"Why we joined IS" (November 1968)

Submitted by AWL on 7 May, 2014 - 9:28

Why we joined IS (November 1968)

The statement below was produced by the Workers' Fight group (forerunners of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty) on taking up a unity appeal made in 1968 by the International Socialism group (IS: now called the SWP).

The group merged with IS on the basis of an explicit agreement that its members would have the right to organise within IS as a "tendency" it was called the "Trotskyist Tendency") to argue for their basic views where those differed from IS doctrine.

The Trotskyist Tendency remained within IS until it was expelled in December 1971. That expulsion was a watershed in the transformation of IS from the easy-going, pluralist group it was in the 1960s towards the tightly-controlled SWP of later years. IS would expel four other opposition groupings, of varying shades, within the next four years, and after that establish essentially the rigid regime which has led to the recent crises and splintering in the SWP.

Many things have changed since 1968, but the basic case here for "revolutionary socialist unity in action - dialogue where there are differences" remains valid.


A year ago, in the first issue of Workers' Fight, we said the following:

"The need for a healthy revolutionary socialist Trotskyist movement in Britain has rarely been more obvious. Not for a decade and a half has there been such an opportunity as now to advance revolutionary politics.

"A Labour Government in a period of conjunctural crisis is putting the tight squeeze on the working class. Thus the necessity for a working class socialist alternative to the inept and treacherous social democratic politics of the Wilson government is felt by more and more people hitherto beyond the reach of Marxist politics.

"We are in a situation of serious prospects for struggle and of great objective opportunity for fusing the revolutionary socialist movement and Programme with the burgeoning struggles of the class. The task of socialists in this situation is to participate in every way possible in these struggles".

Since then the struggles have sharpened, and the attacks on the class have become daily more vicious. A number of things have happened - international monetary crises, the great upsurge in France, and at home we have seen Powellism and the reverberating and apparently deepening economic crisis. The need for a revolutionary socialist party is clearer and more urgent than ever: and by this of course is meant a party guided by ideological clarity, steering by the Marxist method, a party whose members are conscious and clear and ready to act together under the leadership of the majority.

We thought then, and we still think, that this in its fundamentals must be a Trotskyist party; one that absorbs and applies the codified lessons of the whole of working-class history.

As we defined it then:

"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.

"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".

Considering the candidates for the 'alternative revolutionary leadership' and the 'party' already performing in the ring, we felt it necessary to define our view of their inadequacies. We discussed the two main Trotskyist groups: the Manana Trotskyists of the RSL, and the Exclusive Brethren of the SLL.

Of these, the hibernationist position of the former has not changed and the latter has become even worse. Its hostility to October 27th [demonstration against the Vietnam war] is only the most blatant indication.

At that time, the IMG seemed to merit little more than an oblique mention as a group deeply immersed in the social democracy. But since then it has stopped attempting to substitute for a confused left wing Labour current and come up for air. In VSC [the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign] they have done good work. However, the group's Third World one-issue-campaign approach in VSC threatens to cut off that movement's chances of playing a serious role in British revolutionary politics. In relation to the Labour movement in Britain it continues to be orientated more to the establishment and 'left' trade union bureaucrats than the rank and file.

In general this group is cast in the 'Pabloite' mould, of the vicarious variety of 'Trotskyists'. Grouped in and around the USFI, these comrades belong to the international tendency which is so taken with the economic changes effected in China, Cuba, etc., that they are forever tending to lose sight in varying degrees and sometimes totally of the democratic socialist workers' revolution, of direct power exercised by the working class which must still be conquered in these countries. They are the flip side of the old-style sectarians and many state-capitalists who deny altogether the progressive side of the developments in these countries.

For us the essence of Trotskyism is first and foremost a reliance on the working class as the protagonist of history - and not on the bureaucracy (any bureaucracy) and its hangers-on or on the various nationalist petty-bourgeois formations which spring up. This - the insistence on the need for a 'supplementary' workers' revolution (one with very deep-going social re-organisation which must accompany the smashing of the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy) is the revolutionary side of the workers' state designation. To deny it, or question it, or leave the question open, amounts to a capitulation to Stalinism and is a complete mutilation of Trotskyism.

The biggest change over the past year has been in IS. It has grown enormously, partly because of its centrist closeness to left social democracy and the imprecise revolutionary mood around VSC, and also largely by default of the 'hard Trotskyists'. The very rapid growth has forced the group to reconsider the whole question of the function of a revolutionary organisation.

We wrote a year ago:

"Its deficiencies are amorphousness in ideology and organisation: it began by junking the Bolshevik heritage, method and tradition, and insofar as it has developed in a healthy direction this has consisted in re-adopting piecemeal elements of the politics of Trotskyism.

"We cannot say how far this process will go - and it is most unlikely that it will in fact go much further without a conscious internal struggle and polarisation. Possibly out of this will come some of the future forces for the Trotskyist regroupment."

That was a year ago, and events have developed faster than we anticipated. Last year when we called for a Trotskyist regroupment we expected to involve primarily ex-SLLers (seeing the SLL as the group which, in the late 1950s, came closest to being a Trotskyist party). Now we are faced with a situation of the increasing ossification of the 'Trotskyist' groups on the one hand; and on the other, the growth of IS as a left centrist current and the important changes taking place in it, at the same time as an unprecedentedly sharp period of the possible class struggle demands the utmost of revolutionaries.

This situation faces us with a vitaI question: should we preserve a separate existence as a tiny group, widely spread geographically and incapable of engaging in much effective mass work? A group our size, attempting to re-lay the foundations of some sort of Trotskyist movement, is necessarily faced with being first and foremost a propaganda group educating basic cadres and appealing to revolutionaries and socialists. This would mean little possibility of any serious participation in big struggles.

In many conditions there would be no principled alternative but to hold to this course. However, the development of a left centrist group seriously trying to come to grips with the job that needs to be done (though doing so in a manner we disagree with), which allows interna1 freedom of discussion and factions - the existence of this group offers another road.

"Fusion" with IS allows us to make propaganda internally and at the same time to participate in meaningful class action. Given freedom of discussion and propaganda within IS, together with a general identity of views on a wide range of of activity (in fact, extensive previous practical joint work), not to join and take the opportunity of participating both in IS's internal clarification and its mass work would be absolutely sectarian.

True, unity as such is not a great all-saver. It can be harmful. The question is: unity of who, for what, on what basis? We need discussion, precision, and the organisation of factions.

The tragedy of revolutionary socialism in Britain in the postwar period is that what are properly factions of one basic party have assumed the form of a hydra-headed monstrosity of division and re-division where division leads to differing fields of work by small groups and the accumulated experience creates a sort of special colouration to the ideology of the group. We get sects - i.e. small groups, properly speaking factions, with highly distinct secondary characteristics which are primarily important to the groups' identities as sects; in extreme cases they are cultivated artificially even to the extent of grossly caricaturing and even lying about the positions and behaviour of the other groups (e.g. the SLL method).

At this point there is a qualitative change. Disunity, dead-end factiona1 strife, becomes glorified. Individuals are regarded not on their intentions nor even an their actions - but on the relationship they bear to the sect - or 'revolutionary party'. Here we see the prophet system, and also the hate campaigns waged apparently on the basis of some idea of political original sin.

This has been and still is the predominant attribute of the movement in Britain. IS in many respects shared these characteristics (and was in fact the first sectarian group proper in the early 50s). But after all this bitter and fruitless experience, unity on a serious principled basis, without glossing over even minute differences and on the basis of a continual attempt to clarify these - this unity is a good thing indeed. That it needs to be said is the proof that it has been so long forgotten.

We see the future for IS as needing clarification politically, shedding much of the past, and allowing a serious possibility of the emergence at the end of perhaps a 2-3 year process of growth (we hope) and clarification, of an organisation holding to the fundamentals of Trotskyism free from its recent derangements.

In this event (the most favourable perspective) the Trotskyist tendency would simply merge and dissolve in the transformed group. On the other hand, it must be said clearly that there is also a possibility in the current transformation and further transformations, of sharp struggles developing which could lead to splits in IS and the generation of new sects.

We cannot foresee. But we see our role as that of a loyal faction, functioning as part of the group in activity and in the process of discussion.

We think IS, to play the role which is vacant, must be utterly transformed in approaches and methods. We think a return to the fundamental positions and traditions of Trotskyism, spurned by the leadership of IS in the past and in practice mocked and caricatured by the British 'Trotskyists', is the necessary transformation. And not only a 'return', but a fusion of the revolutionary socialists with the class struggle in Britain.

We must build up the group seriously and honestly on the basis of Leninist politics - which does not merely consist in methods of organisation. We must fight sectarianism without being opportunist in seeing sectarianism as a concern for clarity and principles. Revolutionary socialist unity in action - dialogue where there are differences.

Loyalty to decisions arrived at by a collective majority, and seriousness in action must be the precondition for IS - ours also. However, it would be less than honest if we pretend to have any political confidence in the leadership of IS. We don't. Their past practice precludes it; serious differences of principle which we have with them preclude it, and the obvious empiricism with which they react to the current situation precludes it.

We cal1 now for a RETURN TO TROTSKYISM and for the regroupment of the healthy forces in the revolutionary left in Britain, and we believe that in the absence of an external force for cohesion and unity (such as the Russian Revolution was in the early 1920s), the only way out of the present impasse is by the development of a serious Leninist group free from the defects of the sects. We think IS, or a large section of it, could achieve this. This is why we have joined IS.

The conditions of membership of the Trotskyist Tendency are:

1) Loyal activity in the organisation.

2) Agreement on the basic Programme of Trotskyism - the documents of the first four Congresses of the Communist International and the Founding Conference of the Fourth International.

3) We work to construct a Leninist Party, democratic centralist in the real sense, not the centralised centrism proposed by the Political Committee (although, because we feel that even that is preferable to the ineffective looseness of IS's present, we support it now without illusions). To us democratic centralism is the organisational expression of the conscious Leninist conception of working class politics (a method which is utterly different from the IS leadership's past actions and attitudes and also from its current 'conversion' to the bare forms of democratic centralism). Democratic centralism relies on political clarity, a minimum level of development of members and a minimum level of activity: without these democracy is a farce, and without democracy effective centralism is impossible.

4) We stand for a defencist attitude towards all colonial struggles against imperialism, and towards the Stalinist states against imperialism: this, in its original Trotskyist definition, does not mean support for the bureaucracies and their foreign policies, nor can it ever go against the interests of the world revolution or working class of the Stalinist states. It is defence against reactionary parasitic imperialism.

29-11-68