The CWO: past, present and future (Text by the Aberdeen and Edinburg seceders)

Printer-friendly version

The following has been written by the comrades of Aberdeen and Edinburg sections of the Communist Workers' Organization, who left CWO last July. The text points to some of the crucial problems faced by the revolutionary movement today, namely, the question of regroupment and the task of revolutionaries. from this standpoint, the text is a poignant testimony of a negative experience of the present proletarian movement. The CWO, a revolutionary group in Britain, was formed in 1975 fundamentally as an ‘anti-ICC' organization and to provide an ‘alternative pole of regroupment' internationally. Its subsequent splits and sectarian evolution confirm that revolutionaries cannot evade their responsibilities to the re-emerging class struggle, to the crying need of the proletariat to create for itself afirm, coherent and active pole of revolu­tionary clarification. Being one of the most vital weapons of the class, the future party of the class can only be forged if today revolutionaries understand the need to "... become aware of the :immense responsi­bilities which they have, to abandon the false quarrels which separate them, to sur­mount the deceptive divisions which the old world has imposed on them" (ICC, Manifesto, 1976). This is the spirit which permeates the text of the ex-CWO comrades.

We are presenting this text as part of a continuous effort to broaden out the lessons that the proletariat can learn from this and similar experiences. It is the break in organic continuity with the revolutionary movement developed in the last proletarian wave (1917-23) which helps explain many of the hesitations and confusions on the cruc­ial question of regroupment. It is perhaps on this issue that the present movement shows the greatest immaturity, the greatest disorientation.

The text by the Aberdeen/Edinburgh comrades presented here is not a complete version.For reasons of space we were forced to delete the first sections, dealing mainly with general questions of class consciousness, the development of class lines by the hist­orical workers' movement, the way that the movement of history appears to the communist minorities and the confusions of the CWO on these theoretical and practical questions. The parts that are included deal more with the history of the CWO and its present and future orientation, drawing out some of the important lessons from this experience. The complete text can be obtained from: M. Gavin, 27 Ashvale Place, Aberdeen, Scotland; or from the address of the ICC in Britain, BM Box 869, London WC1V 6xx.

Finally, the introduction of the comrades themselves speaks eloquently for the whole approach and concerns of their document:

A statement from the seceders

"On 31 July 1977, the Aberdeen and Edinburgh sections of the CWO split from that organization. Ostensibly the reason for the split was disagreement over the class nature of the International Communist Current, the Aberdeen and Edinburgh members maintaining, in opposition to the rump of CWO, that the ICC were not only part of the communist movement but were in fact a pole of regroupment of that movement. The split, unfortunately, took place very speedily, long before the arguments had been given time to mature. This text is an attempt to re­dress that. What began as an empirical defense of the communist nature of the ICC has deepened and broadened into a theoretical analysis of the nature of the whole proletarian movement, the meaning and function of class lines and, most difficult of all, the question of organi­zation and the regroupment of revolutio­naries.

This document is a conscious effort to participate in and contribute to the pro­cess of clarification and regroupment which has been taking place internation­ally throughout the past few years. We have no doubt that the ICC is the focus of this regroupment. The text also attempts to locate the CWO's inability to participate in this process within a critique of the theoretical confusions of the CWO and its consequently erroneous practice. If the tone is sharp, that is in the nature of polemical works. The intent is fraternal. We write in the hope that the comrades who remain within the CWO will be able to overcome their political confusions and take their right­ful place within the communist movement."

We have no doubt that this discussion will strengthen the whole proletarian movement today, because the lessons have international implications as to how to lessen the inevit­able pangs that the proletarian resurgence will confront as it unifies its forces to finally annihilate the capitalist order.


The CWO: Past, Present and Future

Unable to understand the class movement and its political expressions the CWO has no basis for understanding its own past and in fact, throughout its history, has shown a marked reluctance to even try. By July 1977 in two successive splits, it had lost 75 per cent of its membership leaving only a rump of a few comrades and had lost virtually all contact with other political groups. Yet it is only now and with ‘reluctance' that, any public response has been made and even this attempt to deal with its own history has only been produced to forestall "hostile political tendencies already embarked upon the jobs". An account of the CWO's history is underta­ken here by us to substantiate our analysis that in theory and in practice the CWO is a fundamentally sectarian organization.




By the end of the sixties capitalism's post­war boom was grinding to a halt and the pro­letariat throughout the globe was beginning once again to take the offensive. The inev­itable reflection of this was the emergence of political fractions of the class strugg­ling to achieve clarity on their own nature and on the tasks facing them. Both the fractions which were to become the CWO (Revo­lutionary Perspectives and Workers' Voice) participated in this process. Although the article ‘Two Years of the CWO' in the latest Revolutionary Perspectives describes quite accurately the organizational outcome of this process -- the formation of the ICC and the fusion of RP and WV -- the political achievements of this process are completely ignored. Although the CWO choose to forget it, it was within this process that the fundamentals which communists defend today were first systematically elaborated in the present period; viz the concept of capita­list decadence and all the political conse­quences which flow from it and just as impor­tantly, the reaffirmation of the vital necessity of the existence of a single centralized class party. The central role which Revolution Internationale, now the French section of the ICC, and Internationalism, now the American section of the ICC, played in this process, is just not mentioned and neither is the debt which the CWO owes for its pre­sent level of clarity. For example, com­rades constituting RP entered the process with no clear concept of decadence, belie­ving that the Russian Revolution was bour­geois and having little understanding of the meaning and function of a communist organization. However, understandably, the CWO might find itself embarrassed if it were to acknowledge that the bulk of the class positions they defend today were der­ived largely from organizations they charac­terize as bourgeois. (Or are they only bourgeois now anal weren't then?) However, it would be wrong to portray the RP elements as playing nothing but a passive role in this process. All the fractions which part­icipated were more or less confused and to a greater or lesser degree all contributed. That is the reality of the proletarian movement that the CWO now chooses to deny.

The central focus of the process of clarifi­cation rapidly became the question of organi­zation and regroupment. The groups which were clearest on this, who understood the necessity of international regroupment around the emerging class lines, in theory and in practice, coalesced to form, initial­ly the International Tendency and eventually the ICC. That the IT/ICC was the pole of regroupment was initially clearly recognized by RP. "In this period the pole of coher­ence was undoubtedly WR and the Internatio­nal Tendency to which you belong" (letter from RP to WR, December 1974).

This same letter makes quite clear that RP's political genesis was not for the fundamen­tal purpose of taking up the totality of communist tasks in the way that the ICC had formed around class lines but was in fact an organizational device to facilitate entry into the ICC, though the contradictions in­volved in forming one organization in order to join another appear to have been missed by the members of RP:

"... On our subsequent decision to write a Platform together; this was undertaken as a step towards integration in the International Tendency. To quote from a letter we sent to WR (2 September 1974): ‘We are considering the possibility of beginning to relate to WR as a collective and to work towards fusion collectively'."

In other words, RP owes its very birth to an attempt to identify itself vis-a-vis the ICC. This passage also makes nonsense of the CWO's claim in ‘Two Years of the CWO' that it was ridiculous of the ICC "to claim to be the kernal of the future communist party" since at the beginning RP quite clearly recognized it as such.

However, very rapidly, RP began to discover ‘barriers' to the process of regroupment on which they had embarked. The main problems put forward were the question of the econo­mic foundations of decadence, the question of a rigorous analysis of the last revolu­tionary wave, particularly in Russia, the problem of the proletarian state in the period of transition and the question of proletarian ‘bastions' mediating with the international bourgeoisie. RP was not the only group which failed to grapple with the organizational question. Other groups also began to resist regroupment and to draw away from the ICC -- Union Ouvriere, PIC, WV, the Revolutionary Workers' Group (US), etc. In this situation RP began consciously to attempt to function as an alternative pole of regroupment. The only group succes­sfully attracted was WV. Fusion took place in September 1975 and the CWO was formed. Within a short but crisis-ridden year the CWO had split into its original two constit­uents. In ‘Two Years of the CWO' the explanation is stated to be: "In the context of a temporary relaxation of the crisis in early 1976, the re-employment of many of the members (WV) and a trickle of sectional strikes in Merseyside."

All this leading the Liverpool members back into their bad old ouvrierist ways! This account is not only a travesty of reality but is also a travesty of the clarity with which the CWO was once able to view the whole sorry business. "It was felt that the old WV had never accepted the politics of the fusion, rather they used RP as a shield against the ICC" (extract from minutes of CWO meeting no.5, 9 October 1976).

In other words, the original regroupment had been fundamentally different from the process of regroupment which had given birth to the ICC; instead its only function was an attempt to form an anti-ICC in the manner of the mediaeval anti-Popes. That the regroup­ment was profoundly not on the basis of a greater programmatic coherence than the ICC is proved in the words of the CWO itself, talking of the fusion meeting at which the Platforms of both WV and RP were discussed:

"In retrospect the two main areas of disagreement or incoherence ... 1. The Russian Revolution; 2. The economics of decadence can be seen as a symptom of lack of sufficient coherence." (Text by the Aberdeen section, ‘Crisis in the CWO')

The disagreement on Russia consisted of a general difficulty within WV of recognizing the Bolsheviks as a proletarian expression and in particular, one member didn't even accept the revolution itself as a proletarian event! The problem over economics was that by and large WV had no economic analysis; what there was had been cribbed from RP.

In Revolutionary Perspectives, no.8, the regroupment is described as taking place with ‘misgivings' on the part of RP. This is a pathetic description compared to the one already expressed by the CWO in ‘Crisis in the CW0'. In attempting to account for the crises which racked it: "We would argue that this was the result of ... a political dishonesty of almost unbelievable level on the part of RP."

All this was taking place at a time when the CWO were intransigently denouncing the ICC for their opportunism in regroupment and their alleged willingness to water down political agreement in order to expand! (It is to be noted that disagreements over anal­ysis of the Russian Revolution and over economics presented no barriers to regroup­ment in this case.)

With hindsight it is easy to see that the eventual disintegration was implicit in the fusion itself since the political dynamic of the new organization was essentially an unreal one. The focus of regroupment was not coherence on the class lines and the tasks of a communist group but mutual hos­tility to the ICC. Even before this regroup­ment took place the sectarianism implicit in RP began to take tangible shape. In February 1975 the ‘Open Letter to the ICC' (RP, no.8) was drawn up. In this letter the theoretical cul-de-sac RP was building for themselves first saw the light of day. RP's dividing lines which had hitherto been areas for discussion between communist groups were now characterized as ‘class lines'.

"For us it is a class line to advocate any state outside the workers' councils or to advocate anything but the with­drawal of proletarian bastions from the world market." (our emphasis)


"For us, Kronstadt, the March Action, Frontism, or the NEP, constitute the definitive demise of the IIIrd Interna­tional and any discussion that goes be­yond is a discussion with the counter­revolution." (original emphasis)

The final conclusion, the counter-revolutionary nature of the ICC was avoided however on the grounds that their ‘errors' were ‘subjective'. But in RP, no.4 in ‘The Convulsions of the ICC' the process reached its logical conclusion. The ‘errors' were no longer subjective and the ICC was decla­red to be a bourgeois organization on the grounds that:

a. they didn't regard 1921 as the final de­mise of the Russian Revolution;

b. being wrong on the class nature of the Trotskyist Left Opposition;

c. advocating that a revolutionary bastion mediate with the peasantry and the inter­national bourgeoisie.

and with that the trap clanged shut.

The logic made so explicit in the CWO's relationship with the ICC was implicit in its relationships with other groups. Not surprisingly by mid-1977, the CWO's isola­tion was, to all intents and purposes com­plete. It was this situation which formed the background to the events which led to the members of the CWO from Aberdeen and Edinburgh splitting from the, CWO and re­orienting ourselves towards the ICC. Inevi­tably this process was a difficult and pain­ful one. That is implicit in any split within the communist movement and also in any struggle for clarity. Our initial attempts to overcome the sectarian trap the CWO (with our help) had backed itself into were unavoidably hesitant and confused. The initial document ‘Class Lines and Organiza­tion' (see RP, no.8) which we produced for discussion within the CWO was an expression of this. It was basically an attempt to defend the communist nature of the ICC by trying to accommodate them within the total­ity of the CWO's monument of sectarianism. It was only with great difficulty that we became clear that the problem was not that the CWO had misinterpreted the ICC but that the CWO's model for understanding the com­munist movement and the function of class lines was at fault. By isolating that text and treating it in RP, no.8, in ‘Two Years of the CWO' as a finished product rather than as the first step in a process, the CWO conveniently managed to side step the political questions posed by the split.

Not only was the text an early expression of the process in which we were engaged but the split and the manner in which it took place were so also. The split occurred after only two meetings and one text from either side. With hindsight we can see that we were guilty of the very monolithism and rigidity with which we were indicting the CWO. It would obviously have been more valuable and productive to have attempted to remain within the CWO so that our subse­quent development could have occurred within the CWO instead of outside it and against it (though doubtless our expulsion would have been fairly rapid). In splitting with such rapidity we abdicated our respon­sibility to our comrades who remained.

CWO: The Present

The events of the past year and the increas­ingly isolated position of the CWO have obviously left their mark. Even before the latest split discussions were taking place to attempt to understand and overcome this isolation. The latest split has accelerated the process. However, lacking both the capacity and the willingness for self-analysis, the CWO's attempt to understand their decline and fall in RP, no.8 can only present a picture of a seemingly hostile world at which they stare with an equal mix­ture of self-righteous truculence and genuine bewilderment. We are presented with an explanation which is no more than a description:

"The second year of the CWO was marked by a tendency towards isolation caused by a. the departure of certain interna­tional contacts whose sympathies lay with the Liverpool ouvrierists (in Australia, USA); b. the success of the ICC in winning over wavering individuals who shared some of our views (eg Belgium); c. the increa­sing toll the lull in the crisis and class struggle took of revolutionary groups."

Their analysis of both splits is basically identical, locating the reason in a combina­tion of the immediate level of the crisis and the personal and political inadequacy of individual members. In Liverpool's case an outbreak of local strikes lured them back into their ouvrierist ways. But in any case they never really accepted the CWO's politics (see quote above from Group Report, no.5). In the case of Aberdeen/Edinburgh a downturn in the struggle produced demora­lization and an unwillingness to accept the political burdens (see ‘Two Years of the CWO', p.37). In any case Aberdeen/Edin­burgh never really accepted the CWO's poli­tics either: " ... it's clear that you have not rejected the CWO's positions; indeed, what is clear is that you have never under­stood many of them" (letter from the CWO to Aberdeen/Edinburgh, 19 September 1977).

(If nothing else, the discovery that in little more than a year 75 per cent of the members of the only communist organization in the world didn't really qualify for membership should give the CWO some food for thought.) In this way the CWO has attempted to theorize its isolation and disintegra­tion in terms which placed responsibility firmly outside the CWO itself. If the CWO admits responsibility at all for any of it, it is merely at the level of their ‘naivety' and "insufficiently thorough propaganda work" ... (RP, no.8, p.54). Never for a moment is the notion entertained that their situation might be due to the contradic­tions inherent in their theory and practice.

The logic implicit in the condemnation of the ICC as counter-revolutionary was, under the impetus of the latest split, developed explicitly by the CWO to what must be its end point. That is, to be part of the pro­letarian movement an organization must de­fend a body of class lines which amount to the totality of the CWO's Platform. (The CWO have on occasion stated that economics are not a class line but past practice seems to deny this or at least to suggest that it presents an insurmountable barrier to regroupment (see the PIC document in RP, no.8 and Milan document in a pamphlet on the Milan Conference called by Battaglia Comunista). Any organization failing to defend the totality of these positions is, by definition, bourgeois. Since, at the present, only the remaining members of the CWO defend this totality, logically all other political expressions are part of the counter-revolution. At a stroke the entire proletarian movement, struggling to achieve clarity, disappears into the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Only the CWO is communist; only the CWO is proletarian. Even their own origins must become nothing more than a series of bourgeois groups interacting in the early seventies to somehow magically produce a communist organization. That is the explanation for the isolation and impo­tence of the Communist Workers' Organization.

This lies in their fundamental misunderstan­ding of the meaning and function of class lines and that is the root cause of their inability to fully carry out the tasks of a communist organization. The CWO states, and we fully endorse, that the main tasks of a communist group are:

"1. The struggle for clarity about the nature of the class movement itself so that we may react back on the class by intervention to draw out and deepen those elements of the movement that tend to go beyond the framework of capitalism, and to hasten the class' self-clarification." (‘Crisis and Class Struggle', RP, no.3, p.15)

Undeniably the CWO produced a high level of political clarity and an impressive body of theoretical work and has consistently attemp­ted to intervene in the class via regular leafletting. But the ability of the commu­nist organization to play a meaningful part in the class struggle doesn't merely depend on the development of theoretical clarity. It is fundamentally underlaid and dependent on what the CWO states to be the other major task of a communist organization.

"2. Organizational preparation for the revolutionary period itself when the needs of the class will demand a single unified party across national frontiers and grouped around a coherent programme. This requires now (our emphasis) working internationally for regroupment on the basis of common practice and clear pro­grammatic agreement with those groups produced by the deepening crisis and the growing class activity." (Ibid)

And again,

"The CWO doesn't deny that regroupment of revolutionaries today is an important task of communists today ..." (Text of the CWO for the Oslo Conference, Septem­ber 1977.)

In the light of their contention that they are the only communists in the world how can this be taken seriously? With whom do they imagine they can regroup? The counter-­revolution? Having already set up a model which denies the existence of a proletarian movement outside their own Platform, how can the CWO possibly undertake the tasks which communists must perform within the proletarian movement? That is, how can they relate in a fraternal and constructive manner to other groups struggling for clarity in order to intervene and assist that struggle? If they cannot recognize the proletarian movement they certainly cannot function as a pole of coherence or regroupment within it. And let us be quite clear -- the only reason for struggling to function as a pole of coherence is for the purpose of regroupment.


Even before the Aberdeen/Edinburgh split the CWO had decided on a more vigorous and outgoing policy towards the outside world in an effort to overcome their isola­tion. The fact that this must inevitably result in a heightening of the contradict­ion between their theory and practice is already in evidence. Thus we find in ‘A Reply to the Majority' (RP, no.8, p.54):

" ... we must relax our criteria for evaluating whether discussion with this or that group is ‘worthwhile'. If a group wishes to discuss with us it can only be because they see a common strand in our politics and that must be the basis on which we meet with them."

All political criteria, all political rig­orousness has been completely abandoned here in order to engage in debate. By this methodology the CWO could find itself in debate with virtually anyone. This is underlined even more brutally in the same paragraph.

"Thus we can only abandon the view in RP, no.4 that ‘ ... on no account can we debate with groups that defend some aspect of the counter-revolution'," (Ibid)

Let's not be mealy-mouthed about this. For the CWO a group which defends some aspect of the counter-revolution is, by their own definition, bourgeois. What a pitiful and painful position for a group which was once so clear on that very subject. What possi­ble dialogue can communists have with the bourgeoisie? Communists can have only one thing to say to the bourgeoisie -- and that is to demand that it leaves the stage of history or be destroyed. The policy of communists to the bourgeoisie can only be one of intransigent denunciation. The only possible gain that might accrue from the CWO's approach is the hope that they might be able to split individuals from the coun­ter-revolutionary groups which wish to debate with them, unless the CWO can pers­uade a bourgeois organization to become communist. That is a purely tactical approach and in complete contradiction to the political approach which communists are obliged to adopt towards the more or less clear fractions of the proletarian movement. Towards the latter, the aim and the obligation are to clarify the entire fraction so that it can take its place within a unified communist organization.

However, if the CWO's ‘new policy' for relations with the outside world must inevitably mean the destruction of its obligation to intransigently denounce the bourgeoisie, it also has a more positive and hopeful feature. It means that the CWO will refrain from intransigently denouncing their proletarian comrades also (albeit from reasons of oppor­tunism and dishonesty). Having opened up the possibility of dialogue with the bour­geoisie the CWO has necessarily opened up the possibility (inadvertently as it was) of dialogue with fellow communists and pro­letarians. That dialogue with anyone is impossible via denunciations, the CWO has learnt only too painfully over the past year. That the lesson has indeed gone home is evi­denced in their latest communication to the ICC ‘Some Questions for the ICC', Internatio­nal Review, no.12. Here the CWO mount a coherent attack on the specific positions of the ICC which they disagree with, but in order to keep the dialogue alive they have deliberately disemboweled the central thrust of their critique so that nowhere to be seen is the conclusion that the ICC is an arm of the bourgeoisie because of their analysis of the last revolutionary wave and the nature of the state in the period of transition. Instead the entire text is specifically situated within a debate taking place for the final purpose of regroupment.

By coming into existence RP implicitly posed the question: Can debates about the final end of the last revolutionary wave and the exact form of the dictatorship of the prole­tariat take place within a single organiza­tion? RP explicitly answered no!

With the publication of the ‘Open Letter to the ICC' in February 1975 the question changed to: Can such debates take place within the proletarian movement? Again RP (CWO) answered no!

The direct results of this fundamental sect­arianism were physical disintegration and political isolation. In now attempting to overcome this by changing their practice the CWO must inevitably highlight the contra­dictions in their theory. Hopefully the end result will be a resolution of their theoretical confusions. If not, the future can only hold for them either disintegra­tion or "the long slow agony of a sect", condemned to increasing isolation from the historic movement of the proletariat with only an obstructionist and confusion­ist role to play.

Comrades of the former

Aberdeen & Edinburgh sections of the CWO,

November 1977.

Life of the ICC: 

Political currents and reference: