The “hard Trotskyists” of 1969

Submitted by AWL on 24 February, 2008 - 7:56 Author: Sean Matgamna

This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 10, intro)

This is an introduction to the main article: The SLL on Ireland

    This instalment is the tenth in a series on the Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left. The series is focused on the IS. There are good reasons for that.

    The descendant (by now, distant descendant) of the IS today is the SWP, the biggest organisation on the British left. The ancestor of AWL was the Trotskyist Tendency, part of IS at the time.

    The main debate on the British left in 1968-70 on Britain and Ireland — and all the issues encapsulated there that are important today vis-a-vis Iraq, etc. — took place between the leaders of IS and the Trotskyist Tendency.

    Other left tendencies existed in Britain then. They had “lines”, but all in all most didn’t have much to say about the complexities of Northern Ireland.

    One of those tendencies exists still, the Militant (RSL). Its present-day descendants are the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal. It would eventually have distinctive things to say about Ireland, but Militant had very little to say in the period we are concerned with.

    A group of supporters of the “Fourth International” current led by Ernest Mandel existed, the IMG. Though in 1969 it breathlessly told the world — in a big headline over a photograph on the cover of its magazine, International — that “Permanent Revolution” had “Arrived In The UK” [sic], it didn’t have a lot to say either. The present-day “FI” group of “Mandelite” extraction is a different strain altogether. The leader of the main faction of the IMG in the early 70s, when it occupied a prized place on the lunatic fringe of the Provisional IRA, was John Ross. Ross, today one of London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s well-paid minions, was at the 1969 IS conference a supporter of the IS leaders on Ireland.

    Another organisation existed then which has dropped from the stage — the Socialist Labour League (SLL), later Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). The SLL was the biggest and most important Trotskyist-revolutionary organisation in Britain then.

    It had supporters in Northern Ireland, and its paper — the twice-weekly Newsletter and, after 27 September 1969, the daily Workers’ Press — had a great deal to say about Ireland.

    The political “pressure” of the SLL, which was very strident and forceful, affected IS on Ireland, and some of those who opposed the IS leadership on the troops. The IS leaders used the SLL as a scarecrow against Trotskyism in general, and, on Ireland, against the Trotskyist Tendency.

    As has been noted in an earlier article, quite a few drop-outs from the SLL were in IS — most eminently, the editor of Socialist Worker, Roger Protz, formerly editor of the SLL youth paper Keep Left. Some of them were sensitive to the SLL campaign against IS on Ireland.

    The SLL had ancient “Irish” connections. The central figure in the organisation, Gerry Healy, was in origin a County Galway peasant. Born in 1913, he said that his father had been killed by the terrorist auxiliary police of the British occupying forces, the Black and Tans. He also said that he had been a Republican in his late teens before eventually joining the Stalinist movement. He became a Trotskyist in 1937.

    In the first half of the 50s, the paper of the Healy organisation, Socialist Outlook, had had the identikit British left attitude on Ireland — a working-class-focused version of Irish middle-class nationalism or “anti-imperialism”. That meant presenting Partition as exclusively a British imperialist imposition (not something also rooted in the division between the two peoples in Ireland), and seeing the Protestant-Unionists in the Six Counties as mere dupes of British imperialism.

    That approach changed in the second half of the 1950s. The Healy organisation recruited a lot of ex-CPers between 1956 and 1959, after the February 1956 denunciation of Stalin by his successor Khrushchev and the bloody Russian reconquest of Hungary in October-November 1956 led perhaps seven thousand people to leave the British Communist Party. (In 1956 the CP had perhaps 35,000 members). A couple of hundred, at least, from those 7000 were recruited to the Healy group.

    One of the most important of the ex-CPers was Brian Behan. Behan was a building worker from a Stalinist-republican family in Dublin. Two of his brothers were the playwright Brendan and the folk-singer and songwriter Dominic.

    He was a tremendous agitator on the building sites in London. In recognition of this he was elected a member of the CP Executive Committee in 1952, when he was in his early 20s.

    For years before he left the CP, he had been opposed to the party’s policy on Ireland for the very large Irish population in Britain. “Irish work” in Britain was very important for the CP. For that work it had a “front”, the Connolly Association, led by Desmond Greaves, who would become more widely known in the 60s as a writer on Ireland.

    So the Connolly Association preached socialism, or at least the Stalinist counterfeit of socialism, to the Irish immigrants who bought its paper, the Irish Democrat, in pubs on a Saturday night? No, not at all. The Connolly Association preached an Irish nationalism that was hard to distinguish from the outlook of the De Valera party, Fianna Fail — the main governing party in the 26 Counties, and identical to that of the Republican movement.

    Because Ireland did not join NATO when it was set up in 1949, and Dublin governments followed a mildly independent foreign policy, the 26 Counties state was therefore considered by the Communist Parties to be especially “progressive” — the most progressive country in western Europe, as Greaves said in the Irish Democrat!

    Brian Behan had argued in the CP that the Connolly Association should make socialist propaganda among Irish workers in Britain. He was not alone in that. In the first half of the 1950s, a sort of fringe ex-CP or critical-CP Irish left grew up around the Connolly Association in London. Some of them would, for instance, in the late 50s want to sell the Irish Socialist, the paper of the Irish Workers’ League, rather than the ersatz-nationalist Connolly Association paper. (The IWL was the “Communist Party” in the South; between 1941 and 1970, there were two Irish Stalinist parties, North and South).

    When Behan left the CP he took a layer of those people with him, and a few joined or “came round” the SLL. And he brought his influence among Irish building workers.

    From 1957 on, the attitude to Ireland in the Healyite press was de facto acceptance that partition was a fixed fact. It should largely be ignored, and socialists should attempt to relate to the two Irelands in terms of straightforward class politics.

    This was a working-class-focused version of the approach IS would adopt from the end of 1968, but without the contradiction — whose unfolding in IS I have described in earlier articles — of focusing on specifically Catholic, communal, cross-class grievances (“civil rights”).

    Behan separated from Healy in mid 1960, but the “turn” on Ireland continued. It has been criticised by “left” nationalists and populist-nationalists who call themselves Trotskyists (the ex-Welsh adoptive Irishman Rayner Lysaght, for example). But if it were possible — or looked as if it might be possible — to unite the Irish workers in straightforward class-struggle politics by ignoring the border, then it would, I think, he a socialist duty to do that.

    The argument against the Healyites’ post-1957 approach is one of practicalities — it was not in fact possible just to bypass the “constitutional question”. The Northern Ireland socialists in 1968-70 who did ignore the border issue thereby helped ensure that when it “emerged” it would have a Provisional IRA form on the Catholic side and a Paisleyite form on the Protestant-British-Irish side.

    The Healy organisation went completely off the political rails into blustering, declamatory ultra-leftism in the first half of the 1960s. Its “class” attitude on Ireland degenerated into treating Northern Ireland politics as a straightforward adjunct of British politics, ignoring the very important specific issues there.

    That was important because the SLL, though its work in the Labour Party Young Socialists in Britain, recruited supporters in the Northern Ireland Labour Party youth. (Although the NILP was a distinct Labour Party, and the British Labour Party did not organise in Northern Ireland, the NILP had a YS too).

    The SLL’s YS supporters were the first Irish Trotskyists since the demise of the very feeble Irish Trotskyist groupof the late 1940s. In Northern Ireland as in Britain, the Labour Party youth movement came to be a battleground between different Trotskyist and quasi-Trotskyist tendencies — between a loose coalition around the paper Young Guard on one side, and the Healyites on the other.

    Some of the small cluster of Northern Ireland IS supporters who, encouraged by Tony Cliff, came into the Irish Workers Group in early mid 1967 (with no IWG opposition to them coming in, and certainly not from me) had been shaped politically in the YS faction-fighting between Young Guard and the SLL.

    In the YG/SLL war, YG, like IS as a whole and more so, was anti-Leninist in its notions of organisations and of the relationship of industrial action to politics. It identified Bolshevism with the seriously bureaucratised Healy organisation. It held broadly to the notions of the self-sufficiency of working-class economic struggle which in Russia about 1900 Plekhanov, Axelrod, Martov, Lenin and Trotsky called “Economism”.

    Most importantly for understanding IS and PD on Ireland, Young Guard was heavily anarchistic. Despite being attached to the Labour Party, it expressed an inchoate, raw contempt for politics, leaders, “Marxist dogmatism”; and a raw belief in direct action.

    When IS “became Leninist” again at the end of 1968, the Northern Ireland IS-influenced people (the leaders of People’s Democracy) lagged behind the shift. Much that characterised the early PD was rooted in — or, indisputably, was identical to — the inchoate anarchistic politics of Young Guard in the mid 60s.

    To a serious extent they were shaped by reaction against the SLL.

    In 1969 the SLL remained the main “revolutionary” and “Trotskyist” group in the UK, with a large-ish and serious cadre, an accepted (indeed, fetishised and worshipped) tradition, and an implantation in a number of industries (far more than IS ever achieved, even in its best period for that, a couple of years in the mid 70s). But it was a radically sick organisation.

    It had long had a heavily bureaucratised internal regime. Healy was dictator, in a way that Cliff in IS never managed before the splitting off or expulsion of most of the old IS cadre in 1975.

    Free internal discussion — discussion not controlled and licensed by the leadership — and more or less organised, or even expressed, dissent did not exist in the SLL.

    The SLL had, under different names, made work in the broad labour movement central to what it was, the guide to what it was doing. It built itself within the Labour Party and the trade unions. From the late 1950s in tendency, and from the early mid 60s more and more all-definingly, the SLL shifted to the proposition that the organisational building-up of “the revolutionary party” in the abstract, namely the SLL, was all-important. In every important respect, it pioneered the politics that IS would adopt in the first half of the 1970s.

    It made “Build the Revolutionary Party” a slogan, and increasingly its central slogan. It developed the notion that the SLL itself, an organisation of a few hundreds and then a few thousands — was already the “alternative leadership”, competing on something like equal terms not only with the 20,000-plus-strong CP but also with the “fake” leaderships of the Labour Party and the trade unions.

    Incoherent in everything, it combined this “leadership” fetishism with an operational politics that saw “revolution” welling up spontaneously from “the crisis”. We will see this in its comments on Northern Ireland.

    The SLL thus transformed itself from an organisation working to develop the political consciousness of the mass working-class movement by the development of the class struggle and by its own educational work into a strident declamatory force, substituting literary “exposures” of the existing leadership’s inadequacies and betrayals for patient work within the movement. Its fetish of its own press and of its own organisation came to be an all-consuming passion. It played a destructive role in the class struggle.

    Logically enough, the fetishism of the organisation led the SLL to what can be called “Apparatus Marxism”. The organisation’s needs, calculations, self-development and self-promotion determined what it emphasised, and on the level of political fundamentals.

    Of course, every living political organism adapts its “message” to its audience, to the concerns and the level of understanding of the people it reaches. The revolutionary organisation decides in any given situation what ideas, slogans, proposals to put to the fore, and which ones not to emphasise, in order to take the movement forward.

    But all of that is properly done within a tight framework of basic ideas, and in the service not primarily of opportunity-grasping and danger-avoiding by the revolutionary organisation, but of developing the consciousness, self-confidence, organisation, and class-assertiveness of workers.

    The Communist Manifesto of 1848 put it like this: “The Communists... have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole... [They] are on the one hand practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”.

    The programme Trotsky wrote for the Fourth International 90 years later put the same idea in a different focus: “to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives — these are the rules of the Fourth International”.

    You tell the truth. You analyse and define the given reality. You try to work out what its possibilities are. You deduce what the working class and its militants should propose and try to do to take things forward, to educate and enlighten themselves.

    The SLL leaders, in their self-worship of their organisation and their press, had shed most of those guiding ideas by 1969. What they said and did was determined not by the needs of the class and the class struggle, but by what they thought would allow the SLL, the Party, the predesignated “Leadership”, to grow and accumulate resources. For most of 1967, they went Maoist, backing the Mao faction in the so-called Cultural Revolution in China. In general, they slotted living events into preconceived scenarios borrowed from the past, in a way that allowed them to emphasise the centrality of their own organisation. In 1968-9, they were in effect parodying Third Period ultra-left Stalinism.

    The tragic deterioration of the SLL was the core of the tragedy that engulfed the working-class movement and the revolutionary left in the 1970s and 80s. The parallels with what the IS-SWP became in the 1970s and 80s and after do not need stressing.

    Main article:The SLL on Ireland