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The End of the "Rank and File"

Jim Higgins

SOME TIME in 1959 I attended an aggregate meeting of the Socialist Review Group (SRG). The atmosphere was relaxed and easy-going and Cliff, if excitable, appeared modest and had a sense of humour. I recall that his main exhortation at the time was: "The comrades have got to start pulling their socks." I liked this and the atmosphere, so I joined. I was a member for the next sixteen years and the National Secretary from 1971 to 1973. In 1975 I was expelled. By this time modesty was at a premium and the only humour of the gallows variety.

In 1959 the membership was measured in tens, certainly less than 100. There were a very few industrial workers. Most notable was Geoff Carlsson, ex Revolutionary Communist Party and a convenor at an engineering works, ENV. Another was Karl Dunbar. I suppose I was part of the leadership of the group for most of my membership. In the beginning this was because with so few people to do anything, anyone who turned up and showed willing could take on any task he looked halfway able to perform.

The IS’s politics were essentially Cliff’s version of state capitalism and Kidron’s "permanent arms economy". Day-to-day activity was derived from Cliff’s intuition on how best he could add to the membership. As Kidron said at one time: "Cliff is a peasant, a very talented peasant, but a peasant." The internal regime was extremely tolerant. The only person I recall we expelled was Sid Bidwell and that was for advocating street quotas for Asian immigrants in Southall. Part of this liberal spirit I think was a reaction to the draconian regime that Healy had run and also because a liberal face to the group made it most attractive to the Labour Party, CND, and Labour Party Young Socialist people who were the focus of recruitment.

Of course, in many ways a lax attitude to organisation and discipline is ideal for someone like Cliff, who can do more or less what he fancies. Certainly there was a fair amount of that going on, and it was a powerful reason why some of us supported the move to democratic centralism in the late 1960s, so that, we thought, we could submit Cliff to some collective responsibility.

There is some kind of notion that the organisation was consciously Luxemburgist in its libertarian phase. This seems to be a confusion. Luxemburg and Jogiches were not libertarian in party matters and the prevailing view in the SRG was that in the Luxemburg-Lenin disputes, Lenin had the better of the arguments. I recall writing a review of Nettl’s book on Luxemburg, which came to just those conclusions and I am sure that this would have been discussed with Cliff.

State capitalism was the theory that was the most consistent part of IS theory. Like all those theories – workers’ state and bureaucratic collectivism – its main use is to argue against the others and it is best left to internal bulletin hobbyists. It did play a role, however, and for those who reasonably felt that Stalinism was an abomination, state capitalism was an attractive theory. Regardless of the theory’s overall validity, it certainly enshrined the workers, their condition and their relationship to others in society, as the centre of any serious Marxist analysis. This factor, together with a similar emphasis in Luxemburg, was important in setting a long-term agenda dedicated to recruiting workers into the group as a prelude to forming the party. This, I think, is what people talk about when they refer to the IS tradition. The attitude differed from the orthodox Fourth Internationalists, who whatever they said, saw the FI as the Party, small but impeccably formed, that just needed to get bigger through fusion, entrism and campaigning. In this sense, the IS group was in transition, but it was not centrist (that is, oscillating between reform and revolution) as Workers’ Fight charged.

Work in the Labour Party Young Socialists and among students brought recruits who formed the basis for an organisation that could contemplate modest attempts to approach workers on strike and in various union disputes. At the same time we began to develop our ideas about the experience of the Minority Movement in the 1920s. The idea of the rank and file movement as the bridge to the party was an attractive one. Ai this time there were 250,000 engineering shop stewards and many thousands more lay trade union bodies. There is no space to detail all the reasons why the development of the Rank and File Movement was considered appropriate; suffice it to say that there was a general agreement at all levels in the International Socialists, not least in the mind of Tony Cliff, that this was the perspective.

Despite this agreement on a course that must inevitably involve a long haul, Cliff could not always suppress his "peasant" instinct. One such case was the unity campaign of 1968. The hope was to acquire the Revolutionary Socialist League [forerunner of the Militant] or the International Marxist Group, or at least a large lump of their cadre, and in the event we got Workers’ Fight. The mechanics of this "fusion" was that Cliff met Sean Matgamna in a back room somewhere and the job was done. Nobody in IS, not the EC nor the National Committee, knew anything about it until we woke one day to find we had acquired a fully fledged tendency, all geared up for an extended faction fight. Sean must have thought it was Christmas. Three years later an augmented WF was defused to seek fresh fields to conquer. If there had been a proper pre-fusion discussion, it probably would not have happened and certainly there would have been a running-in period significantly shorter than three years. Certainly, part of the subsequently illiberal regime in IS was due to the desire not to suffer another long and debilitating faction fight.

The early 1970s were years of increasing militancy. My personal view was that this new wave was of particular importance. For the first time since the war there seemed to be the chance that militancy might go beyond trade demands. It was a period when we might be able to build something significant, along the lines of our rank and file perspective. Cliff agreed that there was something new taking place.

We resolved to prepare for a conference to set up a rank and file movement in November 1973. It is worth saying that at this time IS had some 5,000 members, nearly half of them manual workers. The group produced a number of rank and file papers, with a combined circulation of 30,000. There were operational Rank and File Groups in the teachers, miners, engineering, post office unions and in the T&GWU, ASTMS and TASS and others I cannot recall off-hand. Modest though these achievements were they were better than anything we had before. Not only that. There was the responsibility that, if the Rank and File organisation was not developed, then the Communist Party would play its traditional role of delivering the rank and file into the hands of the trade union leadership.

IS then had:

• A working-class base.
• A framework of rank and file activity.
• A number of Rank and File publications.
• A duty to supplant the CP.
• A rising tide of working-class militancy.

That was the plus side of the equation. On the other side we had Cliff.

Cliff was convinced by two northern organisers that that they could not get anyone to the proposed Rank and File Conference. These were Roger Rosewell (at the time a particular favourite of Cliff; when last heard of this loathsome creature was adviser to Lady Porter) and John Charlton (there is nothing interesting to say about him, absolutely nothing). But they did think they could get coachloads of the young and enthusiastic to a rally.

At the next meeting of the IS Executive Committee, Cliff proposed replacing the conference with a rally. After the vote Cliff and one of his satraps, I think Harman, were in a minority of two. Cliff immediately demanded three months’ leave of absence so that he could go off to Nigel Harris’s cottage to finish volume one of his book on Lenin. Duncan Hallas, who was deputy National Secretary, and I knew what this meant. Cliff would spend three months organising a counter-coup and in the course of it run up such a phone bill as to ruin Nigel Harris. We proposed to the National Committee that we should hold the rally and the Rank and File Conference. We would prove the validity of the differing views in life.

Both the rally and the Conference were a success in terms of attendance, but in the long term neither worked. Cliff was now seized with the notion that mature shop stewards and lay trade union officials were bent, rotted by years of reformism. Those people we had for years sought to influence and recruit were rejected in favour of the young and traditionless. Free from all taint of reformism they would take on the shop stewardships and the role of the leadership. For them we needed rallies and excitement and stunts. Recruitment became the be-all and end-all of activity. More organisers were appointed and league tables published showing who made the most members each month. Funnily enough, a more significant table would have been, how many remained members at the end of the following month, because the answer was not many.

This cult of the young worker obviously required further changes. A day-to-day leadership of mature adults, with experience in the movement and in the trade unions, were not suitable for this new field of endeavour. The EC was recast. Such elements as Duncan Hallas, Nigel Harris, and Roger Protz etc were removed to be replaced with ace recruiters from the provinces. Roger Kline, Roger Rosewell, John Charlton were among those who turned up occasionally to fulfil this new activist leadership role. Cliff, as the man who thought up this idiocy, was a fixture. I remained for a while as National Secretary, until I became tired of meetings starting half an hour late so that Cliff and his young leaders could caucus and make all the decisions that were then presented to me at the formal session. Such childishly destructive behaviour was absurd and I resigned, taking up a job on Socialist Worker.

Together with Duncan Hallas, Roger Protz (editor of Socialist Worker), Granville Williams, John Palmer and others we formed an IS Opposition. From the point of view of continuing employment this was an error, but not one I regret. Not too much time passed before Cliff and Harman had sufficiently wound up two of the journalists on Socialist Worker, Paul Foot and Laurie Flynn, neither of whom were noted for intestinal fortitude or political independence, to press for the sacking of myself and Roger Protz. As the EC had initiated the move, they did not waste too much time in debate before acceding to this request.

The opposition debated the questions with Cliff at a number of regional aggregates and were hopeful of getting a substantial number of delegacies to the conference. These hopes came to nothing when the constitution was illegally changed making it impossible for us to achieve any more than a handful of delegacies.

As part of the same ultra-leftism, a group of some 20 AUEW members were expelled in Birmingham. Their crime was twofold: support for the IS Opposition platform and disagreement with the running of an IS candidate in an AUEW election (I think for President). As experienced trade unionists of some service and standing they had worked in the broad left and the question of the candidate to support had been agreed long before IS thought to run its own man. Finding themselves unable to renege on commitments freely made, they were all expelled. The whole episode provides an object lesson that Cliff’s famously intuitive nose and some energetic young organisers, are really no substitute for knowledge of the working-class movement. But then, as Stan Newens wrote in the last issue of Workers’ Liberty, "Cliff never really understood the British labour movement". Actually I would go further than Stan. I do not think he understands the workers anywhere, he has met hardly any. His oft repeated dedication to the working class is in practice making much of those who happened to agree with him at any given time and then dropping them with a sickening thud as soon as they disagree.

The IS Opposition was expelled and all in all some 250 people left with them. The years since then do not seem to have changed the nature of the group except that it is now allegedly a party and it is somewhat further from success than it was 20 years ago. Do I blame Cliff for most of this? Well actually I do.

From Workers’ Liberty, No.19, March 1995