The International Socialist Tendency 

Tony Cliff

The International Socialist Tendency (IST) is a network of revolutionary socialist organisations committed to the idea of working class self-emancipation, and to developing and extending the classical Marxist tradition pioneered by Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and others. Today, groups linked to the IST operate in about 20 countries worldwide, and we have supporters in many other countries.

Our Origins

Historically, the largest party in the IST was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain. This organisation originated as the Socialist Review Group (1950-1962), later becoming the International Socialists (1962-1977), before renaming itself the SWP in 1977. Tony Cliff, a Palestinian Jewish Marxist who arrived in Britain in 1946, founded the group with a small group of co-thinkers. Cliff is best known for developing his theory of “bureaucratic state capitalism” to describe the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe, departing from the mainstream of Trotskyism, which saw the Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state”. Cliff, by contrast, saw the Soviet Union after the Stalinist counterrevolution as a particular variant of capitalism, with the exploitation of workers and capitalist accumulation enforced by inter-imperialist rivalry between states at a global level. This analysis led to the slogan, used by the group during the Cold War: “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism”. 

Cliff drew around him a number of talented activists and theorists, such as Mike Kidron, Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman, and eventually co-thinkers in other countries, who helped to develop this analysis, creating a distinctive strand of Marxism that was critical of both Western “free market” capitalism and Stalinist state capitalism. Cliff’s theory of state capitalism did not simply have implications for the analysis of the Soviet Union. It meant rejecting the idea that capitalism could be overcome, or workers’ states created, through top-down processes, such as the creation of the Eastern European Stalinist regimes under the dominion of the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. This was one element in an attempt to reinvigorate a tradition of what another dissident Trotskyist, Hal Draper, dubbed: “socialism from below”. This involved reinstating the principle that only the working class could act as the agent of the social revolution needed to create a genuine socialist society. 

Cliff and in particular Kidron also developed an important analysis of the nature of the boom that was experienced by Western capitalism in the decades that followed the Second World War. This argued that waste expenditure, especially arms spending, had slowed down some of the crisis tendencies of capitalism, allowing it to enjoy a sustained period of expansion, and even to afford improvements to living standards for many workers in countries such as Britain. However, the analysis also argued that the drive towards crisis inherent in capitalism would ultimately reassert itself. This allowed the group Cliff and Kidron were building to reject both the apocalyptic predictions of imminent capitalist collapse that circulated among many Trotskyist groups and the idea, popular among left-wing reformists, that capitalism had overcome its crisis tendencies altogether. Initially, the group worked within youth organisations connected to the Labour Party and movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to expand its membership. In 1960 it had been a discussion group of about 60 people. By 1967, it was a group of about 400, mostly students and young people but including some industrial militants. The painstaking early work to expand the membership paid off in 1968, a year marked by student revolts, rebellion by Black people in the US, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and, in May, the largest ever general strike in France. The group now had enough members to try to relate to the explosion of struggle that year, not simply recruiting students but also using its new weekly newspaper, Socialist Worker, to build an audience among workers. By the end of the year, the organisation had grown into a small revolutionary party of about one thousand members, with a tighter internal structure allowing it to intervene more effectively in the struggles taking place.

As the organisation grew it began to form links with other revolutionary groups elsewhere in the world with a similar approach and outlook. The leaderships of these groups began to meet, usually around the SWP’s summer “Marxism” event in London, with the network eventually becoming known as the International Socialist Tendency. As well as sharing and seeking to develop the theoretical outlook pioneered by Cliff and his collaborators, these groups each sought to develop a non-sectarian approach to forging revolutionary socialist organisation. That approach involves: 

 

A Network Rather than a New “International”

The IST does not have the pretention of being a new “International” in the sense of the First, Second or Third Internationals in which Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky participated. 

The first two Internationals involved mass organisations—millions of members were affiliated with them. The collapse of the Second International into reformism, which become clear when many of its component parties offered support to their own ruling classes during the First World War, led Lenin and Trotsky to launch the Third International, known as the Comintern. They did so in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the first successful proletarian revolution to take power on a national basis. This organisation was also able, as a result, to draw in forces with a mass membership.

Trotsky’s Fourth International, by contrast, was born out of a moment of defeat. It reflected the degeneration of the Third International under its Stalinist leadership and the catastrophe of the Nazi victory in Germany. Unfortunately, the forces available to Trotsky when the Fourth International was founded in 1936 were tiny by comparison with those drawn into earlier Internationals. Moreover, its political outlook was based around Trotsky’s perspective in the run-up to the Second World War: that the post-war world would see a deep and protracted economic crisis eroding the hold of reformism, that Stalinism was an unstable phenomenon and that the Second World War, like the First, would end amid revolutions.

In reality, the post-war world saw the beginning of a sustained boom for capitalism and the extension of Soviet power into Eastern Europe. Stalinism and social democracy were strengthened. The upheavals accompanying the end of the war were contained. The forces of the Fourth International remained tiny. Not only did they tend to cling to Trotsky’s pre-war analysis, but they were also relatively isolated from the mass workers’ struggles that drive the growth and political revitalisation of revolutionary socialist organisations. Since the Second World War the Fourth International has fractured and split many times, around various ideological and organisational disputes, with a range of groups claiming the mantel of the international or seeking to establish a “fifth international”. 

The IST claims no self-ordained right to lead the masses to the overthrow of capitalism. Such a right must be earned through political practice. It does not proclaim itself a democratic centralist “world party of revolution”. Today, no revolutionaries anywhere possess the authority that comes with having led a successful socialist revolution. We are instead a network of revolutionaries with a common theoretical approach and a shared history, based in the class struggle in our respective countries. 

While we may share initiatives, ideas, advice, and so on, each of our affiliated parties has its own leadership and pursues the tactics appropriate to its own situation. Each group aspires to create mass revolutionary parties in its own country, but we understand that at any given time the state of the class struggle and the existing array of political forces present in society may lead to differences of organisational approach. Some groups within the IST are able to operate as small revolutionary organisations, seeking to develop a range of political initiatives and lead workers’ struggles across a variety of terrains. Some are, as yet, relatively small groups still developing their capacity to intervene successfully at a national level. Others operate as independent revolutionary currents within broader left organisations, with a view to developing the influence of our ideas and ultimately creating mass revolutionary parties. Whatever the context, these groups seek to prove their relevance to working class people in their respective country through providing leadership in the political and economic struggles of the class, and through developing and revitalising the Marxist theory that can guide and inform these struggles.

A new International is desirable, but it can only be created through large-scale revolutionary struggle. Out of this struggle, sizeable parties, rooted within the working class and capable of challenging the capitalist state, and with the authority necessary to lead such a movement, will be born.

IST groups have nevertheless made a number of coordinated initiatives. This began with the emergence of a new anti-capitalist movement contesting neoliberal globalisation after the Seattle protests of November 1999. We worked together, for example, in promoting the development of the European Social Forum, notably at its first meeting at Florence in November 2002, which acted as the launch pad for the global day of protest against the invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003. The SWP had already been one of the driving forces in launching the Stop the War Coalition after the 9/11 attacks. It, alongside its sister organisations elsewhere, worked together with other left forces both to build the anti-war movement in their own countries and to promote joint international initiatives. In recent years we have built on this to work together in building mass united fronts to combat the rise of racism and fascism, and to promote solidarity with migrants and refugees. This work draws on the experience of the Anti- Nazi League in Britain from the 1970s onward, along with the more recent work of KEERFA in Greece and United Against Fascism in Britain, which have been able to confront the threat from rising neo-Nazi groups.

Membership of the IST

There are currently groups that are part of the IST in a range of countries, including Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Austria, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ghana, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, the Spanish state, Turkey, the US and Zimbabwe; we also have groups of supporters in broader organisations such as the New Anticapitalist Party in France and the Left Party in Germany. In other countries we have smaller groups of supporters who share our outlook. A full, up-to-date list of affiliated organisations is available on our website.

The leaderships of IST groups continue to meet once a year, usually in London in summer. Between these meetings, representatives of a smaller number of groups, known as the “IST Coordination”, chosen to reflect the range of experiences and geographical spread of the IST, meet electronically to talk about how best to coordinate our work and to share our experiences. Although most of the initiatives we take are based in our respective countries, the IST does maintain a website, publish statements and organise occasional meetings, and we have over a range of issues coordinated our work, particularly since the late 1990s, as described above.

Getting Involved

We are sometimes approached by organisations who want to work with the IST. We welcome this. However, we know from experience that it is not enough simply to share a set of formal theoretical ideas. In order to collaborate effectively we also have to developing an understanding of one another’s political practice and overall approach to the struggle for socialism. We are as interested in what groups are doing to engage with and develop the class struggle in their own country as whether they agree with our body of theory. 

In general, cooperation over a period of time, sharing speakers or articles, discussions of common struggles, and so on, are important pre-requisites to any request to join the IST. We encourage other organisations and individuals to translate our works and republish them and to share the statements produced by the IST, even if they are not formally affiliated to the IST. If organisations ask to join the IST, this decision is made by our annual gathering. 

More information about the IST can be found on our website: http://internationalsocialists.org/