant behaviour. This was piloted by the student wing of the ISN in Sheffield. You’d be forgiven for wondering where the non-caucuses will end up, if the Sheffield precedent is generalised. But apparently:
The report from Sheffield was received very positively by the group. Magpie pointed out that this was a new innovation which had not been tried in the left before and the IS Network women’s caucus should publicly congratulate the Sheffield RevSoc group.5
They seemed to have no idea that this politics was played out as early as 1975 by Big Flame and others, and the results were not exactly transformative for the left then either.
Suffice to say that the incompetence of the ISN left, being waist-high in this quagmire of radical guilt, meant it was unable to challenge the right on the need to be able to publicly and loudly challenge their opponents, and call them any appropriate name while doing so. The left lost in this sense, with Seymour and his allies looking quite reasonable in challenging these excesses, whilst also smuggling in the notion that there should be limits on political challenges directed at them personally.
And that is a shame, because those politics represent everything that was rotten in the political method of the SWP in the first place.
For those in the left of the ISN, particularly Tim Nelson and some allies who managed to win a commitment to a rank-and-file orientation in October, that explicitly means a break from the culture of useless bureaucratically driven hyper-activism. However, comrade Nelson and others take this insight into the blind-alley of some kind of unity initiative which would include the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They had a joint meeting in June in Sheffield, but other than two ISNers joining IWW, this doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere.6
So there remains the ‘broad party’ approach advocated in Left Unity by the likes of Socialist Resistance and Richard Seymour – as he explained to me in a personal conversation – to hold back and reflect the general mood (ie, bureaucratic populism) and allow the inevitable failure of this to push people to the orientation that we want later on.
Seymour accepts tacitly that this approach is a direct repetition of John Rees’s in Respect, and now in the People’s Assembly with Counterfire. In the former, SWP members were forced under discipline to vote down clauses from the ‘what we fight for’ column in their own paper in order to keep open ‘space’ in the organisation for a largely phantom right wing. But even Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber of the SWP Central Committee, not exactly known for admitting failure lightly, acknowledged this year that this was “problematic” for the party.7 Seymour, however, still supports this approach in Left Unity – but on an even lower political level, because the organised political basis for this kind of position will not exist in a formation with Socialist Resistance. In practice it is an all out liquidation into reformism.
There will inevitably be some residual Cliffite solidarity between those leaving the SWP and those in the ISN, given their shared background. But comrades can be forgiven for thinking twice before throwing their weight behind the ‘leadership’ shown so far in blazing a trail forwards for the left. Comrade Markin, as he dubs himself, in his statement on leaving the SWP, is luke warm, to say the least:
This step is the next crucial one – the ISN contains many lessons, both good and bad, of how to try and build something new. I want us to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water in terms of our politics but equally I think we need to follow the example of making serious and concrete changes to our method in order to change the culture we have inherited from the SWP. I also want to get my own house in order first before I even think about diving into radical reformist projects and realignment initiatives, of which it’s fair to say I have a healthy scepticism.8
Others who have spoken to us have been far more damning in private, including one who has written a report in this paper. In public there is mostly silence about it, which speaks volumes.
Will there be unity in the spring? On these terms, we certainly hope not. Defeating this unity initiative with Socialist Resistance has got to be a priority if the ISN left is to play a useful role given the current disintegration of the SWP. If serious regroupment is to take place on the left now, it is going to be based on ditching that whole rotten legacy of decomposing bureaucratic centrism, with the broad fronts and liquidationist splits which it inevitably throws off. What we need, and comrades leaving the SWP need, is a democratic, honest, and consistently revolutionary political organisation. Let us talk.
2. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index. php/ideas-and-arguments/organisation/293-the-p1olitics-of-anathema-in-the-is-network
3. http://internationalsocialistsnetwork.org/index. php/ideas-and-arguments/organisation/302-undoing-the-politics-of-anathema
4. http://radtransfem.tumblr.com/ post/24818439850/first-attempt-at-a-list-of-ways-for-men-to-use
5. http://bigflameuk.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/ episodes-in-big-flame-history-no-19-sexual-politics-and-life-part-2-men%E2%80%99s-politics/
6. http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index. php/ideas-and-arguments/organisation/party-and-class/unions/161-report-back-from-a-joint-meeting-of-the-sheffield-is-network-and-the-iww
8. http://comrademarkin.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/ on-leaving-swp.html