CWI flag at meeting of Harmony Gold workers, South Africa, February 2013, credit: DSM (uploaded 27/02/2013)
CWI flag at meeting of Harmony Gold workers, South Africa, February 2013, credit: DSM (uploaded 27/02/2013)

This year the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) – the socialist international which the Socialist Party is affiliated to – celebrates its fiftieth year. Tony Saunois, CWI secretary, looks at the organisation’s development since its founding half a century ago.

Over the weekend of 20-21 April 1974, a small but crucial international meeting took place in a room at the Old Mother Redcap pub in Camden, London. This meeting decided to launch a new revolutionary Trotskyist international organisation – the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). The new international was to be wedded to the ideas and methods of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

Present at the meeting were supporters of the Militant newspaper in Britain and very small groups which had been established in Ireland, Germany and Sweden, together with individuals from Sri Lanka, Jamaica and some other countries. Although tiny in number at that stage, the CWI was to take important strides forward in the second half of the 1970s, and have a significant impact internationally in the 1980s. For fifty years the CWI has been involved in a political struggle for a revolutionary socialist programme for the working class, participating, and in some situations playing a leading role, in the struggles of the working class and oppressed.

The need to work to build a new Trotskyist international flowed from what had developed in the 1950s and 1960s and the post-second world war economic upswing, which had come to an end by 1974. This period had had an impact on the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), at that time the main successor organisation to the international Trotsky helped found in 1938. How to respond to capitalism and international developments triggered a series of political debates and disputes in the USFI with supporters of Militant in Britain.

Militant had been launched in 1964, emerging from the group around the infrequent journal, Socialist Fight, the paper of the Revolutionary Socialist League. The political differences related to crucial questions such as the character of the colonial revolutions in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the role of guerillaism and the working class, the then Sino-Soviet split, and the perspectives and programme for the working class in Europe, the US and elsewhere, amongst other issues. In essence, the USFI turned away from the working class and looked towards other social forces as the driving force of the socialist revolution. Eventually this resulted in the de-facto expulsion of Militant from the USFI in 1965. Politically this rupture was a product of objective conditions and how Trotskyists faced up to the world situation.

Initially isolated to only Britain, Militant still rooted its political analysis and approach within an international perspective. After its expulsion, Militant comrades began to seek international co-thinkers. It was agreed, after discussion, that it was necessary to take on the task of beginning to build a new international organisation. Herculean efforts and sacrifices were undertaken by those forming the core of the Militant in the mid and late 1960s and later, especially by Peter Taaffe, along with Keith Dickinson and others. Ted Grant played an important political role in the post-second world war period but was later not able to face the challenges of the new world situation which were to open up in the late 1980s and the 1990s.


Crucial changes were taking place internationally by the mid-1960s, including in Britain. After the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other campaigns on this issue came the anti-Vietnam war movement, the movement of black Americans and the Black Panthers, the French general strike and upheavals in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968, and turmoil and revolutions in Asia, Africa and Latin America. These were all an anticipation of even greater events and upheavals in the class struggle in the 1970s.

In 1970 a decisive change took place which enabled Militant to make great progress in Britain, and later, internationally. Militant supporters, who were working at that stage in the Labour Party, won a majority in the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). At the time it was a shell of an organisation. Militant supporters transformed it. It was turned outwards to intervene in the class struggle amongst young workers. Campaigns, demonstrations, and rallies were organised and eventually an organisation of approximately 10,000 members, mainly young workers, was built, with 2,000 attending the annual conferences. The Labour Party leadership agreed to give it a place on the national executive committee of the Labour Party, which was used as an effective platform to intervene in the crucial battles within the Labour Party that erupted towards the end of the 1970s and the 1980s.

The LPYS organised the first national Labour movement of that era against racism in Bradford in 1974. It was at the forefront of many anti-racist struggles and battles against the fascists, including the battle of Lewisham in 1977, when it played a leading role in stopping a march by the fascist National Front. Pamphlets on the Russian Revolution and other subjects were produced and paid for by the Labour Party. At that time the Labour Party was an entirely different animal to what we see today. Despite its key leaders being pro-capitalist it was seen by the working class as its party and big sections were active in it.

International struggles were a major feature of the work launched by the LPYS under the leadership of Militant, especially the Spanish Young Socialist Defence Campaign during the struggle against the fascist Franco dictatorship.

The developments in Britain also opened new channels for international work and the development of the CWI. Militant members from the LPYS were sent on international visits to the young socialist conferences in Europe. This allowed contacts to be met and assisted in laying the basis for and strengthening of the work of the CWI, mainly in Europe, after its foundation in 1974. Sections of the CWI were established throughout western Europe and built in Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Spain, Austria, Netherlands, Greece, Cyprus and elsewhere. Most of these sections also undertook work in the Social Democratic parties.

International developments

However, this work, although allowing those sections to develop and grow, did not follow the same path as the unique situation that had developed in the British Labour Party. Although in Ireland it was possible to have a big impact, win the leadership of Labour Youth and get members elected to the Administrative Council of the Labour Party. This reflected the situation in the social democratic parties in the main.

Reflecting the revolutions which developed in Greece, Spain and Portugal, the social democratic PASOK, PSOE and PSP respectively lurched dramatically to the left for a period. The success of the work of Militant in the British Labour Party was noted internationally by the bureaucracies and pro-capitalist right-wing social democratic leaderships. They rapidly moved to expel us in Sweden, where they feared our growing support amongst the social democratic youth. In Finland they proscribed us and banned us from membership before we had even recruited a single member.

The successes we had in this work in Britain in the Labour Party possibly led to an over emphasis on this aspect of the work of the CWI in some countries. However, it was not the only route or tactic that was applied by the CWI. In Greece, immediately after the overthrow of the military junta in 1974, we came into contact with two existing Trotskyist groups who agreed to fuse together and begin intervening in PASOK as it exploded in membership when formed. They were rapidly expelled in 1976 as they won increasing support.

In Sri Lanka a major development took place. Sri Lanka had enjoyed a strong Trotskyist tradition through the building of the mass workers’ party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which had a Trotskyist core. Following the degeneration of this party – after it had joined a popular front government with capitalist parties – a split eventually took place, and the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) was formed in 1977, and affiliated to the CWI. At the same time, work began in Pakistan amongst activists in exile who later returned to the country and built an organisation.

Others, although smaller, were attracted to the CWI at a later stage. From South Africa, two Trotskyists moved to London and with others built the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC, which had members both in exile and in South Africa fighting the apartheid regime. Later, in Nigeria, comrades from two small groups came together in 1985 and started to build the CWI in that country and became a significant factor on the Nigerian left.

The 1980s saw an upsurge in the struggle in Latin America and the overthrow of the military regimes which had ruled the continent. The CWI turned to these movements and sent comrades to build sections in Chile, Brazil and Argentina, which was achieved. In Chile, our section participated in the struggle in the underground during the Pinochet dictatorship, and the CWI took up an international campaign of political and resource solidarity, the Chilean Socialist Defence Campaign, advocating a revolutionary socialist programme to overthrow the regime.


In Britain, support and membership of Militant went from strength to strength, reflecting the radicalised and polarised political situation and the upturn in the class struggle. A furious battle opened between the left and the right in the Labour Party and in the trade unions. Militant was to play a central role in this, and in many areas became the backbone of the left. Three Militant supporters were elected to parliament. Decisively, Militant supporters won majority support in Liverpool Labour Party and then in the city council.

Later, on the back of the leadership and role of CWI members in important struggles in Ireland, including the anti-water charges campaign, members won seats to the local councils, the Irish parliament and the European parliament.

A solid base in the trade unions was built, with Militant supporters playing an important role in the struggle to transform the trade unions into fighting combative organisations of the working class. The orientation to the organised working class has been a crucial aspect of the political orientation of the CWI and of its work.

An epic battle was to ensue between Liverpool City Council and Thatcher’s hated government. At one stage a city-wide general strike was called and 50,000 rallied in support of the council. This historic struggle was to become a crucial battleground with Thatcher and also the right wing of the Labour Party. Under the treacherous leadership of Neil Kinnock the party was taking a rightward lurch. In 1983, the five members of the Militant Editorial Board were expelled. It took the pro-capitalist right wing of the Labour Party years to carry through a vicious witch hunt which eventually drove thousands from the party. By 1986 the Liverpool councillors were suspended and surcharged.

Liverpool’s epic battle was to be followed by the mass non-payment campaign of the hated poll tax that Thatcher introduced in 1989/90. Militant initiated and led this mass movement which culminated in eighteen million people refusing to pay the tax, ultimately defeating Thatcher and triggering her downfall. The CWI stresses the crucial role of the organised working class in the trade unions. At the same time, under certain circumstances ad hoc organisations not based on the unions can develop, like the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, which we initiated.


Objective conditions, wars, revolutions and struggles of the working class put all revolutionary organisations and individuals to the test. Sometimes it is essential to maintain a principled political position even if this means breaking with a large party or group, or being in a minority. This is necessary on occasions to maintain political credibility and a principled position. When necessary, the CWI has been compelled to adopt this method.

In Sri Lanka, the government’s defeat of the public sector general strike undermined the strong base that the NSSP had within the trade unions and helped open the way to government-backed pogroms in 1983 amongst the Tamil minority. This was followed by the brutal war against the Tamil people, which resulted, in 1987, in the intervention of the Indian army. The majority of the NSSP supported Indian intervention and abandoned the demand for the right of self-determination for the Tamil people. This was opposed by the CWI leadership and a minority in the NSSP. The debate began in 1987 and ended in the expulsion of the NSSP from the CWI in 1989. This was an example of how, sometimes, it is necessary to defend a principled political position even at the expense of losing some forces, or of being in a minority following a period of democratic debate and discussion.

This issue was to arise again within Militant and the CWI in the late 1980s and the 1990s as an entirely new world situation arose with the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the former USSR and eastern Europe. Even prior to those upheavals differences arose over the tactics to be followed in the poll tax movement, which reflected opportunistic pressures during a mass movement and struggle. A minority in Britain argued that the Militant MPs should pay the poll tax in order to keep their parliamentary seats. The clear majority opposed this opportunist position. One of the MPs, Terry Fields from Liverpool, was to go to prison for refusing to pay the tax and was subsequently expelled from the Labour Party.

Other issues also provoked debate and discussion; for example, the changing situation in South Africa as the apartheid regime entered its death agony. This reflected a changing world situation. Crucial and fundamental issues were to confront the CWI in the 1990s. An entirely new world situation was to develop. This demanded a full reappraisal of world perspectives and the tactics and strategy which flows from them. The collapse of the Stalinist states and restoration of capitalism in the former USSR and eastern Europe changed the world situation and had a decisive impact on political consciousness and the organisations and political parties of the working class.

The minority that then emerged in the CWI was in denial regarding these changes and what flowed from them. As the events began in the former USSR and eastern Europe the situation was not initially fully clear. The possibility of capitalist restoration was raised for discussion – as a possibility – at the CWI World Congress in 1988. In four to five years it became an accomplished fact.

The CWI sent members to intervene in every eastern European country and what was then the USSR. Seeing the reality on the ground gave a greater insight into the processes at work. What was to become the CWI majority was open to grasping the changes taking place and rapidly drew the conclusions which flowed from them. What became the minority was not. They were content to repeat what had become outmoded and dangerous formulas.

The world objective situation and how to respond to it provoked a split in the CWI. The CWI was the first organisation on the revolutionary left to recognise capitalist restoration had taken place. It also reappraised the situation in the former social democratic and some of the Communist Parties, drawing the conclusion that they had become ‘bourgeoisified’ and were no longer bourgeois workers’ parties. With no sizeable workers’ political parties in most countries, the need for broad new mass workers’ parties became an issue alongside the crucial need to build revolutionary parties. The former minority in the CWI rejected this approach and dogmatically clung to the outmoded tactic of continuing to work in the old parties as if nothing had changed.

The nineties

Revolutionary organisations and individuals are tested in many different ways and in an array of varying objective situations. The 1990s, however, were an extremely difficult terrain for Marxists to navigate. There were exceptions – in Nigeria after the annulment of the 1992 election there were various mass struggles against the continuation of military rule, in which CWI comrades played an increasingly influential role. But the collapse of the former Stalinist states was used by the ruling classes to launch a massive ideological offensive. ‘Socialism’ was defeated – “we have won” they trumpeted far and wide. The leaders of the workers’ movement internationally, in the main, capitulated. Political consciousness was thrown back a long way and is only now beginning to recover.

This did not mean that nothing was happening, or some struggles were not breaking out. However, within them the idea of socialism as an alternative social system was absent. In Europe there was an echo amongst big layers of the youth to the call to combat racism. The CWI took a bold initiative and launched Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE). At its peak an all-European demonstration was convened in Brussels in October 1992, mobilising 40,000 youth from across Europe. The YRE then developed in a number of countries. The Brussels demonstration was where we first met the comrades who went on to form the French section of the CWI. The activities of the YRE were crucial in assisting the development of a new generation of cadres within the CWI, some of whom were to develop as national leaders of our sections and play a crucial role in the CWI.

The new situation globally posed new issues for the CWI and the working class. Rich, lively and democratic debates took place in the CWI on issues relating to the introduction of the Euro currency, the European Union, globalisation, the class character of China, and the national question in Scotland, the Spanish state and elsewhere. Later, other issues were fully debated and discussed such as Marxist economics and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as well as tactical issues confronting our sections.

All organisations were affected by this fundamental change in the world situation. No political organisation, including the revolutionary left, if rooted in society can be immune from objective pressures and the concrete situation which exists.

The CWI attempted to reach out to other international organisations that adhered to Trotskyism for discussions to explore if agreement was possible. Discussions took place involving the USFI, LIT, UIT – the latter two being based mainly in Latin America and coming from the Moreno strand of Trotskyism – and others. However, after discussion, it was clear that there was not political agreement on crucial issues.

We explored in some countries new tactics, such as in Brazil where the social democratic PT had degenerated and swung to the right, and for a period CWI members participated in the PSTU, a party aligned with the LIT, prior to the formation of a new left formation, PSOL – which split from the PT in 2002 and was partly composed of various Trotskyist tendencies. The CWI has always adopted a flexible approach towards the tactics and orientations that are necessary in each concrete situation.

The objective pressures of this period weighed down on socialists and the working class. Regrettably, it affected some CWI members in Scotland, who, reflecting these pressures, looked for a short cut and proposed in 1998 the dissolving of the revolutionary party into a broader party in which they would work as a loose trend. This was against the background of Scottish Militant Labour (SML), Militant in Scotland, having conquered an important base through the anti-poll tax movement and other struggles.

The SML had elected councillors in Glasgow and Strathclyde: between 1992 and 1994 it contested seventeen elections and won on average 33.3% of the vote. The CWI leadership opposed this opportunist turn. But we proposed that, if the Scottish organisation insisted on implementing it, they could go ahead, provided a balance sheet was drawn after one or two years. This was rejected by the majority in Scotland and they broke away from the CWI in 2001.

Opportunities and complications

The end of the 1990s and the opening of the new century saw the beginnings of movements against neo-liberalism, anti-capitalist movements, and other protests that the CWI intervened in. These movements opened a new chapter. However, they also reflected one of the effects of the collapse of the former Stalinist states on the political consciousness of activists, the working class and the new generation. Crucially, the idea of an alternative social system to capitalism – socialism – was not present. The new century saw the development of the ‘pink wave’ in Latin America, beginning in 1999 with the coming to power of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The CWI intervened in these events and established a small section. The weaknesses in these movements posed big limitations on them.

The change in mood amongst big layers was however very significant. It was reflected in the world’s main imperialist power, the USA. The CWI was able to intervene and gain from this. A CWI member in the US at the time was elected to the city council in Seattle – the only independent socialist to be elected then in the country – leading the way on the struggle for raising the minimum wage and other issues.

The significant but politically limited character of these movements eventually led to disappointment, disillusionment and betrayal. The defeat of the ‘pink wave’ in Latin America in some countries opened the way for the right to gain electorally.

The ‘great recession’ which hit in 2008, which had been anticipated by the CWI, opened a new era of capitalism – a new period of a protracted death agony, economic crisis and fragile short-lived growth had opened up. The CWI in our analysis had hoped that it would lead to a more rapid re-emergence of a socialist political consciousness.

However, this did not take place. It opened the way for upheavals and struggles in many countries, such as the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011. Later a series of multiple uprisings and revolutions were to break out in Sudan, Chile, Ecuador, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. A political radicalisation did occur which was anti-system, anti-inequality, against the ruling elite and neo-liberalism etc. Yet still the idea of an alternative social system, socialism, was not coherently present.

The upheavals in Greece, Spain and elsewhere led to the growth of new left political forces like Syriza and Podemos. These were very symptomatic, yet they were not new mass workers’ parties as the CWI had argued for. The Corbynista movement in Britain, which the CWI orientated towards, was a part of this international process. The new parties were largely left populist in character and ‘digital’ parties in form. Critical of capitalism and its consequences, they did not advocate an alternative social system of socialism. They did not take the steps needed to build mass workers’ parties. Politically limited and weak, they, like the Latin American ‘pink wave’, were defeated or betrayed the movement, leading to confusion and disappointment. A political era of populism, both left and right, has dominated the situation. This can change in the era we are now in.

Into the 2020s

A complex period of capitalist crisis followed. The working class had not put its political stamp on the situation as a class. Most of the left had collapsed ideologically. This was reflected again during the Covid pandemic, and more recently during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war in Gaza, with the failure to advocate an independent class position. This period brought new objective pressures onto the left and the revolutionary left. It has also affected bourgeois parties.

Many parties and groups fragmented and split under this pressure. This process was also to affect the CWI. In some cases the weight of economic and social collapse also hit organisations. As we had seen before, as in Pakistan, again some sections of the CWI and members, frustrated with the complexities of the situation, looked for short cuts. They turned away from the organised working class. A section towards the end of the first decade of this century embraced the divisive scourge of identity politics which had emerged from academia in the US. It signified a turning away from the organised working class. This resulted in a split from the CWI which included those in the US, Ireland and others. Forming an unprincipled political block their new organisation rapidly entered a series of problems and divisions and are currently in the midst of a major crisis and probable split.

The explosive situation which developed, especially after 2018, with mass uprisings in countries like Sri Lanka, Chile and elsewhere, which the CWI intervened in, has opened a new era. The split from our ranks in 2019 on the issue of orientation towards the working class and identity politics, as with others previously, was part of a necessary process to prepare the CWI, basing itself on the methods of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, for new historical tasks and an entirely new world situation. This requires the application of the methods of these historic revolutionary leaders, not a repetition by rote of what they argued in a different political and world situation.

Throughout the pandemic, based on a solid political foundation and analysis, the CWI was able to maintain its forces and prepare for the new explosive situation that capitalism, in its protracted death agony, finds itself in.

Today the CWI has successfully intervened in the upturn in the class struggle, which has been apparent with the rise in strikes in Britain, Germany, the US and some other countries. In the horrific situation in most of Asia, Africa and Latin America we have maintained the revolutionary core in crucial countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Chile, Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere, and our forces actively participating in the struggles taking place there.

The deepening crisis of dystopian global capitalism with wars, polarisation, and class conflict and struggle poses the urgent necessity for the working class to re-build support for the independent political alternative of socialism. The CWI is part of that process and is rebuilding the revolutionary Trotskyist movement, and building revolutionary socialist parties that can eventually become large or mass parties. In the struggle to build such parties new forces and parties will emerge that will also be a part of that process. To build revolutionary socialist parties two components are essential. One is that it is essential they are based on a solid Marxist theoretical base, perspective and programme. At the same time, they must be rooted in action and intervention and participation in the class struggle and lives of the oppressed. The CWI is confident and optimistic that it can play a crucial role with others in building the revolutionary socialist parties and international that will be essential to defeat capitalism and build a socialist future.