Introduction to Workers' Socialist Review 4: "Failure of a fusion"
Failure of a Fusion
On March 31, 1984, the National Committee of the new WSL suspended Alan Thornett and 34 of his supporters from membership in the WSL. The NC told them that their expulsion would be proposed after the two weeks’ notice required by the constitution had elapsed. On April 14, after the collapse of a feeble, attempt by 20 or so members of the Thornett group to occupy the room where the NC was due to meet, and after the NC had heard a lengthy presentation from Thornett on behalf of himself and his faction, they were duly expelled. It was 33 months after the fusion between the old WSL and the I-CL.
Thus, what we described in 1981 as the ‘bold experiment’ of fusion between the I-CL and the old WSL has ended in defeat. The ‘bold experiment’ has been a failure.
The Thornett group had earlier rejected a proposal that the best way to resolve the conflicts which were paralysing and disrupting the new WSL, and which in March threatened to render us incapable of functioning during the miners’ strike, was for the two antagonistic groups within the WSL to divorce as amicably as possible, on the basis of an agreed division of the organisation’s material resources.
But they felt it would best serve their factional interests for them to appear to resist a split and to present themselves as the champions of unity. They wanted to throw the responsibility for the split entirely onto our side of the organisation.
Now we did initiate the formal separation of the two groups. On March 10 we said to them, ‘Enough is enough’, and gave them the choice of agreeing to coexist constructively with us (without renouncing the right to argue their political criticisms), or of leaving the organisation. And when they replied to that, in effect: ‘It will be business as usual’, we expelled them.
But that is just the end of the story. For the previous 12 months at least, the split drive had come not from our side but from Thornett’s self-designated ‘worker leadership’ group.
The Fusion Experiment
The fusion was indeed a bold, perhaps foolhardy experiment. The roots of the old WSL were in the SLL / WRP of Gerry Healy, from which Alan Thornett and a group around him had been expelled in December 1974. Although they had moved some distance from Healyism since then, this movement was piecemeal, not worked out theoretically, and, as it turned out, unstable.
Some nine months after the fusion, in May 1982, they formed an opposition tendency within the new WSL. The issue was the Falklands / Malvinas war: halfway through that war they had changed their position from the one they shared with the new WSL majority, of opposing the war on both sides, to one of supporting Argentina. They took the organisation to a special conference on that issue in September1982.
Immediately afterwards they opened up another faction fight, pressing for a sectarian turn on the Labour Party and on women’s work. They did not formally declare a new faction until April 1983, but it was clear that they had an informal faction based on the core of the old WSL, mostly in Oxford.
Two further WSL conferences, in February and April 1983, showed that Thornett and his allies were clearly in a minority. After the April 1983 conference a group of old WSLers in Leicester, who represented a more extreme sectarian position than Thornett but had allied with him against the majority, split to form the ‘Workers International League’ – which has since collapsed.
After April 1983 the Thornett group were thus clearly in a minority in the new WSL. This position was confirmed at a further conference, in August 1933, where the main issue in dispute was Ireland.
After August 1983 defined political issues disappeared almost entirely from the Thornett group’s factional agitation, in favour of organisational squabbles. In fact, however, another issue lay behind all the previous disputes – Falklands / Malvinas, Labour Party, women, Ireland – and explained the fury with which they had been conducted. That issue was the position of Thornett and his co-thinker Jones within the League.
The old WSL had been a peculiar organisation, build much more around the prestige of a couple of individual trade union militants than around definite politics. In fact its politics had been developed largely through a process of consensus and balancing between different inputs, with the ‘worker leadership’ as arbiter.
The ‘worker leadership’ wanted to continue as arbiter in the new WSL. Behind each dispute, the real issue for them was not so much their arguments on the Falklands / Malvinas, on the Labour Party, or whatever – these were generally primitive and unstab1e – but the implications for their own personal status.
That is why they were unable to accept the position of a minority – even a privileged minority. They became extremely alienated and rebelled against the WSL, blindly and incoherently.
Avoiding a Split?
Even during and after March 1984 they did not actually deny that a split was inevitable. “Nor do we regard a split as inevitable – certainly not without a decision of the membership”, wrote Thornett in his appeal against his expulsion. In other words, they were not willing to live as a minority in the new WSL, but they wanted a conference rather than a National Committee meeting as the arena for their split.
“A split could have been avoided – and still could be”, declared Thornett in his speech against the expulsions which he made to WSL area meetings across the country, “but it would require a fundamental change of attitude by Kinnell and Carolan to the old WSL side of the fusion and to the fusion itself. They would have to recognise us as revolutionary Marxist . . . ” This ‘change of attitude’ was not to be expressed in definable minority rights – they had had all those, and more -- but in a warmer appreciation of them. It was an unenforceable demand – “Kinnell and Carolan”, or, more to the point, the National Committee majority, could have had definable rights for minorities imposed on them against their will (if that were the issue), but they could not have their political assessment of the Thornett group changed by any other means than convincing them.
In fact this question of whether or not we called them ‘Marxists’ was entirely spurious. We never rested anything on such generalities. We argued issues on their merits, and pointed out where (in our opinion) they departed from Marxism as the discussion demanded it.
As a factional ploy during the split they tried to compel us to say that they were “Marxists”; and when we said that such general labelling was beside the point and irrelevant, they replied: ‘There, that’s the foot of the problem. All these months you have secretly believed that we were not Marxists!’
The fuss they made about our alleged description of them as centrist emerged in the same way – with even less justification. In fact we didn’t and don’t characterise them as centrist. Though such a description of them would not outrage our theoretical consciences, it is not very useful. They are a group of once very sectarian revolutionaries undergoing a prolonged process of political disintegration. Anyway, as a matter of fact and contrary to those who build an interpretation of the failure of the fusion on it, we never called them centrist!
Thornett’s co-thinker John Lister put it more candidly: “given . . . a change in the majority control of League leading bodies, it would be possible to unite in a democratic centralist relationship and a common party with the expelled 35”.The root of the split was the Thornett group’s inability to accept any status in the WSL except that of a majority. But they were only about 25 per cent of the organisation.
The cold split
For months they had been operating an ‘internal secession’ and cold split in the League. They had retired from all organisational responsibility in the League: Thornett had never performed the work of industrial organiser, and their representative as joint editor of the weekly paper walked out of the job at the beginning of January 1984. They had for many months operated in an extremely hostile – indeed, almost Spartacist-like, if it were not for their lack of political drive and self-confidence – internal faction. Their main business in the League was agitation and denunciation of the majority in the style made notorious on the broader left in the ’60s and ’70s by their mother organisation, the SLL / WRP. For example, they denounced the majority leadership as “worse than the trade union bureaucracy”.
This agitation, and the breakdown of practical collaboration, escalated decisively from December 1983. From January they campaigned for the League to turn inwards to hold its fifth conference in 18 months (the previous one was in August 1983}. This campaign culminated, after the miners’ strike had started, in the call for a special conference on the ‘internal situation’.
When Thornett was asked on the Executive Committee what proposals they wished to put to this special conference, he replied that they had not decided and in any case would not tell us. Some two weeks later they came out with their proposals – vague and unclear, but essentially proposing to turn the organisation into some sort of federation. The major demand was for League conferences – or ‘aggregates’ which could on demand be turned into conferences – every three months.
The substance of the agitation about the ‘internal situation’ was grievances that they had been agitating about for months, like the claim that Thornett was being ‘suppressed’ when he was asked to cut a presentation of his minority view of the TUC and the NGA crisis from four full pages of the weekly paper down to two full pages! All the normal rights of a minority – access to the Internal Bulletin and to internal meetings, representation on leading committees, etc. – were and had been theirs without dispute. And Thornett had never had anything rejected for the weekly paper. Essentially, the charge that they were being ‘suppressed’ expressed Thornett’s resentment that others had the right to reply to and criticise his views in the weekly paper. Here, as on most issues in dispute, the core demand of Thornett and ‘Jones’ was for privileges and a recognised special status.
They had no chance of winning anything important at a special conference, and they didn’t think they would win anything. They needed a conference to keep the factional pot boiling and to keep their people together. Many of Thornett’s supporters who took his wild denunciations seriously, and were therefore extremely alienated from the League, had dropped out of the organisation in 1983.
Clearly the Thornett group placed their internal factional concerns above the League’s capacity to function in the class struggle.
But the decision by the majority that things had to be sorted out with them one way or another transformed them overnight into shining champions of ‘unity’ and ‘the fusion’. On that basis they rallied a few people outside the ranks of their faction and launched a ‘unity campaign’.
On March 25 they met as a faction in a national conference and decided what the faction would do in the next period. They decided that they could do it best by formally dissolving as a faction, while of course the Thornett group would continue to exist. Then, jointly, with a few of the faction’s fellow-travellers and others who were in general politics opponents of the faction, they launched the unity campaign.
At the same time they amalgamated into the unity campaign a series of proposals for the special conference. As noted above, though muddily formulated, these proposals meant transforming the organisation into a loose federation. There would be three or four ‘national aggregates’ a year. There would be a constitutional right (or something very close to it) of access to the public press for minorities – combined with recognition of a special status for two key issues on which Thornett was in a minority, Afghanistan and the theory of imperialism. On these not even the majority could publish its views in the public press!
In fact, according to the custom and practice brought into the new WSL by the I-CL, minorities normally could put their view in the public press. This practice was resisted and opposed by the Thornett group before they became the minority, but it existed and they used it liberally. However, to give minorities a constitutional, or quasi-constitutional right to such access would be to destroy the possibility of the League speaking with one clear voice whenever the leading committees thought necessary.
An expulsion in name only
The Thornett group did not, to be fair – and the careful way they expressed themselves showed – seriously deny that a split was inevitable. They based their agitation against a split on the proposition that only a full conference of the League could decide to expel them. But the constitution they had helped draft said otherwise, and the National Committee chose to exercise its constitutional right to deal with them. The alternative would have been for the NC to abdicate its delegated responsibility and let the League dissolve into factional chaos – just as the miners’ strike was opening up the biggest working class battles in Britain for many years. Such a culmination of the fusion – paralysis in the miners’ strike – would inevitably have resulted in the unavoidable split by another route.
The last possible basis for a salvaging of the fusion agreed in July 1981 had been the terms laid down to the faction by the NC on March 10. As far as the majority was concerned, they would either agree to those terms or part company with us. By their collective decision to pretend to dissolve and to become an underground (and therefore illegal) faction, they gave a clear collective answer to the NC.
And so we ejected the Thornett group from the WSL. It was an expulsion in name only. In substance the fusion had long ago broken down, leaving two irreconcilable groups within the framework of the WSL. The June 30-July 1 1984 conference of the WSL, after listening to Thornett and ‘Jones’ speak and answer questions for an hour, endorsed what the NC had done. Had the votes of the expelled group been thrown into the conference there would still have been a clear majority for separation from the Thornett group.
It is a sad verdict on the fusion of 1981 and on the hopes we had of it. But the alternative – for the organisation to be paralysed until such time as the Thornett group chose to leave, and especially during the miners’ strike – would have been a far more damning verdict on the fusion than recognition of failure, and separation, could ever be.
The NC expelled the whole faction, but only the faction. This meant that a number of people long associated with the Thornett group were not expelled – John Lister, for example. Neither was the ‘Parsons’ group. This group, based mainly on the right wing of the old WSL, was in terms of formal, general politics poles apart from the Thornett group, but allied with it on the basis of deference to the ‘worker leadership’.
Democratic Centralist Faction
These people organised a faction which also included some former I-CLers -the Democratic Centralist Faction. They continued in the organisation until a week after the June / July conference, when they resigned.
This faction conducted a campaign inside the organisation based on the idea that we had expelled Thornett for his politics – though the continued membership of many of the DCF members themselves proved that this could not be true – that it was undemocratic for the NC to expel them; that it was undemocratic to expel the faction as an entity rather than consider individual cases, etc.
They based themselves on the document drawn up on March 25, mainly by the Thornett group, as the basis for their ‘unity and federalism’ campaign.
This group was a splinter of the Thornett organisation, and it was obviously working in collusion with the Thornett group. The NC nevertheless chose to leave it in the organisation until after the conference because, unlike the Smith faction, it did not have the weight to paralyse us in the miners’ strike, and, more importantly, because its existence in the organisation, putting the case for Thornett, helped ease the trauma of the split as well as serving as it foil to help the organisation clarify itself.
The best they could have hoped to do in the WSL was to get enough votes that they could say that there was a majority for the exclusion of the Thornett group at the WSL conference only that group’s 35 votes had first been excluded. They failed even in that, despite conducting a pretty filthy Healyite campaign of misrepresentation and slander against the National Committee in a situation where some comrades were unhappy about the split and it was easy to disguise the fact that the split drive had come from the Thornett group, even though the National Committee majority had finally decided to bring it to a conclusion.
Legalities and Substance
Thornett, and his DCF supporters who recently left the WSL, have raised a hue and cry about ‘democracy’, about ‘bureaucratic’ expulsion, and about our alleged ‘ripping up of the constitution’. Only a conference, they said, could expel Thornett, not the NC. If the NC expelled them, the outraged heavens would shower thunderbolts on us, and the rest of the Left would see us as criminals “worse than Healy”.
Thornett, Jones and Lister have promised to “make the WSL’s name stink” in the labour movement for its crimes against the ‘worker leadership’, and to do to us what they ‘did to the WRP’. This expulsion, Jones told the recent WSL conference, was worse than any crime ever committed by the WRP!
In fact there was nothing undemocratic, bureaucratic, or unconstitutional about the expulsions.
But all the talk about ‘democracy’ and ‘the constitution’ and ‘bureaucratic expulsions’ is beside the point and irrelevant. The short answer to it is that, rather than let the Thornett group reduce the organisation to a beergarden indefinitely, and in particular during the miners’ strike, we would have broken with them by whatever means we found necessary to free ourselves with the least cost.
When it became clear to the National Committee majority that the Thornett group rejected our terms for continued coexistence in one organisation as laid down in the March 10 NC resolution, we knew we had no alternative but to split with them, and that it should be done m the most economical and least messy way possible in the circumstances. There were two organisations within the WSL, and the progressive breakdown of the fusion since May 1982 (when the division in the organisation over the Falklands war began) had now led us to a situation where an attempt was being made by the utterly demoralised Thornett group to turn the League into a pre-conference battleground. They wanted two months gang warfare leading up to a conference ‘on the internal situation’ that could hope to solve nothing – unless it produced a split. And they wanted this just as the miners’ strike was taking off! Inevitably the organisation would be paralysed.
Whatever about the constitutional legalities, there was no way that they were going to get us to agree to this or let them impose it on us. And we knew it was not some freakish aberration on their part, but the latest episode in an unrelenting factional campaign. Their irresponsibility towards the WSL’s work in the miners’ strike was the logical extension of their prostrate pessimism over the TUC’s sell-out of the NGA: in March Thornett probably still did not believe that a development like the miners’ strike was possible.
Even before the miners’ strike it had been our opinion that we had either to get agreement from them to coexist according to the normal rules of an organisation with a job to do – the rules laid down in the constitution we jointly adopted in 1981 – or else spilt with them. The proposal to devote two months of the organisation’s time and energy to a re-run of the internal bickering that had paralysed the leading committees for months, instead of turning to the miners’ strike – that was a proposal that would have put the League firmly in the ranks of the self-deluded onanistic sectarians.
Judging it politically
Thornett said somewhere in an Internal Bulletin that his fate had been to suffer a bureaucratic expulsion while fighting the democratic fight for a special conference. It would be more true to say that the Thornett group had their licence to agitate within the WSL revoked while trying to put the organisation into the Guinness Book of Records with a fifth conference in 18 months. (We may have made it anyway: the regular conference in June / July made it five in 21 months).
There was no way that we were going to remain yoked to these hopelessly demoralised and disoriented people and let them drag us down with them into another full-scale round of utterly pointless squabbling. We had better and more useful things to do. So we broke the yoke. Our responsibilities in the miners’ strike made it imperative, on the one hand, to sort the organisation out, and on the other energised us to face up to the long-evaded task.
It happened that we had the majority and therefore could do everything according to the constitution: we did not even violate standing orders. That was good and useful, and it means that anyone who says we behaved undemocratically or unconstitutionally must lie to substantiate it. But it is not essential: whatever about the constitution, we would have done what was necessary to free ourselves from being yoked and spancelled to these people.
A constitution regulates and orders the relations between individuals and groups within a common organisation: a split registers the fact that coexistence is no longer possible, and the rules in the constitution can no longer mediate between groups in conflict. Concretely, the constitution and the leading bodies set up under it plainly no longer had the power or authority to regulate relations within the new WSL in conditions where the Thornett minority were not prepared to accept the verdict of the three 1983 conferences, accept minority status, and allow the League to function normally.
In general, to make a fetish of constitutionalities in discussing a split is to misunderstand what is happening. A ‘constitutional’ split is like a ‘constitutional’ civil war. In reality, the constitution, which has broken down, becomes a weapon on one side or the other. This is useful to one side, but not fundamental to either. In this case the constitutional legality was on our side, as it happens, but it would not matter too if it had not been: we would still have split the organisation.
Such a split can only be judged politically: was it necessary? could it have been avoided? does it free the healthy part of the organisation to work and develop? Who, in the light of the relevant preceding period of the organisation’s history, was responsible, or mainly responsible? These are the decisive questions.
Nevertheless, in view of the intention of the Thornett group to malign and defame the organisation, it is as well to be clear that, as it happened, everything was done constitutionally.
It is difficult to know exactly what the Thornett group means by means of ‘bureaucratic expulsions’. Unless it can be specified what precisely was ‘bureaucratic’, this is no more than an emotionally-loaded cant expression vaguely connoting brutality and the image of an entrenched power bearing down on an opposition.
What actually happened? The majority acted unilaterally against an entrenched but very alienated and very hostile minority whose leaders refused to live according to the rules they had negotiated at the 1981 fusion or to agree to separate from us ‘amicably’.
Is every expulsion not decreed by a full conference bureaucratic? But then everything else any minority does not like which is done by the National Committee is also ‘bureaucratic’. Any delegated authority or representative democracy is ‘bureaucratic’. The logic here points straight to anarchism (but the Thornett group rarely follow through any question logically).
Engels once said that nothing is more authoritarian than a revolution. Maybe, if ‘bureaucratic’ is used to mean ‘authoritarian’ and nasty, then all expulsions are ‘bureaucratic’ for those expelled. But this is not what the word ‘bureaucratic’ normally means for Marxists.
So the charge of ‘bureaucratic expulsion’ is meaningless emotional cant. But that was always one of the big problems. Emotional denunciations of our alleged ‘capitulation’ to reformism or to imperialism; of our supposed ‘liquidationism’; and of our claimed ‘anti-communism’ on questions like Afghanistan – all of it more or less devoid of serious political argument – this was the Thornett group’s staple until even that made way for petty and usually contrived organisational grievance mongering, from August 1983. Their final claptrap about ‘bureaucratic expulsion’ is therefore completely in consonance with all that went before.
The NC decision to expel the Thornett faction was necessary, right and constructive – in the same way as the removal of a malignant organism is constructive for the body afflicted by it, if it survives. And the WSL has survived.
I think Thornett and Lister are mistaken that they can scandalise the new WSL, though I do not underestimate either their abilities as liars and fabricators, or their will, indeed their need, to have a go.
But most non-malicious observers on the left will understand that divorce is sometimes necessary, and in this case that it was much better than the ‘unity’ we had with Thornett. They will recognise that, faced as we were in March with the lunatic prospect of an intensified and pointless faction fight with Thornett rather than turning to the miners’ strike, those who said ‘enough is enough’ were the healthy side of the organisation. We had a right to separate ourselves from those who had become hopelessly disoriented.
May Thornett’s and Lister’s campaign to malign the WSL prove therapeutic for them – and may it help restore to them the capacity to do something more useful than they have been doing these two years past.
Prospects of the Thornett Group
What prospects does the Thornett group have once it has reconstituted itself? Very bad prospects.
Though of course Thornett and others have participated in the solidarity work of their local Trades Council, throughout the miners’ strike their group has done nothing as a political tendency except give ‘external’ support to the DCF. Their separation from the WSL freed us from their demoralised factionalism, but evidently it did not free them from their own demoralisation.
The Thornett group will most likely fuse with the DCF, claiming that together they represent ‘the spirit of the fusion’. They may also manage to regroup with a few of the sectarians who have separated from the WSL over the last 18 months. All their manoeuvrings, regroupments, and fusions will no doubt be accompanied by as much fanfare as they can manage. None of it will matter much.
They will at best have a fraction of the forces they had in early 1975 when they separated from the WRP. There will be no boosting welcome for them in the USFI press comparable to what they got in 1975 and after from people eager to use them against the WRP. Above all, they themselves are older and demoralised, and they have completely lost the neo-Healyite verve and self-confidence that served them then.
The famous Cowley group is important, and certainly the new WSL has lost a potentially very valuable industrial nucleus. But nevertheless the claims for it are at least 50% fictional. It was never integrated into the new WSL, and in political terms scarcely into the old WSL either.
In political terms they will be a real hodge-podge. Quite a few of them on one side of the Thornett spectrum are sectarians, and others are committed to the old-style Healyite politics of literary denunciations. On the other side the group will include what used to be the extreme right wing of the new WSL (and of the old WSL). The right wingers include people who, in practice at least, disagree with the new WSL’s opposition to rate rises.
Thornett himself is, I think, instinctively with the right wing, but he remains half-imprisoned by mid-’60s SLL / WRP formulas and tied to people who are more thoroughly imprisoned by those formulas, like his close comrade-in-arms ‘Jones’. Symptomatic of the current policies of the Thornett group was Thornett’s vote against expelling or publicly dissociating from a member of the new WSL – an old WSLer – who is prominent in local government and in that capacity had sided against the council workers in a pay dispute. (This member should have been expelled long before: we waited until we had no alternative because he is basically a decent man with 20 years in what he thought was the Trotskyist movement who has collapsed ideologically into municipal ‘socialism’.
The central difference the Thornett group had with us in the formal political disputes place them firmly within the current of so-called ‘Trotskyists’ who see the main conflict in the world as not between classes but between imperialism and the Stalinist bloc. Such politics flowered in their group during the faction fight. But many of the things they said were said for factional effect; and as a mechanical negative response to what we were saying (or what they thought we were saying).
To try to map the Thornett group’s future course by way of political extrapolation from such positions would be to misunderstand its nature. Besides, on this too the Thornett / DCF fusion will include people whose formal politics are very different from Thornett’s – and, in fact, identical to ours.
The Thornett group is primarily a personal grouping, whose governing politics are arrived at not by working through any political logic but by way of a consensus, averaging-out the varied views of those who at any given moment are prepared to accept the arbitration of the ‘worker leadership’. It is therefore unlikely that they will go where their main political differences with the WSL point them to, the uncritical Castroite wing of the USFI.
‘Beyond the Fragments’
For the Thornett group the general political questions are not decisive. They determine neither what they are nor what they do.
It is the ‘personal’ character of the group, with its self-designated ‘worker leadership’, which is decisive. As a result of its distinct history,the Thornett group has many special features and aspects peculiar to itself. But the federalist, consensus, lowest-common-denominator politics which the ‘worker leadership’ needs to sustain itself link it firmly to the general current of anti-Leninist sentiment that has grown up on the British Left in recent years – most boldly expressed around the ‘Beyond the Fragments’ grouping, and more discreetly in many sections of the Labour Left (which include quite a few ex-SLLers and ex-SWPers).
For Thornett’s irresoluble basic difference with us was on the nature, character and methods of functioning of the revolutionary party which we jointly said the fusion was a step towards building.
On this question the Thornett group share with the broad anti-Leninist current a common root: revulsion against the bureaucratic ‘revolutionary parties’ like the SLL / WRP which they spent the best years of their lives working for, combined with failure to analyse exactly what was wrong with them from a Marxist point of view.
Those who in a decade have managed only a partial and unstable settling of accounts with the SLL / WRP on the broad political questions could hardly be expected to have worked out exactly how and why the Healy regime differed from the Leninist model. Instead, they recoiled against it, and turned its centralism inside out. They maintained the method of a fixed, designated leadership, but constructed round it a loose consensus regime in contrast to the WRP’s authoritarianism.
The old WSL was always to a serious extent a loose federation of disparate local groupings, with semi-autonomous local chieftains, tied together by the prestige of the ‘worker leadership’. True, this was something that happened to them rather than something they created. But it was no good for working out Marxist politics: and its general liberalism could turn into vicious intolerance against those who stepped outside the consensus – as one member of the old WSL who was not even allowed to publish his minority opinion (on Ireland) in the Internal Bulletin found out.
The exigencies of the Thornett group’s factional struggle against the new WSL majority finally pitched Thornett and ‘Jones’ more or less explicitly into the camp of federalism and anti-Leninism, and made them argue explicitly for what they had merely practised in the old WSL while paying lip-service to Leninism and Trotskyism.
The revolt they led against the terms of the democratic-centralist constitution they agreed at fusion, and the semi-federalism they advocated for the WSL, place them squarely in the camp of the anti-Leninists.
It is richly ironic, but there is reason to believe that one of the misunderstandings that led them into the fusion was their belief that the method used by the I-CL to put together broad alliances on the Left on the basis of ‘roughly adequate class-struggle platforms’ had for us replaced the Leninist method of strict ideological accounting and sharp political definition in the work of building our own organisation. Sectarians like Workers Power, whose politics consist so largely of malice-blinded commentaries on other people’s activity, saw our broad labour movement work that way, and Alan Thornett seems to have believed them. But where they put a minus sign he saw a plus. Two or three of the few former I-CLers who now support Thornett’s version of the revolutionary party probably had the same false understanding of the turn the I-CL made in the late 1970s.
In his statement to the WSL area meetings and the conference, reprinted in this magazine, Thornett grandly says that fusion became possible because the I-CL had become ‘less sectarian’, The reader who remembers that the old WSL was still making bone-headed blanket denunciations of the Labour Left a few months before the fusion, and who reads the account of the dispute between us and Thornett on the TUC last December, will know how to assess this self-aggrandising comment of Thornett’s. His underlying thought, however, probably refers to a genuine misunderstanding of our attempt to combine political clarity with the minimum of stylistic and organisational obstacles to integration in the broader labour movement.
For Thornett, to be sectarian is not needlessly to counterpose oneself to the broad labour movement or to the existing reformist Left. It is to think or to argue a question through, to try to define matters clearly, to attempt sharp definitions and conclusions. It is what Lenin and Trotsky – and ourselves following after them as best we can – would define as the elementary activity of Marxist politicians.
Such a grouping has no political future. Indeed it has no clear politics. It may exist for a long time, but it will do nothing useful.
“I have never put a low value on small organisations merely because they are small . . . The mass organisations have value precisely because they are mass organisations. Even when they are under patriotic reformist leadership one cannot discount them. One must win the masses who are in their clutches: whether from outside or from inside depends on the circumstance. Small organisations which regard themselves as selective, as pioneers, can only have value on the strength of their programme and of the schooling and steeling of their cadres. A small organisation which has no unified programme and no really revolutionary will is less than nothing. is a negative quantity”.
(Leon Trotsky, Open Letter to an English Comrade, April 3, 1936).
July 26, 1984