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The Tragedy of the International Socialists

Ted Crawford

From New Interventions, Vol.3 No.2,1992

After writing the piece below in 1987 I showed it to Jim Higgins. Jim wrote me a couple of letters filling in the account of the struggle at the centre as he remembered it. Some of his comments are brilliant if savage portraits of the personal characteristics of leading ISers. Much as I enjoyed Jim’s comments I do not want to repeat them here, not merely because they might give offence, as they were intended to do, but also because I feel that if we seek to get a response from the SWP this is not the way to go about it. It will generate, particularly with some of the younger members, heat rather than light. I also showed my article and the letters, with J.H.’s permission, to Ian Birchall. Birchall argues that there are inaccuracies in Jim’s account and Jim concedes that he may have got some details of "who did what to whom in what order" wrong. So, as Jim also said that he might at some future date write something more considered, I felt that I would simply add a number of more general points on the early IS enterprise which, with his permission, I append below. Alas there are no Higgins jokes.

One final point. After the election of the Labour government both sides of the faction fight had a very catastrophist perspective. In Ian Birchall’s words: "Initially the Opposition’s time scale was scarcely less cataclysmic than the majority’s: ’Jim Higgins argued that the honeymoon period would be longer rather than shorter – six or seven months rather than three or four’" (Socialist Register, 1979). The quote within the quote is taken from a document at the time.) The real point is that both sides were catastrophically wrong. Since the leadership reflected the silly expectations of the membership it may have been difficult for the opposition. But a Bolshevik leadership exists to kick the membership into line on that kind of thing. And to get things right first time, as they seldom get a second chance. So when one looks at the record I am confirmed in my view that there was great confusion and that no-one was right. I simply believed then, as I do now, that the opposition was closer to reality than Cliff and that the membership did not have a real choice and was badly served. Because I do not have such a high opinion of the present SWP as does Ian Birchall, I find the story infinitely more painful than he does and far more of a real tragedy.

There are other accounts of this period, in particular an article by Martin Shaw in Socialist Register, 1978, and a reply by Ian Birchall in the following year in the same annual. I am very out of sympathy with Shaw’s critique, even more so in retrospect than I was at the time, since it represents an early attempt to latch onto the "new social forces" so beloved of the petty bourgeois radicals. Birchall’s piece is that of a very competent advocate for the SWP, but it is a lawyer’s brief rather than an objective history. Both authors give many references that readers might like to follow up. My comments are those of a rank-and-file member who felt that he was tossed hither and thither like a leaf in a storm and who was disgracefully treated by the centre in its blind factional zeal. Cliff thus gave more evidence of his unfitness for the high post of working class leadership to which he aspired. It still hurts.

Cliff, the SWP and History
The 100th issue of Socialist Review, the often valuable monthly journal of the SWP, contains an interview with Tony Cliff, the founder and still leading member of that tendency. It is an interesting, touching but at the same time sad account, though I fear that it is slightly dishonest.

Significantly, it deals almost entirely with the period up to 1974-6 and hardly says a word about the later years. The same thing goes for Chris Harman’s little pamphlet on The Revolutionary Paper, too, where the information given is much richer about the period up to 1976 but thereafter there is a blank as far as circulation and other details are concerned. In part this could perhaps be justified because the present membership is almost entirely ignorant of the tendency’s history before 1976, but there are, I believe, deeper reasons for this lacuna, one being that before 1975-76 the IS was of growing political importance – after, it became a more marginal sect.

I personally was formed politically in the period 1958-75, largely by the old IS, and it is therefore not surprising that I agree in general with what Cliff says about himself and about IS. The one disagreement that I have is a theoretical one on the validity of the Permanent Arms Economy. I think that this was right for the wrong reasons. The causal mechanism of capitalist boom that the PAE purported to describe was not the correct one, but the political consequences of that boom, with which the IS attempted grapple in the sixties, were correctly diagnosed. This I believe is now Kidron’s position too. I can remember the catastrophist positions put forward by other Trotskyist tendencies in the fifties and sixties and how rational, sane and realistic the IS seemed in comparison.

My real disagreements concern the crucial turning point of the mid-seventies. After all, for the last sixteen or seventeen years the IS/SWP, though it has had its ups and downs, overall stagnated at best and, whatever its nominal membership, certainly does not have a tithe of the influence it wielded in 1973. This is not merely my judgement but that of the bourgeois press which nowadays gives it little attention. Why? Was this inevitable? What could have been done about it? Was another outcome feasible? From Cliff there is a deafening silence. One suspects that this is not conscious dishonesty but to face the truth of that epoch would be too bitter personally for the old man.

Up until the middle seventies the old IS had a medium term programme which was well understood by the members. This was first, with infinite pains to implant ourselves in the working class organisations, above all the TUs, and secondly to build a cadre with some theoretical potential. It was correctly argued that a more elaborate programme could only he drawn up when we actually had a real working class base. Unlike the still-born Fourth International we did not have a Trotsky who embodied the experience of the October Revolution and who could write such a programme. Thus the only short and medium term programme would be the building of practical links between workplaces and limited platforms of militants within trade unions. (Today that period, when there were powerful shop stewards, workplace organisations, and so there were these possibilities, seems more distant than Mars.) Such work would be fairly general propaganda for socialism together with, where possible, exemplary TU actions and behaviour, and would also involve a non-sectarian and united front approach to other tendencies and individuals.

We were more successful in the second of these objectives than the first! In general the group recruited a mass of PBs in the student revolt of 1968-70. In addition to many talented individuals they brought into the movement a load of rubbishy, cranky life-style ideas, some of which are prevalent in the movement today. The IS/SWP successfully hardened them up against Third Worldism, which in its Maoist and spontaneist versions had been the problem in the fifties and sixties among such a milieu. (Note that the whole tone of the movement was quite different in the fifties and early sixties. Younger comrades often have no idea of what it was like then.) Nevertheless, by 1973 we were collecting a very small but significant group of young working class leaders, shop stewards and so forth. It was only a toehold in the class, but at last we were there. It could have been developed.

The period of the seventies would not have proved totally unpropitious for such work, since a whole number of industrial struggles took place then without overwhelming defeats. (Kidron’s view, expressed at a meeting at Leeds University in 1974 or 1975 has been proved correct. We were in for stagnation or slow growth not catastrophe for at least ten years or more. In that situation possibilities of struggle and for propaganda would arise. I deduce from that economic perspective that revolutionary organisations could be slowly built.)

The people that I have described were only a very small fraction of the membership, even the working class membership, in 1973-5. So what went wrong? The answer which Cliff finds difficult to face is that he completely misread the crisis for British capital at this point. 1973 was to be our 1905!! The IS acted as if it was in a pre-revolutionary situation. At one time (September 1975) we were ordered to expect to move into illegality! This part of the history is not mentioned today, though, if pressed, its historians will concede that it happened.

Since we seemed to be losing our sense of reality, rather an important qualitv in political affairs, this was the end of the road for me. A high proportion of the cadre, petty bourgeois it is true, but much of it of high quality, quit. Most of the shop stewards left too. What had taken twenty years to create was thrown away. What remained was, of course, just as petty bourgeois but dimmer, even if energetic. Of some of these one is reminded of the dictum of the great General von Schiefflen. "There are four kinds of officers. First, idle and intelligent officers. These make excellent generals. Second, industrious and clever officers. These make excellent staff officers. Third, idle and stupid officers. These make excellent regimental officers. Finally, industrious and stupid officers. These are not to be employed in any capacity whatever!"

At a crucial point in a quarrel on the central committee Duncan Hallas went over to Cliff. I was not aware of any of the details until a dozen years later but I knew that, as a result, there was considerable personal bitterness between Hallas and Higgins. This whole dispute, including the removal of Higgins from the secretaryship, was never discussed by the members. It was a coup in the manner of the Kremlin. Higgins too was in part to blame for not bringing this into the open.

Since then the IS/SWP has tended to turn away from the class. With its influence in the class ebbing it renamed itself a party like a desperate marketing manager with an unsaleable product changing the label! At various times since, it has given priority to different campaigns of which the ANL was undoubtedly the most successful. After throwing the old strategy overboard they lurched from one opportunistic stunt to another. Such campaign activity, though often useful, should have been subsidiary to the slow persistent work in the unions of gaining recruits to the idea of class struggle and socialism, as we originally had envisaged. There are, after all, even fewer working class socialists today than when Cliff formed the IS in the sixties. The style of the SWP, since at any rate the late seventies, has been much more sectarian than the period with which I am familiar.

This sectarianism was of course caused by a lack of strategy and perspective. Since the membership was vulnerable to poaching, and was probably perceived by the leadership to be more vulnerable than it really was, it had to be sealed off from competitors and triumphalised with thee cry "We are the Champions, the Big Yin!" (This slogan became less important when the Militant was even bigger, as it then sounded a bit thin, but has since had a revival after the Millies split.) Our old belief was that revolutionaries in the unions will work with anybody for their limited programmatic aims. The crucial point is the aims. Revolutionaries are not frightened of different politics. Their own are so much clearer and better. So IS was not at all sectarian in its attitude to other tendencies because it was so confident in its ideas.

It is easy to see what was wrong in hindsight. At the time I realised that the whole thing was a disaster but I did not see it with any clarity any more than I suspect Cliff did. Certainly the downturn in the class struggle and the successful demobilisation of the class by the Wilson/Callaghan governments contributed to the crisis within the IS/SWP and the split of 1976. Of course, whatever had happened the objective conditions would have been difficult, but a revolutionary leadership exists, and claims to exist, to overcome these. The leadership of the IS/SWP never brought its disagreements before the membership, perhaps because they were not entirely clear what these were and they knew how weak and fragile the membership was. Were they wrong not to bring all their disagreements before the membership? "Pas devant les enfants!" I think they were more often correct than not, but it is a matter of judgment. Higgins was certainly ill-advised not to make a fight of it. Cliff is an awkward customer though.

People like Nigel Harris stepped away from the nastiness. Not only politics but personal characteristics, unfortunately but inevitably, play a terribly important role in a small organisation. Perhaps the leadership exaggerated the backwardness of the membership. It would be very human to overestimate your own importance. Thus the leadership tended to become a clique. I, who was expelled at the time, certainly saw things in very personal terms, in retrospect over-personal, and abused poor thick John Rose who was only trying to keep his job as a full-timer. By not trusting the membership, the membership did not develop.

Could it have been different? My answer is a resounding yes! Whether Cliff felt his advancing years and so his chances of fame slipping away I do not know. (His later behaviour has been unkindly if accurately summed up by John Sullivan thus: "Cliff’s life of Lenin is written in the peculiar style of a biography of John the Baptist by Jesus Christ.") Did he then, through vanity, lose his nerve and start to behave in an irrational political manner? That is possibly so. Nevertheless I believe that – if the signs had been read aright – then the IS would have continued, true with some difficulty, to develop its working class cadre and forces. This would not have changed the course of history much in the seventies, even if the group had become larger and more implanted in industry as I think that it could have done, though with great pain and effort. Certainly its influence overall would have been bound to diminish in the circumstances of the Callaghan government. By 1983-4, though, such an organisation might have changed the course of the miners’ strike or even averted it altogether, for the Tories had to be sure that the balance of class forces was overwhelmingly favourable to them before they provoked that bitter defensive struggle. A revolutionary group that included two hundred working class cadres, which might have been possible by 1984, could have been a subject rather than an object of history in a crisis. Thereafter it is impossible to predict the course of events. But it was not to be. If one man bears the responsibility for that failure it is Tony Cliff. So History will not remember him save as a footnote in the most boring of Ph.D theses. Yet he built the IS and could have been something more.

It is easy to criticise the present day SWP. They have trained a layer since I left, not totally badly. They have an excellent bookshop and a quite outstanding BookMarks club, the like of which the Trotskyist movement in this country has never had before. Their paper is by far the most readable of any, and I would put Socialist Worker rather than anything else into the hands of any contact that I sought to swing leftwards, even if I have occasional criticisms of the line. Together with some dross they have produced some excellent studies such as Callinicos and Harman on The Changing Working Class and Harman on 1968 in The Fire Last Time. They are, though, often very sectarian in their behaviour despite the excellence of many (not all) of their theoretical positions. I would argue that since the end of the seventies the SWP had capitulated to different trendiness, sexual life-stylers and some black nationalist careerists, though not, after some wavering, to middle class women. These today represented the same class forces as the old Mao-spontaneists of the sixties but most other groups have done far worse than the SWP.

"Once we fought the workers’ fight, / Now they praise the catamite!"

Yet if one takes off into one’s own private concerns, as I did from 1976 onwards, with an increasingly middle class life-style, consumption pattern and preoccupations, one makes no contribution, even if one keeps one’s eyes open and mind alert. I have recruited no people, young or old, to Marxism. Duncan Hallas is absolutely right when he says that organisation is terribly important. It is not enough for an individual to have good ideas.

No man goes through the same stream twice. We cannot go back through the sixties and seventies. We lost the chance of building a small but real working class revolutionary party in the upsurge of working class activity in the seventies that has now been finally crushed with the terrible defeat of the miners’ strike. Will there will be new upsurges in the forthcoming years? Undoubtedly! When and where this will occur will he dependent on broad historical trends and social changes. It is easy to he pessimistic. Who in 1979 would have predicted the depth and class war savagery of the miners’ strike? Or in 1967 the French General Strike of ’68? Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will is not a bad slogan for socialists.

September 1987, updated June 1992


Parts of two letters from Jim Higgins

23 October 1989
Broadly speaking though the argument in 1974/5 was about short & medium term strategy. The IS opposition argued that transitional politics in the 1970s was by serious implantation in the trade unions, through the agency of a Rank & File movement. We argued that such a movement could be built (the widespread disenchantment with the TU bureaucracy, the existence of powerful lay bodies within the unions & the politically induced incapacity of the CP) and an organisation like IS, with a small but not insignificant worker membership, was ideally placed to carry out this task. Such a transitional bridge to the party would require serious long-term work on the part of the whole organisation but over that term this would iron out the extreme oscillations in membership and influence from which the then current recruitment policy suffered.

One last point, you ask why Cliff behaved in the way that he did? I don’t think this is anything peculiar to Cliff. It is something peculiar to small groups and circle politics. It is, for example, not accidental that Healy’s various groups are thuggish, that Grant’s are stultifyingly boring and that Cliff’s suffer from wild oscillations. They all spent too much time in the wilderness, never having to submit themselves to an overwhelmingly working class milieu. All of them have spent more than half a century ploughing their lonely furrow. Over a shorter time-scale Trotsky had been through 1905, 1917, Soviet power and been assassinated. For Cliff each small favourable conjunction is blown up into an Archimedes lever. Hope springs eternal in the Cliffite breast. There may even he some dialectical psychosis involved here. Once a genuine workers’ party is on the cards, it cannot he controlled over the telephone, or in small sub-fusc meetings. The movement cannot he permitted to make its own mistakes, it must make those devised by Cliff/ Healy/ Grant ...

The Workers League was too small to operate on the basis of our perspective for a soundly based revolutionary politics. The alternative, the IMG, had all IS’s faults with an extra matching number they specially designed for themselves. In sum IS was ideally placed at that time to build an enduring revolutionary movement with a significant periphery that just might have transformed the situation in the 1980s. It is very sad.

10 November 1989, after seeing comments by Ian Birchall
The significant fact about IS in the early 1970s was that it was qualititively different from all the previous groups and sects deriving from the Fl, that this country has seen. It did have some penetration in the working class, it did have some small but significant worker membership and it also had the resources in manpower and technical assets to mount worthwhile initiatives. My view was that the building of a rank-and-file movement was the way to build a genuine party in Britain. Why should we be more successful than the CP in the 1920s and the pre-WWI socialist groups? So far as the CP was concerned it had acquired a wide periphery from the SSWCM and the various sects but it was bolloxed by the CI. The earlier socialists were either purely political or syndicalist and found no way of harmonising their differences in a revolutionary way. (All this is a very serious simplification of a complicated process but I think it stands.) IS of course did not have anything like the sympathetic fringe that the CP had in the ’20s but it certainly had the resources to build such a fringe. It would have taken time and it would not have shown up in the membership figures but it would have represented a serious long term perspective that the pragmatic head counting denied us. More than that, it would have wrenched the organisation into a consistent working class orientation. Whether that would have denied us the benefits of the ANL and the women’s movement I cannot say. It is doubtful if it would and, if it had, it would have been a worthwhile exchange.

[...] a growing, IS-influenced, R&F movement would have transformed the group’s trade union work and made possible genuine intervention at Trico, Grunwicks etc – both directly and through pressure in the TU machinery. All the time we would have been winding up the ratchet to a slightly higher level. Instead we had membership campaigns punctuated by pragmatic responses to the world outside.