Alan Clinton and the Trotskyist Movement

Submitted by Anon on 4 March, 2005 - 2:36 Author: Sean Matgamna

Alan Clinton, who in 1974 co-edited, with Richard Chappell, a collection of Trotsky’s writings on Britain in three volumes, has died of cancer at the age of 61. He lived a political life that encapsulated the history of the British left over 40 years. He is entitled to the respect of an honest, critical account of his political life.

Beginning as a youthful Trotskyist, he wound up as the Blairite leader of Islington council in 1994–7. The last time I saw him, more than a decade ago, on Upper Street, Islington, he responded to an aggressive question about his subsidence into Labourism with the statement that there would be a time to evaluate this period of his life, but that it hadn’t arrived yet. I don’t know if it ever did.

Born in Dublin, to middle-class parents, he came with his family to England at the age of 11. As a student at Oxford in the 1960s, Clinton joined the Labour Party youth movement and then the Socialist Labour League (SLL), which, led by Gerry Healy, was the main Trotskyist organisation of that time.

The SLL was then still a relatively sane and sober organisation. The student group in Oxford, selling the SLL’s paper at the Cowley car factories, made contact with car workers, some of whom were eventually recruited to the SLL and formed the organisation’s most important industrial base. But the SLL, which was always a very authoritarian organisation, was turning rigidly sectarian. Through the 1960s it increasingly cut itself off from the labour movement. By the early 70s its central, all-controlling leader, Gerry Healy, was slowly going mad and taking the organisation with him.

This political degeneration would end in the mid-70s with Healy selling the organisation (now called the Workers’ Revolutionary Party) to Arab governments, initially Libya, as a propaganda outlet and agency for spying on Arabs in Britain and on prominent British Jews, in return for large sums of money. The organisation would collapse in the mid 80s.

Alan Clinton was part of a group whose titular leader was Alan Thornett, a carworker, which broke away from the Healy group at the end of 1974.

By that point, the organisation had gone seriously crazy. The Thornett group was a break away from that to the right, by people who expected good things for the working class from the Wilson Labour government elected in February 1974.

Initially claiming as its membership the 200 people who had been expelled from the WRP, the group (called Workers’ Socialist League) attracted a lot of others looking for a political home. But the future of the group, the role it would play on the left, depended on its ability to come to terms with the history and the problems of the Trotskyist movement, including what had been specific to the SLL/WRP. They never came near to doing it.

The WSL reverted to the politics of the less sectarian Healy group of a decade earlier, modifying and augmenting them as experience and need suggested. The WSL organised itself as a loose and lacklustre low-watt personality cult around the “worker leadership” — Alan Thornett and Tony Richardson, but essentially Thornett, who had recently had wide publicity in the bourgeois press — and with the politics of each local group varying more or less according to the experience and predilection of the local leader.

The loose structure of the Workers’ Socialist League (WSL) allowed it to survive and recruit, but simultaneously condemned it to political incoherence, sterility and, ultimately, to political futility.

The self-designated “worker leadership” were the major public asset of the group in their capacity as car factory shop stewards — Thornett was a driver and Tony Richardson a line worker — and in their capacity of political leaders, they were its greatest liability. Politically passive and helpless, all they could do was pick and choose and arbitrate between the different political currents that existed in the organisation — and a lot of those who joined brought distinct politics with them — while keeping an eye on what the other “Trotskyist” groups were saying in order to keep within a “Trotskyist” consensus.

The talismanic “worker leadership” was the “court of last resort” for the organisation: nothing could move without their license.

Quite a few “intellectuals” had rallied round “the worker leadership”, including Alan Clinton. They were “suspect”, tolerated so long as they did not “get above themselves” and were willing to submit to the arbitration of the “worker leadership”, who frequently — in my experience later on — didn’t even have a clear idea of what was at issue. Most of them soon passed through the organisation. Alan Clinton, one of the WSL’s founders, and, at the beginning, one of its central people, was an “intellectual” who stayed.

At the start, the “worker leadership” were very arrogant, as they had been in the WRP, but life soon knocked that out of them. A recurring experience of the WSL was for hostile organisations to recruit a group of members, who then ran rampage in the organisation before walking out. This happened twice with the Spartacists and once with another American cult. It summed up the “worker leadership”’s helplessness, and their inability to learn either from books or from their own experience.

The “worker leadership” lost verve, nerve and members, and declined steadily. A lot of the political responsibility for letting that happen lay with the educated Marxists in the group. Alan Clinton’s role in this may have been the most important one. He was central to the WSL as it took shape. He bore a lot of the responsibility for setting up this sterile and essentially ridiculous “worker leadership” system in the new organisation.

In July 1981, after more than a year of discussion, the WSL fused with the International-Communist League (I-CL; forerunner of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty).

You’d have to be brain-damaged not to see from the WSL’s paper, Socialist Press, with its frequent romantically-posed photos of Alan Thornett, that it was something of a personality cult. But it seemed to be a comparatively limited, more or less harmless sort of cult, something rooted in their SLL/WRP past that was slowly dissolving into rational politics.

In fact, we found that the cult of the “worker leadership” made political life very difficult in the merged organisation. We found ourselves in a strange political world in which the “worker leadership” operated not by way of political discussion on the leading committees — or outside them — and decision-making on the basis of reason and argument, but by averaging out a consensus from the sum total of the variegated politics of those prepared to bow to the “worker leadership” and accept them as arbiters. They acted on the leading committees as “shop stewards” and spokesmen for their supporters. Everything was weighted against rational politics and rational procedures, which soon, when political differences arose, became impossible.

The political spectrum of their supporters ranged from ultra-left sectarians to those who made up the extreme “Labourist” right wing of the fused organisation, the “new WSL”.

Those “old WSL” “intellectuals” who stayed had chosen to accept and cultivate the “worker leadership” and their muddy, often confused “lowest common denominator” politics, governed by mood and consideration of the personal popularity of the “worker leadership” that were inseparable from it.

Alan Clinton had a sort of “parental” indulgence for the “worker leadership”, having helped recruit Alan Thornett to the SLL in 1966, but by 1981 he was peripheral. The Oxford-educated “intellectual” who was joint editor of the weekly paper, John Lister, was so well-trained that you could agree with him, or jointly write an article with him, and then, when the “worker leadership” didn’t like it or denounced it, see him vote on the Executive Committee to condemn himself, and you, for the article! The self-denouncing vote happened rarely; lesser examples of the same thing, frequently.

The late Adam Westoby, a member of the original youth group of the early 1960s to which Alan Clinton had belonged, and a great friend of Clinton’s, who had helped found and then passed through the WSL, once said to me: “But it isn’t an accident that it is someone like Lister who survives at the centre of this group.” No. Alan Clinton would, on my observation, think for himself, and was repelled by the masochistic, shameless self-abasement of a Lister, but by then he was marginal to the life of the group.

The fused organisation had a dozen or so Labour local councillors, of whom Alan Clinton became one in 1982. With a couple of exceptions not much political good came of them.

The fact that the organisation was soon engulfed in chronic factionalism made it impossible to even attempt to control them politically. Some became Labour Party local government routinists, for whom their revolutionary ideas were, except perhaps in an occasional “ceremonial” speech, a private affair. Alan Clinton was one of those too.

The breaking down of the WSL into warring and, as it proved, irreconcilable, factions began over the Falklands War of 1982. We all agreed on opposing the war, and all of us at the start favoured self-determination for the Falkland Islanders. Six weeks after the British fleet set sail, the Thornett group decided that we had been wrong not to back the Argentine military junta against Britain. That was a principle of “anti-imperialism”, they said.

First, without any prior warning, they tried a small coup, changing our position by a vote of 5–3 on an EC whose full membership was 12. After the National Committee majority rejected and overturned that, they declared a faction. In fact, it was the recomposition of the old WSL, counterposed to the rest of the organisation. From then on, the organisation unravelled.

Alan Clinton was militantly for Argentina, coining what then became the response of the Thornettites to all talk of the rights of the Falkland Islanders: “The Falkland Islanders? They wouldn’t populate two streets in Islington!” That disposed of their rights!

The Alan Clinton who took this stand had already become more of a Labour Party than a WSL member.

But then there was a lot of support for Argentina on the Labour left. The fascistic Argentine military junta were fighting Thatcher, weren’t they? What more did we want?

The parting of the ways came when Alan Clinton, as an Islington councillor, refused to back Islington building workers in dispute with the council. Our side of the WSL persuaded him to resign from the organisation, thinking that was the least troublesome way to handle the problem, and thinking of Alan Clinton as a fundamentally decent man succumbing in hard times to the delusions of municipal socialism. We should, I think now, have demonstratively expelled him.

The WSL was by that time on the point of split. Needing Clinton’s vote, Alan Thornett, the “Worker Leader”, persuaded Alan Clinton, the councillor who sided with his council colleagues against striking workers, to withdraw his resignation. So we expelled him from the WSL by majority vote.

Soon afterwards, the two segments of the WSL parted company, on the initiative of our side, which was by then the big majority. Only a few months after our third 1983 conference, the Thornett group started an internal agitation for yet another WSL conference to discuss “the internal situation”. On the EC they refused point blank even to tell us exactly what they intended to submit to this “special conference”. Their concern was to keep the factional pot boiling.

There were enough of them, with a few others, to invoke the constitutional provision that a 25% minority could at will demand a special conference.

To grant their wish could not but have cut the organisation off from the 1984-5 miners’ strike, which was just beginning, and turned the organisation inwards, towards hopeless wrangling on such questions as the “right” of the “worker leadership” not only to publish what they liked in the paper (they had that right), but also to do it without being contradicted and to suppress what they did not like.

We concluded that the organisation had irretrievably broken down. When they rejected an “amicable” divorce and a proportionate division of the group’s assets, we decided to end an impossible situation by majority vote. We issued an ultimatum to the Thornett group to either allow the organisation to function in the class struggle, or separate from us, and then, when they responded with a hue and cry about “democracy”, expelled them.

I don’t know whether Alan Clinton resumed relations with the newly liberated Thornett group. If he did, it wasn’t for long and it was of no political consequence.

By the time Alan Clinton got drawn into the local government left, the Labour left was past its peak, and the treacheries, venalities and the sheer, stark political unseriousness of the local government left had been made manifest by Ted Knight in Lambeth, David Blunkett in Sheffield, and Ken Livingstone in the GLC. Margaret Hodge in Islington was to follow on the same path.

Someone defined “fanaticism” as continuing to fight after you’ve forgotten what the fight is supposed to be about. It is not a bad definition of the Labour Party “left” — who were not slow to dismiss the obdurate, Marxist left as mindless doctrinaires and fanatics — when Clinton joined it and during the period of his eminence in it. They became so obsessed with “getting the Tories out” that they forgot why we needed to get them out and what socialists wanted to replace them with — minimally, a pro-working class, reforming Labour government.

To compete with the Tories, they moved, all through the late 1980s and into the 90s, onto Thatcher-Tory political ground. By 1997 they “got the Tories out”, the battered, lacklustre, John Major Tories, in order to put in Blair’s fresher, smarter, glossier Tory government!

The I-CL had been heavily involved in organising the Labour left. We separated from the local government left when Ken Livingstone and others reneged on their previous promises and threats to use local government as fortresses to resist Thatcherism.

Yet to Alan Clinton that local government left, drifting steadily to the right, must have looked more promising than the WSL.

Serious Marxists believe that the precondition for changing a situation unfavourable to socialist politics to one more favourable is that the Marxists hold their ground and go on advocating their politics. If the Marxists lose heart or nerve, efface their own politics, latch on to a role in the alien political “process” instead of their own proper role in such a situation, that of obdurate propagandists and critics, then the consequence will be needlessly to prolong, and even to perpetuate, working-class unripeness.

If the advocates of independent working class politics join the other camp, the bourgeois camp, by way of its reformist (or ex-reformist!) wing, then there will never be mass socialist working class politics. The working class will never be “ripe” — that is, educated, organised, and committed to all-out class war until we win. That has been the irreducible attitude of the authentic Marxist movement all the way back to Marx and Engels.

Most of the outsider commentaries, denouncing leaders as traitors, which made up the political stock in trade of Alan Clinton’s SLL-WRP and the early WSL, were only a variant of passive propaganda by people who thought verbal stridency was “action”; and the passive propagandist grown impatient often turns into the would-be reforming opportunist, or the out-and-out deserter.

He decides that his own politics are not “operational” and that here and now he can do a bit of good by way of some other politics — at first, something that can be plausibly construed as a stage, a step, a down payment for “his own”, that is, his former politics.

“Why”, he says to himself, becoming morally self-righteous, “it would be sheer cowardice not to make what contribution I can now”. My impression was that Alan Clinton’s health — he survived a battle with cancer in his late 30s — and life expectancy was one element in the political transformation he underwent.

Did he continue to think of himself as serving the labour movement? Rationalisation would be easy enough in the era of working class defeat after the miners’ strike. Especially to someone educated as Alan Clinton had been in the SLL/WRP’s incoherent denunciations of “syndicalism” and “economism”, “mere” trade unionism. But by the late 80s and after, as Islington council clashed again and again with the workers it employed, such a belief would have been hard to sustain.

Alan Clinton sometimes coined apt expressions, like this image from the boxing ring, for the relationship to the broad labour movement of the sort of sectarians in whose company he had spent most of his “Marxist” political life: “They throw in the towel — but with a good slogan scrawled on it.” Such understanding of the nature of the obstreperous, shadow-boxing sectarians from whose ranks he eventually graduated, did not go to making Alan a better revolutionary propagandist or activist, only to ensuring that when he threw in his own towel, there was not even a good slogan scrawled across it.

That he thought he could do good is true, I am sure. It was easy to fall into such a view in a “left-wing” council such as Islington’s. The “left” — led when Alan got involved by Margaret Hodge — that was rapidly becoming the ex-Labour left. It was a shame, because Clinton was a talented man, who had a lot to contribute to the work of revolutionary socialism.

He did contribute, but a great deal less than he was capable of contributing. From our point of view, which is that of the younger Alan Clinton, that was his tragedy.

People are responsible for themselves in politics. Alan Clinton was. Even so, a great deal of the responsibility for the fate of Clinton and many like him rests with those of us who failed to build a coherent Marxist organisation, integrated into the broader labour movement — able to make full use of their abilities, while giving them a justified sense that the work of the Marxist organisation was both the irreplaceable and the most useful thing they could engage in. The “us” here, of course, includes Alan Clinton himself.

It is work that continues now, as it did when Alan Clinton left us.