Open Letter from Germany to the Opposition in the British Socialist Workers Party. Reflections on the 2001 crisis in Linksruck (German IST section) and possible lessons for the current debate in the SWP. Von Florian Wilde
I – as well as others on the German revolutionary left – have followed the developing crisis in the SWP with a mix of great concern and a bit of hope. There is an immense danger that this crisis will result in a substantial, long-term weakening of the SWP and have destructive effects on the entire International Socialist Tendency (IST). However, this crisis also presents the possibility of a democratic renewal of the SWP and the IST – and with it a strengthening of the entire revolutionary left.
There are many structural similarities between the present crisis in the SWP and the deep crisis and subsequent split of the German IST section Linksruck in 2001. This paper aims to relate the experience of 2001 and develop some practical suggestions from it. As it was written in a short period of time, I am forced to limit myself to a series of short theses. It should be noted that this paper relies on my own recollection of events as I do not have access to the relevant documents at the moment.
Brief history of Linksruck
The German section of the IST, the Sozialistische Arbeitergruppe (SAG), was founded in the late 1960s. It managed to play a modest role in the political upturn of the 1970s and in the 1980s adopted the SWP’s orientation for the so-called “downturn”: focus on propaganda and the gradual accumulation of cadre. Starting in circa 1989, expecting a rapid upturn in class struggle, the roughly 50 members of the SAG shifted towards an interventionist strategy and recruited heavily, mostly in the anti-fascist movement of the time. By 1994 the group had grown to roughly 300 members, before promptly dissolving itself and entering the social democratic youth, the Jusos, as “Linksruck”.
In many ways the transformation from SAG to Linksruck was symptomatic of the internal democracy (or lack thereof) in the IST. Following a massive intervention by Tony Cliff and the leadership of the SWP, the old leadership of the SAG was pushed aside in favour of younger members who had begun work in the Jusos. The decisive strategic debates and arguments that led to this reorientation were conducted in small circles, and only the conclusions were presented to the organisation. The price of this course of action was high: many long-standing cadre left in disgust at the way the decision had been made, and many younger members from the radical and autonomist left refused to join the Jusos. My local branch in Kiel had grown to 20 members in 1994, but after we joined the Jusos in the middle of the year we were reduced to three. Even worse, the top-down approach during the transformation into Linksruck left the nucleus of the crisis that was to come: the leadership of the organisation found that it was legitimate and correct to conduct important debates amongst themselves and if necessary enforce them against the will of the membership. An overemphasis on leadership became a problematic hallmark of Linksruck.
The focus on party building and recruitment developed by the SAG was also followed by the leadership of Linksruck and proved to be correct and effective: we became the fastest growing organisation on the radical left while the other revolutionary organisations of the 1990s collapsed. It was a period of hyper-activity: newspaper sales, shop sales, weekly public meetings, and one campaign after another. We were unable to retain a lot of the new members, but the organisation nevertheless counted 1,000 members (on paper) by the turn of the millennium, including 700 dues-paying members and a stable cadre of several hundred. In 1997 we ceased our work in the Jusos. The success of their perspective encouraged the leadership and confirmed their view that a central focus on party building was critical to success. Symptomatic of this mood is the fact that we never took the time to reflect upon our experience in the Jusos – the next campaign, meeting or paper sale was always more important than conducting a serious internal debate about the organisation’s last three years of activity. To this date there are no written analyses of the period.
The political basis for founding Linksruck and joining the Jusos was the alleged necessity of breaking with the “swamp” of the German radical left in the early 90s. This led to complications when we began to increase our work in the anti-globalisation movement and sought to relate to and recruit from the radical left again, as many new members in turn brought feminist and autonomist ideas from the movements back into the organisation. These ideas collided with our well-established theoretical and practical traditions. Our years-long refusal to engage with this political spectrum in a productive but critical manner meant we lacked an internal culture capable of tolerating differences of opinion over the medium term. This came back to haunt us as it became an element in the approaching crisis.
2001: Crisis and split in Linksruck
In mid-2001 Linksruck entered a deep crisis that resulted in a split in the organisation. An accusation was raised within the organisation that the CC had covered up a case of sexual assault involving a member of the organisation’s inner circle and even protected the accused. Following this, multiple cases of sexual harassment and assault by another member of the CC came to light. The CC had been aware of these allegations for some time but had not reacted to them. This accorded to their logic that leadership was the critical element in building the organisation, and thus must be protected at nearly all costs. After this we learned of another CC member’s embezzlement of party funds to pay for calls to phone sex hot-lines. The outrage amongst the membership was, as you can imagine, immense. The new comrades from the social movements viewed the behaviour of the leadership as sexist; many of the comrades who had been members for years were also no longer prepared to follow the leadership of the CC.
The situation escalated at a national conference at the end of September 2001. The CC argued that the group’s political orientation in the wake of 11 September should be debated first in order to establish a political basis upon which we could discuss the internal issues. A majority of delegates moved that the crisis of the organisation, in which many of them felt they could no longer work, would be discussed first. Then, the majority demanded the CC’s resignation. The CC refused, invoking the lack of a necessary statute in the group’s constitution – they would only resign with the mandate of a general assembly. This was the greatest political shock of my life, as I had spent years arguing for exactly that type of statute, which the CC had always rejected, arguing that leadership is based on trust – not on formal rules. Without the trust of the membership the leadership would be nothing. Now that the membership’s trust had clearly been revoked they cited formalities to retain their positions.
Many members were furious. A phase of intense internal conflict began. The persistent accusations of sexual assault simultaneously threatened to isolate the group on the radical left. Three different factions emerged from this situation:
- Arbeiterpolitik: the “conservative” faction of the CC and older comrades. They essentially argued to “stay the course”, coupled with a limited retreat from the social movements and a stronger orientation towards the labour movement. They accused the two other factions of adopting feminist and autonomist positions.
- Diametrically opposed was the faction Seattle-Bolschewiki. They gave the ultimatum that all members of the current CC resign immediately, demanded an increased orientation towards the movements and strived toward a fusion of Leninist and autonomist politics. However, they drew moral strength and most of their arguments from sharply formulated criticisms of the sexist relations in the organisation and especially its leadership.
- In between them, even temporarily representing the majority, was the very heterogeneous faction Demokratischer Zentralismus (DemZ) to which I belonged. The thread that held them together was the demand for a comprehensive democratic reform of the organisation as the prerequisite step for a possible strategic reorientation, combined with consequences addressing the accusations of sexual assault; but without demanding the resignation of the entire CC. Instead the faction called for an expansion and renewal of the leadership as part of a democratic renewal of the entire organisation.
Arbeiterpolitik was able to come out in front fairly quickly. The CC suspended one of the comrades accused of sexual assault, expelled another from the organisation, and established a committee to investigate the matter. This took some of the wind out of DemZ’s sails. In addition to this they offered a coherent political orientation: a staying of the course, but with more focus on the labour movement and industrial organizing. DemZ had nothing of the sort, their unity was based primarily on the demand for clarification and reforms to establish a culture of democratic internal debate for all members. As the CC finally addressed the accusations and enforced consequences, DemZ lost one of its primary planks. Many leading cadre left DemZ and (depending on one’s perspective) were either convinced by or capitulated to the CC/Arbeiterpolitik faction. Their original goal to fundamentally reform and renew the organisation and thereby offer disappointed and demoralised members a new perspective was not achieved. Instead several members of DemZ were integrated into the new leadership.
Linksruck’s general assembly was held in November 2001. The Seattle-Bolschewiki gave an ultimatum: the resignation of the entire CC, which they accused of collectively protecting a sexual offender. Although many members were critical of the conduct of the leadership in dealing with the allegations of assault, they were not willing to accept the accusation that the entire organisation was guilty of sexism. When they were unable to win a majority, the Seattle-Bolschewiki left the room and the organisation. They took many activists and cadre with them, some of them new, others longstanding. They founded a new organisation, “Anticapitalistas”, seeking to develop a fusion of Leninist and autonomist politics embedded in the movements. Within half a year and the publication of two newspapers the organisation collapsed, its leadership led it into a dead end. They were not able to achieve either of their aims: first the renewal of Linksruck, and later the building of a new organisation. Some of its members became politically passive, others remain active somewhere today. But they were not able to survive as a collective entity for longer than a few months.
The outcome of the 2001 crisis was a political tragedy. Of the over 1,000 members we counted before the crisis less than 300 remained. Many branches (Hamburg, for example, had five branches before the crisis and only half of one after) and many of the cadre we had carefully recruited and trained fell away from the group. The movements of the following period – the anti-war movement and the anti-cuts movement – lacked the strong revolutionary current that we had sought to build and had even come a bit closer to in the late 90s. Years of hard political work had essentially been for nothing. The remaining members of Linksruck clung to the group’s principles and spent a few years as a small, isolated rump. Back then I disdained and pitied them for their obstinate conservatism.
In retrospect, however, it has to be said that the members of Linksruck accomplished something extremely valuable: the retention of an organised, interventionist core of cadre. The Anticapitalistas disappeared and many of the DemZ members who left Linksruck became passive. Some of them, like me, remained active, but none of us who left the organisation were able to achieve what had once been a core principle of our political understanding: building a revolutionary organisation. This was not the case with the CC and the Arbeiterpolitik faction – they pressed on as Linksruck and later, after the founding of Die Linke, continued to work as Marx21. They maintained a political structure that was capable of playing an important and positive role on the left. They accomplished that which I also hold to be essential but was never able to achieve myself: building a visible Marxist pole within Die Linke, around which a new generation of young revolutionary socialists could form. Many of the comrades from DemZ who later joined the CC/Arbeiterpolitik faction in the leadership (and whom I had once derided as capitulationists) played a key role in developing a new, non-instrumentalist relationship to the movements and later Die Linke. Over time they were able to change the internal culture of their organisation. Because of this success they have been able to be productive, commendable members of the Die Linke working as Marx21.
Marx21 today with its 340 supporters, three representatives in parliament and important members in the leadership of Die Linke is the most important current of the revolutionary left within the party. Without the interventionist politics of Marx21, many of Die Linke’s important campaigns like the anti-fascist march in Dresden and the G8 mobilisations would not have been that successful. And Marx21’s strong base in the party’s student league Linke.SDS has allowed them to win a new generation of young cadres to revolutionary socialism. Nevertheless, it must be said that Marx21’s influence could be substantially greater had they not lost hundreds of members and cadres to the crisis of 2001.
Because of the traumatic experience of the 2001 split I have hesitated to join Marx21, and will not do so until an honest and open debate is conducted about the democratic deficit of the IST as well as the IS tradition – both in terms of internal democracy as well as the structures of the IST itself. (1)
Conclusions and suggestions for the current debate in the SWP
1. The heritage of the IS tradition – the emphasis on a revolutionary perspective, the centrality of the working class, the necessity of the revolutionary party, the concept of socialism from below – as well as our decades of experience in building revolutionary organisations constitute an immensely important contribution to the new revolutionary left of the 21st century. Beyond the IST many revolutionary continuities have been lost to history, the IS is one of few who have maintained and extended these traditions. A substantial weakening of the organisation that carries on these traditions and experiences would strike a serious blow against the revolutionary left as a whole; thus the SWP cannot be frivolously abandoned.
2. The leadership of the SWP is responsible for the current crisis. It was their handling of the rape allegation, their expulsion of four comrades agitating for democratic reforms before party conference, and their authoritarian response to the internal revolt that has brought the party to the point it is at now.
3. The opposition assumes grave responsibilities in this situation, as it appears to have become a new internal current supported by hundreds of comrades. You must work painstakingly and systematically toward a fundamental democratic reform of the party. Only this will renew the perspectives of hundreds of disappointed and demoralised members and prevent the split and/or collapse of your organisation. Building up revolutionary organisations – even small ones – can take years, if not decades. Destroying them only takes a matter of weeks. You cannot allow this to happen! Regardless of the CC’s provocations, you must avoid the logic of escalation that could destroy the organisation. Always take a moment to step back and reflect upon your activities.
4. The SWP opposition cannot not repeat the mistakes of the Seattle-Bolschewiki! Motivated by a sense of moral outrage, they presented a series of ultimatums that could not be won in the immediate term and left the organisation shortly thereafter. Although they originally insisted that they would stay in the organisation and fight over the long haul, the combination of moral outrage (which quickly developed into a deep hatred of the CC) and demands presented as ultimatums fed a logic of escalation that led the Seattle-Bolschewiki out of the organisation and later into a political desert. It is very likely that a split by, for example, the outraged SWSS groups would end with similar results. The overwhelming majority of splits in the history of the IST have degenerated rapidly into sects or collapsed as quickly as the German Anticapitalistas. The SWP leadership’s ability to build such a large organisation is almost unique on the left and cannot be easily duplicated.
5. The opposition also cannot take the path of the German DemZ faction. They allowed themselves to be cajoled back to the side of the leadership through a series of minor compromises and promises on the part of the CC. This price of such a move on your part would be further stagnation and decline of the SWP, not to mention the loss of hundreds of disappointed comrades. The only thing that can prevent the exit of these comrades is to offer them the prospect of a long-term fight in the SWP for the SWP.
6. Despite all of the understandable outrage and disappointment in your leadership due to its conservatism and undemocratic procedures, the example of Linksruck and Marx21 shows that the conservative elements of your party can still play a constructive role on the left. Their many mistakes aside, they stand for an extremely valuable tradition that – despite its numerous problems – has undeniably been one of the most successful on the revolutionary left. Even a bad SWP is better than none whatsoever.
The lack of democracy in the SWP is a structural problem and will lead to repeated conflicts if it is not solved. This means that even if you lose this battle the next one will already be on the horizon. Maybe you will win that one. The experience of the comrades from the DemZ faction in Linksruck and now Marx21 shows that real changes (though in my opinion not far-reaching enough) are possible in IS groups over the medium term.
7. The democracy deficit in the SWP and IST is a fundamental, structural problem of the entire tradition that periodically generates such conflicts and holds IS groups back from growing into genuine mass organisations. The SWP and the entire IS tradition must solve this democracy problem or risk condemning themselves to eternal stagnation and even collapse. All of the controversial questions must be addressed: the ban on permanent factions, the slate system of elections and the lack of democracy in the IST’s international structures, etc. A democratic renewal of the SWP is the prerequisite for renewing its theoretical work. You must develop a culture of democratic internal discussion that allows all members to participate in debates on the party’s strategic orientation.
These are all extremely important tasks that can probably only be accomplished in the medium- to long-term. Should you be able to achieve the democratic renewal of the SWP on a revolutionary basis, you will have made a hugely positive contribution to the entire revolutionary left. However, you will need patience! Do not allow yourselves to be influenced too heavily by disappointment and moral outrage. Do not engage in a hasty split from the organisation. Organise yourselves systematically and prepare to struggle for your goals over the long haul. Fight by any means necessary, but make sure your goal remains the democratic renewal – not the destruction – of the SWP.
Do not allow the tragedy of Linksruck to repeat itself in Britain!
I hope that these anecdotes from the history of the IST in Germany and the suggestions I present can aid you in developing effective strategies in your fight for the soul of the IS tradition.
Historian, member of National Executive Committee of DIE LINKE.
This letter was written in a strictly personal capacity and reflects my personal views alone.
About the author:
I joined the IST section in Germany in 1992 and was an active cadre for circa ten years. I attended the Marxism Festival in London six times, marched with IST contingents at the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Genoa and Prague and left Linksruck in the aftermath of the crisis in early 2002.
I was then active in Rifondazione Communista (Italy) 2002-3, the German organized autonomist left 2003-2007, and since 2007 have been an active member of Die Linke and its student section, Die Linke.SDS. Since 2012 I am also a member of the party’s National Executive Committee.
(1) I also received quite a shock when the American IST section, the International Socialist Organization, was expelled from the tendency based on sectarian reasoning that remains incomprehensible to me even today. That a 1,000-strong socialist organisation in the belly of the imperialist beast could be expelled (leaving a gaping hole on the IST map) without there being any sort of consequences for the IST leadership is unfathomable to me. Since the expulsion of the ISO the IST – which expanded so rapidly in the 1990s – has stagnated. Its leadership has not managed to re-establish the tendency as a relevant point of reference in the international revolutionary left. Indeed, the tendency does not even have an attractive homepage (!). These and other developments, like the IST’s problematic intervention in Germany in 1994 or the disastrous attempts to do something similar in France, could not have happened under a democratic and accountable international leadership.