The AWL: from "orthodox Trotskyism" to the "Third Camp"

Submitted by Matthew on 17 December, 2009 - 11:21 Author: Sean Matgamna

I disagreed strongly with the Healyites’ decision to bail out from the Labour Party in 1963-4. But it’s not really true that I broke with the Healyites over the Labour Party. It was a consideration, but I don’t think I would have broken with the SLL if I had disagreed with it on what could be seen as a tactical question. I don’t think I would have had the self-confidence to break with them if it were not for their Third-Period-Stalinist style strike-breaking in the apprentices’ dispute.

By the time we came to start the Workers’ Fight group, after breaking from the RSL (Militant) in 1966, it wasn’t a matter of us not being in favour of doing Labour Party work.

We had to use our very limited resources selectively, and we had to prioritise what we did. In fact the Workers’ Fight group still had some presence in the Labour Party in the north-east. You will find a little letter in one of the issues of the Workers’ Fight magazine from a Labour councillor in Newcastle.

But the Labour Party had changed rather dramatically, and so had the Young Socialists. It is now very hard for anyone to think themselves back into the atmosphere of the period after Labour won a majority government in March 1966.

There was rapidly bitter disillusionment. There was great hostility to the Labour government bringing in a statutory incomes policy, the first time ever, as far as I know, in Britain that the state would use legal means to hold down the rise in wages resulting from the working class having industrial strength in a full-employment economy.

There was a great hostility to the Labour government’s racist immigration laws. In 1961 the Tories had brought in laws to curb Commonwealth immigration. They were very mild compared to what has happened since, but at the time they were shocking. The Labour Party opposed those laws. It was part of a general orientation towards the Commonwealth which also led to the Labour leadership opposing the Tories’ first moves towards joining the Common Market [what is today the European Union].

When the Labour government introduced its own harsher laws against Commonwealth immigration, that shocked us. In terms of what has happened over the last 40 years, the new laws were still mild, but we were right to be shocked. This was a world where there was still a lot of overt discrimination against black immigrants, and where fascists had been active since the Notting Hill racist riots of 1958.

There was a general collapse of Labour Party membership from about 1967. Labour went on from the statutory incomes policy of 1966 to attempt to bring in general anti-union legislation in 1969.

There was an atmosphere of crisis on all sides. In 1968, there was even talk of a military coup against Wilson in some ruling-class circles, around Cecil King, the then boss of the Daily Mirror newspaper, which was a much bigger concern then than it is now, and in fact wasn’t a bad popular newspaper compared to today’s redtops.

Labour Party Young Socialist branches collapsed. Militant took control of the LPYS in 1969, but it was a rump. The IS just walked away. Militant was a very lifeless group. It largely sat out the big demonstrations against the Vietnam war in 1967 and 1968.

We had no choice, if we were going to establish a national group and a press, than to ration our activity very severely. We joined the Irish Workers’ Group — or rather, we entered into an alliance with the Irish Workers’ Group — in October 1966. The terms were that we would produce the IWG magazine, which had ceased to appear, as a general Trotskyist magazine including material we could use in the British labour movement..

Rachel Lever and I produced the magazine, and it took a lot of work. We found, having undertaken to physically produce it, because we had bought a stencil duplicator, that we had to write large parts of the magazine and rewrite practically all of it. I came close to wrecking my health doing what we actually did in 1966-8, producing the Irish Workers’ Group magazine Workers’ Republic and the Workers’ Fight magazine while working full-time at heavy jobs.

There were tensions in the Irish Workers’ Group, and I think our decision to start producing Workers’ Fight too, from October 1967, was the last straw for our opponents. They organised a coup in London on the IWG steering committee, and we found ourselves in a big faction fight up to March 1968. We rallied the Trotskyists in the IWG — we didn’t get a majority, but we came very close to it.

They expelled us at the IWG conference in Dublin in March 1968, and then spent the rest of the day rowing among themselves. The IWG quickly fell apart. We organised what had been the Trotskyist Faction of the IWG as the League for a Workers’ Republic, but that was a weak group too, and eventually drifted away from us politically.

The decision by the Workers’ Fight group to take up the unity call from IS (now SWP) in 1968 provoked great controversy inside Workers’ Fight, in fact a big split. But we were right to go ahead with it.

We had published an editorial in the first issue of Workers’ Fight, in October 1967 — and republished it later as a pamphlet, with some amendments to clarify things — in which we called for a Trotskyist regroupment.

We criticised the nominally Trotskyist groups, and I see nothing to take back from the criticisms we made. We called for a regroupment of “the healthy elements”, by which we understood primarily individuals, of whom there were many scattered and disgusted by the SLL’s behaviour but who still reckoned themselves Trotskyists.

If you read our stuff from before the Healyites went Maoist in 1967, we saw them as sectarians, but there was a certain amount of respect for them. Then they supported the Cultural Revolution in China. They denounced Isaac Deutscher, who had been the father of what the Healyites called “Pabloism”, because he was hostile to the Cultural Revolution. That shocked me.

Michael Banda, who was the editor of the SLL paper, wrote that they would “march, even under the banner of Stalin”, with the Maoists. The Healyites were building a youth movement in Britain, and they saw advantages in talking up the “wonderful youth movement in China”, the Red Guards, who were actually controlled by the Chinese military as a whip unleashed against one layer of the bureaucracy by another.

Workers’ Fight and IS

We attracted a dozen or so individuals quickly after publishing the first issue of Workers’ Fight, but a lot of them split away again after we took up IS’s unity call.

We had a “traditional Trotskyist” hostility to IS, seeing them as people who had “reneged” in the Korean war. On the other hand, a lot of what IS was now doing made sense to us.

By now the Healyites would go along to strike meetings and pack the hall with their young activists so that the strikers couldn’t get in. They actually did that in the seafarers’ strike in 1966. They went round denouncing “economism”, and were very sectarian.

IS at least tried to talk with workers reasonably, and tried to serve the class struggle. They may have done it in a politically soft way, but it was a sight better than the Healyites.

We regarded IS as “centrist” [half-revolutionary, half-reformist], and we weren’t wrong about that. But we came to see it as healthy compared to the SLL and RSL. We had friendly relations with the IS in Manchester.

We might have joined IS in 1967, rather than start the Workers’ Fight magazine then. But the June 1967 Israel-Palestine war intervened. We were in contact with a group of people in IS who were highly critical of IS’s political looseness. In the June war we were solidly “Israeli-defeatist” though not for the destruction of Israel.

Our co-thinkers in IS were bitterly critical of Cliff’s hostility to Israel in the 1967 war, and we were very much on Cliff’s side. Even Cliff, in those days, did not talk about destroying Israel. We all talked about a socialist United States of the Middle East with autonomy for national minorities like Jews and Kurds.

But the war made a breach between us and our co-thinkers in IS, and we didn’t join IS. Then we wound up in a faction fight in the Irish Workers’ Group in which IS people made a big part of the bloc in opposition to us, which stretched from Guevarists — some of whom would soon become outright guerrillaists — through soft Stalinists, soft Maoists, and Trotskyists who had no backbone, to the IS people.

One of the issues in dispute in the IWG was our attitude in retrospect to the workers’ rising in East Germany in 1953. Gery Lawless, who was the organiser of the bloc against us, said it was “just a building workers’ demonstration” and it would not have been right to call for the withdrawal of the Russian troops then because that would have let the Americans in. Yet the biggest element in his bloc was the supporters of IS, who had joined the IWG with our very enthusiastic agreement.

After the IWG split, I wrote in a joint internal bulletin for the League for a Workers’ Republic (the former Trotskyist Faction of the IWG) and Workers’ Fight that we might have to go into IS. I did that because there was understandably a lot of hostility to IS from their unprincipled role in the IWG faction fight.

In Manchester we had started the local Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. We did it in alliance with a group called the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation. They were good people, and we had friendly relations with them. At first we couldn’t get IS involved in the campaign, though IS was relatively strong in Manchester, about 50 members.

Nevertheless, we found that a lot of the people whom we activated through the Vietnam campaign would jump over our heads and join IS instead, because they couldn’t see what the differences were between Workers’ Fight and IS.

In the middle of 1968, IS put out a unity call. They did it in a very demagogic fashion, basing the call on “the urgent threat of fascism” in response to a march by dockworkers in support of Enoch Powell, a Tory politician who had made a racist speech.

But we got involved in the discussions. We thought there would be some sort of general regroupment, involving for example the Mandelites, who were growing and launched themselves as the International Marxist Group in early 1968. In 1968 there was a vast ferment of young people who wanted to be revolutionaries, and large numbers of them could have been organised in an open, intelligent, sensible left organisation.

In the event the IMG decided dogmatically that they had to have an “open organisation of the Fourth International”. They had spent years buried deep in the social democracy, and now they were making a principle of independence from a lively and open radical left-wing movement. Their attitude in 1968 still strikes me as grossly sectarian.

The Trotskyist Tendency

Anyway, we fused with IS in late 1968. Workers’ Fight had grown relatively well since late 1967, though we were held back by the pressures of the IWG faction fight. Paradoxically, the main people we recruited in Manchester were people who had been in the Communist Party — some of them people I had known for a long time.

Having started with just four people in the whole country when we broke with Militant, we had nine members of Workers’ Fight in Manchester by then. But one of them, Trevor Fox, died in an accident. Four of the others split off rather than join IS. They were just hopeless sectarians, I think.

But we joined IS and started a “Trotskyist Tendency” there. We grew quickly inside IS — in Manchester, for example, we recruited everybody in the IS branch who could remotely be called a cadre, except Colin Barker, and he agreed with us on a lot of questions for a while — but we were still a very small group.

In the literature about IS at that time, which there’s a lot of, there is much speculation about why Cliff agreed to the fusion between IS and Workers’ Fight in 1968, and the common assumption is that we, Workers’ Fight, were such awful people that you have to find some hidden explanation. That is a matter of reading backwards a ghettoisation, a pariah-isation, of the Trotskyist Tendency that came later. In fact we had a relatively fruitful, constructive, friendly relation with IS for the first nine months, until IS started splitting branches to ghettoise us.

We did a lot of things in IS which people have forgotten. We started an IS youth paper, called Rebel. We moved the first resolution proposing a rank and file movement.

We had big political disputes inside IS, between 1968 and 1971, about Ireland and about Europe, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Another dispute, both with the IS leadership and within the Trotskyist Tendency, was about the 1970 general election and the Labour Party. By now there was immense hostility to the Labour Party in layers of the working-class movement. There had been a big exodus from the Labour Party in 1967-70.

The 1970 general election

Some of us — at the start, the Trotskyist Tendency was more or less united in this view, with one or two exceptions — thought that we couldn’t propose a blanket “vote Labour” policy in the 1970 general election without making nonsense of what we had been saying over the last few years. We proposed a vote only for those Labour MPs and candidates who had opposed the anti-union legislation — which would have excluded Tony Benn, for instance — and that IS should stand a candidate and try to make that candidacy a national focus. IS wouldn’t do that.

As the election approached, more and more of the Tendency became convinced that we had to back Labour. When it came to it, I think there were only three of us left in the Tendency who rejected a general vote for Labour — Rachel Lever, Andrew Hornung, and myself.

The shift wasn’t necessarily for good reasons — just the pressure of the movement. But it reflected the fact that the ties of Labour to the unions remained intact despite all the recent tensions. And at that stage the Labour Party structures were still wide open. The membership had collapsed, but it could reassemble very quickly after 1970, whereas any Labour revival in the period ahead now will face much bigger obstacles and probably have to find new channels for itself.

In principle, I think that Trotskyists should be in favour of standing in elections if they can. And I still don’t think we were entirely wrong to refuse an automatic vote for Labour after all we had been saying about the Labour government. But the problem was that there was no viable alternative. The Communist Party went through the motions of putting a few candidates, but we would never have backed the CP.

We published a special discussion bulletin, in which there were articles by Rachel Lever and myself putting our view, and by Phil Semp and Geoff Hodgson arguing for a general Labour vote. The article by Rachel and me was in two parts, one about the immediate tactical questions, and the other attempting to look at the whole thing historically. It took it for granted, and said so, that we would eventually end up back working in the Labour Party. We said that in theory, but in practice by that stage we were all so hostile to the Labour Party that it was very difficult for us to adjust when the Labour Party revived after 1970.

In autumn 1971 the IS leadership started moves to expel us. The Trotskyist Tendency had been in the doldrums for a while by then, and in July 1971 we had had two splits, one after the other on two successive days, so the IS leadership thought they could easily get rid of us and we would quickly dwindle to nothing.

By then the ghettoisation had reached such a stage that Rachel Lever, writing in a polemic, could describe us as “non-patrials” within IS, adapting a distinction made in new Tory government anti-immigrant legislation between “patrials” (i.e. people of white descent in the former British Empire) and “non-patrials” (in practice, non-white people from Asia and Africa).

That started with the splitting of IS branches on political lines in order to isolate us.

There was a “libertarian” current in IS in 1968-9, suspicious of Cliff’s new move to “Leninism” and “democratic centralism”. In late 1969 the “libertarians” in Leeds broke the Leeds IS branch into two branches in order to separate themselves off from the Trotskyists in Leeds IS.

As it happens, we had no members of the Workers’ Fight tendency in Leeds. But the IS leadership, instead of refusing to accept the unilateral action by the “libertarians” in Leeds, generalised the policy. Very soon the “libertarians” in Teesside, where there were Workers’ Fight people, did the same thing.

In Manchester, Colin Barker decided he wanted to separate the rest of the branch from the Trotskyist Tendency. We had a big IS branch in Manchester, 60 members maybe.

There had been a lot of resistance in Manchester to Cliff’s centralisation policy. After we joined we won over a number of the former “libertarians”. And we had personally friendly relations with some of the remaining “libertarians”. At one point Barker and some other people attempted to drive the “libertarians” out of the branch. I got to that branch meeting very, very late. When I saw what was happening I immediately defended the “libertarians” and forced Barker to retreat. It caused a great upset in the Trotskyist Tendency, but the consequence was that thereafter Barker could not appeal to the “libertarians” in Manchester against us. When Barker eventually split the branch, most of them stayed with us.

Nevertheless, even though there was a vote in the branch of about 75%-25% against splitting it as in Leeds and Teesside, Barker’s group split, and thereafter they were the favoured Manchester IS branch, serviced by the IS centre, etc.

The level of denunciation of us in IS was pretty terrible. For example, I went to Teesside in 1970. There were two IS branches in Teesside. Some people had joined after the time of the split into two branches. When I arrived, for some reason Phil Semp and our people weren’t around. I saw a paper sale in the city centre by the other branch and joined it. I wound up being put up for the weekend by one of them — Tony Duffy — and I managed to win them over a weekend to fusion of the two branches. Later on, at the time when we were expelled from IS, we would recruit Tony Duffy and his son Lol Duffy.

I’d like to think that success in Teesside was because I’m very, very good at such things, but actually I think it was because the demonisation had been such that anybody who didn’t have two heads would have appeared reasonable compared to the image of us that was put around.

Expulsion from IS

So we were ghettoised and isolated in 1970-1. We went into the doldrums. We had two splits in one weekend in July 1971 on the question of the general strike.

The Healyites, and then IS, had started raising slogans for a general strike in the big demonstrations against the new anti-union legislation being brought in by the Tory government, the Industrial Relations Act. Some people in the Trotskyist Tendency argued that we should not call for a general strike, or favour IS calling for a general strike, unless and until IS was in a position to lead that general strike. It was a recoil against IS using the general strike slogan demagogically, but it was nonsense.

They had raised their argument at the Easter 1971 aggregate meeting of the Tendency. They were beaten down and isolated there. Then other people raised the same argument at the July 1971 aggregate meeting, and at the end of a long day’s debate they were defeated too. Some of them walked out that day, including the infamous Henry sisters, Sara and Wendy. The following day, another group walked out.

IS expelled us at a special conference in December 1971 in retaliation for a campaign that we had started in summer 1971 against their switch of line on the Common Market [European Union], from an internationalist position to “keep Britain out”. So we had to find an independent course for ourselves again.

We believed that the task of revolutionary socialists was to reorient the labour movement. That didn’t exclude such stances as what we advocated in the general election in 1970, but it was a basic orientation.

We came out of IS into a tremendous period of working-class struggle. We saw that the Trotskyist movement was utterly inadequate, and IS was moving towards a position where from the middle 1970s they would adopt what had been Healyism a decade earlier — the Healyites in the meantime having gone to the outer edges of madness.

We were convinced that there was great urgency. We refused to accept the IS leadership’s diktat to disband, and came out of IS with about 36 people, most of them recruited in the course of our campaign against the expulsion, though some of them didn’t stay long.

We were expelled on 4 December 1971. We appeared with the first issue of a fortnightly paper — more or less — on 14 January 1972. We’d got hold of a headquarters in London. We got comrades to mortgage property to raise the money for a printing press. We had comrades who could work the printing press, though they soon came to a bad end.

We launched our little craft on the waves. The basic idea was that you must be guided by the logic of the class struggle. Psychologically, we couldn’t have sat down and become a theoretical discussion circle then.

You could argue that a group our size had to be a propaganda group, and we were. But we tried to develop a combination tool. The term comes from Cannon. We had quite a lot of propaganda in our paper — detailed explanations on issues of debate in the left — but we also faced it up with agitational stuff.

We had a lot of industrial bulletins. We came out of IS with bulletins for the hospitals in Manchester and for the docks. We very quickly set up a publication called Real Steel News, based on Tony Duffy and other comrades in Teesside. We got stuck in. There was a lot of enthusiasm.

There were also illusions about how quickly we could go. We thought, for example, that we could recruit a lot of people from IS. In fact we recruited a few. We also developed a group of co-thinkers inside IS who eventually became Workers’ Power, but that is another story.

Trying to guide ourselves by the logic of the class struggle, we faced a situation where the strength of the working class had been industrial strength. The logic of that industrial strength was for the workers to act to push the bourgeoisie aside. That may seem excessive and extreme, but it wasn’t, if you look at the struggles that developed, and, for example, the wave of factory occupations through the 1970s.

Industrial battles of 1972-4

The workers were refusing to be governed in the old way. Lenin laid down three conditions for a revolutionary situation: the ruled are no longer prepared to go in the old way; the rulers cannot go on in the old way; and there is an alternative.

The first two conditions were there. The ruling class couldn’t control what happened in their own society. But politically the working-class struggle was blind. The syndicalists before World War One had a conception of overthrowing capitalist society by way of industrial unions and industrial struggle. In the early 1970s you had tremendous “syndicalist” militancy, but without any conscious perspective of overthrowing the system.

Politically, the main thing you had was Communist Party nonsense about a peaceful road to socialism, and the Communist Party was the big force in the industrial movement in so far as there was any political leadership besides a sort of fallback Labourism. You had a headless syndicalism that couldn’t realise its own potential.

We saw the potential of the industrial struggle, and we saw that if it all just ended in another Labour government that would be a defeat. We focused on the call for a general strike and explanations of what a general strike could do.

At first we did that very one-sidedly. There was a discussion, and we rectified it on the level of slogans: we were for kicking out the Tories and getting a Labour government as well as for a general strike, but we didn’t focus much on that.

We emphasised that a general strike could pose the question of power, and that working-class organs of administration could be created out of a general strike. We found ourselves seemingly being pedants against the way other left groups put the question of a general strike. The Healyites (now called WRP) and the Mandelites (IMG), and occasionally IS too, called for “a general strike to bring down the Tories”.

That was idiotic. A general strike has tremendous potential for transforming the whole situation, and you set its goal as achieving a routine parliamentary election!

The Healyites didn’t care about slogans beyond what sounded good, but the “general strike to bring down the Tories” was also raised by people who had higher pretensions.

A big strike, once it gets going, can snowball. For example, in the General Strike of 1926, the number of strikers was still growing when it was called off. A strike can start on a particular issue — smashing the Tories’ anti-union laws, at that — and as it gets going all sorts of other issues can be raised.

The idea of transitional demands is very often vulgarised as demands which are not realisable under capitalism. That’s nonsense. Transitional demands are mobilising demands which have an open-ended perspective, which can be linked together. The revolutionary party decides which demands are relevant for which time, if it knows what to do.

We focused on smashing the anti-union laws, but we want to keep open the possibility of a mass strike movement which started around that issue developing further, whereas focusing the general strike on getting an election and changing the government would have cut off any such development completely.

We didn’t have too many illusions. We knew we were a very small group. But we felt a tremendous responsibility. So we threw the slogans out broadcast, and they did get some response.

In this period IS made a lot of recruits — partly helped by their opportunist change of line to oppose British entry into the Common Market [European Union] — and they began to do some of the work of trying to build a rank and file movement in the trade unions which we had advocated earlier, when we were in IS.

They called a rank and file trade unionists’ conference in March 1974, which was reasonably sizeable. Now, a small left-wing group, relating to such broad conferences called by bigger groups, has two choices. You could go in as a propagandist, denouncing IS, or you could go in trying to develop what was healthy in what they had.

We wouldn’t have been ourselves if we hadn’t taken the second option. We tried to participate constructively. Some of our comrades got a resolution to the conference through a well-attended branch meeting at the big steelworks in Stanton, Derbyshire, with three key points: commitments against racism, for women’s rights, and for nationalisation and workers’ control.

But the resolution was defeated. This was 1974, when the National Front was growing and there had been a second wave of working-class racism against the Tories letting Uganda Asians into Britain in 1972. In 1976 there would be a strike by Asian workers at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester, where the white workers scabbed. The idea that you could have a serious rank and file movement that didn’t have a clear line on racism, or women’s rights, was mind-boggling. But IS used the factional whip to defeat the resolution.

Between 1972 and 1974 we also had to look at the Labour Party anew. Once we were out of IS, we had to examine all sorts of possibilities.

In fact Labour Party life had regrown much more quickly than we were aware. Our prejudices stopped us seeing that for some time.

In 1972 we decided to explore the possibilities in the Labour Party Young Socialists. The first couple of people we sent in to explore came back telling us there was no life there at all. We began to do a bit of LPYS work from 1972, but slowly, so that by the time we got properly involved Militant had already built a relatively sizeable base there over which they had firm control. We didn’t start to do Labour Party work seriously until 1974, by which time it was quite plain that there had been a revival.

In 1974 we were forced to face the fact that when it came to it, the Tories did take the election escape-hatch. They escaped from industrial confrontation by calling an election. After Labour came back to power, there was a downturn in industrial action, though a small one compared to what happened later.

All the mills of industrial class struggle had been grinding, and they had produced a Wilson Labour government, first a minority government, and then after another election in October 1974 a majority government.

In the run-up to the election, we had a small fight in the group about whether to say vote Labour. We did say vote Labour, but we were still boneheaded in some ways. If you look at the paper Workers’ Fight — which we made weekly early in 1974 — we also called for a vote for the nine WRP and three IMG candidates who were standing. We were still moved by formal labels: these candidates were Trotskyists, so we had to support them. We shouldn’t have supported them. By the time of the October 1974 election, where there were ten WRP candidates standing, we had stopped that nonsense. We were capable of learning, even if we were slow.

There was a spate of by-election candidates from the IMG and SWP in 1976-8, some of whom did relatively well, but we didn’t support them. It had become quite clear that Labour had repaired its political position, more or less. Labour got elected in February 1974 by default, and there was a lot of dissatisfaction then expressed by a much increased Liberal vote, but the Labour Party was still the labour movement party, and we had to relate to it in a way we hadn’t wanted to. There was no point pretending things were what they were not. Labour had been the only “working-class” — “working-class” in quotes — alternative to the Tories at the height of the class struggle.

The ruling class was served by that Labour Party, and by the trade union leaders — including left-wing trade union leaders — who supported it. To change that, we had to relate to the reality as it was.

In 1969-70 we had written — I had written — in various articles that we would soon have to work within the Labour Party again. But that was just repeating stock generalities. In practice, our orientation was one-sided between 1972 and 1974. We weren’t entirely wrong about the one-sidedness, but we were slow to adjust.

Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory

In 1978 we were faced with a Labour government which had brought in big cuts, under IMF diktat, in 1976; which had imposed wage controls; and which was going to have a major confrontation with striking workers in the so-called “winter of discontent”, in 1978-9.

At first the election was expected in autumn 1978. What were we going to do? The Tories had attempted a very mild version of Thatcherism in the 1970-4 government. That government was brought down, and the ruling class had to rely on the Labour Party, which as it happened served them very well.

But the ruling class was faced with the fact that they couldn’t control their own system. Radical shifts took place in the Tory party. What would be called Thatcherism — a hard class-struggle species of Toryism — emerged in the mid 70s. At first there was reason to believe that this shift by the Tories would make them unelectable. But by mid 1978 it was plain that the Tories might well win the election, and that they represented a new threat, a new militant ruling-class programme.

After Labour lost the election in 1951, the Trotskyists and the left expected a full-scale Tory counter-revolution to get rid of the welfare state introduced by Labour in 1945-51. That didn’t happen. The Tories had been hegemonised by welfare-statism.

But by 1978 things had changed. The counter-revolution wrongly expected in 1951 was gathering strength, and was a serious threat. The Tories were embittered by their failure with a first, milder, attempt in 1970-4.

In that situation we couldn’t say that it didn’t matter whether the Tories won. So we had to find some way of combining our bitter hostility to the Labour government with opposition to the hard core militant warriors of the ruling class now leading the Tory party.

At that time — it was very different from now — there was a lot of life in the Labour Party. The Labour Party had grown again in the 1970s, and from about 1975 the Labour Party became very critical of the Labour government. The Labour Party “in the country” counterposed itself to the Labour government — the development that the Blair coup, after 1994, was meant to smash the possibility of.

We developed the notion of an independent campaign for Labour, against the Tories, which would simultaneously during the election campaign express hostility to the Labour leaders and to the Government’s record.

We were able to link up quite a variety of Labour left-wingers. We founded the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory at a conference in July 1978 in London, at which the chief speakers included Ken Livingstone and various other heroes who later would not be heroes at all.

We built a network of supporters. In the general election, which eventually came in May 1979, we had four constituencies officially supporting the SCLV and we put literature out in a number of other constituencies. We started Socialist Organiser as the paper of the SCLV, and we ourselves, slowly, over a period of two years, merged our paper (called Workers’ Action since 1975) into it.

Very soon after the Tories won the election, the broader Labour left inside the SCLV and ourselves began to drift apart. One of the bases of the SCLV had been that Labour should use any strength it had, in local government for example, to mobilise against the Tory offensive.

Once the Tories were in government, we found a large section of SCLV people who were local Labour councillors reneging on that commitment. Instead they went for temporising by way of raising local taxes (rates) to make good cuts which the Tories imposed on local government.

By that stage we had enough influence and profile to launch another broad movement, the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy, which succeeded in uniting the very broadest left in the Labour Party, including even, nominally, Militant.

We grew as a tendency, and we also grew in our influence and strength. Socialist Organiser was our paper in the sense that we did the central work of producing it, circulating it, and financing it; but we ran it not as a closed-off paper laying down the law but as a paper oriented to dialogue.

We would get labour movement dignitaries to write in it, or interview them, and we would debate with them. We never pretended that we had much in common with the basic politics of the Labour left. For example, we disagreed with them all on the Common Market [European Union], which had been the precipitating issue for our expulsion from IS. Nevertheless, we were able to get a hearing for our ideas, and we were able to get a better resonance for those ideas through debates with people like Tony Benn.

We were also hostile to the dominant economic policy of the Labour Left and the Communist Party, the Alternative Economic Strategy. Even without that name it had been in circulation for a long time. What it came down to was the notion that Britain could become socialist as a siege regime modelled on World War Two. In fact it would be siege capitalism, with the state controlling things in a very bureaucratic fashion.

It was nonsensical. It was utopian. It could not be realised. Such a policy could only act as a sort of diversion, until the people who advocated got to the point where they might form a government and could implement. In fact they could not have implemented it. All it could do is create reformist delusions.

We debated it. We debated with lots of people. We built a sizeable current. We were also active in support of the East European working classes.

The entire Labour left was pervaded by Stalinism, to varying degrees. For example, Tony Benn had been a Labour government minister until 1979. He came out of being a minister full of illusions about the USSR.

He decided to build a left, and he decided to build a left out of the existing political positions generally thought of as “left wing”. You can’t build much out of rotten wood. There was a lot that was rotten in the ideas of the Labour left, and the most rotten bit was the attitude to Stalinism.

We were at loggerheads with the left on many issues. Yet we managed to maintain our place in that left by debating them.

For example, we were solidly hostile to the Russian regime. We were solidly hostile to the role of the Russians in Eastern Europe. We were solidly for Solidarnosc. Although everyone was for Solidarnosc in the strike wave that started it in August 1980, there was a great falling-away from Solidarnosc later. People like Tony Benn would peer at you suspiciously if you were for Solidarnosc in the later period.

Against Russia in Afghanistan

In that period we also made a radical turn away from the traditional Trotskyist position of supporting Russian foreign policy with caveats. We denounced Russian foreign policy in 1979-80 when Russian invaded Afghanistan.

The Theses of the Second Congress of the Comintern were a formative text for me. It is a duty for socialists in an advanced country to back struggles for freedom by the colonies or semi-colonies of that country, irrespective of the politics of the leadership of those struggles.

In Afghanistan, when the Russians invaded, you had a powerful mass movement resisting what was in fact an old-style drive for colonial conquest, and in fact became a very vicious colonial war akin to the French war in Algeria, and with methods similar to those of the US in Vietnam.

We sided with those resisting colonial rule in Afghanistan. We didn’t back them politically. We didn’t endorse them politically. When the question arose, after the Russian withdrawal, we sided with the towns in Afghanistan against the rural reactionaries. But solidarity with those resisting colonial conquest is a bedrock position.

That was right. We also have to recognise the changes today from the world where the Comintern theses were adopted, a world dominated by old-style colonies. The Comintern was also a world-wide revolutionary movement, which saw a world revolution developing, and saw the struggles in the colonial countries as auxiliaries which could augment, stimulate, and link with the struggles of the workers in the advanced countries for socialism.

The Comintern did not expect any great number of countries then colonies to quickly become independent. The plain fact was that some of the colonies were not yet ripe even for bourgeois society. You see that problem manifested even today.

That world of colonial empires disappeared by the 1970s. The last example was the Portuguese Empire, which ceased to be an empire in the mid-1970s. Russia’s drive for colonial conquest in Afghanistan was an anomaly.

Today we have to face the fact that some nationalist rallying cries, in Third World countries which are no longer colonies or semi-colonies, are empty or deceptive slogans. A country that is politically independent may want to assert local economic control over important entities in the country which are controlled by international finance capital, and you may want to support that as part of a drive for self-determination. But beyond that, where there is full political self-determination, the only sort of anti-imperialism that is viable in such countries is working-class socialism and anti-capitalism.

Today we see movements which, although they are “anti-imperialist” in the sense of being hostile to the big powers, are utterly reactionary and utterly regressive. The Stalinist revolutions in the colonial or quasi-colonial countries proved to be reactionary. Even though in the 1940s it was right to champion China against colonialism and neo-colonialism, the Maoists created a reactionary regime.

The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia

A number of events in the middle and later 1970s established the facts very clearly, for example the Stalinist takeover of Cambodia.

In Cambodia you had a powerful Stalinist, populist anti-imperialism. We were never for the Stalinists controlling society, but we were for the Stalinists de facto against imperialism, as for the rest of Indochina.

We saw the Cambodian Stalinists take power and do to their own people what Hitler did to people whom he defined as not his own people. You could even see a parallel between the genetic mumbo-jumbo of Hitler and the “class” mumbo-jumbo of the Cambodian Stalinists, who thought you could simply dispense with layers of society by butchering them.

We had a discussion in the group about Cambodia. The discussion centred on whether or not Cambodia was a “deformed workers’ state” in the sense that China and other countries were “deformed workers’ states”. Was Cambodia so exceptional that you could exclude it from the “deformed workers’ state” schema which, of course, we held to in a very critical fashion?

In the opinion of some of us, you couldn’t separate what the Stalinists did in Cambodia from what they did in China. In Cambodia it was telescoped, it was more intensive, but it was what the Maoists had done in China in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. If China was a “deformed workers’ state”, then so was Cambodia.

Those of us who argued that Cambodia was a “deformed workers’ state” were not being pro-Stalinist. We were simply refusing to take the easy option of saying that the Cambodian system, which was simply indefensible on every level, was really not like the Maoists. The fact is that it was like the Maoists.

Iran, 1978-9

The biggest lesson on reactionary anti-imperialism for us was the Iranian revolution. That was very anti-imperialist in the sense that it wanted to break with the American-led bloc of which the previous regime, the Shah’s regime, was part.

It got support from all the Stalinoid left, and it got support from us. A large part of the mobilisations in the Iranian revolution were working-class mobilisations. But politically it was an utterly reactionary movement. It led very quickly to an utterly reactionary regime, a clerical-fascist regime. It was not better than the Shah’s regime. In fact it was worse because it had mass support. It was a sort of “totalitarian democracy”.

Some of us — I was one — had wanted to be far more critical at the time of the revolution. But afterwards it all became very clear. We all had to face the fact that some revolutions are not progressive. Some revolutions against “imperialism” do not counterpose to it something more progressive. You can get a reactionary anti-imperialism in the same way that Marx and Engels wrote about reactionary socialism, or reactionary anti-capitalism.

Marxists are not “absolute anti-capitalists”. There are worse things in the world than capitalism. Stalinism was one — Stalinism, which enslaved the working class.

You cannot guide yourself by a principle of just being against advanced capitalism, which is what the “anti-imperialism” amounts to in many cases today. You have to be more judicious.

If in Iraq today, what was going on were what went on under the Russians in Afghanistan — a drive for colonial conquest — then we would take the same line as with the Russians. But that isn’t what is going on.

On the other hand, it can be plausibly argued that the cost in human lives of what the Americans are doing already makes nonsense of what they are trying to do. So we have criticised concretely.

A large part of the left today has a policy of supporting reactionary movements on the grounds that they are “anti-imperialist”. The clearest-cut example, to my mind, are the idiots who go on as if it is in anyone’s interest, including in the interest of the Iranian people, for the Iranian mullahs to have the atomic bomb. They argue that it is a matter of self-determination, of equality. The Americans have the bomb, the Israelis have it, so we should insist on Iran’s right to have it.

That reduces left-wing politics to self-destructive gibberish. The cardinal principles for us must be the working class, and what allows it to develop, and the logic of the class struggle of the working class.

Theories of the USSR

From the start we were Trotskyists. We were very proud of the Trotskyist tradition as we understood it, and strove to understand it. In IS, when we joined, “Trotskyist” was a badge of odium. By the time we were expelled, they were all claiming to be Trotskyists.

Our tradition was that of the “orthodox Trotskyists”, around Cannon. In fact we were very ignorant of the history of the Trotskyist movement. So was everyone else. There was very little literature available. It was only in 1970 that the American SWP began publishing Trotsky’s writings from the late 1930s.

The version of the history which guided us was that the orthodox Trotskyists were the ones who had fought against softness on Stalinism and for the workers’ perspective in the Stalinist states. They did in fact do that after 1953, though there was a whole period behind that which we knew very little about.

We distinguished our “hard” anti-Stalinist Trotskyism — “orthodox Trotskyism” as we saw it — from the “soft” people, like the Mandelites, who were for a workers’ revolution in Russia, but until 1969 were not for a political revolution in China.

I wrote an article in 1966, on the tenth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution, which was bitterly anti-Stalinist. We wrote very anti-Stalinist articles on the Cultural Revolution, in 1967, and on Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But under the surface there were a lot of contradictions. At the same time we were for revolutionary Stalinism, Third-World populist Stalinism. We were for the Vietnamese Stalinists fighting the USA. We weren’t uncritical, but we didn’t make much of the criticism either. We were very hostile to what would come after the Vietnamese Stalinists won, but all that was drowned by our support for them against the US imperialists. We were anti-imperialists, first and foremost, and we subordinated everything to that. But reality forced us to begin to unravel the contradictions.

From the late 1970s, I didn’t really believe that the Stalinist states were “deformed workers’ states”.

There are various labels, and all the labels have many different variations, many different theories within them. The demystifying way to approach it is to ask yourself what each stance means in practice. Does it see Stalinism as progressive vis-à-vis capitalism? To be defended vis-à-vis capitalism? Does it say Stalinism is to be overthrown by the working class? And so on.

Inside all the labels — “socialism”, including “degenerated workers’ state”, “state capitalism”, “bureaucratic collectivism” — there are many different theories. For example, Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism is not the same as C L R James’s.

There is a whole variety of “degenerated and deformed workers’ state” theories, some of which effectively describe new class societies but give them the label “deformed workers’ states” as means of vindicating the description of them as progressive. The clearest example there is the Militant/ Socialist Party theory.

We were different. We held to the “degenerated workers’ state” formula, which was the formula of the Trotskyist movement into which we were born, but we gave it our own interpretation again and again. Within that framework we jumped back in time to Trotsky’s variant of the formula. We picked up, for example, Trotsky’s argument from 1937 against those who wanted to say the USSR was state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism. “Well, all right. If I grant you the label, what do you propose to add politically. The Trotskyists have a clear programme for a workers’ revolution against Stalinism. What do you want to add to that concretely?” The answer, of course, is that they had nothing to add. We picked that up retrospectively.

In my opinion now, Trotsky should not have argued like that in 1937. He should have abandoned the formula. We picked up Trotsky’s argument long after he was dead, and in fact long after it was ridiculous, but we applied it to combine support for revolutionary populist Stalinism against imperialism with the most bitter hostility to Stalinism where it ruled.

We had an absolute contradiction, in my opinion. We were for Stalinist movements in their guise as anti-imperialist movements, but we regarded their social system as utterly repressive for our class and for what we believed in. In practice we found ourselves reacting empirically to concrete questions as they arose. Step by step we sloughed off the formula. It became a loose skin for us.

One of our strengths, I think, right back to my arguments with the YCL about when they said you could have a peaceful revolution in Britain because Marx said you could, and I had to learn from Lenin how to think as a Marxist, was that we always related concretely. There is nothing in our history in the way of false political stances on issues to do with Stalinism, unless you want to include the fact that I supported the Chinese in Tibet in 1959 under the influence of the Mandel-Pablo Fourth International and on the grounds that the Chinese were extending the revolution. I regret that, and I am ashamed of it, but I was a kid. Beyond that, I think, on every concrete question we were consistently anti-Stalinist.

We didn’t back the Americans against the Stalinists in Vietnam, of course, but we were right not to do that. Whatever theory one might have that the Americans might perhaps set up bourgeois democracy in Vietnam, in practice they represented the pulverisation and destruction of that society. It was summed up by General Westmoreland in early 1968 when, during one offensive of the Stalinists, he said that the Americans had had to destroy a city “in order to save it”. They were destroying the country “to save it from Stalinism”. You couldn’t support that. You had to oppose it.

At the same time we were hostile to the Stalinists. For example, if you look at our response to the victory of the Stalinists in Vietnam, we were very pleased about it, but we immediately started talk about the anti-Stalinist struggle. It was inadequate, grossly inadequately, but you will find us advocating the anti-Stalinist struggle more than the “state capitalist” IS did.

On the concrete questions, we evolved more and more away from the “deformed workers’ state” stance as anyone else had it. We had our own attitudes. We defended the right-wing oppositionists inside the Stalinist states. We defended the rights of the workers and the oppressed nationalities in the Stalinist states to fight back even if that meant disrupting the bloc politics of the Russians. We did that from the very beginning.

A turning point

The biggest turning point for us was Afghanistan. The Russians invaded Afghanistan at Christmas 1979. The “orthodox Trotskyist” position would be: “we didn’t want them to invade, but we’re not going to ask them to get out once they’re there. We now want to have a political revolution in Afghanistan”. Something analogous had been Trotsky’s attitude to Stalin’s seizure of eastern Poland in 1939.

We didn’t jump to conclusions. We had a discussion. We had some comrades whose instinct was to be mechanical about it, but we looked at the concrete issues, and we could see no sense in backing such a monstrous war as would have to be, and was, mounted by the Russians. We decided we were against it.

Every “orthodox Trotskyist” group in the world adopted some variant of either actively supporting the Russian invasion — in Britain, that was the attitude of Militant, today the Socialist Party — or refusing to call on them to withdraw. Some of them changed quickly, and there were big minorities even at the start in some organisations, such as the French LCR, but we were the only “orthodox Trotskyist” group to come out solidly for Russian withdrawal.

In fact we had very little in the way of internal ructions about it. We took a few weeks to think it through, but we thought it through, and we defended our position.

We continued the break with the orthodox Trotskyists over Solidarnosc. Everyone was in favour of the strikers in August 1980, but when it became a matter of the state versus the working class — and a working class that was not necessarily committed entirely to nationalised economy: that didn’t emerge for some time, but the possibility of it emerged quickly, and the attitude of the left was quickly governed by such considerations — it was different. You got a large section of the Mandelite “Fourth International”, that led by the American SWP, calling for gigantic Western aid to the Polish state just as it was heading into all-out conflict with Solidarnosc. We were solidly for Solidarnosc, as we had been solidly for the Czechs, irrespective of the political implications, in 1968.

Less and less did we think that the “workers’ state” formula had any meaning. In fact we had revised some of the “orthodox Trotskyist” attitudes a long time before. We argued for “defencism”, but we meant by it that we were against the Western powers conquering the Stalinist states. We said explicitly in resolutions that “defencism” was a matter of tenth-rate importance for us, and we meant it. One measure of it is that when we were in IS there was never a concrete case where we disagreed with the “state capitalists” on attitudes to the Stalinist states. In the Vietnam movement, we were far more critical of the Stalinists than some of the “state capitalists” were.

At the IS conference in September 1969 I made a speech denouncing IS for having links with what I called the “State Department socialists” who were the left-Shachtmanites, no longer linked with Max Shachtman himself, in America. That was the “orthodox Trotskyist” attitude, which I had in spades, picked up from Cannon and from Trotsky’s polemics in 1939-40, gathered in In Defence of Marxism.

I had the notion that there were two extremes. One was the Pabloites, soft on Stalinism, and the other was the Stalinophobes who became soft on capitalism. I thought the combination that avoided both aberrations was “orthodox Trotskyism” on the model of James P Cannon in 1953.

Now it was true on a certain level that 1953 “orthodox Trotskyism” avoided being soft on either capitalism and Stalinism. And it was true for us. We did steer empirically between being soft on Stalinism on any level — except as regards the “anti-imperialist struggle”, which of course is rather a large level — and being soft on capitalism.

But actually we were “two-campists”. We were ultimately in the Russian “camp”. We were “orthodox Trotskyists”.

It’s a sad thing to say, but it is true, that the “degenerated workers’ state” theory served to reconcile many people, in different varieties, to Stalinism even after they had acquired a knowledge of its horrors. For higher reasons — the shape of history, Stalinism’s role in relation to imperialism — they could remain pro-USSR while having no illusions about life in the USSR.

A straight Stalinist could be disillusioned by being given the facts. Most of the “orthodox Trotskyists” knew enough of the facts — certainly I did — to see Stalinism for what it was as a totalitarian tyranny over the working class. The “theory” was a factor of corruption.

Nevertheless, we did see the facts empirically, with all the qualifications I’ve made. And on concrete questions of opposing the Stalinists, we were right politically.

We were not consistent “two-campists”. For example, we were not “two-campists” on Afghanistan. In fact we evolved to a point where on many questions we were really “third-campists”.

The Third Camp

“Third Camp-ism” is a term I don’t like much. It is the historically-shaped term for politics which insisted on working-class opposition to both Stalinism and capitalism, refusing to join either “camp”. The actual thing it describes is independent working-class politics. We were always for independent working-class politics, even vis-à-vis the Stalinists when we were solidly for the Stalinist camp. And we got to the point where we weren’t any longer solidly for the Stalinist camp.

We were no longer seeing Stalinism as progressive. For example, we no longer saw Stalinism as progressive because “it took areas out of the control of imperialism”. In our discussions on Cambodia in 1978, Dave Spencer said that we must see Cambodia as a workers’ state because it had been taken out of the control of imperialism. But most of us rejected that nonsense.

It became obvious that a lot of what we were trying to say had been said before, said better, and said from a much higher starting point than the “orthodox Trotskyist” culture we had started with.

I had read Max Shachtman’s The Struggle For The New Course in 1967. I had gone through a phase in the mid-60s of saying that I was agnostic on the question of “degenerated workers’ state” or “state capitalism” or whatever were better terms for the Stalinist systems. I never was agnostic on the politics: I thought you should side with them against imperialism (meaning, against the US-led bloc).

Shachtman’s The Struggle For The New Course is extremely eloquent and extremely powerful, but all it did was confirm what I already knew about the horrors of Stalinism. Shachtman’s approach seemed to me very similar to Trotsky’s, except for the fact that he gave a more negative overall judgement on what he described. I didn’t see a great deal of advance, and I didn’t want to go the same way as Shachtman did in old age.

Trotsky’s polemics against Shachtman in 1939-40 are absolutely unbalanced, and the selection in In Defence of Marxism is grossly unrepresentative of Trotsky’s output at the time on the events in Poland and Finland. Nevertheless, In Defence of Marxism had a tremendous emotional resonance with us.

In a debate in our group in 1976 between “state capitalists” — future Workers’ Power — and me (see p.15), I made the point that the expansion of capitalism since World War Two meant that Trotsky’s objections — to the effect that if “bureaucratic collectivism” was right, then the whole historic perspective of Marxism was overthrown — were no longer valid. Actually those objections were not even true in 1939.

There was a slow movement in our attitudes on Stalinism. Afghanistan broke down the walls completely. And our stance on Afghanistan, in turn, was prepared by our foolishness on Iran. We had an easy time reorienting the group on Afghanistan partly because people had learned the lessons from Iran, that “anti-imperialism”, meaning anti-USA-ism, was not an adequate guide in politics.

After that I didn’t positively defend the “workers’ state” position. I defended it by default as late as 1982. I wrote an article in Socialist Organiser giving facts about the bureaucracy. My intention was to arm comrades with hostility to the bureaucracy. Somebody started a discussion about “workers’-statism”, and I “defended” it by pointing out difficulties with alternative views.

Essentially we had sloughed off all theory. But we were not different from the other Trotskyist groups in that. All the groups have their own concrete answers to a number of questions. Those, rather than the official theoretical formulas, determine what their attitude really is.

Rethinking the Stalinist states

We finally knocked the “workers’ state” formula on the head in 1988.

If it is a matter of picking a label that expresses your feelings about Stalinism, then plainly no-one who knows the facts will choose the term “workers’ state”. The problem is that all the labels imply whole outlooks on history. The label you give to Stalinism implies how you see in relation to world capitalism and in relation to history.

If it were a matter of simply picking a label, anyone could do that. The Workers’ Power group, which came out of the IS Left Faction which we fused with in the mid-1970s, had a label, “state capitalism”, but they had no theory. Eventually they switched to “workers-statism”.

Tony Cliff had a peculiar theory of state capitalism which Hal Draper described — and Cliff didn’t try to contradict him — as not really state capitalism at all, but a variant of bureaucratic collectivism. I think that’s true. It’s very debatable how what Cliff is describing is any sort of capitalism, on his own description.

We had a lot to be modest about in not rushing to change labels, to pick a new label. It would have been far better if we had been able to elaborate new fully-worked-out theories about the whole world. But we didn’t. And if we had gone about doing that, we would by definition have been incapable of appreciating the issues, and we would have wound up as some sort of charlatans.

Tony Cliff ended up praising himself for what his theory of state capitalism has in common with all theories of state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism — rejection of the “workers’ state” thesis — and that is all he could say for it. Every development in Russia refuted Cliff’s specific theory no less than it refuted the workers’ state stuff.

It would have been better if we had been Trotskys. It would not have been better if we had pretended to be Trotskys, able to elaborate a whole world view where Trotsky himself got certain things wrong. We were right not to have delusions of grandeur. We were right to take it cautiously and empirically.
Better if we had been able to be fully-developed Marxists on the question. But we weren’t. And we managed politically. We weren’t a theoretical tract society. We were a political tendency. And we were reasonably competent at steering politically, guided by the idea that we were for the working class irrespective.

It wasn’t that we couldn’t conceive of having a different label. It was that the whole business was so complicated.

Eventually I realised that for a long time we had in fact operated with “Third Camp” politics, seeing the Stalinist states as exploitative and sometimes imperialist class systems which were worse, from a working-class point of view, than capitalism. And over the 1980s we became aware of the existence of a credible — I think enormously credible — alternative body of theory on Stalinism, the theory developed in the US Workers’ Party and ISL in the 1940s and early 50s.