History of the CWI
Building the sections
A dramatic growth in our international contacts was itself related, in the early part of the 1970s, to the big changes that were underway in the mass, traditional organisations of the working class. But the first extension of our influence came in Ireland. We recruited a young student in Britain who then went back to Northern Ireland on the eve of the explosive Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s. He, in turn, made contact with a new generation of youth, both Catholic and Protestant, around the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the city of Derry. I was invited to visit the North of Ireland in 1969. I arrived just a week before the explosive, almost revolutionary, events in Derry of August 1969. I was able to make contact and discuss with a number of young socialists at that time: John Throne, Bernadette Devlin (now McAlliskey), Cathy Harkin, Gerry Lynch and many others. We built a very important position, at that stage, amongst both Catholic and Protestant youth through the Derry Young Socialists. Later on, through our work at Sussex University, we recruited Peter Hadden who went back to Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and has played a decisive role in our section in the North and throughout Ireland in this period. Following these discussions I travelled south and met a group of youth who were members of the Southern Ireland Labour Party in Dublin. Unfortunately, most of them who proclaimed to be Marxists were absolutely unfitted for the task of building a powerful Marxist organisation. Nevertheless our work in the North of Ireland did, later on, lead to the establishment of an important presence in the South. This, in turn, led to the recruitment of what is now the leadership of the Irish section, comrades such as Dermot Connolly and Joe Higgins, who is now a Socialist Party TD.
At this stage, we did not just work through the different youth organisations in Europe but also in the international organisation of the social democratic youth, the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY). We came up against a youthful but extremely hardened group of careerists who had been groomed as future leaders of the mass social democratic parties. Their main aim was to occupy the plush offices and limousines of ministers in future social democratic governments. We represented a mortal threat to them. Compared to the Labour bureaucracy in Britain, these creatures were a much more vicious breed. Nevertheless, our young comrades attended every meeting, no matter how daunting or boring the task in confronting these young careerists, in the hope of turning up useful potential socialist and revolutionary fighters.
This paid off in 1972 when two of our comrades, Peter Doyle and Andy Bevan, were sent to the conference of the Social Democratic Youth in Sweden. There they met Arne Johansson and Anders Hjelm who were immediately recognised as kindred spirits of the British young socialists. Arne comments:
"The visit of the two representatives of the British Militant came just at the right time. There was a radicalisation amongst the social democratic youth in Sweden, with growing opposition towards the bureaucracy. At this stage we were part of a left faction within the Social Democratic Youth. We were well known, so much so that a social democratic bureaucrat even pointed out the British young socialists to us and said that our ideas were similar to theirs and that we should "discuss with them". This we did on the evening of the congress and found that we had a lot in common.
"We were concentrated in the city of Umea in the north of Sweden, in a loose left/Marxist discussion group. Without a doubt, unless we would have met Militant at this time, this organisation would have completely disintegrated. We were not politically homogenous. Nor was it preordained that we would automatically join Militant or what became the CWI. In fact, the representatives of the USFI, in the form of Pierre Frank, made determined efforts to win us. He travelled to Umea to address a meeting of our student group. I asked him if he knew of the British Militant. His riposte was short and brutal: "They are completely impotent."
"Roger Silverman, on behalf of the British Militant visited Sweden, engaged in very thorough discussions with us and helped to consolidate us on the political positions of the British comrades. We took steps to organise a serious Marxist force but one which was very, very small at that stage. On the other hand, the Swedish Social Democratic Youth was a large organisation and the bureaucracy had learned from the experience of Britain. They, therefore, very quickly moved to expel us from the SSU but this did not mean we were completely debarred from the party - you could be expelled from the SSU while still retaining membership of the social democracy. Nevertheless, the "loose left" in Umea and elsewhere disintegrated, although we won some very good comrades to our organisation.
"Undoubtedly, the 1970s was a difficult time for the Swedish Marxists and only by digging in and establishing firm roots, along with serious international contact, was it possible for us to survive this period. In effect, we could not pursue effective entry work as most of our forces were outside the SSU and, subsequently, outside the Social Democratic Party. In the creation of our organisation, we had to combat not just the ideas of reformism but the false ideas of the Mandelites in Sweden. Their attitude was that the revolutionary students were the new vanguard of the working class and they adopted an extremely sectarian attitude to anyone who did not agree with them. Only by correctly analysing the situation were we able to survive and to make serious progress in the course of the 1980s."
We had a similar, although different, situation in Germany. I had met a German comrade at the LPYS conference in 1971. He was soon recruited to our organisation and, in turn, attracted a layer of youth who travelled into our ranks. But if in Sweden we had arrived just in time, as Arne commented, this was not perhaps the case in Germany. Angela Bankert comments: "The CWI came a bit late to Germany. The radicalisation of the youth was well under way. This was reflected in the youth wing of the social democracy, the Jusos. Unfortunately, it was not genuine Marxism, in the form of our ideas and organisation, which successfully intervened in this situation, but Stalinist-influenced organisations."
In a different historical context of sharp crisis, of a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation, this position in Germany could have been fateful, as had been the case in the past in other countries. For instance, in Spain in the 1930s, the "Trotskyists" refused Trotsky's advice to enter the Spanish young socialists. But the Stalinists were not so "pure". They entered and won virtually the whole of the socialist youth which not only strengthened the Spanish Communist Party but resulted in the lost opportunity for Trotskyism to establish a mass base. The consequence was the isolation of the Trotskyists and the defeat of the Spanish revolution. Angela comments: "We intervened, with our very small forces at the beginning, just when this radical wave was beginning to recede. Nevertheless, there was a very keen audience for our ideas. At regional conferences of the Jusos and the party, with sometimes 300 people present, we could usually sell about 150 papers."
The Belgian section of the CWI was founded in 1974 again by "accident". Roger Silverman was on his way back to Britain and missed the boat from Belgium to Britain and was, therefore, compelled to stay overnight. He therefore looked up a contact from an LPYS conference and from this original introduction, a group of youth active within the Belgian social democracy came towards us and were eventually won over politically to our ideas.
François Bliki, who has participated in the Belgian section of the CWI almost since its inception, comments:
"If we would have been in touch with the CWI prior to the 1970s, it is no exaggeration to say that we would now be the largest section in the whole of the CWI, perhaps exceeding the numbers in the British section. There was tremendous turmoil within the workers' movement in the early 1970s. This was reflected in the social democracy with the shift towards the left, particularly by the youth. The biggest Trotskyist current at that stage was around Ernest Mandel's organisation, which refused to involve itself in this struggle within the social democracy. We were very young and inexperienced but, nevertheless, we had a big impact right from the beginning. In 1986 we organised a mass movement of 26,000 students in 25 different towns in Belgium. It was organised under the name of our organisation because the Belgian Young Socialists would not let us use their name. We made significant gains through the work we conducted within the social democracy.
"From an historical point of view, this work was entirely justified. But of course, conditions change. The split with the Grant group in 1992 was also felt in Belgium. This resulted in 32 comrades remaining with the majority and 30 with the minority. This minority merely repeated ideas from the past which were quite adequate for their time but had become completely outmoded by the change in the situation. Whereas they have stagnated, we have undergone a big growth. Now we have over 100 and they have 20, largely older, comrades with a stagnant membership.
"In 1995, there was a split from the Mandel group with the best of the comrades coming towards and joining our organisation. At that stage, the SI [the Belgian group linked to the British SWP] had 34 members. They actually approached the ex-Mandel group, led by a comrade who is now with us, but there was no question of him joining this organisation rather than us. Then in 1997, at a national meeting with 21 present, the London-based leadership of the SWP tried to impose their international "party line" [although not implemented in Britain] which meant that the members of the Belgian SI would have to enter and submerge themselves into the social democracy. This is against the background where the conditions for work within the social democracy no longer exist for a serious Marxist tendency. We approached them and had discussions with the 13 who voted against [it was a majority] and, subsequently, the majority of these comrades joined us. It was the comrades who left the Mandel group earlier, and who had been approached by the SI to join them, who now went and participated in persuading the Belgian SI to join our organisation."
April 1974 - CWI and Greece
By 1974 it was clear that the conditions were ripe to take the initiative in forming a properly structured international organisation. Big movements took place throughout Europe. The CWI was founded at a conference in London on 20/21 April 1974. Four days later, on 25 April, the Portuguese revolution exploded and we immediately intervened. Similar upheavals were to take place in Greece and Cyprus soon afterwards, and the Franco dictatorship was on its last legs in Spain.
The history of our International is one of ideas, of an attempt to work out the most effective strategy and tactics for the building of the forces of Marxism. With a small organisation it is always a question of concentrating all, or most, of your forces at the "point of attack". At that stage - the early 1970s - for us, that was clearly within the mass organisations which still retained the overwhelming support of the proletariat. In one case, Greece, we predicted the need to work in mass organisations even before they had been formally created. Almost as soon as the military junta had been overthrown in Greece in July 1974, our organisation outlined the perspective for the development of a mass socialist party. We argued that this inevitably arose from the situation following the overthrow of the junta, that would open the floodgates for the mass participation in politics which would inevitably take a new form to that which existed prior to the military coup in 1967. The new generation, in particular, was looking for a revolutionary road but was repelled by the parties which still clung to Stalinism. We identified the figure who would probably lead such a party - Andreas Papandreou. He had evolved from the leader of the "left" in the liberal bourgeois party, the Centre Union, prior to the seizure of power by the colonels into a radicalised socialistic opponent of the junta. And very quickly after he returned from exile, in September 1974, Papandreou took steps to organise a socialist party, PASOK, which rapidly attracted big layers of the youth and working class who were looking for a revolutionary alternative. Our ability to intervene in Greece arose from another "accidental" encounter with a Greek comrade in Britain. I happened to be speaking at an LPYS meeting in the west of London soon after the junta had seized power and a Greek comrade, a playwright who spoke little English, immediately identified us as ÔTrotskyistÕ. This comrade participated in the fringes of our organisation over a period of years. When he returned to Greece in 1973, and tried to re-enter Britain he was excluded by the authorities. This rather repressive measure against him turned out to be very fortuitous for us. He was there when the junta was overthrown and immediately made contact with a group of Trotskyists who had played a heroic role in the struggle against the dictatorship. He urged us to visit Greece, which we did shortly afterwards. At the end of 1974, I was able to win this group and another group to the CWI. The first group was led by Nicos Redoundos. Nicos still plays a vital role in Xekinima, our Greek organisation. Also, as we have explained elsewhere, we won a very important group of young socialists in Cyprus. Comrades Doros and Andros remain in our organisation and still play an important role. From the original group who joined us, Andros is now active in the leadership of the Greek organisation. We were able to carry through the fusion of the two groups in Greece which, for a period, worked quite effectively. Unfortunately, this unity did not last but, nevertheless, our organisation rose, at one stage, to a membership of 750. Moreover, it played quite a decisive role in the developments of the left in PASOK over a very important historical period. Now PASOK, alongside many of the other traditional parties of Western Europe, is in the process of abandoning its class base and, therefore, the task in Greece is to work as an independent organisation.
The CWI, right from its inception, was extremely energetic in intervening in any serious workers' movement. For instance, as soon as the Portuguese revolution broke out, both Bob Labi and Roger Silverman were on the streets of Lisbon distributing material hailing the revolution and outlining the perspective of what we considered was the likely development of events. For us it was not just a question of correct ideas but of ideas linked to action and intervention. A similar and very successful approach was adopted in relation to Spain. We have outlined in our book how we intervened in the Spanish situation. What is not generally realised is that there were many attempts to establish contact with Marxists and revolutionaries but they were not successful until we came across serious forces in 1974. Lynn Walsh, at a later stage, was also sent to see whether the CWI could make headway in Portugal. We then looked on any international contact, as we do today, as gold dust to be carefully nurtured and developed with the hope that this would lead on to much greater possibilities later on.
We called our international organisation the Committee for a Workers International for very good reasons. There were a number of "Internationals", all of whom maintained that they were "The" International. We did not want to go down this road. We, therefore, called ourselves a "Committee", for a future mass International. We used the word "Workers" because we wished to emphasise the central role of the proletariat, in contradistinction to others who based themselves on the peasantry, guerrillaist ideas or the students, as the "detonators" of the revolution.
Sri Lanka and India
And it was not just in Europe, where our main base was, that we began to have success. We had a very important Sri Lankan contact in London who was in touch was a big left opposition that was developing within the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). This was the largest Trotskyist party in the world, with a great revolutionary tradition, but whose leadership had moved in an opportunist direction by joining the popular fronts with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) after 1964. Through this Sri Lankan comrade, we made contact with this organisation led by Siritunga Jarysuriya (Siri), Vasudeva Nanayaika (Vasu), and Vickremabahu Karunaratne (Bahu). Accordingly, Ted Grant made a visit to Sri Lanka in 1976 which led to closer political relations with these comrades. He also made a visit to India to a much looser group of ÔMarxistsÕ who had come into contact with us. I subsequently visited Sri Lanka in 1977 and the tendency led by Siri, Vasu and Bahu were won to the CWI, bringing with them a significant group of workers numbering hundreds. In effect, all the best trade union leaders who were in the LSSP came over to this trend which constituted itself, after they were formally expelled from the LSSP, as the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP).
I also made a visit to India with Bahu after I visited Sri Lanka in April 1977. The discussions that we had with a group of "Marxists", based in Bangalore, proved to be completely abortive. This grouping of pseudo-intellectuals were welded into their armchairs, contemplating their navels even more than Buddha himself. We immediately turned our backs on them but, fortunately, made contacts with members of the former-Maoist mass Communist Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - the CPI(M). From the contacts we made in these discussions with very good, active workers in the unions and the CPI(M), we established the first basis of our Indian organisation. Roger Silverman subsequently made many visits to India and at one stage lived for quite a long period of time in the sub-continent.