Two organisations emerged as splits from the Socialist Workers’ Party during its crisis over the Martin Smith sexual assault dispute: the International Socialist Network and Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21).
Neither organisation seems to have engaged, as an organisation, in serious discussion about the theory and politics of the SWP, or the political basis for building something better.
Both have attracted, relative to their size, a fairly significant number of new members who were not in the SWP. Whereas RS21 seems to have integrated them through more consistent activity based on maintaining a modified SWPish line, the ISN as an organisation has failed to develop any solid political positions. The result is repeated splits and withdrawals over odd political issues, and organisational paralysis.
On the other hand, the sheer diversity of political positions in ISN has, as it turns out, made it a home for some comrades who seem to be trying to think critically about the world and appear open to serious discussion.
This is in contrast to ex-SWP majorities of both organisations, who maintain that political discussion with the AWL is out of the question. In RS21, this has the status of a firm official position with at least some sway, both administrative and ideological, over all members – though some individuals have been willing to meet informally to discuss particular issues.
In addition to its ex-SWP majority, the ISN has attracted a few former members of Workers Power — some who split with Permanent Revolution in 2006 and some who left in 2013. It has also attracted a number of younger comrades, students and ex-students, in Birmingham, who organise through a joint local branch with the “autonomist” group Plan C. Other new ISNers include the long-active leftist Steve Freeman, now the loudest advocate of Scottish nationalism within the English left.
Many of these people are very active as individuals or as small groups – the Birmingham people are active in student struggles and in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, and the ex-WP people in the Lambeth labour movement. But unsurprisingly, the ISN has little activity as the ISN.
On many of the big political issues – Europe, Scottish nationalism, the general election, the Labour Party, political Islam, feminism and identity politics – the ISN contains a wild variety of positions. Rather than discussions to sort them through, however, what has happened has been periodic rows and withdrawals, particular in connection with question of oppression and identity. This seems to be a result of two legacies, reaction against what happened in the SWP and the culture of identity politics in the student movement.
Some comrades obviously want more discussion, but the ISN as such does not seem to be providing it.
There also seems to be a tendency for some in the ISN to state political positions in terms of advocating positions for Left Unity. Given the state of Left Unity, this is unlikely to help develop clear or worthwhile strategy or tactics for the organisation. (One element in this may be the fact that a number of ISNers are active in the Lambeth Left Unity branch, which is more healthy.)
At the ISN conference in January, a minority favoured merger with RS21 (and a number have already joined, on paper dual-carding), a smaller minority literally favoured giving up, and a majority voted to continue for now, but without a clear plan of what to do or what to discuss.
It seems very likely that sooner or later the ISN will fold, with its members going in different directions.
RS21 is doing better. Through the Defend the Right to Protest campaign, it recently played a central role in organising an extremely successful speaker tour with an activist from the Black Lives Matter movement against state racism and violence in the US. It has at least one large and active student group, at Oxford University. Some of its members and sympathisers there have recently become active in NUS and in the NCAFC.
On the other hand publication of RS21’s magazine, supposed to come out at least quarterly, has stalled. It has had some splits too. The RS21 website prominently advertised the 15 February Greece Solidarity demonstration in London, but RS21 was not visible on the day (or on any other demonstration we can remember off-hand, since the July 2014 People’s Assembly march). So it is not clear that it is flourishing. Unlike the ISN, however, it seems it will be around for a while.
Unfortunately, this stabilisation has been on the basis of maintaining SWP-type politics. On the questions of European unity and Syriza, the organisation made some tentative steps to begin a discussion, but this seems to have gone nowhere. On Scotland, it has stuck with a nationalist line.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killing, RS21 has taken a comprehensively soft-on-Islamism position, use true facts about capitalism and the big Western powers to present Islamism as pretty much simply a reaction to imperialism and the Paris killers as “individuals... inevitably go[ing] over the edge”.
Knee-jerk anti-AWL stuff, also maintained from the SWP, is frustrating. Nonetheless, what is needed is to more attempts to work and discuss with these organisations and their members.
As far as we can tell, previous “unity discussions” between ISN, RS21 and other organisations collapsed fundamentally because they did not actually discuss the political basis for revolutionary unity. Fundamentally, that is what is needed to sort out the revolutionary left.