UNITE THE LEFT? Left Disunity In the Perspective of History

Submitted by dalcassian on 5 October, 2010 - 2:40 Author: Sean Matgamna

British workers in politics

British workers created the first mass workers' party in the world, the Chartist movement, after 1838. Then, as the Chartists declined after 1848, they pioneered another form of workers' movement - trade unions which regarded their activity as merely a business of cutting the best available deal with the bosses. From the 1870s, the trade unions were able to put some of their members and officials into parliament, but as "Lib-Labs", Liberal candidates allowed to represent special trade-union concerns on secondary matters within a Liberal Party thoroughly dominated by the industrial, financial and agrarian bourgeoisie.

The beginnings of change came with the dockers' strike of 1889 and the rise of the new mass unions of the "unskilled". The new unions did not have the high dues and the good "welfare" benefits of the craft unions which had dominated the previous decades. Naturally they began to look to legislative reform to protect their members in unemployment, old age, and sickness. Gradually they moved to the idea that they must have their own political party, to put working-class representatives into parliament under an independent working-class banner.

Another great shaping force here was organised socialist propaganda, sustained over decades. Yet the weight of Liberal traditions in the trade union movement, the political vagueness of Keir Hardie's Independent Labour Party and outright class-collaboration doctrine of the Fabians, and sectarian mistakes by the Marxists, combined to yield a Labour Party, after 1900, that was only organisationally separate from the Liberals. Even after 1918, when the Labour Party ceased to operate election pacts with the Liberals and adopted general socialist aims on paper ("Clause Four"), it remained what Lenin would in 1920 call a "bourgeois workers' party". In 1922, the young Communist Party, then a revolutionary organisation, explained:

"Its leaders, in their overwhelming majority, were financially and otherwise no longer members of the working class, but of the middle class. They were often Liberals, and might be conservatives, in all else but defence of their own unions, finances and privileges. Thus, even before the war, the Labour Party had become quite distinctly a class organisation of the proletariat which was dominated by that section of the middle class whose profession it was to organise trade unions".

Yet the Labour Party was still fluid. Up to the middle 1920s it was still possible for Marxists to have superseded the reformists as the dominant force in the British labour movement. The small Communist Party had wide influence and support not only in the trade unions but also in the Labour Party.

It was the rise of Stalinism that destroyed the Communist Party's prospects. From far away, Stalin shaped the history of the British labour movement. In Russia, a new bureaucratic ruling class moved towards displacing the working class from power. It developed its own world outlook. Where the Bolsheviks had thought that the Russian Revolution was, and could only be, a temporary bridgehead for international workers' revolution spreading to the advanced countries which had the technical and human preconditions for socialism, Stalin proclaimed that backward Russia could build "socialism in one country". In this outlook, the Communist Parties outside Russia could have little purpose except as political border guards for the Soviet Union.

First, Stalin shackled the British Communist Party to support for trade-union leaders who were timid in conflict with British bosses but happy to give themselves left-wing credentials by verbal support for Russia. Those trade-union leaders betrayed the 1926 General Strike. The CP, compelled to support them, could not use their betrayal to best advantage in winning workers away from the official leadership. Soon after, in 1928-9, as Stalin crushed the Russian workers' movement and set Russia to forced collectivisation and breakneck-speed industrialisation in competition with the West, the Communist Parties were ordered to pursue a destructive ultra-left policy, branding Labourites and social-democrats as "social fascists".

In Germany this led to crazy nonsense like the CP backing Hitler against the Social Democrats with whom they would soon share the comradeship of the concentration camps. In Britain, the communist-led National Left Wing Movement in the Labour Party was liquidated. The Minority Movement, which organised militant sections of the trade unions, was turned into an attempt to create new unions. The best revolutionary activists were scattered or hurled into crazy policies which stripped them of influence in the wider movement.

The ultra-left period lasted until 1934-5. By then the Communist Party had been turned into a docile and fully bureaucratised tool of Russian foreign policy, indeed, a source of totalitarian pollution in the labour movement. Stalin now hoped for an alliance with French and British capitalism against Germany, and so the CP was made to advocate a "popular front" for Labour with Liberals and "progressive" Tories. This put them to the right of even Labour's right wing, who wanted a Labour and not a coalition government! Despite one or two zig-zags, the CP would not fundamentally emerge from this phase of Stalinist politics except to "bio-degrade" into a form of social democracy and then dissolve.

The Trotskyist groups which tried to maintain the politics and perspectives of the young Communist Party were tiny. And so, from the early 1930s right through to recent times, working-class politics in Britain was dominated by a Labour Party which was based on the unions; which had "open valves" in its structure through which working-class activism could flow from the unions into the Constituency Labour Parties and other Labour Party bodies, and sometimes, on some issues, could have visible effect; which was open and loose enough to allow space for a visible, though always politically vague, left; but which was always decisively dominated by a coalition of conservative trade union officials and middle-class parliamentarians whose perspectives went no further than mild piecemeal reform.

If Blair manages the definitive destruction of the old Labour Party, we will not have lost an adequate instrument for socialist change. We have lost something which was never adequate and which always had inbuilt contradictions. The task of socialists now is not to win back a lost golden age - which never existed - but to try to see to it that out of the flux and crisis for working-class politics comes something positive instead of, or as well as, a "negative", thoroughly-bourgeois, Blairite resolution of the contradictions of the old Labour Party.

The Marxist left in historical perspective

There was once a great movement in all the advanced countries of the world, a movement for working-class socialism, for a great liberating revolution, for the full and consistent realisation of the democracy that the bourgeoisie talk of but can never allow to develop properly and fully and in society as a whole. That great movement has vanished as completely as if, like the mythical continent of Atlantis, it has sunk into the sea. It is the great lost civilisation of the twentieth century - the civilisation that might have been, but never was. We, the Marxists, are the survivors of that Atlantis. We are its heirs; we are also the pioneers for its re-emergence.

Why did it vanish? Under capitalism the workers own nothing but their own labour power, while the capitalists own the means of production. The capitalists buy labour power to run production, pocketing the difference between the value added by labour and what labour-power costs. That difference, or surplus, is called surplus-value. The workers form the basic slave class in capitalist society, the wage-slave class.

The working class must prepare itself to take power by way of self-organisation and self-clarification even while it remains a slave class. As a class it has limited access to broad general culture, and little time, leisure or energy to study and think. It throws up layers of specialists and technicians and "working-class intellectuals" to run its organisations - trade-union officials, local councillors, parliamentary representatives. These assume a middle-class way of life and ultimately a middle-class outlook. They bond and merge with layers of the bourgeoisie. They thus tie the working class to the bourgeoisie.

Marx wrote rightly that the ruling ideas of an epoch are those of the ruling class. The working class needs to develop its own independent class outlook. It does this when people possessing bourgeois culture - like Marx, Engels and others - come over to the working class and create an objective, coherent world outlook which takes account of the historical experience of the working class and puts capitalism itself in historical perspective, as only one, historically-finite, form of exploitative class society.

There is a constant battle inside the workers' movement and on its periphery between the ideas of the bourgeoisie, usually expressed by the trade union officials and the parliamentarians on one side (though there are exceptions), and the Marxists, the socialists, and the consistent democrats on the other. The natural processes of class society, the class struggle, the unceasing struggle between workers and bourgeois over surplus value, work in favour of the Marxists; the whole ideology of official society and its routines and norms work in favour of the bourgeoisie and their agents in the working-class movement.

You get contradictory phenomena. The heroic workers who formed Poland's Solidarnosc in 1980-1 were mostly devout Catholics; the Russian workers who have in recent years, in several mining towns, taken local power through workers' councils, support the politics of market liberalism. Workers who still have backward ideas in their heads - who, for example, think capitalism natural, permanent and good - may enter into bitter wage battles. Some, but not by any means all, will learn better in the struggle. If there are socialists to explain things to them, then they will learn more quickly, and more of them will learn.

Marxists say that the consciousness of most workers does not correspond to their objective interests. From that contradiction there comes into existence the possibility of "miracles". Overnight there can be seemingly miraculous changes in working-class consciousness. Except that there is nothing miraculous about it. Consciousness is just catching up with the objective reality of the conditions in which the worker lives in bourgeois society.

In December 1967 in France, an official token general strike over social security and unemployment was called, and was a resounding flop. Six months later some eight million workers went out on spontaneous strike, and many seized the factories. Not a miracle, but uneven, lurching development. There is permanent struggle. The class struggle takes place on three key fronts: the economic, the political and the ideological - the battle of ideas. The battle of ideas, between bourgeois and working-class ideas, takes place all the time within the working-class organisations. This is a condition the working class must live with, because it lives in bourgeois society. The working class exists, as a revolutionary class, at a permanent disadvantage. When the layers of officials, acting as a body, direct the working-class movement into courses contrary to workers' immediate or long-term interests, it is very hard for the working class to resist. The very possibility of such resistance depends on the prior existence of unofficial networks of revolutionary militants in the labour movement, consciously at war with the officials.

Through the accumulated force of inertia of the layer of time-serving, cautious officials within them, the great mass workers' parties of the Second International (1889-1914) were led to support their own governments in World War One. At first a heroic few like Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Mehring, Zetkin and the Bolsheviks resisted. Then millions resisted and revolted. They reorganised the mass of revolutionary workers in a new, Communist, International. Atlantis had not sunk. From those earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the International did not sink, but rose up higher out of the sea. Millions of revolutionary workers rallied to the Russian Revolution and the Third International.

But then, within a short time, the new ruling class in the USSR seized the International, repeatedly purged it, and turned it into something alien and new in the history of the working-class movement. With great slaughter, fascism and Stalinism between them destroyed the revolutionary movement. Atlantis now sank into the sea - into a sea of blood and lies. The atolls of the revolutionary left are its still-visible remnants. "Trotskyism", today and since the late 1920s, is simply the current name for those who continue to fight for working-class liberation against both capitalism and Stalinism.

The mass communist movement that seemed to continue under its Stalinist form bore the same relation to the old movement as the mythical zombie does to a living human being. Yet it had sufficient similitude to communism to marginalise the genuine communists. Central here was the fact that Stalinism was anti-capitalist (or, if those who think Stalinism was some variant of state-capitalism insist, it was opposed to what had so far existed as capitalism). Eleven years after the greatest triumph of communism, October 1917, the communists were prisoners and exiles in the icy wastes of Siberia. A whole historical epoch had to pass before things became clear, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

We are the heirs of Atlantis. The question naturally arises: perhaps our defeat was inevitable? Perhaps, as the bourgeoisie and their agents have so often said, we follow a will-o'-the-wisp, an impossible dream? Perhaps the working class is incapable of taking power? There is no shortage of examples to offer plausible reasons why the bourgeoisie is wrong. Beyond that, it is a matter of trying out the question with them once more, that is, of the conscious activity of socialists and the interaction of socialists with the labour movements and the working class.

That there are peculiar difficulties the working class must overcome is beyond dispute. But time and again the working class has risen in revolt. In Paris in 1871 and in Russia in 1917 we took power, and in the latter case held it for years. The potential for working-class power is again and again shown to be real.

Moreover, the Marxist case for why the working class should take power and make socialism rests on the nature, limits and contradictions of capitalism. Those have neither disappeared, nor grown less. In the beginning, for socialists, is the critique of capitalism. Look around you! Capitalism is the great historical tragedy that forever offers humankind benefits and advances it cannot deliver, securely or to the majority, even in the advanced countries, not to speak of all the people of the earth.

Perhaps thirty million children die needlessly, and in varieties of agony, every year under this system. The question is, what can we do about it? Can the socialist Atlantis be raised up once more? Can the existing labour movements be converted once more into advocates or and agencies for the socialist overthrow of capitalist society?

Yes! The inner logic of history is with us, helping us. Look at what the successes of capitalism in South Korea and Indonesia have led to: working-class revolt. Successful capitalism breeds its own gravediggers! We socialists are in uncongenial conditions today. Stalinism wreaked havoc with socialism - falsifying its ideas and its history, inserting alien ideas into the socialist platform, committing unheard-of and unspeakable crimes in the name of socialism.

Moreover, the rearguard of Bolshevism, Trotskyism, after long decades of sectism and isolation and inbreeding and ideological and political decay, has grown decrepit. It too has to be politically regenerated and rebuilt. The broad left has to be recomposed and the Trotskyist left made truly "Trotskyist", that is truly Marxist, again. But the collapse of Stalinism is the great factor in world politics which may make left unity possible now where it was not before. It clears the ground. It sidelines the Stalinist counterfeits of socialism which have muddied the waters of the left for so long. It puts in front of every group the task of rebuilding a broad working-class socialist culture, and bringing the basic ideas of common ownership, democratic co-operation, workers' control and class struggle to a new generation to whom the old reformist and Stalinist left represent a dying wasteland.

"Building the party" and "rearming the labour movement"

Seared or disgusted by one or another of the far-left sects, many socialists today reckon they can do better by being active as individuals, helping to "rearm the labour movement" politically without impediment from the exigencies of trying to "build the party".

But what can the general idea of politically "rearming the labour movement" mean if not the creation over time of a powerful revolutionary party at the head of the broader labour movement, in the first place, of the trade unions? To counterpose "rearming the labour movement" to "building the party" is just foolish inverted sectarianism. It is the "little sectarianism" of isolated individuals, the flip-side of the "bigger" sectarianism of the groups that counterpose "building the party" against integration in the labour movement.

"Rearming the labour movement" and "building a revolutionary party" - at the end of the process, both formulas will have matched up and merged into one: a mass revolutionary party at the head of the broader labour movement. "Rearming" - or, more correctly, rearming and reorganising - "the labour movement" is, in the here and now and in the long view, the same task as "building the party". Beyond that generalisation, it is a matter of working out concretely at a given moment which is best of the possible ways the organised collective of Marxists, be they more or less numerous, can relate to an existing mass reformist, or "post-reformist", labour movement, so as to bring about its transformation, or the next step in its transformation. The growth of the Marxist organisation is both one measure of how the process of transformation is progressing, and a necessary instrument for further transformation.

Individual activity is almost necessarily activity on one front only, in an established structure - trade union, Labour Party, campaign. But Marxists must organise ourselves so as to fight the class struggle on all fronts now. We do not "build the party" irrespective of and wilfully apart from the labour movement and the working class; but, equally, people who want to revolutionise the labour movement so that it can overthrow capitalism can not afford to sink themselves into the rhythms and norms of a labour movement which is not revolutionary and which involves only a minority of the working class. To deny that a militant Marxist organisation - and not just a Fabian-Marxist "think-tank" or a little hobby-journal (Briefing is a current example) - must be built continuously, in the very process of transforming the labour movement, is to think that someone and something else will bring about and consolidate the transformation of the labour movement.

Will that transformation happen spontaneously, as a result of the revival of economic or trade-union class struggle? It will not. Unless the Marxists are strong enough to shape events we will probably get fiascos and muddle and confusion like in the great industrial struggles of the 1960s and 70s and the Bennite left of the 1980s. Of course, it would be stupid to think that there will be a slow, even growth of the Marxists. But if we do not build up now by way of the ones and twos and threes and twenties that can be won - and unity will give us greatly increased chances to build - then we will never be big enough to win over the hundreds, thousands and millions. We fight for the hegemony of Marxism in the labour movement, and to do that we must build, as slowly as necessary and as quickly as possible, a coherent Marxist party.

Revolutionary politics is not something for the future - "on the barricades", as the middle-class cliché has it - but for here and now.

There is an organic relationship - seed to luxuriant growth - between selling papers on a street corner, or organising in the unions, now, and victory or defeat in mass revolutionary struggles.

If we do not build now, even when the labour movement is in the doldrums, then we will not be able to seize chances when they come. We may not be able to avoid catastrophic defeat in the big battles to come. That, surely, is the abiding lesson of working-class history.

We work in the labour movement structures; we promote our politics, projects and perspectives within them; but we do not voluntarily confine ourselves to them or depend on them. We do not go quiet when the official structures go quiet. If some parts of the labour movement die - and that is what we face if the Blairites continue dominant - then we will not die. We will work to build replacements.

If we confine ourselves to the abstract spreading of ideas, and fail to weld the Marxists into an autonomous group - autonomous even in conditions where it is possible for the Marxists to do all their work as an internal faction of the Labour Party - we will fail to develop the instruments needed for the necessary transformation and renewal of the broader labour movement. If we sink into that movement, we will never be able to shift it from where it is. We will be passengers, not builders of new tracks or better engines. We reject both sectarianism towards the existing labour movement in the manner of the SWP in recent decades, and also the attitude of those who would become mere passengers, enunciating an occasional message to their fellow-passengers. Ultimately both approaches lead to the same thing in relation to the existing movement. Both remove or minimise the creative activity of Marxists as a force in the evolution of the mass labour movement. The sectarians are sterile and impotent because they stand aside; the others are sterile because they cling self-distortingly to the existing structures and become parasitically dependent on them, incapable of independent initiative.

They fail to develop the sinews and muscles of an independent organisation in relation to the class, the class struggle, and the existing reformist labour movement. They fail to be what we must be: the representatives of the movement's future, active in the here and now to carve out that future.

Why the Marxists are divided

Trying to answer this question in 1978, we wrote: "From the 1930s, the basic divisions in the working-class movement were between the reformists, tied to the capitalist state; the Stalinists, tied to the reactionary bureaucracy of the USSR... and the Trotskyists, the only tendency dedicated to the fight for workers' power... Yet today the Trotskyist movement is split into many different tendencies. Why? After World War 2, the Trotskyists had to readjust and redefine their revolutionary perspectives. With limited forces, and few experienced leaders, they failed to do it adequately or unanimously. In the early 1950s the Trotskyist movement split on a world scale".

What we did not then understand was that the more fundamental division of the Trotskyists was earlier, in 1940-8 - between those who clung to Trotsky's words "degenerated workers' state" when the reality of Stalinist exploitation and Russian imperialism had developed so far that the attempt to cram reality into old formulas corrupted all the basic concepts, and those who more seriously tried to continue Trotsky's basic method and "readjust and redefine" (see our recent book, The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism volume 1). But even back in 1978 we saw that there was something fundamentally faulty in the common root of the split of the early 1950s. "The split was not a politically clear one... it laid the ground for further, often irresponsible, factionalism and splits. On the one hand there are the sectarians, for whom all political life centres round the factional self-promotion of their organisation, the denunciation of 'revisionism', and the proclamation of the 'correct' combination of slogans from the Transitional Programme - which History will reward by producing mass struggles from the womb of its ever-present catastrophic 'crisis'. On the other hand, those who make a more serious attempt to analyse the real movement of the class struggle - but then end up posing themselves as Marxist advisers to the most promising leftward-moving current and thus eliminating themselves, qua Marxist revolutionaries, as an independent factor in the scenarios.... What has happened to the Trotskyist movement since the late 1940s is that it has been reduced to a spectrum of sects - within which some groups struggle, with greater or lesser success, to rise above the status of sects". As noted above, in fact, to rise to a higher level we have to go back not just to the late 1940s but to the "lost texts" and lost debates of earlier years.

Our experience

The forerunner of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the Workers' Fight group, started its public life in 1967 with a call for a "Trotskyist regroupment". Its immediate proposal was to rally activists seeking a positive alternative to what we saw as the sectarian drift of the main Trotskyist groups of the time, and thus create a pole around which revolutionaries could be reunified in counterpoint to that sectarianism. By far the most active Trotskyist group at the time was the Socialist Labour League led by Gerry Healy. Its paper-sellers and organisers made a mark in many working-class areas, workplaces and trade unions. In the early 1960s it had been able to win the majority of Labour's youth movement in battle with the Labour Party machine. Yet the SLL was crippled by a vicious circle of an authoritarian internal regime and a sectarian outward orientation, each feeding off the other. By 1968 it would be issuing leaflets to a big demonstration against the Vietnam war entitled "Why the SLL is not marching", with the explanation that the march had been organised by "revisionists" expressly to divert attention from the SLL.

Soon the organisation, renamed WRP, went mad. From 1976 it started taking money from Libya, Iraq and other vicious Arab governments, and paying for it by anti-Jewish agitation and apologetics for those regimes, all dressed up as "anti-imperialism". In 1985 the WRP imploded. Only small and dispersed splinters survive today. The experience shows how revolutionary devotion, commitment and activism can be nullified if a "spirit of emergency", proper within limits, excludes rational debate.

The second Trotskyist group of the middle 1960s, "Militant", also had politics dominated by a vision of all-consuming catastrophic crisis, divined and expounded by the leadership in the manner of an oracle. Where for the SLL the crisis was always today, for "Militant" it was always tomorrow. In that crisis, so the oracles of "Militant" foretold, the Labour Party would develop a mass left wing. If the Marxists had placed themselves right, the left wing would naturally rally to them and the crisis would sweep them smoothly to power. Incongruously for a Trotskyist group, "Militant" explicitly envisaged a peaceful road to socialism in Britain. An "Enabling Act" passed through parliament would mandate the nationalisation of the top monopolies, and the labour movement would be so powerful that the bosses and bankers, the judges and Lords and army chiefs, would not dare resist. The immediate conclusion for "Militant" was to position themselves in the Labour Party, propagandise for nationalisation, and avoid all hasty or premature struggle that might jeopardise the easy victory of tomorrow. They proudly headlined "Labour Adopts Marxist Programme" when a Labour conference passed a nationalisation resolution, and meanwhile counselled caution to the working class.

Their dénouement, too, would come in 1985. Some of their supporters won leading positions in Liverpool's Labour council in 1983-4, when there was a widespread working-class will to resist local government cuts and the miners were about to begin their epic strike. Instead of mobilising Liverpool's workers to fight alongside the miners, "Militant" accepted a deal with the Tories that essentially postponed Liverpool council's financial problems to the budget year 1985-6. Tory MP Teddy Taylor told Derek Hatton, the leading "Militant" figure on Liverpool council: "You do realise that we had to tell [Tory minister] Patrick [Jenkin] to give you the money. At this stage we want Scargill. He's our priority. But we'll come for you later". Looking back, Hatton comments: "These were the words he used, and how true they turned out to be. They did want Scargill, and they did come for us later" (Derek Hatton's book Inside Left, p.85).

By spring 1985 the miners had been defeated. The Liverpool council leadership, advised by "Militant", temporised and vacillated until autumn, then issued mass redundancy notices as a "tactical gambit" to wriggle through. A last-minute attempt to win a strike ballot of the baffled and resentful workforce failed. The council proceeded to activate a long-prepared deal with Swiss banks and make cuts. In the aftermath, Labour's leadership was able to expel many "Militant" supporters, using the exercise as a stick against the broader left. "Militant" panicked, crumbled, failed to fight the expulsions except through the bourgeois courts, and eventually quit the Labour Party, splitting as it did so. Today the organisation continues as the Socialist Party.
The SWP

It was a third group, the IS (now SWP), who responded most aptly to the radicalisation of the late 1960s. Turning their face towards the working class and their politics to the left, IS-SWP grew rapidly. In 1968 they made a unity appeal, which Workers' Fight (and, in the event, no other group) took up. Inside the IS-SWP, the Workers' Fight tendency made an extension of revolutionary unity part of its platform.

"AT transitional organisation [should] be set up... which would... allow at least the elimination of the most inessential and senseless competition and divisions. (a) Strict internal democracy, proportional representation and freedom of propaganda and tendencies within the organisation; (b) A definite yet flexible commitment to the discipline of the majority in relation to the practical conclusions" from agreed basic principles. In fact the IS-SWP went the other direction, towards the establishment of a one-faction "papal" regime and thus splits and the dispersal of forces. In December 1971 it expelled the Workers' Fight tendency and agreed tight new regulations to limit the rights of internal opposition.

By 1974, we saw it like this: "In the last three years.... IS has degenerated rapidly. Although IS still contains many excellent militants, internal political life has been squashed flat, and the contents of Socialist Worker have become increasingly trivial and shallow". That was before the fiasco of 1975, when IS-SWP expelled the bulk of its old-established leading layer together with other oppositionists, and lost its frail manual working-class base through the expulsions and through individual departures in reaction to a manic leadership policy of "steering left" in search of the "raw youth who want to rip the head off capitalism". IS-SWP turned to "building the party" as an end in itself, on lines pioneered by the SLL. Political slogans would be chosen to "fit the mood" and maximise party gate-receipts, a process which left little room and little felt need for considered debate. We commented: "IS's leaders, who are neither cowards nor subjectively opposed to revolutionary politics, think they are being clever... They believing such 'politicking' will allow them to 'build the party' - not understanding that a 'party' so built will be helpless in any crisis".

Those comments were contained in an open letter for revolutionary regroupment. Putting it out in 1974, as the first great post-1945 world capitalist economic crisis got underway, and in a time of confident working-class struggle, we argued that: "Since the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy took power in the Soviet Union and seized control of the Communist International, there have been few openings so great for recreating powerful revolutionary organisations..."

That was true, but the response to our unity appeal was limited to individuals and small groups. The most significant of those small groups was a ex-IS/SWP faction called Workers' Power; but even in their case, as class struggle dipped in 1976, a chunk split away from the unified organisation and readopted the name Workers' Power. Their political differences with the majority were miniscule, and their democratic guarantees extensive, but they could not make the transition from operating as a small circle, knitted together by relations of personal friendship and deference, to a higher stage. Excessive rigidity on our part, shaped by the 1950s-60s "orthodox Trotskyist" tradition which had trained us, probably made the conflict worse. Subsequently Workers' Power would rationalise their separation by dogmatising the "kitsch Trotskyism" of the early-1950s variants mentioned above, in mirror-image to Workers' Liberty's gradual process of working back beyond that tradition to purer roots. This development has much instructive in common with other cases of Trotskyist sect-formation.

In 1978, as the Labour government stumbled towards its downfall, another unity call was launched by the International Marxist Group. It was vitiated by the IMG's lack of working-class orientation, the instability of its political leadership, and its linking of unity to an electoral gambit which in the circumstances proved misjudged, to say the least. They promoted "Socialist Unity" candidates - only a very few of them, in the end - in the general election of 1979, at a time when, in face of the Thatcherite offensive, the need for Marxists to be in and with a Labour left moving towards its greatest effort of self-assertion for decades was at its greatest. "The International Marxist Group", we had commented in 1974, "has recruited many good comrades under the banner of the Fourth International... only to disorientate them with the kaleidoscopic variety of 'theoretical breakthroughs', usually wrong, often bizarre, streaming from the heads of the IMG leadership... The recent history of the IMG - which reads like a burlesque version of the Wars of the Roses - shows that excessive factionalism harms democratic discussion, rather than helping it". Those "Wars of the Roses" ended with mutual exhaustion, again in the year of the miners' defeat, 1985. The IMG fell apart into three small groups, of which the most rational is today called Socialist Outlook. The AWL has proposed dialogue and collaboration to the Outlook current many times since 1985, but so far weariness has, it seems, prevented them from responding.

The WSL

Another attempt at unity, by the AWL's predecessor I-CL in 1981 with the "Thornett group", the Workers' Socialist League, also failed despite a promising start. The WSL was a group which had split from the Healy WRP - or, rather, been forcibly ejected as soon as they started some critical thinking-aloud - in 1974, just before the Healy group went completely crazy but after it had been thoroughly sectarian for ten years and deeply authoritarian and irrational for 25.

Unity was possible because the WSL - after first condemning us as "errand boys for Benn" - was impressed by the success of I-CL supporters in developing wide unity of action in the Labour left in the upsurge of 1979-81, and because the I-CL saw the WSL as having shifted decisively from its Healyite roots. But then the Labour left went into decline and the I-CL's perception proved to be an optical illusion. What was happening in the WSL was not so much a positive move towards a comprehensive Marxist alternative to Healyism as a diminution of sectarianism by way of disorientation and loss of confidence. Between 1982 and 1984 the old WSL core disintegrated messily within the frame of the new united organisation (also called WSL). It threw off splits, fragments and individuals, to the declamatory ultra-left and to the right, as it went. Finally, we expelled the embittered and demoralised rump in 1984 when they refused a call to order for constructive cooperation at the start of the miners' strike and instead insisted on a new WSL conference (the fifth in just over a year!) devoted to "the internal situation". They had had full faction rights and extensive access to the public press for minority views, but that was not enough. In fact they were on an irreversible trajectory towards a split - at their convenience. The miners' strike made up our minds that it would be at our convenience. So we expelled them. The handful of survivors from that group are today in Outlook, where they act as water-carriers from what in their more vigorous, if not more enlightened, youth they denounced as "the poisoned well" of "Pabloism".

We gained something from the experience, because the incessant conferences and faction-fights forced us to spell out half-spoken qualifications and critical perspectives which we had developed on our 1950s-60s "orthodox Trotskyist" inheritance, but the overhead costs in disappointments and damaged nerves were high. Part of the problem was naive goodwill on our part. We assumed that the I-CL and old WSL leaderships would easily merge to form the stable core without which unity and democracy in a revolutionary organisation are unworkable. It was not like that, and the united organisation suffered a fair degree of degeneration of democracy into chaos. A fuller preparation for merger through joint work and public discussion might have averted some of the problems.

A parallel instructive failure came in 1995, when our sympathisers in the Labour Party attempted to merge with Labour Left Briefing. The enterprise soon failed, fortunately with much less overhead cost than in 1981-4. The agreement we thought we had was for a democratic unity, with every serious political question open to public discussion. Within months we were told that our views on Ireland - the views of what were now the majority of the active supporters of the publication - could not be published in the magazine, not even in the most gently phrased articles, because they would offend the readers! This experience showed that "anti-sectarianism", when defined as the search for "left consensus" politics in place of sharp debate, flips over into the worst bureaucratism and sectarianism. When complacent and self-important personages authorise themselves to speak for "broad left" opinion and anathematise other views as "sectarian", their approach has all the vices of the sect with its Pope interpreting Marxism, but lacks even the sect's virtues of zeal and intensity. We can unite only through (limited and structured) conflict; we can reach a solid basis of agreement only through actively (but constructively) pursuing disagreement, within a framework regulated by common action in the working class.

Why should new efforts at unity fare better? Of course, there are no guarantees. The proposals we make in this pamphlet came from the experience we have described, and represent an attempt to learn from it. There is also a difference in circumstances. Responding to changes in the broad labour movement, the revolutionary left is itself evidently in flux. The agreement between Lutte Ouvriere and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire for a united Euro-election list in France, after many years of alienation, shows flux there, and in Britain too mindsets are possibly less set than for a long time. The advantages of unity must be obvious to anyone who reflects on the matter. Equally obvious is the impossibility of achieving unity without changes in the way the left groups organise themselves.

We can offer no guarantees to the jaded or the sceptic or the stand-aside kibbitzer. There are opportunities now that have not existed for a very long time. Left unity is necessary, and, therefore, those who want to build a serious class-struggle left will try to seize the chance in the spirit of James Connolly: "The only true prophets are those who carve out the future they announce". We can, if we are determined, carve out unity.

Workers' Liberty #52
January 1999

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