For the Record – Flawed Methods, Unnecessary Divisions

OCTOBER 9, 2013 – Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos (2013) have written a defence of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a party wracked by crisis since late 2012. This crisis was precipitated by the response, on the part of the SWP leadership, to allegations of rape and sexual assault. However, Kimber/Callinicos assert that “all those involved … have agreed that the case itself should be treated as ‘closed’” and therefore barely address issues of sexual violence, sexism, women’s oppression – the substantive issues that have generated the current crisis.

Others will, no doubt, respond to Kimber/Callinicos on these points. This contribution concerns one specific aspect of their text. To illustrate one point in their article, the authors cite a passage from a 2001 Callinicos pamphlet, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left (2001), a pamphlet which was to circulate quite widely in the years which followed, prominently featured on the SWP website until late 2009 (SWP 2009). This is a very questionable text, in 2013, to be used as an authoritative source.

The first 6,000-word portion of Anti-Capitalist Movement is relatively straightforward. It paints a picture of the political terrain at the turn of the century, the birth of a new left, and a reflection on what Callinicos sees as a parallel period – the radicalization of the 1960s. The concluding 6,000-word portion is completely different. The year of the pamphlet’s publication, 2001, was the year that the SWP argued for and won the expulsion of the U.S.-based International Socialist Organization (ISO) from the International Socialist Tendency (IST). The final 6,000 words of Anti-Capitalist Movement are entirely devoted to justifying this expulsion.

It is a justification based upon three very flawed methods: inflated rhetoric, careless use of historical analogies, and a misleading political economy. Many of us – who at the time were convinced to support the SWP leadership’s drive to expel the ISO –with the benefit of hindsight know now that we were quite wrong. Two years ago, for self-clarification, this author drafted, but did not publish, a critique of Anti-Capitalist Movement. With this 2001 pamphlet now resurfacing as a part of current debates, perhaps these notes – slightly revised – will be of interest to others. So, for the record …


The political environment at the turn of the century was shaped by anti-corporate activism. In 1999, a coalition of young anti-globalization activists and veterans of the trade union movement disrupted the annual meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held that year in Seattle, Washington (Bakan 2000a; Bakan 2000b). Ralph Nader called this Seattle moment a “fork in the road” (1999) – a watershed pointing towards new waves of struggle against corporate globalization. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands challenged the symbols of corporate capitalism – in Genoa, Quebec City, Prague and elsewhere.

The first section of Anti-Capitalist Movement documents the emergence of the anti-globalization wave of protests. Callinicos argues that “there has crystallized in the advanced capitalist countries a politically active minority that sees global capitalism as the source of the world’s ills”. He lists the key moments in the “new cycle of protest” which had emerged since the Seattle events, including demonstrations in “Washington (16 April 2000), Millau (30 June 2000), Melbourne (11 September 2000), Prague (26 September 2000), Seoul (10 October 2000), Nice (6-7 December 2000), and Washington again (20 January 2001)”. Even larger protests were to occur in the months following the publication of Anti-Capitalist Movement – the huge 300,000 strong mobilization in Genoa and the 80,000 who challenged the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City (George 2001; Ritsema 2011). For those of us who participated in various of these protests against corporate capitalism, reading through the history outlined in Anti-Capitalist Movement is a useful reminder of their importance. For others, it might provide a good summary and history of an historic movement.

With the benefit of hindsight of course, some of the analysis needs to be modified. Twelve years ago, many of us, including Callinicos, saw Seattle as the central fact in the new movement. But Seattle did not emerge in a vacuum. Its organizers had been deeply influenced by Global South mass movements against neoliberalism and imperialism, movements which – from January 1, 1994 – exploded onto the world scene with the anti-neoliberal uprisings in Chiapas, Mexico. Seattle needs to be seen as one link in a bigger chain – in part, being an echo of the mobilizations against neoliberal globalization and imperialism that emerged out of Latin America in the 1990s, going back to the Zapatistas and beyond. Even after the events of 9/11, this radicalization continued, with the 2002 mobilization against the attempted coup in Venezuela and the massive uprisings associated with the gas wars in Bolivia in 2003 and 2004. Both of these events served as part of the immediate background to the election of Evo Morales in 2005.

Another aspect of the analysis in Anti-Capitalist Movement needs to be re-examined. In a comparative evaluation of the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the Seattle protests, Anti-Capitalist Movement asserts that the Intifada “is driven by the Palestinians’ burning resentment of the oppression they suffer at the hands of the Zionist state … but the system itself is not at the centre of their consciousness”. This implies that the Seattle-inspired movements were at a higher level, being directed against the system as a whole. But the Al-Aqsa Intifada was a key spark for the radicalization in the region, not least in Egypt, a radicalization which exploded in 2011 in the Arab Spring. For many in the Arab Spring revolutions, both Palestine and “the system itself” were very much at the centre of their consciousness (Barghouti 2011). It does not seem credible, more than a decade later, to see the post-Seattle anti-globalization protests as existing at a higher level than the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The Global North protests in Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Washington and elsewhere were significant. But looking back from the second decade of the 21st century, it is clear that the main streams of mass movements and radical change since the 1990s have flown through the Global South – Chiapas, Caracas and Cochabamba; Palestine, Egypt and Tunisia. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and this contribution by Callinicos is a worthwhile part of an ongoing discussion.

Inflated Rhetoric

In the second half of the pamphlet – announced with the headline “An American Tragedy: the International Socialist Organization” – Anti-Capitalist Movement takes a quite different turn. Prominent throughout the next several thousand words are examples of what Leo Panitch has called “inflated rhetoric” (1987) – the exaggeration of differences to the point of caricature through the use of highly-charged language. The SWP and the ISO disagreed as to the significance of the Seattle protest. Anti-Capitalist Movement elevates this disagreement far above a mere question of tactics. According to Anti-Capitalist Movement, the Seattle events revealed “the ISO’s metastasis into a sect”. The ISO had “become so ossified that they are unable to relate to the revival of the left for which they have waited for decades”. It argues that there had been a long history of “sectarian degeneration” in the ISO, that there was, in various of the writings of the ISO, “evidence of a deep-rooted sectarian mentality”, and that even when there were moments of health, there was a recurring tendency of “retreating into the sectarian bunker”. Already, during the Balkan Wars, “we can see the ISO displaying the attitude that by which Marx defined a sect”.

Anti-Capitalist Movement does not hesitate to amplify, arguing that the “ISO leadership’s urge to differentiate … is reminiscent of some of the worst sectarian aberrations of the 1960s, for example, the refusal of the orthodox Trotskyist followers of Gerry Healy and Pierre Lambert to participate in the student and anti-war movements”. Raising the ghost of the late Gerry Healy is a strong clue signalling where the argument is headed. Perhaps no left group more captured the essence of sectarianism than Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL) and its successor the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP). These were formations on the British far left, known among other things for their adulation of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and for the scandal of sexual abuse which ultimately shattered both Healy’s reputation and the current which he had led.[1] Phrases such as “sectarian bunker” have a known content in the socialist movement, clearly intended to identify a group which has turned in on itself and retreated from the reality of day-to-day life and struggle – hence the reference to Healy.

This use of inflated rhetoric was characteristic of the whole debate. An earlier letter to the ISO (drafted by Callinicos and Tony Cliff), argued that the ISO had “failed the test of the 1999 Balkan war” (cited in Birchall 2011, 548). This accusation – “failing the test of war” – also has a known content. The phrase emerges from debates triggered by the First World War. The socialist left was a mass, united movement in the first years of the 20th century. August 1914, this unity was shattered, when the world’s largest socialist party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), voted for war credits and gave its blessing to the horrors of patriotic war. The German SPD, and most other member organizations of the Second International “failed the test of war”. This led to profound isolation for internationalists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, forcing on this minority the necessity to, from scratch, begin again the project of constructing an international socialist movement. Taking this known term from the World War One era, and applying it to tactical differences over the war in Kosovo, is an extreme case of inflating the rhetoric.

The invective had the effect of sharply polarizing the discussion along apparently irreconcilable lines. The engaged realistic activist was counter-posed to the sectarian. The anti-war socialist was counter-posed to those who had supposedly capitulated to patriotism. But was such rhetoric and extreme polarization actually necessary? It is really very difficult to discover any meaningful political differences, at the turn of the century, between the ISO and the SWP. In his biography of the late Tony Cliff, leading SWP intellectual Ian Birchall argues that “[i]n principle the different assessments of the anti-capitalist movement could have been contained within the international tendency” (2011, 549). The ISO, like the SWP, participated in the Seattle protests, and many of the other anti-globalization mobilizations. The ISO, like the SWP, took a clear position against NATO’s bombing of Kosovo. There were differences, not over matters of principle, but rather over matters of expectation, nuance and tactics. What are the prospects of this new movement? This is about expectations. Should the movements be characterized as anti-capitalist or anti-globalization? This is a nuance. How do you combine opposition to NATO’s bombing campaigns with criticism of Serbia’s attacks on Kosovo? This is a tactic. All are appropriate subjects for reasoned discussion and debate. When they become wrapped in distortion and extreme invective, that discussion and debate becomes difficult, and the value of diverse views becomes lost in an urge to silence disagreement.

The SWP leadership, however, insisted on the limitations of the ISO, and the urgency of isolating and then expelling the organization from the IST. At a 2001 meeting of the IST, held in London U.K., the ISO was formally expelled.[2]

Careless Use of Historical Analogies

It would be fairly straightforward if this use of inflated rhetoric could be ascribed solely to problems of etiquette. Bad manners can be addressed and corrected fairly easily. However, the inflated rhetoric was, at least in part, a linguistic expression of a second problematic method. Argument by way of careless historical analogy – drawing too straight a line between the Russian Revolutionary era and our own – is a central method employed by Anti-Capitalist Movement.

Callinicos argues that the new movements in the wake of Seattle demanded the adoption of new modes of work, and the abandonment of old ones from a different era. To make this point, he quotes Trotsky. “[I]f in the preceding period too many elements of inertia have accumulated in the leading organs of the party, then the party will prove itself unable to fulfill its leadership at that supreme and critical moment for which it has been preparing itself in the course of decades. The party is ravaged by a crisis, and the movement passes the party by – and heads toward defeat”.

The quotation is from Trotsky’s work, The Lessons of October, an analysis of the challenges which confronted the European left in the context of revolutionary upheaval in 1917 and 1918. Callinicos says that it represents Trotsky “reflecting on the experience of the Bolsheviks”. That is not entirely accurate. In the paragraph from which the selection has been culled, Trotsky contextualizes his analysis. “On the basis of our experience – even taking only one year, from February 1917 to February 1918 – and on the basis of the supplementary experience in Finland, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, and Germany, we can posit as almost an unalterable law that a party crisis is inevitable in the transition from preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power” (1937, 4). These words are absent from Anti-Capitalist Movement.

Surely we should be careful about the applicability to our times of any analysis thinking through the challenges faced by socialists “in the transition from preparatory revolutionary activity to the immediate struggle for power”. Further, look at the parties Trotsky was analyzing, – parties based in Finland, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany and Russia. Unlike the small organizations which comprise the IST, the key parties on this list were real, mass parties. According to Tony Cliff, the Bulgarian socialist group which “voted to affiliate to the Comintern” in 1919” was a mass party with 35,478 members in 1920” (1979, 10–11). In Germany, the communists numbered some 50,000 until December 1920, when they were joined by the left-wing of the Independent Social Democrats to create a party of 350,000 (1979, 11). The Hungarian Party was significant enough to be at the centre of a 133-day “Soviet” republic in 1919 (1979, 12). When the Italian Socialist Party voted to affiliate to the Comintern it had 300,000 members (1979, 10). As for the Bolsheviks, they were formed in 1903 and two years later were confronted by a revolution involving the birth of workers’ councils. Years of defeat and reaction followed, then the horrors of world war, then the two revolutions of 1917 and the working class seizure of power. In those tumultuous years, the Bolsheviks were variously a group of dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands(1975, 98–138; 168–182; 235–252; 352–366). It is a rich and complex story. But from the standpoint of the 21st century, it is little more than just that … a story. Anti-Capitalist Movement tells this story selectively. It insists that lessons appropriate to mass organizations in conditions of autocracy, confronted with the transition to state power, are directly applicable to the experience of small left formations confronted with demonstrations and movements in the context of liberal democracies.

Britain and North America in the 21st century have no mass socialist organizations. There are no workers’ soviets (self-governing popular councils). We do not at the moment have a Tsarist-like reaction forcing the left and organizers underground. Russia between 1903 and 1917 could not really be more different than Britain and North America between 1989 and 2001, or, for that matter, 2013. It is not at all clear how lessons from the one period could be applied to the other, except in the most general manner. To offer real lessons from the Russian Revolution, demands paying careful attention to specific contexts and precise differences. A method based on selective out-of-context quotation is the mark of internalized factionalism. It does nothing to contribute to clarity.

Anti-Capitalist Movement reduces the key lesson from this complex story to Lenin’s leadership method of “bending the stick”; “of focusing on the key tasks in the current situation to the exclusion of all secondary factors and indeed to the point of exaggeration … the price of failing to develop this approach is sectarianism”. The argument is crystal clear. The ISO did not “bend the stick” towards the Seattle movement, and hence became sectarian.

Contemporary research is calling into question this whole take on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Lars T. Lih has argued that Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, where the “bend the stick” thesis is advanced, took one moment in Lenin’s life quite out of context (Cliff 1975; Lih 2006, 22–27). Further, even were we to agree that Lenin frequently did exaggerate to make his point, what exactly does this imply for the very different circumstances we confront in the 21st century? Until 1917, Lenin was almost always in exile. Trade union and party organizers inside Russia operated underground. Activists faced frequent arrests, jail, exile and deportation. The Russian state was a repressive, Tsarist nightmare. The Bolshevik movement in 1905, and then again from 1912 until 1917, was a mass movement, with deep roots and real influence in the working class. Navigating this situation must have been extremely difficult. There would be a premium on tacking and turning, avoiding traps and obstacles, looking for the key next step. Perhaps we might label this tacking and turning, “bending the stick”.

But for small left currents and individuals in the context of advanced capitalism and liberal democracy in the 21st century, it is not at all clear how this has relevance. When groups are on the margins, have little influence, can at best participate in struggles, but rarely lead them, then to invoke “bending the stick” is unlikely to mean much in practice, unlikely to be a factor in changing the direction of the mass movement. In the absence of being able to “bend the stick” in action, there is only one choice left. The stick bending is done in words. The invective and the inflated rhetoric take flight. At best, it is just pretentious. At worst, it becomes a justification for yelling and verbal abuse.[3]

Misleading political economy

The third flawed method underpinning the analysis of Anti-Capitalist Movement is an extremely misleading political economy. Callinicos defends the practice, current in the IST since the early 1990s, of using – in the U.K., North America and elsewhere – the decade of the 1930s as an analogy for the decade of the 1990s (albeit in “slow motion”) (Callinicos 1994; Cliff 2000, 81–82). In 2012 and 2013, for Greece and some of the other countries in Southern Europe, the 1930’s decade has certainly returned as a point of reference. However, the situation in Greece in 2012 and 2013 is one thing and the situation in North America and Britain in the 1990s is quite another. The ISO leadership challenged the 1930s in slow motion framework, Callinicos acknowledges, pointing “to the American boom of the 1990s as a decisive counter-example to the ‘1930s in slow motion’ analysis”.

Surely the ISO leadership had a point. Let’s try to get a picture of the 1930s, and then contrast it with the 1990s. The most basic measure of economic health is the value of GDP (output) per capita, adjusted for inflation. When that figure is rising, then the economy is growing. When that figure is shrinking, so is the economy. The first chart here takes the output per capita for the U.S. in 1929 as 100, and then shows the trajectory of output per capita in the years which followed, from 1930 until 1940. It is an extraordinary picture of decline. By 1933, output per person was almost 30 percent below what it had been in 1929. It was this kind of economic collapse which led to mass unemployment, soup kitchens and bread lines. By the end of the 1930s, output per person was slowly increasing, inching back to where it had been in 1929. But we now know that output per person was finally able to surpass the 1929 figure, and the economy could return to growth, only because of manufacturing gearing up for World War II.

If that is the profile of the 1930s, how does it compare to the 1990s? The second chart applies the method of the first to the decade of the 1990s, and includes three countries, the U.S., the U.K. and Russia. 1990 is used as a baseline, output per capita that year expressed as “100”. For one of the three countries, the 1930’s analogy clearly has some relevance. The chart documents the catastrophic decline of the Russian economy in the 1990s. By 1998, output per capita was barely half what it had been in 1990. The end of Stalinism in Russia and the transition to the market were very big stories in that decade. But Russia’s experience was qualitatively different from that of the U.S. and the U.K. There was decline in 1991 for the U.S., and for 1991 and 1992 in the U.K. But from that point on, the story is the opposite of the 1930s, output per capita rising in both countries. By 2001, output per person, in both countries, was 25 per cent greater than it had been in 1990. Clearly, for those two countries at least, any analogies with the Great Depression of the 1930s would have to be treated with some suspicion. If a fourth country had been added to the picture, the entire analogy would have collapsed. The spectacular economic take-off in China was well underway in the 1990s. In 2001, output per capita in China was an extraordinary 162 per cent greater than it had been in 1990.

Anti-Capitalist Movement insists that, in using the analogy with the 1930s, they were “very careful to stress the differences between the 1930s and the 1990s”. The truth is, once the 1930s analogy had been put on the table, being “careful” was going to be difficult. The problem with invoking the 1930s, even with many qualifications, is that, for millions of people, the phrase has real, and instant meaning. It is not ambiguous. “The 1930s” is a headline signifying social and economic collapse. The decade of the 1930s was one of catastrophic economic decline, catastrophic levels of unemployment, catastrophic collapse of living standards, the rise of fascism, the occupation of the factories in the United States, civil war in Spain, horrendous war and social collapse in China – and ultimately the beginning of the Second World War. It was a decade of wars and revolutions, of socialism or barbarism. In that context, Trotsky argued that the objective basis for capitalist crisis was clear for all to see, the objective material for socialism was at hand, but what was lacking was subjective – the organized, experienced cadre in the leadership of mass socialist organizations. “The crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership” (Trotsky 1981, 2). This was a desperate formulation from a desperate decade, misleading but perhaps understandable given the horrors of fascism and the stark failure of the Stalinist parties. That was then. When the analogy with the 1930s was (quite wrongly) applied to the 1990s in the U.K. and the U.S., in such a way as to imply that the only barrier between the 1990’s generation in those two countries and the move towards socialism was a subjective one – in other words, when the bar was raised so high that success was absolutely impossible – then the finger-pointing and divisions soon followed. It became a political economy justification for the inflated rhetoric, invective, factionalism and splits, which proved to be very damaging.

It is also not hard to see the way in which a viewpoint fixated on the lessons of the 1930s might also lead to unrealistic expectations. Anti-Capitalist Movement argues that, “in the second half of the 1990s the long downturn in class struggle drew to an end”. This would be a logical expectation flowing from a focus on the 1930s – a decade which opened in North America with a deep downturn in working class struggle, a downturn which finally came to an end, in both the United States and Canada, through an explosive wave of strikes and factory occupations (Preis 1972; Dobbs 1972; Palmer 1992, 214–267; Jamieson 1968, 214–275). But while there have been important moments of struggle in Britain and North America, a sober assessment of the state of the workers’ movements in both places would indicate that Callinicos’ assessment was rather inaccurate. This would certainly be the case for the first few years of the 21st century in the United States, where strike levels remained at historic lows, and where most years the rate of unionization was lower than the year before.

The final chart accompanying this article is not the last word on this issue, but it needs to be seriously examined as part of the discussion. By a very basic measure of working class combativity – days not worked because of strikes and lockouts – a clear picture emerges for the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. There is considerable combativity through the 1970s, underpinning the deep radicalization of that decade. But this slowly declines in the 1980s, then falls precipitously in the 1990s, remaining at very low levels into the 21st century. There is an interesting and important spike in 2000 in the U.S., the year after Seattle. But it is not sustained, and it certainly does not provide – at least as it concerns these three countries – confirmation for the assertion that “the long downturn in class struggle drew to an end”.


Twelve years ago, just before the expulsion of the ISO, this author (at the time a member of the IST) and Paul D’Amato (a leading member of the ISO, and managing editor of the International Socialist Review) both travelled to Jakarta, Indonesia, to participate in a small anti-globalization conference. The conference was physically attacked by an armed group of right-wingers, aided and abetted by the armed forces of the Indonesian state. Paul and myself, along with some 30 other activists – after a long ride through the crowded streets of Jakarta, crammed onto the back of an army truck – ended up spending a night on the floor of a Jakarta police station, our passports seized and under threat of arrest (Wearmouth et al. 2001). Following a weekend of protests both inside and outside Indonesia, we got our passports back, and the threat subsided.

But at the time, in the face of the overwhelming Global South challenges confronting the poor and the working class in Indonesia, the Global North differences between the IST and the ISO receded into the background. In fact it was impossible to even begin to explain the nature of the division to the activists in Jakarta. They participated with us in conference discussions, formal and informal, worked with us shoulder to shoulder against the repression of the Indonesian state, and drew the quite correct conclusion that our politics were, for all intents and purposes, identical. If there is one single lesson from the last twelve years, that experience in Jakarta probably frames it best.

Sometimes there are meaningful political differences. But to sort out the meaningful from the meaningless, we need to reject methods which serve to artificially inflame and exaggerate. In other words, we have to reject the methods employed in Anti-Capitalist Movement.

In 2006, three Palestinian rights’ activists, leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)  movement, outlined a helpful alternative approach. “The roots of sectarianism” they said “lie in fetishizing minor programmatic differences and organizational forms ahead of the interests of the movement as a whole”. As an alternative, “[w]e need to change the way we relate to each other, realizing that building unity in practice is our most powerful weapon. … [T]he best political line is something developed through a common political practice – not bequeathed to the movement from historical texts” (Hanieh, Jamjoum, and Ziadah 2006).

© 2013 Paul Kellogg


[1] Those who wish to understand just how sectarian Healy was, should examine the little pamphlet, Politics as Religion (Hallas 1974) written by the late Duncan Hallas, a key article from which “Building the Leadership”, is now available online (Hallas 2008).

[2] There was another key issue involved late in the dispute, an allegation that the ISO was involved in a split in the Greek section of the IST (Birchall 2011, 549), an allegation which pushed many to vote with the SWP CC. In 2012, I had the privilege of attending an ISO public meeting addressed by Antonis Davanellos (2012), leading member of one of the groups in question, the International Workers Left (DEA). This connection with the DEA was invaluable in providing material for an article on the crisis wracking the Southern Mediterranean (Kellogg 2012). It also made it quite clear that, in 2001, we were all operating with very partial information. In any case, the bulk of the polemic in 2001 was focused on the issues discussed here, Seattle and anti-war work.

[3] This analysis relies on research developed by Abigail Bakan (2009).


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