Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party, and one of the founding members of the cwi, spoke to Tanja Niemeier.
April 2004 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Committee for a Workers’ International (cwi). To mark the event, we carry below an interview with Peter Taaffe, a founding member of the cwi and the General Secretary of the Socialist Party (cwi in England and Wales).
The cwi has members, sections and sympathising groups in 40 countries across the world. They are engaged in day-to-day struggles to counter the attacks of the bosses and the ruling governments on the living standards of the working class, the youth and the poor. At the same time, the cwi explains that the struggle – in order to be successful – should not only be led against the effects of capitalism but against the capitalist system as a whole.
The interview below by Tanja Niemeier with Peter Taaffe looks at the reasons why the cwi was founded in 1974.
During 2004, socialistworld.net will publish more articles to mark the cwi 30th anniversary, including a more in-depth history of the cwi. We will also reprint articles on important political events from the last 30 years and on the highlights of the work of the cwi.
30th anniversary of the cwi
Tanja: Peter, you are one of the co-founders of the cwi. Can you tell us against what political and social background the cwi was launched in 1974?
Peter: It took place at a time when explosive events were under way – a period of revolutionary and semi-revolutionary events.
The whole political landscape was still affected by the revolutionary events of France 1968. More than 10 million workers and students had taken part in a general strike and the president of the time, Charles de Gaulle, had fled the country. Ruling elites around the world feared that France was lost for capitalism.
In the same year, we saw the uprising against Stalinism by the people in Czechoslovakia, which was brutally crushed by the Russian Stalinist state forces.
The period was also dominated by the momentous movement against the Vietnam War, within the USA and internationally.
Only a few days after we held the founding meeting of the cwi, the revolution in Portugal broke out, which brought down the brutal dictatorship of Caetano.
It was a time of massive youth movements, but also of political ferment in the trade unions and the workers’ parties.
Tanja: Why was it necessary, from your point of view, to set up a new International at that point in time?
Peter: We were very careful not to call ourselves “the” International but the ‘Committee for a Workers’ International’ because we were not (and still are not) an International with a mass presence in the working class. We had an honest assessment of our own forces. At the same time, it was, and is, our task to help to build such an International. Our goal was an International that had strong roots in the working class, comparable to those of the Second and Third Internationals. It is not possible here to go into why those Internationals failed to establish socialism but we have explained the reasons in detail in our pamphlet, ‘History of the cwi’ [see under ‘cwi Publications’].
The main reason to start building a new international force thirty years ago was the lack of clarity on the part of the other international organisations that existed, in relation to programme and method. In our opinion, they were not capable of providing explanations and perspectives for the new world situation which was unfolding.
Tanja: What differentiated the cwi, with its relatively small forces at that time, from the other Internationals?
Peter: First and foremost, it was our political clarity and our perspectives. We differed from others who referred to themselves as Marxists or claimed to be Trotskyists on a number of key questions. Obviously, if those fundamental differences did not exist, there would have been no need for a separate organisation.
We had fundamental differences on the role and importance of the working class in the struggle for the socialist transformation of society. In our opinion, the working class was, and is, the decisive factor. Because of its importance in the process of production, the working class is the only force capable of changing society in a socialist direction. It is the working class which produces all the goods and wealth in society. If they took control over the means of production and distribution, and therefore also over the wealth that is produced, all the enormous resources could be used in the interests of the working class, instead of benefiting the capitalists. However, other Trotskyist organisations believed that populist, middle-class movements – guerilla movements or the peasants, for instance – had taken on the role of transforming society.
Tanja: If you look back today, what do you think has been the biggest challenge for the cwi so far?
Peter: To constantly clarify and sharpen our ideas, and then to translate them into the language of the working class, to relate them to the real level of understanding of the working class and young people, in particular.
Another challenge, obviously, has been to intervene in the movements that have taken place and to start to build significant forces in the different countries across the world.
Tanja: Can you give us some examples of what the cwi has achieved in the past 30 years?
Peter: I find it very difficult to single out just a few examples. The cwi has now got a presence in 40 countries. In some countries, we have got sizeable groupings; in some countries we are still small. Nevertheless, we have initiated important struggles.
In Nigeria, where we have the second largest organisation of the cwi, the DSM [Democratic Socialist Movement], our comrades have been crucial in organising resistance against the horrendous rises in fuel prices. These have led to a big decrease in the living standards of the masses in Nigeria and to more than one general strike.
Sri Lanka is a country divided along ethnic lines, where on both the Tamil and the Sinhalese sides different groupings try to stir up the divisions. Our members – at the risk of their lives – have stood courageously, over decades, for the unity of the working class and the right of self-determination of the oppressed Tamil-speaking people. We are the only organisation that produces a paper in both Tamil and Sinhala.
In Brazil, discontent with the president, Lula, and the Workers’ Party (PT), is growing, because of Lula’s failure to take on the rich and the international capitalist institutions. Our comrades in Socialismo Revolucionario [cwi in Brazil] are now involved in the leadership of the movement to set up a new workers’ party.
In Germany, it was our organisation that was crucial in initiating the first national demonstration against the massive attacks by the Schroeder government on the welfare state and the living standards of the working class. That demonstration in Berlin, last autumn, attracted 100,000 people and sparked off a wave of protests throughout the country.
In Ireland, our section – the Socialist Party [SP] – won a victory in the campaign against the introduction of water charges. This laid the basis for the subsequent election of Joe Higgins to the Irish Parliament. We have since led the campaign against bin charges, in which Joe and SP Councillor Clare Daly, along with other protesters, were imprisoned for fighting against these unfair taxes on the poorest sections of society. This marked a significant step in building our party in Ireland and also for the whole of the cwi.
In Britain, we were an important part of the council leadership in Liverpool, 20 years ago, that set an historic example of [carrying out] socialist policies in practice. At one stage, we had three MPs who all openly adhered to the ideas of Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party –cwi in England and Wales). The Liverpool struggle was a dress rehearsal for what we did in the Anti-Poll Tax campaign; a mass movement of non-payment which was led by us and which not only defeated the tax but also brought down Thatcher. We could give many other examples of significant initiatives undertaken by sections of the cwi.
Tanja: What is the biggest task for the cwi in the next period?
Peter: To win over the new generation to Marxist and Trotskyist ideas. Events are certainly helping us in that respect. The Iraq war has exposed the character of US imperialism.
The economic situation in Europe, and the world, is radicalising the working class and young people in Europe. The recent events in Spain are an indication of how quickly the mood can change. Within a matter of days after the horrible attack on commuter trains in Madrid, the grief of the population turned into anger against Aznar’s conscious attempt to fool people by blaming ETA for the attacks. Subsequently, this led to the defeat of his party in the elections and the coming to power of PSOE. These events are still related to the start of the Iraq War, one year ago.
The consequences of major events are always a bit delayed. We could still see a situation unfolding that could bring down both Blair and Berlusconi. It is still not certain, but Bush could be defeated at the end of the year, which would be seen as a victory for the anti-war movement internationally. There could be a clean sweep of all the warmongers who created the horrific situation in Iraq.
Out of the radicalisation that develops, the need will be felt for political action by the working class. The transformation of the former workers’ parties into bourgeois parties has created a huge vacuum on the left. We have to try to direct the working class to filling this vacuum by creating new mass parties of the working class.
Tanja: In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between 30 years ago and today?
Peter: There are a number of differences. In 1974, when the cwi was set up, the post-war world economic upswing had not been completely exhausted. That only came later with the oil shock and the crisis of 1974/75, which marked a turning point in the developments of world capitalism.
The consciousness of the working class was also different, especially that of its guiding layers who, in general, looked for a socialist alternative. The debate then concentrated on what kind of socialism there would be and what programme was needed to achieve it.
The debate is different today because of the collapse of Stalinism. On the one hand, it meant the end of authoritarian regimes, but, on the other hand, a return to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This strengthened the ruling class, at least ideologically. They conducted a struggle against socialism and socialist ideas, and had some success in doing this. The leaders of the Social Democracy capitulated and, as a result, consciousness was thrown backwards.
However, that situation could not last. We see today that consciousness is starting to come to terms with the economic reality that the majority of people are facing. There is huge anger and a growing awareness of the fact that capitalism does not work. Especially over the past two or three years or so, we have seen a revival of the class struggle in many countries across the globe. However, those struggles still lack a mass political expression.
We are confident that the working class in the next period will begin to re-establish its own political organisations and will re-discover the ideas of socialism. The cwi wants to play a major role to assist those developments and wants to help build a socialist society free of war, poverty and environmental disasters.