The Trotskyist Tendency 1968-71

Submitted by Matthew on 3 March, 2013 - 3:16

The Trotskyist Tendency came from Workers' Fight, forerunner of AWL, a small group perhaps ten strong when it merged with IS in December 1968.

We merged on the basis that we could continue to argue inside the group for what we considered to be authentic Trotskyism while cooperating in practical work.

We entered as an ideological tendency, not a faction. Our distinctiveness was in our general political approach and tradition, not in this or that conflict with the leadership on immediate questions. We remained a tendency all the way through, even though at the end we were forced formally to declare ourselves a faction by the new rules adopted in 1970 and enforced in 1971.

We argued for what we thought was the Trotskyist method in politics — clear demarcation, scrupulous accounting, discussion based on education and commitment — all of which we counterposed to IS's old looseness and to its new "Leninism", which we thought was only administrative centralisation.

Our platform stated: "Our conception of method in politics is the essential link between our various positions... We take seriously the Bolshevik method of attempting to work out each question theoretically and of being actively guided by Marxist analysis, which is then re-clarified on the basis of activity. Blundering empiricism such as characterised IS on Ireland and in general is as alien to revolutionary politics as is the aloof refusal of an SLL to look the actual facts of reality in the face".

On some questions, our interaction with IS was a sort of criss-crossing. We came from a "Cannonite" background (after James P Cannon, the leading figure in "orthodox" Trotskyism after Trotsky's death) and would be impelled by the sharp hostility to Stalinism which we learned from that background into questioning stock "orthodox" ideas about the Stalinist states being "degenerated and deformed workers' states".

IS was moving from a background in which it had, although only erratically, spoken of a working-class "Third Camp" counterposed to both capitalism and Stalinism, towards adopting the political technique of the Healyite SLL.

In 1968 we believed that the Trotskyist Fourth International movement was fundamentally correct, despite immense weaknesses. We believed its tradition had been correct on issues like attitudes to the colonial revolution and to the Korean war.

We suffered from a contradiction. We were extremely anti-Stalinist — more so than many people in IS, including many of the "libertarians" — and at the same time we were ardent supporters of anti-imperialist struggles even when Stalinists were the alternative to the imperialists, as in Vietnam. In the late 1960s, we — like IS, and the Mandelites and the SLL too — expressed our position on Vietnam as "Victory to the NLF!" This was a matter of differentiating us from the Communist Party, which called for negotiations; but the attitude contained a fundamental political flaw of identifying with and championing a particular political tendency which in fact we knew represented police-state control over the Vietnamese working-class.

We had to learn, and we learned very slowly. But, despite the formal clash between us calling the USSR a degenerated workers' state and the IS leadership calling it state-capitalist, never in the whole period of our fusion with IS was there any actual political clash on attitudes to the Stalinist states in current politics. We had a common set of conclusions.

At the start we were quite successful, comparatively speaking. We won over a number of the cadre in the Manchester branch of about 50 members, which we quickly came to dominate. We recruited a number of members of the IS National Committee not elected as Trotskyist Tendency people.

But soon we were easily ostracised. The Trotskyist Tendency was unpopular because we were seen as being associated with the Healy organisation. A lot of the old IS people had been "libertarians". We became scapegoats for their animosity towards the centralisation that Cliff was introducing.

In the middle of 1969, the IS leadership adopted a policy towards us which we called ghettoisation. In Manchester and Teesside, the only two areas where we had any numbers, they split each branch into an "our" branch and a "their" branch, and we were thereafter treated as the unwanted children.

It was a partial split or even expulsion, because the central IS resources were then directed to the "loyalist" branches in Manchester and Teesside. It was also a throwback against the federalism which Cliff had said he was discarding the year before.

We published internal pamphlets, for example a collection of Trotsky's writings on the Russian state. We also tried to be constructive in IS.

For example, we proposed a motion in the first half of 1969 that IS start a rank-and-file movement in the unions. The proposal was backed not just by us, but also by Colin Barker, the leading Cliffite in the Manchester branch. It was met on the National Committee by something close to howling down.

Our motive for the proposal was not just a rank-and-file movement would be a good thing in industry; it was that we wanted IS to start to differentiate between contacts, sympathisers, and educated members. An auxiliary organisation would assist that. For some reason Jim Higgins claims to have originated this idea of a rank-and-file movement, which was eventually put into practice by IS in 1973, but he forgets all about the Trotskyist Tendency.

We took up big political questions as they arose; or rather we became embroiled in a big political fight on Ireland, for example, in 1969.

Another battle we had was on breakaway unions. In 1954-5, perhaps seeing it as an example of their industrial union policy, the SR group had very vehemently backed an attempt to set up a breakaway dockers' union, around an old union, the NASD, by people who had left the TGWU, which was highly bureaucratised.

The Healyites were centrally involved in the breakaway. The Communist Party and the other Trotskyists were against it.

The dockers inside the TGWU had reached the end of the line with the bureaucracy, which was capable of strikebreaking. the TGWU had 50% representation on the Dock Labour Boards which were the formal employers of dockers after 1948, and it sometimes used its position to get rid of militant dockers.

Then, after 1968, it became an article of faith for IS to be against all such breakaways. In 1970 there was an attempt to form a breakaway union, a misguided one in my view, by Pilkington Glass workers in St Helen's. In panic the IS National Committee passed a resolution that they were against all breakaway unions.

But if you have a rank and file movement, and it becomes large and strong, there has to be a point where if necessary you'd split the union. Otherwise you are telling the union bureaucrats, in advance, that you will always surrender to them if they up the stakes and threaten to split the union.

What struck me about the 1970 argument was how silent the people who'd been in the group in the 1950s were: Kidron, Cliff, and so on. It was a typical example of lack of political accounting and consistency.

The decisive political fight would be on Europe, in 1971.

Theory and practice

The peculiar relationship of theory and practice, of prattle to praxis, in IS was described thus in a document of the Trotskyist Tendency in mid 1971:

"IS has a pretty solid body of theory and is nearer than almost all the 'orthodox' Trotskyist groups to a 'party' in the sense of being a rounded 'whole' — however small, and however far from being able to play the role of a revolutionary party in relation to the class. The 'orthodox' groups are all to a far greater extent than IS mere factions that have failed to become anything wider.

"Yet I agree with [your] statement that IS has contempt for theory. Why? Because the IS theory is the possession of a handful of mandarins, who function as both a group mandarinate and as a segment of normal academic Britain. What theory there is, is their theory: they are quite snobbish about it. For the non-initiated popularisations will do.

"This, of course, is inseparable from a manipulationist conception of the organisation. The members don't need to know the theories — the leaders can be relied upon — and demagogy and word-spinning phrasemongers like Cliff and Palmer can bridge the gap.

"It is in this sense that IS has contempt for theory — contempt for the Marxist conception of theory and its necessary relationship to the organisation as a leaven and tool of the whole group. 'Contempt' is not the best expression for it, though, is it?

"The priestly caste most certainly have contempt — for the uninitiated — but their theory is their special treasure, their badge of rank, their test for membership of the inner elite. There actually is such open caste snobbery in IS — as you know…

"The second sense of IS's 'contempt for theory' is in their use of theory, the function of theory, the relationship of theory to practice: there is no connection between the two for IS. Do you know that in last week's debate [on the European Union] at the National Committee Cliff said and repeated that principles and tactics contradict each other in real life!

"This is organically connected, of course, with their mandarinism… It is an esoteric knowledge — for if principles contradict tactics and practice, if theory is not a practical and necessary tool, if theory and practice are related only in the sense that theory sums up (in one way or another) past practice, perhaps vivified with a coat of impressionistic paint distilled from what's going on around at the time — but not in the sense that theory is the source of precepts to guide practice, to aid in the practical exploration of reality — why then, where is the incentive to spread theoretical knowledge?

"What is to prevent the polarisation of the organisation into the mandarins and the subjects of the demagogic manipulation of the mandarins and their lieutenants? What is to prevent the esoteric knowledge of the mandarins from being just one intellectual 'in-group''s defining characteristic, to be played with, juggled with, and to do all sorts of wonderful tricks with: after all, it is very rarely tested since it doesn't relate to reality...

"It is a question of the conscious method versus the clever juggling of people in the central IS leadership who are subjectively revolutionaries — but entirely bourgeois in their method of thinking and conception of politics. These people are very like the Lovestoneites…"

[Excerpt from a document by the present writer given limited internal circulation in Workers' Fight, 1971.]

Agitation and propaganda

On dozens of questions, over the years, the IS (SWP) leaders have developed the idea that they can say one thing in "agitation", and quite a different in "propaganda".

This same issue was central to the dispute between the Trotskyist Tendency and the IS (SWP) leadership in late 1969, when IS effectively supported the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland, was the question of what governs the "agitation" and "propaganda" of revolutionary socialists.

We argued as follows, in a pamphlet, IS and Ireland, published in December 1969.

A formula was worked out [by the IS leaders] whereby in slogans and headlines the British troops shouldn't be mentioned, but in the text we should "warn" about their future role. In subsequent arguments the headlines and slogans were labelled 'agitation', the small type was the "propaganda". We were told that one must "understand the difference between propaganda and agitation"...

Unless we have a clear conception that the reason for putting demands, for making agitation and propaganda, is directly to try to raise the level of consciousness, to show the necessary direction of the struggle, to sharpen that struggle so that the masses, or at least those of the vanguard that we reach, learn the best political lessons from it, we are hamstrung from the start, we are tied down to a reformist conception, to a stance of petitioning the powers that be, looking to their actions and decisions for alleviation, rather than to the direct action of the working class. If that were the case, we would never make a demand that wasn't likely to be immediately realised.

Moreover, if we do not see the various forms of "communication" (demands, slogans, agitation, propaganda, headlines and small print) as necessarily bound together by a single aim and programme, with the single purpose of raising consciousness (whether this be "purely" literary or whether it be linked with immediate action) then what is there to link them, to prevent them flying apart into contradictions and inconsistencies?

For revolutionaries, there can be no contradiction between the content of agitation, propaganda and theory. The difference is one of form, of style and technique, and of scale. The content and meaning does not differ according to whether action might or might not follow, or whether that action might be on mass scale or on a ting scale. This is the essential meaning of the well-known definition of Plekhanov: "A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator present only one or a few ideas, but he presents them to a mass of people"...

The point about the Plekhanov formulation is that the "single idea" put over in agitation is not just any old idea but a correct idea; not in antagonism to the larger complex of ideas that is propaganda, but flowing out of it, and again leading back to it...

The justification for having a different line for agitation and propaganda was... that agitation must lead to action, but propaganda is about the general, overall picture, about the future. Only propaganda is seen as educational. Martynov, the Russian "Economist", counterposed agitation leading to action to Plekhanov's propaganda and agitation, because he wanted to fight for reformism and to "free" his reformist tactics from a too rigorous connection with revolutionary Marxist propaganda and the agitation spun from it.... IS use the very same distinction, for the reason that they went to free themselves to react impressionistically with regard to the long term interests of the class. They wanted to free themselves from theory, programme and basic principles.

To say that agitation and propaganda are both essentially educational is not to say that they don't lead to action. It is to say that education and action must be integrated, must interact, that the most important and chief reason for anything to be said and done is that it educates the masses and raises their consciousness, preferably in action.

How was it in 1971?

The Merlin’s Cave pub, off Farringdon Road, London, November 1971. Big meeting, with Duncan Hallas, then IS (SWP) National Secretary, debating Sean Matgamna of the Trotskyist Tendency.

It is part of the build-up to the special conference at which the Trotskyist Tendency is to be "de-fused" — uncouth people say "expelled".

The Trotskyist Tendency is a tiny proportion of the meeting. The chair is Roger Protz, who makes a debating point each and every time he calls for a speaker opposed to the "de-fusion" of the Trotskyist Tendency: "If there is one."

Summations. Duncan Hallas, new-minted National Secretary of IS, is a thin-skinned, insecure bully. He is easily rattled. He has been showing signs of increasing anger at each show of opposition from the floor. He has a bitter hatred of the Trotskyist Tendency.

He is a powerful, emotional speaker, with an unpleasant schoolmasterish tendency to suggest that only an idiot would disagree with him. He is passionately convinced of his case; and also passionately resentful that the Trotskyist Tendency makes fun of his Old Bolshevik pretensions and has let him know they think him a spineless old poseur. Now, summing up, he rises to the occasion.

The Trotskyist Tendency has been a problem for three years. They have criticised people like himself and disrupted the group. Worse, they have made it difficult for people like him — real citizens of the IS group — to raise matters they might raise if the Trotskyist Tendency were not around.

They were sure to try to exploit any division. It wasn’t as widely known as it should be, but he, Duncan, had disagreed with the group’s attitude to the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland in 1969 — which the Trotskyist Tendency had said amounted to IS supporting the troops — but what if he had spoken out? He’d have played into the hand of the "Matgamnaites".

What could he do? He had to remain silent and support the leadership though he thought IS seriously wrong on a very important question. (This is an appeal for support and understanding from non-Trotskyist Tendency people who had thought his role during the heated debates on Ireland two years earlier despicable).

Throwing out the Trotskyist Tendency would restore the rights of people like himself. They would be able to function more freely. Comradely discussion would come back to the group. By outlawing generalised opposition, IS democracy would — it was paradoxical but true — be enlarged and expanded.

Hands raised as if to embrace the whole meeting, passion distorting his face, his voice rising to a high, emotional pitch and volume, he appeals for support in throwing out the Trotskyist Tendency.

"Comrades! This has gone on too long. It has gone on year after year for three whole years! It should not go on any longer."

Hand-chopping the air in an unconscious mime: "Comrades: we must put an end to it now. Find a solution!" Large swathes of the meeting have by now begun to giggle uneasily, but he is too high to come down or notice that he has lost much of his audience. "Comrades, I say it again: there has GOT TO BE A FINAL SOLUTION!"

Most of the meeting is by now squirming, giggling or laughing in open derision. IS was still a living political organisation in November 1971.

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