1971 and Europe

Submitted by Matthew on 3 March, 2013 - 3:00

In a nutshell, the story of IS's transformation and the emergence of the neo-Healyite SWP out of it is the story of how a very loose group, with a family cult at the centre, grew, centralised itself, and developed a "machine" with the once seemingly benign cult figure in control.

Here there is a danger of scapegoating Cliff and presenting a Bad King Cliff account of the history. Cliff was only part of it.

Jim Higgins's book More Years For The Locust (a sort of history of IS/SWP) is an example. For people like Higgins the "Bagehot Question" arises. Walter Bagehot, the Victorian political economist and analyst of the British constitution, asked the question concerning the then reclusive Queen and her playboy son, the future Edward VII: How does it come about that "a retired widow and her unemployed son" can play the pivotal role in the legal structures of the British constitution?

How could Cliff achieve such power in the organisation that in the 1960s prided itself on its democracy and freedom from Gerry Healy-style dictatorship, and which had members who were not self-evidently devoid of the will and capacity for independent thought?

A central part of the answer is that the group was always a family cult with Cliff and Cliff's family at the centre of the larger political family. People like Higgins were first and foremost cultists in this system. The growth of the "democratic centralist" IS machine after November 1968 only changed its modus operandi.

Cliff was central to this system and Cliff's ideas and Cliff's "whim of iron" (as Higgins puts it) were central, but they depended for their effects on others. You cannot have a cult unless the person at the centre is himself a cultist — is not uncomfortable in a cult, or vulnerable to corrosive irony and self-disparagement. But however solipsistic the cultist, he is not, in fact, the sole inhabitant of the world or of the cult: he needs other cultists.

Higgins and his friends were cultists. That is why they proved helpless to stop Cliff when it came to their own purging. True love disrobes and disarms, and sometimes, as in Higgins' book, is left to mourn uncomprehendingly in a sad old age.

One way of examining this issue and of presenting a portrait of the group as it was in reality, is to look at the dispute in IS on the attitude to the European Union (then called Common Market) which Britain was due to join on 1 January 1972. This triggered the expulsion of the Trotskyist Tendency.

Initially, in the 1960s, all the Trotskyist groups had refused to join the Communist Party and the mainstream Labour left in opposing the European Union. We said that European working class unity was decisive: "In or out, the class fight goes on!" Then, one by one, in their characteristic ways, the Trotskyist groups jumped on the anti-EU bandwagon.

IS was the last to do so, and at that point it could only do it blatantly and shamelessly, with its opportunist motives undisguised. As late as the Easter 1971 conference the group majority voted against the politics of the anti-EU campaign. There had long been a small minority against the IS policy — it included John Palmer and the group's leading libertarian, Peter Sedgwick.

Two months after the Easter 1971 conference, Tony Cliff and Chris Harman turned up at the IS National Committee with a small but lethal document covering two sides of A4, which, essentially, said: all the arguments used against joining the anti-EU campaign remain valid. But it had now become a battle between left and right in the labour movement. In such a battle we are "never neutral".

IS should still propose amendments in unions advocating "in or out, the fight goes on". But when they were defeated, IS should vote with the left.

Within weeks, and without any further formal decision by IS, that "fallback position" had become the effective IS policy. The old line disappeared. In a short time, IS was amongst the least inhibited of the left-wing anti-EU campaigners.

In that National Committee discussion, Cliff said, and when challenged repeated: "Tactics contradict principles."

But how — if politics aspires to be more than disjointed, episodic, unconnected, raw responses to events, or responses ostensibly to events but with an eye to something else entirely — could IS "side" with the Stalinist and Stalinist-tinted Labour and trade union left on this? As IS had argued for many years, they were at best insular and stupidly nationalist and at worst unashamed chauvinists. And the CP line was unmistakably a mere reflex of USSR opposition to bourgeois moves towards European unity.

Well, wrote Cliff and Harman, we could repeat the old IS policy in union discussions, then "vote with the left" — that is, with the chauvinists and little Englanders — thus repudiating what we had said in discussion!

The aspiration to retain contact with workers and with "the left" is no contemptible one. But politics is politics. To argue as vehemently as the differences required against the Communist Party and Labour-left chauvinists, and then vote with them — that was to invite and deserve ridicule. It would show that you had no confidence in your own politics, and put you in the role of fawning pup to those you allowed to determine your vote. It was impossible nonsense.

The issue split the cadre of the Cliff tendency right down the middle. Even Paul Foot, high priest of the Cliff cultists, initially opposed Cliff. So did Jim Higgins, Ian Birchall, and a lot of others; a majority of the usually vocal people on the National Committee, in fact. Some of them went so far as to publish critical Internal Bulletin articles.

But what was to be done about it? Either, accept with conscience-salving protests, that the National Committee majority — it was not a big majority, either — could overturn the conference vote and bow down before the chauvinist tide. Or, refuse to accept that this was a proper way to go about things. The only recourse then against the National Committee majority was a special conference. The constitution allowed for a special conference if 23 branches — one-fifth of the total — called for it.

The Trotskyist Tendency decided to campaign for a special conference. The solid citizens of the group, such as Higgins, did not. Why not? After all, it was no small matter, this bowing down before the chauvinist wave in a political world where not only chauvinism but its even uglier brother racism was a feature of even the militant sections of the labour movement. In 1968 London dockers had struck in support of Tory racist Enoch Powell.

Yet the Higginses of the group, who could almost certainly have got a majority against bowing down to the nationalists, had no intention of making a fight of it. Consciences salved by protests, they were going along with Cliff!

Why? Habit and deference were, I think, part of it. Paul Foot, who had opposed Cliff on the National Committee, quickly came to heel and published an Internal Bulletin article to recant. He entitled it, appropriately, "Confession". The jokiness could not disguise the fact that that is exactly what it was. The others did not "confess"; but they acquiesced.

They believed, from habit and experience, that Cliff's instinct or, as the expression went, Cliff's "nose" for these things was better than their own. They wanted the advantages the change of line would bring (and nobody disputed it would make things easier in the unions).

They did not want to rock the IS boat or antagonise Cliff. They knew the group was volatile. They saw themselves as an elite, special people. The whole old pre-1968 IS system of deference and division of labour allowed them to combine the satisfaction of saying no to Cliff with the joys and advantages of having their political virtue forced. To put it very politely, theirs was easy virtue.

We got the support of 23 branches, but we did not get a special conference — not on the European Union question.

The new-minted national secretary, Duncan Hallas, said that notification from one of the 23 branches of support for a special conference had arrived a day late. It was not to be counted. He was ruling it out of order. The matter was now settled. The secretary of the 23rd branch said he'd posted it on time. Probably Hallas was lying, but in any case such rigid interpretation of an arbitrary committee-decreed deadline was, as far as I know, something new in the group. A typical piece of labour bureaucrat's chicanery was now the leaders' recourse against the threat of having to face the membership.

The leadership knew they would most likely lose at a special conference. And our co-thinkers on the political question in dispute, like Higgins, knew that at a special conference they would either have to knuckle under like Foot and betray their own politics, or else fight Cliff. They would do neither.

That evasion was a textbook example of what the Trotskyist Tendency, after Trotsky, meant by saying IS was a "centrist" organisation.

Jim Higgins, Ian Birchall, and others wrote, and in some meetings spoke, as if they thought the question of Europe was very important. But they acted, or rather did not act, as if it did not matter that the organisation had buckled before the nationalist wave.

They did this even though they were allowed little acclimatisation time. They were given little or nothing to save their faces. Within a few weeks of the NC vote, Duncan Hallas, the supple-spined new National Secretary — who was himself a very recently born-again anti-European — was making strident anti-EU propaganda in Socialist Worker.

Things would get worse, but by the time the last date for supporting a special conference or protesting against the bureaucratic cheating of the 23 branches fell due, no-one could fail to see the enormity of what had happened and the extent of the falling off from the politics proclaimed in the very name of the group. Yet, even then, the drive for a special conference remained exclusively the project of the Trotskyist Tendency and some allies here and there.

The group was supposedly run under the democratic and centralised constitution of 1968. In fact, it dealt with the change of line on Europe in the manner of the old pre-1968 extended family around Cliff — decisions being made by "nose" and whim, people disagreeing but "knowing their place" and Cliff's prerogatives.

To stop the formal rules being used to subvert and cut across this old, cosy way of doing things, to stop the members from "intervening", or rather to stop the Trotskyist Tendency from organising the members to intervene, the IS leaders had to work outside the 1968 constitution. They had to lay down tight rules to restrict the effort to appeal to the members and, then, even within their own new-made rules, to cheat.

I think the Cliff group would have lost at a special conference — and their behaviour suggest they thought that too. That, according to their calculations, would have been seriously damaging to the group's prospects in the unions.

Cliff and his allies on one side, and the old ISers like Higgins on the other, looked at each other like lovers becalmed and emotionally exhausted after a fight and with the knowledge that they have come close to a serious rupture neither wanted. The first thing they did was to turn with great combined fury on the Trotskyist Tendency. Our co-thinkers on the defining and detonating political question in dispute turned on us with at least as much fury as those whose opportunist hands we had tried to tie. It was time to settle accounts with the Trotskyist Tendency! Its existence was intolerable.

Yet, good or bad, villain or Bolshevik, the Trotskyist Tendency was not in itself their problem. Democracy was. Any system that tied down and limited Cliff or his machine — or that might tie them down and impose restraints on them — was. The 4 December 1971 conference set the stamp of a one-faction sect on IS, formally ruling out anything other than ephemeral opposition.

The first issue of a new series of Workers' Fight, which came out on 14 January 1972, commented:

"Stripping away the hysteria and the exaggerations which dominated the internal struggle leading up to the 4 December conference, the IS leadership's explanation for the expulsion move was that the Trotskyist Tendency called IS centrist (e.g. vacillating between reformism and revolutionary politics, being revolutionary in words but reneging in the crunch) and that this was intolerable.

"But this explains nothing. We never characterised IS otherwise, either before the 1968 fusion or after. We said clearly when we joined that we thought IS would only be changed as a result of a serious internal struggle.

"The IS leaders have created — often through good and useful work — a large-ish organisation, most of whose members are young and politically inexperienced, and consequently there is an absence of a serious and stable political basis for their political domination of the group. They rely increasingly on demagogic manipulation of the members, and on a bureaucratic machine which has qualitatively changed and worsened the internal life of the IS group.

"With increasing reliance for their control on a machine and on demagogy, real democracy becomes a threat. Or rather, the existence of an organised tendency whose politics challenge the machine is a threat.

"Politically, the expulsion indicates a qualitatively bureaucratic hardening of IS. Now the leadership openly proclaims its right, when faced with an opposition tendency, which has fundamental political differences, to resort to pre-emptive expulsions, even when such a tendency is a disciplined part of the organisation. Thus they claim and proclaim their right to sterilise the organisation politically.

"The expulsion had the trappings of democracy, and no liberal could object. But Leninist democracy has nothing in common with the bare, empty forms, filled by the demagogy and witch-hunting and machine manipulation with which the IS leadership filled such forms.

"The expulsion of Workers' Fight is a disruptive and sectarian blow to left unity. Instead of practical concentration on the constructive work we can do, and have done, together with the majority of IS, and the creation of a Bolshevik internal democracy, we have one more split on the left.

"The real tragedy, though, is that the opportunities for the revolutionary left which existed in 1968 should have led only to the consolidation of a tightly controlled left-centrist sect, which is most certainly what IS now is."

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