Sunday 26 April 2009

Here Come the Bolsheviks

Every time the mighty International Bolshevik Tendency merits a mention on the UK Left Network or Leftist Trainspotters discussion forums, I feel compelled to comment. I cannot help myself. Micro groups like the IBT are just so, well ... charming.

In far left circles I suppose the publication of the IBT's infrequent journal,
1917 is something of an event: they are probably the only Leninist group whose chief publication only comes out twice a year. Presumably this is because their cadres are buried deep within the labour movement organising our class and seeing off the influence of other ostensibly revolutionary organisations. But you wouldn't know it from the latest 1917, which has just hit the interweb. There's lashings and lashings of sectarian boilerplate on offer but zero information about IBT activities. Even the one piece dedicated to this - a report of their world congress that took place in April last year(!) - spends the bulk of the article attacking other Trotskyists!

Almost without exception the ultra left vent their spleens about their ever-so-correct revolutionary programmes and lecture those groups - principally the
SP and SWP - who actively try to win a mass audience for socialist politics.

The Leninism the IBT and their ilk claim the mantle of is an
activist philosophy. The point cannot be clearer: the building of revolutionary socialist parties demands disciplined political action. But this theory is divorced from their practice, which is no different from the behaviour lefty students get up to in the seminar room. This is all one can do if you hold ra-ra-revolutionary views. Because reality doesn't match up to their perspectives, scholasticism and denunciation of other lefts sort of makes sense. Their perspectives cannot act as a guide to interventions in the class struggle, so best leave well alone.

The sociological conundrum for me is how this sort of "activism" not only sustains the commitment of a very small group of cadre, but can also appear
attractive to a certain species of leftist. I suppose it's this question - the enigma of ultra left existence - that lies at the root of the fascination.


Anonymous said...

Small groups like the IBT fascinate me and I do have a bit of soft spot for them even if their politics are totally mental. I remember when chairing a public meeting a few months ago I had to bite my lip to stop myself grinning (not appropriate during a contribution about the seige in Gaza) when I saw someone coming in late carrying a copy of '1917'...

Phil said...

Lol, they are mad. But are always out done by the sparts, the Brarites, and the AWL when they're in idiot mode.

But, strangely, the IBT are among the nicest people I've come across on the left. One moment they're denouncing your politics, and the next they're offering to bake you a cake!

At their fringe meeting at Socialism 2006 (were you at that one?) I felt really bad for them for the absolute drubbing they got from ourselves, the cpgbs and the sparts. Still, didn't stop me from having a go :P

They are probably my favourite micro group and would be happy to go to the boozer with their comrades any time.

ModernityBlog said...


wouldn't you say that such grouplets show an almost "religious" approach to politics?

do you know, have many studies been done on the similarities between religious and political cults?

Charlie Marks said...

So, my problem with socialist groups, as a whole, has always been that there's organizational unity within the tendency (barring splits!) but not between tendencies. Now, were the SP and SWP to be truly mass-oriented - and this is what I hope will happen at some stage - there would be one organisation with SP and SWP acting within it as tendencies, this hasn't been possible in the past, alas.

"Try again, fail again. Fail better!" as Zizek says...

On why it might be appealing to be in a micro-group. Just think - when you are arguing with people over politics, it's a battle you can feel you are winning, a kind of substitution of the class struggle with ideological point-scoring. But ultimately it brings despair, I know, for what does it achieve?

We all need to talk about what we agree on, what we can do. Especially with the massive attacks on pay and conditions coming up in the next few years. It's a matter of self-interest!

Anonymous said...

Their paper is yearly not half yearly. Plus this years edition should have been outvon January. Their members have been promising it was coming soon for ages.

One thing they do better than the sparts is actually attending picket lines and discussing strike strategy while doing the same picket line duties as the workers. See their recent article on lessons of Canadian strike.

On other hand they have some opportunist positions like refusing to call for victory to Argentina over the malvinas, making it little wonder they are so concentrated in the imperialist metropols.

Entdinglichung said...

there are/were indeed IBT members (at least in Germany) who do good grassroots work in the trade unions ... and IBT comrades can be distinguished from Sparts, that it is possible to have a beer and a nice chat about football or theatre with them without being targeted as a "pabloite revisionist" ... sometimes, they got labelled as "nice sectarians" or "kind sectarians"

Frank Partisan said...

I never personally crossed paths with IBT. They come to our public forums, and play a memorable role.

Here the Trotskyist groups, get along to some extent. We try to work together as much as we can, without compromising principle. Our main opposition is Maoists, who jump between reformism and anarchist type tactics.

Andrew Coates said...

What happenned about the invite to the Carnival of Socialism you wrote to me? I note that the Carnival of Socialism seems to be adopting IBT tactics: Coatesy gets written out of History by Jim Jepps of the Green Party.

Phil said...

I'm sure I did send you an invite - can't remember getting a reply though! There's some room available in December!

ModernityBlog said...

Phil, did you get my recent email, the subject of the latest carnival.

skidmarx said...

Perhaps the smaller the group, the easier it is to adopt a denounce and propagandise mentality because nothing you say is going to matter.

I've just seen Tony Cliff's widow in the supermarket. I did wonder if her pin number was going to be 1917.

Anonymous said...

By and large, I find IBT members tend to be the least sectarian of the ultraleft. The last few times I've been approached by someone with a copy of 1917, they've been quite friendly and tried to sell it on the basis of articles in there on subjects on which we have common ground - for instance, an article debunking Anarchist perspectives on Kronstadt - rather than the 'you're-wrong-and-if-you-give-me-money-I'll-give-you-a-paper-explaining-why' approach.

It was going so well until his mate came over and started screaming at me for something Joe Higgins had said (on which he was correct) a few days before and when I said I'd got no idea what she was talking about she started lecturing me about how I should know everything that happens everywhere the British Empire left it's mark...

Anonymous said...

The problem is that the SP and SWP are at the end of the day bigger versions of the IBT, with their own 'correct line' and their own 'Bolshevik party' conceptions which justify their separation from one another and attempts to keep debate 'internal' which both promote endless splintering of smaller groups and preclude actual effective unity. Witness SWP-ers endless attempts to defend the explanatory power of Cliff's version of state capitalism, witness Peter Taaffe's pamphlet on the SWP.

They are not bigger because they "actively try to win a mass audience for socialist politics". Rather, they can (attempt, very ineffectively) to address the masses because they are bigger.

How they got to be bigger is in historical perspective simply because they have a longer history, going back to the WIL-RCP of the 1940s, and hence already had a real national public presence when large numbers of young people started looking to the left in the later 1960s-1970s.

Mike Macnair

Charlie Marks said...

Okay, Mike, to reframe it, can we say that all groups want to win a mass audience for socialist politics? If so there's no doubt the best way to do this is to have mergers:

One pluralist party containing all the tendencies.

Can we keep our different papers, perspectives, and peccadilloes - but work together in the same organization?

Andrew Coates said...

Carnival of Socialism ahs been cast into the utter darkness Phil.

We at the Tendance stand by our proud tradition of splitting!

ModernityBlog said...

Indeed Coatesy,

I thought that CoS was a worthwhile idea, that was until I saw a contribution in there praising Ahmadinijad.

I have tried to bring this problem to the attention of the CoS organiser without any response yet.

My initial point can be seen here,

I am rather disappointed.

Doloras LaPicho said...

I come from the same town as Bill Logan, guru maximo of the IBT, and when I was growing up the IBT were the only game in town on the radical left. At the tender age of 15, I came across one of their "abolish all age of consent laws!" pamphlets, and was successfully put off Marxism for more than a decade.

They might well be nicer in the sense of "not yelling in your face" than the Sparts, but they behave in a very amoral "we can do what we like because we're the revolutionary party" way in actual political action. And sadly their internal regime is nearly as creepily cultist as the Sparts.

I'm willing to field all questions.

Phil said...

Apols for not replying sooner.

Mike, there is a qualitative difference between the SP on the one hand, and the likes of the IBT and yourselves on the other, and it's got nothing to do with size. It's all about the relationship between theory and practice. For you comrades in the cpgb, IBT and so on your approach to Marxism is tied to a particular mode of practice. Often the Weekly Worker carries interesting and "high-level" articles on points of theory or history. What they do is educate your membership and develop them so they can intervene in your chosen area - which is the far left milieu. All this learning, all this sophistication is deployed in meetings organised by other left groups and in polemics with other left currents. That's fine and dandy if you're content in remaining a small group, but it's a closed loop of practice that does not allow your group to take hold of political opportunities that open in the wider political arena.

The SP and CWI reject this approach. Located on the landscape of British and world politics we are a propaganda group too, but we are a group that seeks to build the influence of Marxist ideas by orientating ourselves to the wider class. Of all the groups in Britain the SP's strength lies in our conscious attempt to relate to the class as a whole. This is why the SP stands peerless among British Trotskyism.

I would say Mike you have a rather idealist approach to differences between far left groups. If all the organisations in this milieu adopted the organising practice of the cpgb the problems of sectarianism, petty gurus and internecine warfare would still exist. Just look at the endless rounds of polemic between yourselves and the AWL. To the casual observer there's very little that separates you and yet your mutual hatefest is not dissimilar to that persisting between the IBT and Sparts. How to explain this if the problem is cultural?

Kapitano said...

Typical. I do a google blog search for "ultra left", looking for some far right nuttery to laugh at...and find your solid sensible blog instead.

I agree the IBT are quite sweet - especially compared to the parent ICL group, who don't seem to know how not to shout.

Harpal Brar may have been a mad old stalinist, but his group (the SPGP? I get them all mixed up after a while) have always been civil and helpful whenever I've asked them questions on demos.

I'm a reluctant SWPer - agree with most of the positions, distrust the leadership, think half the membership is slightly unhinged.

Once a tiny far left grouplet tried to infiltrate our branch, and move us from protesting the war to analysing the economy. It was painfully obvious from the start what they were doing, and they couldn't hold their own in a discussion on...anything much. But it was just so, well...charming.

The group? The RCPBML - and I'm sure you'll work out instantly what that stands for.

Phil said...

Cheers Kapitano - you're not the only cheesed off SWP'er I've spoken to lately! If you and your comrades ever get tired we in the SP would happily welcome you into our ranks ;)

ModernityBlog said...


you SPers need to be choosier :)

and if you do take in any SWPer at least make sure they get a political education!