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The Locusts, Cankerworms, Caterpillars and Palmerworms Will Get You If You Don’t Watch Out

Jim Higgins

"I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army that I sent among you." Joel 2:25

THIS ARTICLE is very loosely based on a talk I gave to the AGM of Revolutionary History in 1997. Although the overwhelming majority of this text is new, I believe it reasonably accurately reflects the spirit of what I said two years ago. Because I had just published a book about the IS/SWP, Ted Crawford who convened the meeting advertised the subject as "A History of IS". At the time, having sated myself on the fractured rhythms of Cliff’s turgid prose, I could think of nothing more tedious than going through all that again so soon after I had said my last word on the subject. In consequence I chose to speak about the movement in general, emphasising that, regardless of differences on Russia, the Labour Party and much else, there was a common thread running through all the groups adhering to our tradition, one that we had to come to terms with if we were not to spend even more of our lives in grinding irrelevance. Having apologised for gathering the comrades under a false prospectus and, as a practised navigator of the revolutionary interstices, having laid the blame squarely, if unfairly, on Ted Crawford, this is roughly what I had to say.

ALTHOUGH I HAVE been asked to speak on it, the IS/SWP is not the problem. It is just an integral part of the overall problem of the revolutionary left. That problem is of a movement that is almost totally irrelevant, one that is immured in a tradition that was once vibrant and alive but has become ossified, as a result of slavish adherence to form without reference to content or context. The SWP fondly imagines that it is building the British Bolshevik party. Others basing themselves just as rigidly in what they too see as the Bolshevik frame are rebuilding, reconstructing, organising for, or just plain proclaiming: the Fourth International.

The political justification for all this has not advanced one whit from the time when Lenin and Trotsky first enunciated it. Indeed the argument now takes on a course much like that of the oozelum bird, with a better than even chance of ending up like that unfortunate bird in a wisp of blue smoke. The working class, in so far as they see or hear us at all, find the theoretical underpinnings incomprehensible or just plain risible.

Strangely there are those among us who glory in their obscurantism, who boast of their utter fidelity to the work of L.D. Trotsky, who assiduously work through Lenin’s Collected Works looking for some apposite quotation that will set up today’s problem with the day before yesterday’s solutions. For some demented souls, merely to have found the quote is to have successfully concluded the discussion.

It is difficult to understand how anyone can believe that Lenin, who died 75 years ago, or Trotsky, who died 59 years ago, could have possibly produced answers to today’s difficulties. One would have thought that anyone with that kind of posthumous infallibility should have made a rather better job of things while they were alive. Surely it is unlikely that the chap who wrote What Is To Be Done?, promulgated the democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants, insisted on the 21 conditions for affiliation to the Third International and banned factions in the Russian party will be an infallible guide about how to get close to the working class in the post Stalinist, post Social Democratic age of Tony Blair, even to someone as good at reading the chicken bones as a Sybil from Cumae or Tony Cliff.

As part of the homage to the Russian Revolution there is this romantic attachment to recreating the events of Petrograd in October 1917. Will the British Revolution not start until the leader has arrived at the Finland station in his sealed train? If the Bolsheviks took over the Smolny as their headquarters will the onlie begetters of British Bolshevism have to take over Cheltenham College for Young Ladies? What is the British equivalent of storming the Winter Palace? Balmoral I suppose, although how we are going to get the battleship Aurora up there God alone knows.

As one of those who came to the Trotskyist movement from the Communist Party in 1956, in my case after some nine years of CP membership, I can recall the various meetings where the contending Trotskyists set out their wares. Ted Grant’s pitch, as you might suppose, was delivered at enormous and infinitely tedious length. Unity it seemed was possible on the basis of the first four congresses of the Communist International, the Transitional Programme of 1938, Preparing for Power, nationalisation of the 100 biggest companies and the banning of under-21s from employment in billiard saloons. These high points were expounded like a recitation of the Stations of the Cross, a Via Dolorosa of the saddest kind, calculated to confer a certain charm on imminent crucifixion. Suffice it to say that I had no sense of a Damascene revelation nor any need to even consider joining the Revolutionary Socialist League. More to the point, neither did anyone else in a similar position to myself.

Gerry Healy, who was at that time adopting a smiling non-sectarian image, was much smarter. He addressed the actual concerns of the political minority among the 7,000 people leaving the CP. What had gone wrong? What was the cult of the individual? Was Marxism valid in the light of the experience of Stalin? These and much else were questions that were patiently and persuasively discussed.

The solid foundation to all this was a small arsenal of the works of Trotsky and especially, for that sort of audience, The Revolution Betrayed. The net result was that Healy’s Club took the overwhelming majority of ex-CPers who moved to Trotskyism – people of the calibre of Brian Behan, Peter Fryer, John Daniels, Ken Coates, Cliff Slaughter and Tom Kemp, to name but a few, and a small but not unimpressive sprinkling of experienced industrial militants. I yield to no one in my distaste for that truly dreadful man Gerry Healy, but for a brief year or so in the late 1950s he was the most serious exponent of revolutionary politics in Britain. In a few months in The Club I learned more about Marxism than I had done in the all the years in the CP. For that I am grateful.

But then having built it he proceeded to destroy it. Like the child who takes his ball home when he cannot have his own way, Healy felt the need always to be in control politically, personally and, it transpired, sexually – he was a small plump obnoxious embodiment of a power mania, of a similar character to domestic tyranny, but written just a little larger. As Brian Behan said, if the organisation gets so big that he cannot get into his Rififi-type Citroen (it was actually Tony Banda’s Rififi Citroen) and drive frantically round the country quelling any dissent, then he has to have a smash up. And in 1959 the smash up came and Healy’s organisation went from being the least sectarian of the 57 varieties to become the most exclusive and sectarian of the lot, a finely tuned machine for burning out the cadre.

The Socialist Review Group started off in 1950 as an orthodox Trotskyist group, with what it fondly hoped was a better theory on Russia. Its early correspondence files contain urgent appeals to Pablo and Co for SR to be installed as the British section in place of Healy’s Club. There were dreams of forming a rival Fourth International with Mangano in Italy, Chaulieu in France and maybe Shachtman in the US. In this scheme, the new International was to be headed by Natalia Trotsky – an example, perhaps, of that hereditary principle which was so fatal for the Romanovs, but more likely an early manifestation of Cliff’s inspirational opportunism. Like Healy, Cliff also believed briefly that Tito might take on a revolutionary orientation. The area of activity was the Socialist Fellowship (a left Labour organisation which served as a vehicle for the Pabloite deep entrism of Healy and Lawrence) and the recruitment area the ex-members of the Revolutionary Communist Party. In the circumstances the Socialist Review magazine was not at all like a Labour Party entrist paper, far more a Trotskyist journal replete with its cover picture of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

After a brief time it became clear that the ex-members of the RCP were very few and far between. Discussions took place with Ted Grant’s group, who were slightly later expellees from Healy’s Club. These foundered on Ted’s view that state property was the most significant prerequisite for a workers’ state. Indeed, at the time he was debating whether the Labour government already had sufficient state property brownie points to qualify as a workers’ state.

Trotskyism was clearly approaching its post-war nadir. The movement was declining by the week, a condition that far from inducing conservation led to an acceleration of splits – the break in the FI (International Secretariat and International Committee), and the consequent splits in the sections.

Cliff, who learned the phrase from Trotsky, adopted primitive socialist accumulation as his guiding principle to build his minuscule group. The Labour Party was not a particularly fruitful area, but it was the place where a group of 30 could become 40 or at least replace lost members. Socialist Review became an entrist paper and the Labour Party a subject of investigation. It seemed that the workers were less enthused by the reforming abilities of Labour and more keen on do-it-yourself reform at the workplace, spearheaded in engineering with its tradition of shop stewards and local negotiation by lay union militants. This was indeed a profound insight and became dignified by the title "the Changing Locus of Reformism". But like so much else in SR/IS theory, having elucidated a few insights that could be spatchcocked into the overall Group politics it no longer became necessary to elaborate or confirm that which was handy enough as it stood. Onto all this was added the Luxemburgist phase of the Group, in which Rosa’s organisational prescriptions were infinitely preferred to Ilyich’s. This approach was a great deal more attractive to the Labour left, CND and later Young Socialist audience that the Group’s magazine was addressing.

It has to be said that SR and IS were most pleasant organisations in which to be working in those halcyon days from 1959 to 1968. There was a great deal of inefficiency, but no more than I have personally experienced in far more Bolshevik organisations; there was a turnover, but an astonishingly large number of comrades stuck, and the group grew slowly but at a gently accelerating pace. By foresight or good luck, the growth of trade union militancy developed at the same time as the growth within the Young Socialists slowed down, and with the aid of IS theory on the rank and file it became possible to modestly recruit among militant workers, though the attrition here was greater, as the local struggles that secured recruits died down or were defeated. But recruit we did, sometimes spectacularly, as at ENV where we recruited a majority of the shop stewards’ committee.

It was this event that made us think of the way that transitional programmes could be worked out for industries and unions, which would promulgate comprehensible demands that would inevitably lead on to considerations of power and the need for political organisation to win the workers’ ultimate demands. The overall strategy would itself be the transitional bridge to the revolutionary party. It seemed to me at the time that this was a genuinely creative way to apply the inspired essence of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme of 1938. Once again this was an insight where, once it was discovered that it required little hammering to fit it into the Group’s overall political jigsaw, nothing much was done to elaborate the ideas.

Within IS and certainly among the leadership this was accepted as the line of march. Rank-and-file papers were produced and loose organisations grew up around them, and at their height they were distributed in tens of thousands. Here was a tenuous but hopeful base. Cliff produced two pamphlets that were successful in popularising the IS among industrial workers, one on incomes policy and the rank and file, and the other on productivity bargaining. Both sold in thousands of copies and were an earnest in themselves that non-sectarian activity addressed to advanced workers’ specific concerns brings its own rewards.

In 18 years the Cliff group had grown from 30 to about 800 members, practically all of that growth taking place in the course of the 1960s. It seemed to indicate that patient work which eschewed stunts and sudden changes of line might start to build a tenuous but real presence in the workers’ movement. During those years, most of them lonely and not rewarded with success, the recruiting focus changed from ex-RCP members, to Labour Youth, to CND and the Young Socialists, all of this to build a group that, it was hoped, would be able to recruit workers into a significant socialist organisation. The focus might change but the objective was unchanged.

For a time it seemed that the IS Group might transcend the constrictions of Trotskyist orthodoxy. If that was less the result of taking organisational thought than happenstance, then that is the way things actually happen in even the most Leninist organisation, including Lenin’s. It is at moments like this, where an organisation sits on the brink of modest successes, that the members should be most vigilant. It is just at such times that organic growth can be forsaken for some get rich in a hurry scheme.

The catalyst was Enoch Powell’s racist speech about "the Tiber foaming with much blood", which caused a furore and gave an opportunity to some Mosleyite dockers at Tooley Street to set up a dockers’ demonstration in support of Powell. On the left there was a panicky discussion on the urgent menace of fascism, predicated on Powell acquiring a mass base among disaffected workers. In fact, there was no urgent menace and Powell was almost as surprised as the rest of us at London dockers rallying to his support – such fellows were hardly in accord with his romantic notions of empire. This did, however, provide Cliff with the opportunity to produce a plan of Baldrickesque cunning that, he fondly imagined, might make him member-rich at an accelerated rate. He embarked on a unity campaign, with approaches made to organisations ranging from the CP to Militant and taking in Healy’s Socialist Labour League and the International Marxist Group. Naturally enough, such a dive back into the past required the 1903 Lenin mode rather than the 1904 Luxemburgist style.

In the event, nobody answered the call, with the exception of Sean Matgamna and his minuscule James P. Cannon fan club. This particular "historic" fusion was arranged at a meeting between Cliff and Matgamna in the former’s back room. The IS Group acquired a fully fledged "Trotskyist Tendency" without its members or its elected committees having any say in the matter. This was hardly the result that had been planned, and the dubious benefits of a handful of extra members was made entirely nugatory by the time expended in rehashing old disputes, a pastime Sean enjoyed immensely and indulged in at tedious length. If today he rejects the Cannon Fan Club for the Max Shachtman Appreciation Society, he is still as prolix as he ever was. It is a measure of the liberal regime in the IS Group that it took three years of faction fighting to lose the Matgamna group, whereas Healy and Grant had previously dispensed with his membership far more expeditiously.

The failure of the unity campaign was of considerably less significance than the fact that the Group came out of it a markedly different organisation. It was not noticeably more efficient for all its democratic centralism, but it was markedly less tolerant of dissent than previously. Cliff, having invited Matgamna in on his own say so, felt that he should be able to banish him with equally arbitrary facility. The fact that an entire conference had devoted itself to framing a new "democratic centralist" constitution which enshrined the rights of factions seemed beside the point to Cliff. His Lenin bore an uncanny resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts.

After the unravelling of the fusion with the Trotskyist Tendency in 1971, tolerance of any form of dissent was increasingly harshly treated and all too often a desire to carry on a discussion beyond Cliff’s patience was seen as a particular case of dissension. If the growing harshness of the regime could in part be attributed to the faction fight with Matgamna, this was merely the accelerant rather than the primary force. The theoretical underpinnings were provided by Cliff’s four volumes on Lenin. It was the story of the sort of man Lenin might have been if he had only had the advantage of reading Cliff’s biography of him. But the Group did grow, although whether there was any connection between the growth and the adoption of democratic centralism is doubtful.

Rather more significant was the growing industrial militancy and the development of the print shop into an asset capable of generating significant surpluses. This was effected by an extremely large donation from one comrade. It is possible to run a substantial apparat by exacting extortionate subscriptions and quotas from the members, but this will always be problematical because the largest costs are incurred in producing agitational and theoretical material. Not only that, if the membership falls it is just not possible to double up on the already high subscriptions to maintain the same infrastructure. All of which can mean that an organisational hiccough can become a downward spiralling crisis. Nothing beats a print shop for ironing out the bumps and troughs in the building of a small group. Print and paper for your own journals are at cost, printers come at full time revolutionary wage rates and jobbing work supplies the surpluses for full timers’ wages, posters, leaflets and travel expenses. The great technological breakthrough of web offset printing has been the making of many a revolutionary socialist group. The forerunner in this was Gerry Healy, of whose faction fight with John Lawrence it was said that he won because, although he had fewer votes, he had more shares in the Socialist Outlook publishing company. The Militant Tendency had their print shop and a vast complement of full time workers. Nowadays any group who can raise a few grand can, even if they cannot run to a web press, purchase a very serviceable sheet-fed machine. Thus, unfortunately, has photo-setting and offset technology conspired to give life to that which would otherwise have been happily stillborn. Otherwise poverty stricken organisations can now operate as a capitalist entrepreneur, able to maintain a subsidised full time apparatus far beyond anything they could afford on the basis of working class members’ subscriptions.

Local organisers are responsible to the centre and their tasks and instructions emanate from that location. In the early 1970s a number of IS membership campaigns were launched in which Cliff, with his charts and league tables, encouraged a spirit of competition among the organisers that had more than a passing resemblance to Stakhanovism. Last month’s inflated figures were surpassed by this month’s even more optimistic results, while both would be easily outstripped by next month’s daringly imaginative claims. The new members were rarely seen or heard from again, and I was reminded of a report sent in by Will Fancy some years before, which detailed the work of the Eltham Socialist Review Group branch. "Comrade X", he wrote, "does not attend branch meetings, does not sell the paper and does not pay subs, but he can otherwise be considered a keen and enthusiastic member of the Group."

The Group quite quickly became, whether as IS or as the Socialist Workers Party, a place where opposition was rapidly extirpated, and very soon a culture developed where there was no facility for disagreement and no culture of discussion or constructive debate. In its dash for the Leninist party, it had created something very similar to the pre-1956 Communist Party, without anything like that party’s industrial cadre.

The sort of complaints that IS and SWP expellees make are not new and can be replicated in other organisations. I remember talking to Harry Wicks who bitterly complained about how, in the early 1930s, Reg Groves maintained a correspondence with Trotsky on Prinkipo, which Harry only found out about in the 1960s when the American SWP published Trotsky’s replies from the archives. At the time, Harry and Reg were living in the same house.

The Revolutionary Socialist League of Denzil Harber and Starkey Jackson before the fusion of the British Trotskyists in 1944 maintained a regime of which Yezhov and Yagoda would have been proud. One particularly choice piece of Machiavellian sadism occurred during the war, when Harber’s faction, who happened to have a majority, put the Right faction, known as the Trotskyist Opposition and led by John Lawrence and Hilda Lane, under the direct and individual discipline of the Left faction. The RSL had perhaps 30 members at the time, although it was the British section of the Fourth International.

At the time of the formation of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944, James P. Cannon, doing his cut-price Zinoviev act, set up a minority faction led by Healy and Lawrence even before the fusion conference. After the war Pablo and Mandel, described by Cannon as "our young men in Europe", carried on in the worst traditions of the Comintern, nurturing and sustaining Healy and making and breaking international leaderships while generally playing the fool with both the cadre and the politics of the International.

The RCP, which was in many respects the best of the bunch although a massively flawed organisation, found that all the brave promises of the Founding Congress of 1938 were empty, and drizzled away their remaining time in endless faction fights. As Jock Haston said: "We produced so many internal bulletins that we did not have time to do anything else even if there had been anything to do."

The stories about Healy are beyond counting and his name has become a byword for everything that is obnoxious and repellent about our movement. There are those who say in his mitigation that he had a sense of humour, which is true. Whether you find gallows humour attractive or not is probably dependent on how close you are to dangling from the end of his gibbet.

The story is repeated again and again for different organisations. The Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party) has over its long lifetime produced a few little gems that will sound familiar to practised malcontents. In a paper published on the Internet, Dennis Tourish of the University of Ulster, a specialist in Cultic Studies, produces this quotation from a disgruntled supporter of Ted Grant during the faction fight with Peter Taaffe: "To cross the General Secretary would result in a tantrum or some kind of outburst. Comrades became fearful of initiative without the sanction of the General Secretary. Incredibly, even the opening of a window during an EC meeting would not go ahead without a nod from him! Under these conditions, the idea of ’collective leadership’ is a nonsense.... The EC as a whole – which is supposed to be a sub-committee of the CC – is out of control. In 99% of cases the CC is simply a rubber stamp for the EC." And so say all of us, because we have been saying something similar whatever organisation we happened to be talking about.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has developed from a couple of fusions with the Matgamnaite core that was defused from IS. First with the Left Faction, who were expelled from IS in 1974, and later with Alan Thornett’s group the Workers Socialist League. Strange to relate, for a man who was a serial expellee from the SLL, the RSL and IS and complained bitterly at this cavalier treatment, Sean had a fairly short way with his own dissenters, and before too long the Left Faction took on an independent role as Workers Power and Alan Thornett was working elsewhere on a less taxing project. The AWL’s journal Workers’ Liberty, has a spurious air of openness that is in fact a stratagem to solicit contrary opinions and then subject them to such a remorseless weight of Matgamna’s polemic as to make the peine forte et dure seem like a pleasurable alternative.

For group gurus, the organisation is an extension of their personality. Like some corner shopkeeper they retain it to themselves, defending their control with a fervour that can spill over into savagery. It fulfils their everyday needs, and nourishes their fantasies in a milieu in which they are definitely more equal than others. Matgamna is just such a case in point, and as editor of Workers’ Liberty he ensures that hardly an issue passes without an article of wearisome length and dubious relevance from his hand. In addition, and this has got to come close to abuse of privilege, he frequently puts in one of his own poems – and the most we can say about that is that Ireland now has its own champion to compete on equal terms with Scotland’s William McGonagall.

One of the other dubious characteristics that we have inherited from the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is the studied air of absolute certainty that suffuses their work. Lenin and Trotsky continually give the impression that Marxism is an exact science, and is because they say so, and that because they are Marxists then what they say is, by definition, correct. (Prior to 1917 their claims lacked a certain credibility because they argued violently with one another and they could not both be right.) This feature of their work, which is as much a matter of style as of anything else, has been adopted with particular enthusiasm by the Church of Latter Day Trotskyism. Those whose record of achievement should be accompanied by an attitude of modest stillness and humility are given to statements of such mind blowing arrogance as to make one’s colitis become general. I cite a statement from a 1977 internal bulletin of the Militant Tendency, which is a paradigm of this particular conceit: "What guarantees the superiority of our tendency ... from all others inside and outside the labour movement is our understanding of all the myriad factors which determine the attitudes and moods of the workers at each stage. Not only the objective but the subjective ones too." If you believe this one, then you will readily accept that, despite my advancing years, nubile young women frequently mistake me for Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s hell I tell you, comrades.

This is the movement we inherited, and with all its faults it has maintained the thin revolutionary thread that would allow us to pass it on to the next generation. Without taking thought and making extensive amendments, I do not think we should. Its organisational forms have been the endlessly repeated vehicle for the petty careers of small time power maniacs, whose pathetic compulsion to be cock of their own small malodorous midden would be an object of sympathy if they had not wrecked far too many useful and irreplaceable comrades. We have all been here before, some of us several times, and as Denis Healy said: "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." Traditionally our movement’s response to this dilemma has been quite the contrary – the comrades are called upon to make an especial sacrifice to buy a bigger shovel and then, with passionate exhortation, directed to prolonged and frenzied digging on a three-shift system.

The Leninism of 1917 was addressing problems that have not existed for three-quarters of a century, and are of little help to revolutionary socialists in 1999. The Leninism of the 1930s, which we call Trotskyism, offers us the same thing only written very, very small. The yearning for an international leadership that would bestride the world workers’ movement turned out to be the plaything of Cannon, Pablo, Healy and Lambert. The brave hopes of 1938 have ended in the petty squabbles and squalid manoeuvrings that have characterised the years since Trotsky’s death. The organisational principles that were intended to sharply differentiate the revolutionaries from Social Democracy and Stalinism need to be re-examined in the light of the political demise of these false doctrines. The FI, which was to stand as a rallying point against the upper and lower millstones of Stalinism and Reformism, went into a flat spin when both of these abominations shuffled off the stage. Trotskyism seemed unable to define itself without the twin evils it never quite came to grips with.

The workers deserve much better than the spectacle of endless splits over trifles and unquestioning adherence to outdated formulae. I am in general against quotations from the pen of the masters, but there is one from Trotsky that I like to consider in moments of high emotion or depression: "Learn to Think". If we apply this maxim seriously then there are no eternal verities, and everything is open to re-examination and argument.

Recently I have been cheered by the work that Cyril Smith has done, and Mike Jones is doing us all a service by shedding light on the early years of German Communism and the founding of the Communist International. Al Richardson, who has a splendid habit of blowing raspberries at radical chic, has challenged the myths that have for too long been our smelly comfort blanket. Whether they are right or wrong I don’t know nor do I care. They are doing what Marxists should be doing and have not done nearly enough – putting things up for scrutiny and deciding if they are needed on the voyage. Revolutionary History, New Interventions and What Next? are another welcome novelty of recent years. All of these journals are unaffiliated, open, intelligent, not afraid to deal with any subject and valued by a small but significant readership. Such independent publication is, of course, anathema to the confirmed sect-dweller and it will come as no surprise that Sean Matgamna has allowed himself several splenetic yelps of rage at the iniquities of these magazines.

This has been a long voyage and we have made much less progress than I imagined we would when I was a 12 year old who thought he was a Marxist. So there is still a long way to go and the journey will be that much easier if we clear out some self-constructed obstacles that bestrew our path. The broad socialist movement remains the place where we can transcend our own limitations and limited vision. Most of us have been at our best in that movement; it is where have experienced those fleeting certainties about how we can transform ourselves in the cooperative process of transforming society.

I would like to finish with a verse from a poem by Erich Fried, a German Socialist who died quite recently:

Speak One More Time
About the joy of hoping for Joy
So that at least some will ask:
What was that?
When will it come again?

From What Next? No.14 1999