The origins of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty: the thirteen questions
(This is an expanded version of the text in Workers Liberty 3/26)
The political tendency now organised as AWL originates from Workers’ Fight, a small Trotskyist group formed in 1966. Why, and how?
Workers’ Fight came into existence as a distinct tendency in response to two linked “crises”.
There was a prolonged crisis of British capitalist society, and of the labour movement which had grown so very powerful within it and yet was unable — despite a mass socialist sentiment in the trade unions — to overthrow capitalism and replace it by a working-class socialist system.
That would be resolved in the victory of Thatcher and the defeat of the old labour movement.
And there was a crisis of the older Trotskyist (and quasi-Trotskyist: IS, later SWP) currents. That would be “resolved” by the would-be Trotskyist groups turning themselves into self-oriented sects — “revolutionary parties” — each oscillating like a spinning top on its own axis, around itself and the politics that would, it thought, allow it to survive and grow.
In the mid-1960s there was no organisation based on the politics of the Workers’ Party/ Independent Socialist League "heterodox Trotskyist" current. In Britain there were four or five Trotskyist or Trotskisant groups that had any sort of organisational or political future, all of them rooted in 1940s “orthodox Trotskyism”. So was Tony Cliff of IS, though the IS organisation was not: this would shape the evolution of Cliff and the IS organisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two of them still exist, more or less, much changed.
With the welfare state created in its modern form by the post-1945 Labour government as safety net; with full employment and a prolonged seller’s market in labour-power; with organisation industrially in the trade unions, whose membership was steadily growing, and politically in the Labour Party, the working class was an immense power in British capitalist society.
In the factories and in whole industries we could and did, in practice, challenge the right of the capitalist class to rule as it liked, in its own interests. In the 1806s Karl Marx had called the Ten Hours Act a little bit of the working-class political economy imposed on the capitalist system. The welfare state was that — and on a very large scale.
The nationalisations of the 1945-51 Labour government — and of the 1974-9 Labour government — were of course only measures of state-capitalist rationalisation of the capitalist system by the capitalist state, in the fundamental interests of the capitalist ruling class. But typically they brought benefits to the working class; conditions for the miners improved enormously, for example.
When the Tories won the 1951 election (though getting fewer votes than the Labour Party, they got more seats, by dint of the electoral system), the Trotskyists expected an immediate Tory drive to reverse the welfare state provisions of the outgoing government — a Tory social counter-revolution.
It did not come. The opposite: the Tory government denationalised steel, but embraced the welfare state and even expanded it. The political reputation of Harold Macmillan, who became prime minister in January 1957, had been made by his success as Housing Minister. The big push of “counter-revolution” against Labour’s constitutional revolution of 1945-8 came fully thirty years later — in Thatcher’s offensive against the labour movement after 1979. And even then the post-1945 welfare state was, though damaged, not destroyed.
One very small group of Trotskyists, around a Glasgow barber (and future MP, from 1973) Harry Selby, maintained in the mid-60s that there was in Britain a condition of “dual power” between the working class and the bourgeoisie, something akin to the dual power between the Provisional Government and the Soviets in Russia in 1917, before the October Revolution.
As a conceptualisation, that was bizarre, not least because it took no account of the stable bourgeois state and all that implied for the future. But it caught some of the reality.
The situation continued for twenty, twenty-five, thirty years, as did the long waves of industrial working-class militancy; but it could not last indefinitely. Either the working class and the labour movement would push further, and take control of society — or the bourgeoisie would regain full control of affairs in “their own” bourgeois society. Our gains would be rolled back, perhaps, so the founders of Workers’ Fight thought, bloodily.
When the roll-back came, it came in the form of Thatcher’s offensive — against a labour movement which, stricken by a tremendous economic slump from 1980, which brought mass unemployment accepted defeat, by and large without a fight. It came with much destruction and suffering for the defeated working class — for a whole young generation in many parts of the country in the 1980s — but bloodlessly, except for the hundreds physically damaged and a few killed in the miners’ strike.
In France they used to call the hellish fever-ridden penal colony on Devil’s Island “the dry guillotine”. Thatcherism as bourgeois counter-revolution was our dry guillotine.
The TUC general secretary, George Woodcock, could orate at the 1960 TUC congress that the labour movement had come in from the cold, into “the corridors of power”. But his successors bowed meekly and accepted being expelled from those “corridors of power” without a struggle.
Such was the prolonged crisis of British capitalist society, and its resolution for the bourgeoisie by the Thatcher government after 1979. The crisis of Trotskyism was equally prolonged.
It wasn’t of course a purely British crisis. It is best and most briefly summed up by the answers that the Brtish Trotskyists gave to a series of linked political questions. We, “Workers’ Fight”, posed those questions in our polemic against Militant in 1966. That polemic was focused on Militant, but was nonetheless for us a matter of summing up on the other Trotskyist groups too, in the first place the SLL (later WRP). At the time the SLL was the biggest and most seriously organised of the Trotskyist groups. It was in a league of its own compared to the others, the IS, the Mandelite proto-IMG, and Militant.
1. Was there already an adequate socialist consciousness in the British labour movement? Militant said yes, there was.
We said no. The “socialist consciousness of the labour movemen” is vague, unfocused, a matter of hopes and of resolutions nodded through at union conferences that in practice count for little or nothing.
The SLL said that too, less clearly. But for them every economic struggle would quickly lead to political conclusions — especially when the state got involved, which then by definition made the industrial struggles “political”.
The SLL’s approach was a variant of what Lenin, Plekhanov, Martov and Trotsky in Russia had called “economism”.
IS was even more “economistic”. It behaved and talked as if every strike was indistinguishable from socialism. It used “workers’ control” as a synonym for socialism.
2. Would the British labour movement, including the Labour Party, evolve organically, ever to the left, until it was an adequate revolutionary socialist movement, led by a Marxist and Trotskyist party? Militant said yes.
We said no. The political and organisational transformation of the labour movement would have to be won, spearheaded, organised by Marxists; or it would not happen.
The sectarianism of the main Trotskyist organisation, the SLL, prevented them from playing the necessary role here. It made them, with their fetish of their own organisation — the self-designated "revolutionary party" — and their “build the revolutionary party” sloganising, a negative force in working-class politics, and increasingly so.
3. Was the future a matter of inexorable evolution to working-class victory, or could the whole movement be thrown back by way of working-class defeats at the hands of the ruling class? Militant predicted inexorable evolution to socialism.
We said no. Defeat, most likely bloody defeat, was possible and, without radical changes in the labour movement, inevitable. We quoted Trotsky: “The bourgeoisie is not a stone dropping into an abyss but a living historical force which struggles, manoeuvres, advances now on its right flank, now on its left...”
The SLL, from the end of the 1960s, talked as if military dictatorship was an immediate threat.
4. Would the British working-class revolution be a purely peaceful affair, with the ruling class surrendering quietly to a socialist working class intent on destroying the bourgeoisie as a possessing and ruling class? Militant’s main leaders said yes, it would.
We said no. In the light of history, the idea of peaceful revolution was absurd.
On that, the SLL said the same as us. IS, until the mid 60s, presented its programme in its press as a list of demands for a future Labour government to carry out.
5. What was a “Marxist perspective”? Not “the perspective”, not any specific perspective, but a perspective per se, a "perspective" as a tool of orientation by the Marxists?
Was it a “prediction”, and thereafter a passive waiting on events, for the “train” of History, which the Marxists had identified and boarded, to arrive at its predesignated destination of socialism? Or did it belong more to the thinking that James Connolly, after Machiavelli, had neatly summed up thus: “The only true prophets are those who carve out the future they announce”.
Militant made a fetish of its own "perspective", its predictions about the future of British capitalism, and the British Labour Movement. In effect Militant said that “perspectives” were a matter of catching the inexorable “train” of History, for which they alone possessed an accurate timetable... We said that was mechanistic joke-shop Marxism, not revolutionary Marxism.
The SLL acted as if it believed voluntarism, sloganising, “building the party”, could realise the perspective of socialist revolution, more or less at will, irrespective of the general, objective, social and political conditions.
6. Was a revolutionary party necessary for working-class socialist victory? If so, what was its nature? What was its role? What was its fundamental activity? How should it be organised? Was it a democratic political party, or a cult? How did it relate to the pre-existing labour movement?
Paying lip-service to the Lenin-Trotsky tradition, Militant and the SLL were both sectarian cults, though different in many details. IS was loose and federal and relatively liberal, but it too was a cult, around the Cliff-Kidron-Rosenberg extended family.
Confronting bureaucratic sectarian models of organisation, we advocated what we saw as Lenin's and Trotsky's version of democratic centralism — one without bureaucratic privileges for the leadership and in which the organisation's machinery should be neutral in political disputes, though its staff took and advocated political positions.
7. What was the Labour Party — “the workers’ party”, or a “bourgeois workers’ party”?
All agreed that it was flatly “the workers’ party” — until we in 1966 disinterred the definition from Lenin and the early Comintern, that it was a “bourgeois workers’ party”.
8. Should Marxists work in the Labour Party, the mass party of the trade unions? The RSL/Militant said "yes", without qualification. Against our criticism, they insisted that their paper, "Militant" would be just as it was even if it were not restricted by the exigencies of Labour Party "legality'. The SLL had taken itself out of the Labour Party in 1963-4.
We said "yes", but also that Marxists should not "go native" in a politically alien social democratic party like the Labour Party. They should mantain a hard political identity of their own. We thought that demanded of Militant that they should have at least one publication that was in no degree restricted by what was "legal" in the Labour Party.
9. Should Marxists in the Labour Party try to organise the broader left, or confine themselves to general propaganda for socialism and for “the perspective”? That had often been an issue amongst the Trotskyists.
Militant said explicitly that Marxists should confine themselves to propaganda. In fact, they made old Fabian propaganda for nationalisation by the bourgeois state. They didn’t even stipulate that it should be nationalisation “under workers’ control”.
[A perennial running dispute in the Labour Party Young Socialists in the mid 60s had Militant insisting that nationalisation of “the monopolies” was the great working-class demand, and IS dismissing it in favour of “workers’ control”. We said: this is idiocy! Both “ignore” the question of state power.]
Whether Marxists should organise a left broader than their own forces, on limited issues, had been a disputed issue between the proto-SLL and the proto-Militant in the 1940s and early 1950s. It was a big issue between the Grantites and the Mandelites in the late '50s.
One of the two "precipitating" disputes between the proto- Workers Fight and the Grantites in 1965-6 was wbout wheteher or not we should organise a broad left-wing campaign against the Labour Government's statutory incomes policy, under which the unions would be legally hobbled in wage disputes with employers. Simultaneously, we argued for the creation of a harder "open" RSL Marxist publication...
10. How did Marxists relate to the industrial class struggle? Go along with it, more or less exclusively on its own level (and, paradoxically, thereby undervalue its potential — its political potential?) “Support” it, but passively, seeing the general propaganda work of the Marxists — in the Militant case, very diluted and adulterated propaganda — as more important?
This was the second important issue in our dispute with the leaders of Militant, focused of the paper's responses to the seafarers’ strike in mid 1966. They dismissed it as an “ephemeral phenomenon” (Peter Taaffe), which we shouldn't get too excited about.
The SLL talked as if big strikes were the socialist revolution. IS, then, aspired to no more than a humble middle-class servicing role in relation to strikes and industrial militants.
We criticised the IS approach; but, as compared to the other two, we thought it preferable, and less destructive.
11. What was Stalinism? This argument was not, despite superficial appearances, about name-tags: degenerated and deformed workers’ states, state capitalism, bureaucratic collectivism.
It was about whether Stalinism was progressive or reactionary in relation to capitalism, and whether it was a short-term or a long-term phenomenon in history.
Although Militant called the Stalinist states “degenerated and deformed workers’ states”, and IS called them “state capitalist”, in practice both of them saw Stalinism as a long-term new form of class society, stretching beyond or at the most advanced “end” of capitalism. In different ways they both saw in Stalinism 'the wave of the future'.
IS saw it as "deflected Permanent Revolution", the alternative by default to the working class revolution in the Third World, where capitalism was incapable of advancing.
It is now forgotten that the Trotskyists then dismissed the Cliff group, with its account of Stalinism as "state capitalism", as people who were in logic apologists for Stalinism, conferring on it a historical legitimacy and necessity which the "degenerated and deformed workers' state" Trotskyists denied to it. [For evidence, see the review in their paper, Socialist Review, by Peter Morgan of the 1955 book version of Cliff's "Russia: a Marxist Analysis": his main concern is to answer this charge.]
Militant/RSL saw Stalinism as the first stage in an ever-advancing world socialist revolution, a consequence on one side of he "delay" of the working class revolution and on the other of "the autonnomous movement of the forces of production": History and the first stage of the socialist revolution couldn't wait for the working class, and didn't "at this stage" need the working class as the protagonist of socialism against capitalism.
Militant was starkly critical of "totalitarian", "proletarian-bonapartist" Stalinism in power, while simultaneously arguing that it was unconditionally progressive as against capitalism.
Using a hollowed-out parody of Trotsky's terminology in the 1930s, what they described was a new form of class society, coming between capitalism and working class socialism. They were "bureaucratic collectivists" but, unlike Shachtman and his comrades, they saw Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism as a necessary and progressive stage in human history. The "workers' state" terminology served only to signal this "progressive" evaluation of what they described.
The SLL insisted on the contradictions and instability of Stalinism, but incoherently: it would become Maoist for a while in 1967.
We stood on the anti-Stalinist “edge” of the view that defined the Stalinist states as unstable “degenerated and deformed workers’ states”.
12. What exactly was the Trotskyist tradition? For Militant, the SLL, and us, it was the post-Trotsky “Trotskyism” elaborated by James P Cannon, Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel and others in the 1940s and early 50s.
So too — and this is central to their later evolution — was it for the Cliff group, though they had had some connections with the “other Trotskyist” tradition, the “Shachtmanite” Workers’ Party and ISL of the USA.
In the 1960s the Cliff group spurned “Trotskyism”, identifying it with the SLL. But in 1968 Cliff would tell Trotskyist critics of IS that the problem was that the other IS leaders — such as his brother-in-law Michael Kidron — had, unlike himself, no “Fourth Internationalist” background.
He meant it too, as the later transformation of IS into a second-string SLL would show.
13. Should we work to build an industrial rank and file movement? Both Militant and IS then said no. In the 1950s and into the 1960s the SR/IS answer to the problem of the bureaucratisation of the trade unions was to advocate "industrial unionism" — the breaking up of the conglomerate unions into all-inclusive single industry unions. (They took this, as so much else, from the Independent Labour Party.) The SLL said "yes", but instead of a real rank and file movement they built a sectarian front, the “All Trades Union Alliance”.
We said, "yes", we should work towards a rank and file movement. It was a necessity for making the rank and file militant trade unionists more effective on their own front of the class struggle - and for distinguishing between militant trade unionists and revolutionaries. It was a means of organising the militants around the revolutionary organisation.
Trotskyism in the mid-60s
The crisis of Trotskyism lay in the answers the different groups gave to these questions, and therefore how the Trotskyists related to the working class and the labour movement in the crisis of British capitalist society. The crisis of the society was working itself through, and the crisis of the Trotskyist groups expressed itself in their way of trying to respond to it. The sum total of answere they gave to the above 13 questions constituted their political identity and shaped their activities in face of the unfolding crisis of British capitalist society.
As I have already said, the biggest and by far the most important Trotskyist group in the 1960s was the SLL, led until it fell apart in 1985 by Gerry Healy, a transplanted Galway peasant whose conception of "building a revolutionary party" always had something in it of the narrow-minded, obsessive, greedy egoism of the peasant in the stage of "primitive accumulation", and specifically, perhaps, of the desperate post-Famine [mid-19th Century] Irish peasant.
The Healyites had perhaps a thousand members, a big youth movement, and a formidable “party machine” of full-timers, ruled with the proverbial rod of iron by Healy.
In the 10 or 15 years before the Healy organisation imploded, in 1985, Gery Healy lived the luxurious life within his "revolutionary party" of a Hollywood mogul, even in his sexually predatory behaviour with female comrades. He sold the organisation in the mid-1970s to Arab sheikhs and dictators as an "anti-Zionist" propaganda agency.
He had by then the solipsism of the new-born infant to the world around it, and possibly he had crossed the line into straight — as distinct from political — lunacy. He settled, you might say, for socialism for one person in one organisation.
The AWL tendency fought Healy politically; we incurred a costly libel prosecution for telling the truth about Healy and his organisation.
It is a matter of simple justice to remember the earlier Healy who had the courage and conviction to pull together what was left of the British Trotskyist movement after the political and organisational collapse of the late 1940s. The extant histories of the Trotskyist movement were written by adherents and apologists of Healy's political opponents then, such as Ted Grant and Jock Haston, people who had all of Healy's political faults then, as well as great and often worse faults of their own, and none of his political and organisational virtues.
The Healy organisation had been shaped historically by a determined orientation to the existing labour movement, the Labour Party and the trade unions. It had worked in the Labour Party from the late mid 1940s. It had recruited some hundreds of people from the Communist Party after 1956, when Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced him as a crazy mass murderer and then quickly proceeded to show his own Stalinist cloven hoof by slaughtering the Hungarian revolutionaries a few months later.
The Healyites were “Orthodox Trotskyists Mark Two”, people who in 1953 had followed James P Cannon’s lead in repudiating the Pablo/Mandel Fourth International, whom they accused of softness on Stalinism and of refusing to be unequivocal about backing the East German workers’ uprising of June 1953.
The Healyite organisation had always had an authoritarian regime and, all in all, been politically primitive.
Where Militant was passive, the SLL by the mid-1960s was wildly sectarian and disruptive. The IMG-in-formation were deeply disguised as left-Labourites, thought they would soon (1967-8) turn into slightly demented ultra-left phrasemongers and revolutionary fantasy-peddlers.
IS was, organisationally and politically, a loose grouping, a political hodge-podge, in many respects quasi-anarchist, but also an advocate (until 1965-66) of long, long term work in the Labour Party. It was loose enough to have an important group of members, engineering workers in Stockport, leave the group in 1968 because it condemned the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Such was the crisis of the Trotskyist groups.
It was overlaid on the fundamental contradictions of all post-Trotsky “Trotskyism”.
On “imperialism” IS were terminally incoherent. In the early 1960s they picked up on the theories of such as the one-time Stalinist and then Labour minister John Strachey, and declared imperialism dead, a category of the past. In the late 1980s they would flip over to a crasser version of the populist anti-imperialism of the earlier “orthodox Trotskyists”. They called Stalinism “state-capitalist”, but were for Stalinist victory in Indochina (as, of course, were we). They were self-proclaimed “Luxemburgist”,anti-Leninists.
What did the tiny Workers’ Fight group propose to do about all that? The first public political statement of the group called for a “Trotskyist regroupment”.
Call for regroupment
Our idea was that the many healthy individuals we thought to exist in the groups, despite what we saw their terrible politics and seriously deformed organisations, could regroup around authentic “orthodox Trotskyism”, which for us was the politics of Cannon and his "anti-Pabloite" and anti-Stalinist comrades in the 1953 split in the Fourth International.
The call for regroupment was made in the editorial in the first issue of Workers’ Fight (October 1967), and then, in a revised and clarified text, a pamphlet. The revision in the pamphlet was merely to clarify what we said could be done immediately, before a regroupment could be won. We said: “Workers’ Fight will attempt an initial regroupment... the recruitment of fresh individuals to the Trotskyist programme... as a step towards the larger regroupment which must follow if there is ever to be a healthy Trotskyist party in this country...”
Calls for unity almost always have the implied subtext: meanwhile, join us. It was not catchpenny opportunism on our part — as it would be in the IS call for revolutionary socialist unity half a year later. It was an attempt to make sense of what we were about and to define what needed to be done “objectively”.
We called for "a Trotskyist regroupment", and defined what we meant by "Trotskyist".
"Trotskyism is the basic Marxist programme of the conquest of power by the international working class. It is the unfalsified programme, method and experience of the Bolshevism of Lenin and Trotsky. It embodies the world experience of the workers' struggles, including the defence and development of Bolshevism by Trotsky and the Left Opposition in battle against the Stalinist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union.
"Trotskyism is the only developed working class alternative to venal Stalinism and supine Social Democracy. It means reliance on the self-controlling activity of the masses of the working class, which it strives to mobilise on the programme of transitional demands as a bridge to the overthrow of capitalism and the attainment of workers' power.
"It is the programme of the workers' revolution, organically linked with the practical struggle to aid its development. It is not only a programme, but the struggle to build a revolutionary party to fight for that programme.
"Its traditions are those of the Bolsheviks and the Left Opposition: workers' democracy, unremitting struggle for theoretical clarity, revolutionary activism, unbending hostility to and struggle against capitalism and those within the labour movement who stand for its continuation."
We were ridiculously young people. When the conflict with Militant came to a head in mid 1966, I was the Workers’ Fight “veteran”, with about seven years’ activity. I was just reaching 25. Rachel Lever and Phil Semp were two years younger, with two or three years’ political experience.
Just after we left the RSL in October 1966, I wrote a letter to Phil Semp — of which I recently found a carbon copy in an old file — saying that if we looked only at ourselves, the size of our grouping and the talents we could deploy, then we would “despair and die”. We had to believe that our politics would attract more able people.
It was a variant of a thought from Cannon and Trotsky: the programme, good politics, will allow us to build an organisation adequate to the programme. There was neither pretend-modesty nor false-modesty in that — certainly not on my part. The alternative to the thought was to look at the situation, and the state of the revolutionary forces, there and then, and, indeed, “despair and die” (or alternatively, in compensation, develop delusions of political grandeur, an occupational hazard...)
The programme of revoluutionary left unity remained central to the group for a long time, and in pursuit of it over the next decade and a half, while, of course, building our organisation in the class struggle, we initiated and organised a number of group-to-group fusions: IS, 1968; ex-IS Left Faction, 1975; WSL, 1981.
In 1971, when the IS leadership drove to expel us, a central charge (from Duncan Hallas) was that we didn’t believe in “the party”, but instead, as our Trotskyist Tendency platform demonstrated, in a future revolutionary left regroupment. He meant that we didn’t see IS then as “the party”, and for sure we did not.
IS itself had come a long way from 1968, when the term Trotskyist was a pejorative and talk of building a revolutionary party in British conditions a mark of “toy-town Bolshevism”.
But of course, the class struggle did not wait on us, or on the Trotskyists, being ready and able to meet it and ensure the best outcome for the working class. It progressed to the working-class defeat under Thatcher from which we are not yet recovered.
We were wrong in two respects. “Healthy individual revolutionaries” can degenerate with their organisations. They do. Political self-determination of individuals and sub-groups is comparatively rare. They stay with the organisations that awaken them to political consciousness, that they found first, or they fade away — "despair and die" politically. Very few SLLers survived as revolutionaries — very few of us indeed.
It is a variant of the general phenomenon of “autonomy” in political culture, of workers and others remaining tied to their organisations, whether it was the Social Democracy after 1914, or the Communist Parties as Stalin transformed them.
How the 1960s groups changed
In the 1960s the SLL was the most important group and the only one that had an implantation in the labour movement such that it could possibly have made a decisive difference to the outcome of the class struggles of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. It became more and more sectarian; went crazy; and then sold itself, in the mid 70s, to Libya, Iraq, and the PLO as a propaganda outlet and spy agency (on Arab dissidents in Britain, and on Jews prominent in British life). It imploded in 1985.
The IS, the quasi-anarchist, quasi-reformist hodge-podge of the mid 60s, evolved into a sectarian group for which “building the party” became the only thing that mattered or influenced or determined what the “party” did — a variant of the SLL.
Militant developed an astonishing, and to my knowledge unprecedented, modus vivendi with the tolerant Labour Party regime of the 1970s. They took over the Labour Party Young Socialists in 1969, after both the SLL and the IS had abandoned it, and used it as a school and a recruiting pond for a decade and a half. They were even subsidised by the Labour Party in doing so: the Labour Party paid a Militant member to be the full-time Labour youth officer. They kept their heads down, made general propaganda in which nationalisation by the bourgeois state was “socialism”.
As I’ve said, they made propaganda for their perspective for the labour movement and for the world (i.e. that Stalinism was expanding into the “Third World” as the next stage of the world revolution, inexorably creating “deformed workers’ states”).
They grew very big in the early 80s (some thousands: the figures vary). They became a sort of surrogate second-string CP in the bureaucratised labour movement. They won the leadership of the Liverpool labour movement — the Labour Party and many trade unions — and then collapsed in fiasco, having betrayed the striking miners in 1984-5 by cutting a short-term deal with Tories in 1984.
If you had asked me in 1966 whether Militant could coexist with the Labour Party bureaucracy in that way, and for so long, I’d have said: "no! Don't be ridiculous!" Whether they could grow as they did — again, no.
If you had asked me whether their miserable stewardship and fiasco-ridden leadership of the Liverpool labour movement could happen as it would, and turn out as it did, I’d have said that was impossible too: they would learn in the struggle. But they didn’t. The miners’ strike too was for the leaders of Militant-RSL “ephemeral”, as nothing compared with the survival of their own organisation in Liverpool.
The defeats of the labour movement, the moves to the right by the Labour Party, and the collapse of Stalinism — all defying the “perspectives” on which Militant had built itself — led it to collapse. Greatly depleted, it continues now as the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal.
Curiously, the SP leaders of today, having split with Ted Grant, now repeat much of the criticism which Workers’ Fight made of the Grant leadership in the 1960s — decades too late, when it is a matter of an autopsy and not of correcting the course in time to be able to play a better role in the class struggle.
And Workers’ Fight? We faced the long haul of building an organisation in the working-class movement. We had a great deal to learn and unlearn. I have no doubt that we were right in our criticism of the revolutionary left of the mid-60s. But in retrospect you see that our chances of changing the course of events from the mid 1960s was nil.
We didn’t “despair and die”; but we couldn’t prevail. Of the two other comrades who started the Workers’ Fight tendency with me, Phil Semp lasted 11 years and Rachel Lever 17 before giving up. And of course we suffered with the working-class defeats of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
That too is a variant of something very old — the typical experience of the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s, seeing clearly (or, in our case, relatively clearly on some of the key determining issues), but being too small to affect events.
We still believed that — until late in the 1970s — 1953 “orthodox Trotskyism” was adequate, the authentic Bolshevik-Trotskyism. We have had to face the fact that it was not; that we ourselves were not politically adequate. We were conscious from the beginning of many problems in the tradition to which we adhered — for instance, that the "deformed and degenerated workers' states" schema was far from satisfactory. We did not know, or suspect, how inadequate much of our post-Trotsky "Orthodox Trotskyist" tradition was. We would learn, painfully and slowly.
We have had to lay the political and theoretical foundations for a better, an adequate, revolutionary left. We are still doing it. That is what our conflicts with the rest of the would-be left are all about.