The SWP: a relapse into the worst of Trotskyism

Submitted by Matthew on 13 June, 2010 - 8:16 Author: John Palmer

I do not disagree with the points that Jim Higgins made (Workers' Liberty 19) about Cliff and the IS Opposition.However I am not convinced that a discussion about the specific issues involved in that struggle is a sufficient explanation for the bust-up.

I think there is something in the nature of Trotskyist organisations, something about the dynamics of relatively small organisations which are marginal to the working class, and something about the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition which leads to sectarian degeneration.

So, I think there was something predetermined about the fight in IS. The problems we discussed were nearly irrelevant to the inevitability of the fight. One underlying reason lies in the nature of democratic centralism and the inherent flaw in that type of organisation.

As IS grew during the early 1970s it became increasingly unable to allow differences of perspective to be contained within the organisation. There is something in the nature of all but the smallest Trotskyist groups which requires issues to be fought out to the death. This has something to do with Trotsky himself, and his almost obsessive pursuit of secondary differences with his own comrades. I do not believe that some of the splits in the Trotskyist movement during the 1930s were either unavoidable or constructive. They should be understood more in terms of pathologies, rather than as political phenomenon.

The organisation had become disorientated. IS became intoxicated by its successes.

I personally - along with many others - addressed large meetings of steelworkers, miners and dockers. Those meetings would be almost inconceivable today. Of course we were not challenging for state power. But against the small group of the earlier days - of Socialist Review and IS - an organisation of some thousands had become, in itself, almost a sufficient justification for existence.

The return of a Labour government in 1974 was accompanied by an almost millennial expectation of breakthrough from Cliff and the IS majority.

This was odd coming from IS, an organisation which, whatever its flaws, was rooted in a more sober realism than any other tendency - except perhaps the Shachtmanites and their socialist descendents in America - from the Trotskyist tradition. There was a ruthless rejection of schematic, millennial politics which were based on the imminence of the coming crisis.

The IS Opposition held the view that the Labour government of 1974 would not be a Kerensky-type of government which workers would quickly overthrow - as the IS majority and leadership claimed. We were - even ourselves, looking back on it - over-optimistic. But against the leadership, however, we were super-realistic.
As Workers' Liberty has already documented, the differences in perspectives were linked to differences about how to relate to the rank-and-file organisation. We felt that the building of rank-and-file organisations would have to be slower, measured in years rather than months. The business of working with people in the Communist Party and on the Labour left would have to be much more sustained.

The majority of the more experienced IS workers agreed with us - not that this should have been the end of the matter, but it did happen to be the case. And I think that what can be said in our favour is that we were sensing and expressing the beginnings of an unfavourable shift in the balance of class forces.

There was a mood-change in industry which the shop stewards in the IS Opposition felt on the shop floor. IS steelworkers did not believe that it would be easy to mobilise action to defend jobs at the beginning of the steel rationalisation process. What they were doing was picking up some of the deep-seated changes at the heart of the economy and in the composition of the class, which we have seen so dramatically in the past two decades.

The point here is not even that we more right than the majority. The point is that when they won the vote, they required the dismantling of all the links and associations that existed amongst the minority. They destroyed the minority and in so doing dealt a dreadful blow to the organisation's own democratic tradition.

After that point, when I concluded that democratic change was no longer possible inside IS, I left the organisation.
In fact this sort of intolerance had not always existed. We had had big arguements about Luxemburgism, Europe and democratic centralism in the 60s. But the defeated side was not driven out.

In IS at that time there were people who thought for themselves. In its heyday it was a kind of coalition of people from different intellectual backgrounds. Kidron differed from Cliff on some questions. Alasdair MacIntyre, Peter Sedgwick, Nigel Harris and others were substantial figures.

While I might have disagreed with Peter Sedgwick on particular issues, he said what he thought, and did not just go with the tide. And that is an attitude to respect.

We made right and wrong decisions during my time in IS, but the common feature was a tradition of militant internal debate that appears to have completely gone.

My conclusion is to reject "vanguardism" and to recognise that within socialist organisations differences must be allowed to survive long enough to find resolution according to their own time scale, by testing points of view in practice. This question is in part, related to how we should understand "the Bolshevik tradition" in socialist organisation.

I agree with Sam Farber's basic argument in "Before Stalinism". Farber avoids the two polarities - of either relapsing into Menshevism and denouncing the whole of the Bolshevik tradition as Stalinist from the start, or, on the other hand, creating an impassible wall between Stalinism and Bolshevism. The elements both of working-class self-emancipation and repressive, counter-revolutionary authoritarianism co-existed uneasily throughout the history of Bolshevism.
Incidentally, I agree with Jim Higgins about the merger of Workers' Fight with IS. Workers' Fight was, essentially, a sectarian entryist organisation. Looking back we had no alternative but to take action against them and left sectarianism.

In saying that I am also aware of a contradiction. I accept that part of the acerbic way that Workers' Fight and the Left Faction were dealt with also reflected the extent to which we had all been infected with the deformed traditions of sectarian "Bolshevism".
Particularly in the 15 years after 1960, partly because IS was swamped by a huge youth intake, the organisation was in the process of turning into something new. During this period of Cliff's life there was an attempt to go beyond the Trotskyist tradition.

It failed. The subsequent period has formed a relapse into the most negative features of that tradition. The belief that the hour is coming - those chiliastic politics - which sustains people in difficult periods, is very intoxicating.

When I look at Britain today - the crisis, the collapse of Labourism, I am amazed that the SWP has not grown even bigger.
Its size contrasts very sharply with its intellectual passivity. Marxism has not come to terms with the end of the blue-collar working class, the rise of new social groups or the integration of economies across national borders. Marxism has not developed and so the attempt to change things - including attempt to build a new radical, red/green left - has been theoretically confused.

The tempting thing is to reduce the degeneration in IS to the role of one Machiavellian individual - Cliff. But that would be wrong. All the points about Cliff's limitations, irresponsibility and opportunism have been made. But this is actually only one side of the creative energy that allowed him to build what must be recognised as a militant, fighting socialist organisation, as well as allowing him to exploit a guru role. The positive side of the matter is that Cliff was actually able to develop Marxism.

It would actually more tempting to reduce everything to the acolytes who he has surrounded himself with - who turn left and then right, with precious little concern for facts, simply to suit convenience. But even that is only a small part of the story.
Why did the IS Opposition loose? Yes, we had 40% of the membership and perhaps we could have had 60%. One important explanation, I think, is unflattering to ourselves: in order to win we would have had to have fought full-time for months - perhaps a year. Neither Jim Higgins or myself were prepared to do that - and perhaps that puts a question mark over our own leadership.

We thought Duncan Hallas would fulfill that role, and when Cliff won Hallas over, that was a big blow.

At heart, the IS Opposition never fully or consistently worked out the longer-term strategic implications of our own

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