Split from the IBT

Confusion, Empiricism & Sectarianism

In early October 2018 several members of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) submitted a statement announcing they were leaving the organization. The grouping, led by Tom Riley and including comrades from different sections and the international leadership, had until their departure been in the majority in the IBT in a long-standing dispute over whether Russia is now imperialist.

A substantial minority of the organization argued that Russia had developed into an imperialist power over a decade ago. Building on natural resources in oil and gas and what remained of the economic base inherited from the Soviet Union, Russia had come to project its economic might abroad to extract value from less powerful countries, using its military weight to secure spheres of influence for future enrichment. Although considerably more backward than the established major imperialist powers, Russia plays an increasing role in inter-imperialist competition, particularly demonstrated in recent conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. The then-majority (composed of the Riley faction and others) described Russia as a non-imperialist regional power of similar status to Brazil. It was this line that has been argued in our press in recent years (see “Middle East Chaos” and “Ukraine, Russia & the Struggle for Eurasia”).

With the departure of the Riley grouping, the previous minority view that Russia is imperialist now holds a clear majority in the IBT. We published the text below on our website in October, together with the minority resolution from our 2017 conference on Russian imperialism and its place in the world (“A Note on the World Situation”). A selection of relevant documents are available on our website on the page “Russian Imperialism and Other Disputes.” The arguments are further developed and updated in our new article “Imperialist Rivalries Escalate.”

Confusion Masquerading as Anti-Imperialism

While we believe the Riley group are sincere in their view that capitalist Russia is a “great power” without being an imperialist country, there were at times hints that their refusal to recognize reality was rooted in a fear of being seen as insufficiently opposed to the world’s predominant imperialist power, the United States, and its allies. Of course, recognizing the existence of rival imperialists does not constitute a capitulation to one’s own imperialists. During World War I, Lenin embraced Karl Liebknecht’s maxim that “The Main Enemy is at Home!” – yet neither felt the need to deny the imperialist status of those countries at war with their imperialist rulers. German Trotskyists argued for dual defeatism during World War II without portraying the U.S., France or Britain as sub-imperialist competitors.

As we publish a correct characterization of Russia as imperialist, we in the IBT (which as yet has no Russian section) continue to view with greater revulsion the crimes of the bourgeoisies of the Western imperialist powers. We reject, in particular, the grotesque anti-Russia hysteria that has swept ruling circles in the U.S. and its allies – hysteria based on breathtakingly hypocritical (and unsubstantiated) claims of “meddling” in foreign elections. As Marxists, we seek to describe the real nature of Russia and of international conflicts only to further the cause of defeating imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, on a global scale. (See also “Imperialists Tear Ukraine Apart.”)

We note that the more seasoned comrades who left the IBT have a history of difficulty in adjusting to major world changes. In 1991, when the defeat of the August coup by Stalinist hardliners signaled the end of the Soviet Union, it took some time and considerable effort to convince comrade Riley that it was necessary for revolutionaries to bloc militarily with the coupists in defense of the remains of the degenerated workers’ state. After intense and protracted internal debate, Riley eventually agreed on this position, which was definitive for the political viability of the IBT, its record of unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union and its appreciation of the momentous impact that the coup’s defeat had on the imperialist world order.

In the early stages of our recent debate, both sides made comparisons between contemporary and pre-revolutionary Russia. Riley’s group at first maintained that Russia under the Tsar was not imperialist because of its backward economic structure, despite clear indications from Lenin and Trotsky that revolutionaries considered it to be an imperialist power in the modern sense, albeit one that was subject to extreme combined and uneven development. The then minority was eventually able to persuade Riley and his co-thinkers that they were mistaken in their characterization, resulting in the publication of an article on the contradictions inherent in imperialist Tsarist Russia (see “Imperialism, Tsarist Russia & WWI”).

It was immediately clear that, despite nominally yielding on the characterization of Tsarist Russia as imperialist in the Leninist sense, the comrades had failed to make the necessary adjustments to their one-sided understanding of Lenin’s theory. While acknowledging that Tsarist Russia was imperialist does not necessarily imply that Russia today is imperialist, the arguments the comrades employed were identical to ones they had made to disqualify pre-1917 Russia as imperialist. Their various, shifting, claims boiled down to focusing on some economic metric (e.g., labor productivity, the number of internationally competitive consumer goods) on which Russia compares unfavorably to the most advanced imperialist powers. Russia’s vast economic wealth, its development of gigantic oligopolistic corporations fusing industrial and financial interests (“finance capital”), massive foreign investments in its neocolonial hinterland and beyond, its undeniably important and growing geostrategic power – all of this was dismissed with special pleading, e.g., Russia inherited its military apparatus from the Soviet Union, its economy tilts heavily toward natural resources, it does not charge top price for its oil in Central Asia, and so on and so forth. We had hoped that reality would eventually convince the comrades, but this was not to be.

Meanwhile, a second area of disagreement arose – a tactical question from the perspective of those who remain in the IBT, but which Riley viewed as a historic betrayal, tantamount to a rejection of Trotskyism. The dispute centered on the approach revolutionaries should take toward the attempted military coup against Erdogan in Turkey in July 2016 and the successful coup by the army against Morsi in Egypt in 2013. All those who view Russia as imperialist, plus a number who agreed with Riley on Russia, considered that in those particular circumstances, it was tactically advisable to form a temporary military bloc with the elected governments (despite their hostility to bourgeois democracy) against the imposition of naked military rule, while in no way implying any future support or suggesting that the Islamists were politically superior to their opponents. The Riley group drew false comparisons with the centrist and reformist left’s championing of Khomeini in Iran’s 1979 “Islamic Revolution” and saw our line as equivalent to abandoning the revolutionary Spartacist position of that era. We countered that a bloc with the Turkish and Egyptian governments against an attempted army takeover (i.e., temporarily aiming the guns in the same direction against the military dictators) had its historical analogue in the Kornilov Affair of August 1917, not in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. One of the leading comrades who signed the resignation letter (in which this supposed betrayal featured heavily) agreed with us at the time of the 2017 conference and voiced no objection until he signed the letter. (For a further outline of our position see “Turkey and the Tactic of the Military Bloc.”)

In both the Turkey and Russia debates, the method of argumentation employed by the Riley faction conformed to a familiar pattern: attempt to overwhelm your opponents with a mass of empirical data, much of which is uncontroversial and capable of being fully assimilated into the perspective of your opponent, and then accuse your opponent of being “unserious,” “unable to respond” or even “bureaucratic”(!) when they refuse to be drawn into a line-by-line refutation. This method of argumentation reflected a deeper methodological approach at odds with Marxism: an empiricist, static view of the world that is blind to contradictions and moments of transition.

IBT: Moving On, Moving Forward

Bizarrely, the comrades presented their departure as “dissolving” the 1990 fusion between the Bolshevik Tendency (in North America) and the Permanent Revolution Group (in New Zealand) that formed the IBT. Although the leading comrades that remained from the time of the fusion were indeed on opposite sides of the Russia debate, they were naturally outnumbered by comrades recruited since that point who fell on both sides over the past decade. The political or organizational significance of claiming to undo a 28-year-old fusion is unclear. Do they repudiate any position taken by the IBT since the fusion? Without the fusion, it is likely that the North American BT would have remained neutral in the decisive showdown in the Soviet Union in 1991. Or do they want to claim that their departure, undertaken as a minority, somehow “dissolves” the IBT itself? Whatever the case, we have accepted their resignations with regret.

It is worth noting that the timing of this departure is also rather odd. The comrades had held a majority (in a bloc with others whom they did not consult before quitting) and the organization has not published any positions with which they disagree or committed any betrayals in their eyes. They acknowledge that the former minority comrades have loyally argued the line of the organization in public despite our disagreements. Recent developments inside the IBT, however, suggested that they might no longer be able to maintain their majority. Rather than stay and fight (as we did for many years as loyal partisans of Leninist democratic centralism), the comrades decided to walk.

Although these resignations have diminished our capacity for intervention in political struggles, we are relieved to be able to correct the group’s mistakes over the past period and to continue to defend the revolutionary heritage of the IBT and the tradition that preceded it. Our central task - building a viable international Trotskyist current that will play a central role in the rebirth of a mass communist movement – is in a very real sense harder, but we are now on a surer theoretical and programmatic footing. We move on. We go forward.

A Letter to Former Comrades of the IBT

The following letter was sent to our former members on 2 January 2019, three months after their resignations.


You resigned from the IBT on 2 October 2018, declaring that you were “dissolving” the 28-year-old fusion between the BT and PRG, which pre-dated the membership of the majority of the IBT, including many of your supporters. You acknowledge that for most of this period the IBT had been “programmatically homogenous.”

You say you uphold “the entire published record of the IBT to date” – a body of work created over decades in collaboration between comrades from the BT, PRG, GIVI and those who were recruited after the 1990 fusions. An early and significant example of this collaboration is our position on the defeated coup in the USSR in August 1991. It took considerable effort to persuade comrades from the BT that this marked the end of the degenerated workers’ state, a position your co-thinkers would likely not have adopted at all had they never fused with the PRG.

Your recent appraisal of Howard Keylor on his 93rd birthday is oddly shaped to fit your new perception of reality, mentioning his valuable revolutionary work only up to 1984. Comrade Keylor was a key figure in the consolidation of the 1990 fusions into a common organization, working in the U.S. and Germany over subsequent decades and providing a living link from the IBT to the revolutionary work of the past. We salute his long lifetime of important contributions to the IBT and the workers’ movement in general.

In your resignation letter you state: “The only substantial asset the IBT has ever possessed is our political continuity with the programmatic legacy of the RT/iSt.” Your behavior since you left the IBT seems calculated to sabotage that legacy.

In a childish parody of Trotskyism, you have adopted a name virtually identical to ours, and you are selling hard copies of IBT literature that do not belong to you (including, with a nice sense of irony, a pamphlet originally published by the PRG before the 1990 fusion).

You have retained control of a considerable sum of IBT money in North America and have made no attempt to return this to us.

Ostensibly, the chief reason for your resignations was our long-standing dispute over whether Russia is imperialist. You had a majority on this question and controlled the position of the IBT, which was defended in public by all members.

You have made clear in recent personal conversations in London and Toronto that you are more concerned about differences over what military-tactical approach to take toward the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, a question on which you were in a minority. You express concern that this will lead to future hypothetical differences. It is another irony that at least one of your supporters agrees with the IBT on this question.

This is not the Leninist way of conducting politics. The differences we have do not justify separate organizations. The “programmatic legacy of the RT/iSt” is based on unity of anti-Pabloite forces and against light-minded splits over secondary questions. Your behavior is counterposed to this, being more reminiscent of Wohlforth dividing the forces of the early Revolutionary Tendency, or Norden ensuring that the anti-revisionists leaving the Spartacist tendency remain divided, both of whom acted for reasons of prestige and pique.

We maintained discipline over many years in order to avoid this split, and we do not want it now. We would therefore welcome applications to rejoin from those comrades who may be having second thoughts about your decision.

Comradely greetings
Josh Decker
for the IBT