“Exposed” in the current right wing campaign against Ken Livingstone, as the underground group central to Livingstone’s “team”, Socialist Action have always been a weird collection of individuals. Right-wing and strangely apolitical when Martin Thomas wrote this history in February 1991 (Socialist Organiser 476), they are much more right-wing today.
It is a long story, and there isn’t space for it all here. Even a short outline has to go back to 1971, when John Ross, the chief ideologue of Socialist Action today, joined the International Marxist Group.
The IMG was a small, dim group. Its chief distinguishing thought was enthusiastic speculation about the revolutionary socialist qualities of movements such as Castroism in Cuba and the NLF in Vietnam. It had done good work in building the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, and, like all the left groups, it had grown in the agitation of the late 60s. And it was, in general terms, Trotskyist.
But it was floundering. It was narrowly student based, at a time when industrial militancy was rising. It was involved in, or ran, a vast range of campaigns, none of which ever seemed to come to much.
And then came Ross. A student at Oxford University, he had been a Maoist and then a “bright young thing” in the SWP (then called IS). In fact, though he denies it, he joined the IS as a scout for Reg Birch’s Maoist group and stayed! During a spell in hospital he was recruited to the IMG. Gathering around himself a group of students and ex-students who likewise fancied themselves as intellectuals, he quickly kicked the old leadership of the IMG into the sidelines and took over the group for his so-called “new thinking”.
The “new thinking” was as nearly as possible the opposite of Socialist Action’s current approach. The error, it declared, of all previous Trotskyism and of the old leadership of the IMG was to make “calls to action”. In truth the job of Marxists was to make rounded general propaganda.
The IMG’s members reoriented to industrial struggles, using social security advice through Claimants’ Unions as their means to make contact, avoiding conflict with militants by avoiding “calls to action”, and making general propaganda.
The new thinking worked as a means for reorienting and managing the group; or at least it worked for a short while. In the summer of 1972 Uganda expelled its Asian community. The Tory government honoured the Asians’ British passports and admitted them to Britain. There was a racist backlash. The IMG’s paper commented: “Asians: Big Chance for Left”.
The reasoning was that the racist backlash created a big need for general socialist propaganda. (Analogy: “Black Death: Big Chance for Doctors”).
At this time many of Ross’s former allies rebelled. Over the next few months a big opposition developed in the IMG.
Its chief agitation was for the IMG to adopt the “call to action” General Strike to kick the Tories Out. This was a commonplace slogan of the left in those days of high industrial militancy against the Tory government; and, in my view, a confused slogan too. Nevertheless it gave the anti-Ross faction a clear and unmistakable banner.
Ross responded by outflanking the opposition. In early 1973 he took up General Strike to kick the Tories Out as his own slogan, and started denouncing the opposition for their “social-democratic” misunderstanding of it!
Only in a group where the activists’ basic Marxist education and critical faculties had been first softened by the years of speculation about the “world revolutionary process”, then overwhelmed by hundreds of pages of philosophical mumbo-jumbo about the “new thinking”, could this bizarre turn have been possible. Only in such a group could Ross’s combination of manic energy, low ingenuity, high pretence, and utter shamelessness in the use and abuse of ideas have qualified him for leadership.
That turn set the pattern for 12 years or so. Constantly stealing marches on an increasingly punchdrunk but usually uproarious opposition, Ross led the group through a series of wild political cavortings.
By the time of the miners’ strike in 1985 the faction fighting had become more complicated. As well as the “traditional” anti-Rossite opposition there was a new faction, co-thinkers of the Socialist Workers Party in the USA (no relation to the SWP Britain), whose chief plank was political identification with a “new leadership of the world revolution” to be found in the Sandinistas, the Cuban government, and the ANC in South Africa.
The “traditional” opposition insisted on some critical distance from those forces, and stressed more serious work in the Labour Party. (After being largely sidelined by the big Labour Party struggles of 1979-81 — in the 1979 election campaign it ran jointly with some smaller groups, a state of anti-Labour candidates called Socialist Unity — the IMG had dissolved and regrouped around a newspaper in the Labour Party, Socialist Action).
Ross’s faction maintained control by tacking between the two other factions, allying first with one and then with the other. Then he outflanked them both, simultaneously.
He insisted on 100% uncritical support of Scargill in the miners’ strike, and declared that the miners’ leadership was part of a new class-struggle vanguard worldwide, together with the ANC, the Sandinistas, and various Labour left groupings (Black Sections, Women’s Action Committee, Campaign Group of MPs). Thus he could be more pro-Sandinista than the SWP cothinkers and more Labour Party oriented than the other opposition!
This ideological manoeuvre did not hold the group together, but it did enable Ross to keep control of Socialist Action while the two oppositions flaked away — the SWP cothinkers to form the Communist League, and the traditional opposition to launch International, then Socialist Outlook (then ISG).
Motivated by its new ideology, the group round Socialist Action, at this point  very small, has squirrelled its way into many leading positions in the ancillary staff of the broader Labour left. Carol Turner, for example, was secretary of Labour CND, and that gave her the basis to become secretary of the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf [in 1991].
The broad reformist left is usually short of quartermasters and aides de camp, and no one fills those jobs better than revolutionaries possessed by an inner vision which tells them that the reformist campaign is, in its secret essence, the stuff of revolution. Socialist Action [does this with] the production and distribution of Campaign Group News for the Campaign Croup of MPs.
The whole bizarre history is a lesson on the need to build a Marxist left wing in the labour movement based on clear ideas and strict political accounting.
In their outward form, Ross’s enterprises have been attempts to build such a left wing. In reality they have been the opposite; to borrow an image from nuclear physics, they have been the “anti-matter” of Marxist politics.
A Marxist left wing is the memory of the labour movement. Activists grouped together only organisationally, without a theoretical basis, have only their individual experience to go on; they lack the discipline of having to spell out collective ideas at each stage, compare what’s said today to what’s been said in the past, analyse mistakes, learn lessons; they are easily swayed by the ebbs and flows of amorphous left opinion.
Far from being an antidote, a contribution to forming a continuous memory, the Ross grouping has worked to wipe out even such consistent memory as honest and serious individuals without theoretical baggage or the aid of a collective might have.
All the twists and turns have been basically bright ideas for organisational advantage. And the theoretical uproar surrounding them has served not to put the gambits in broad context, or to provide a framework for evaluating them, but to obscure, thwart and derail even the most elementary commonsense practical evaluation.
Instead of theory illuminating practice, and practice checking and exposing errors in theory, theory has been subordinated to perceived practical advantage, and practical judgement subordinated to manufactured theoretical mumbo jumbo.
For our clashes with Socialist Action over the collapse of Stalinism, see here.