Workers' Power: lessons for the revolutionary left

Workers' Power: lessons for the revolutionary left


This article was written in 1993 by Martin Thomas and Jim Denham as an introduction to a large collection of documents dealing with Workers' Power
Workers' Power, a tale of kitsch Trotskyism. Documents 1973-93.

The Workers' Power group is a small tendency with little influence in the labour movement. Its politics are eclectic and not particularly distinctive. It is very much a part of the postwar kitschTrotskyist mainstream that we long ago distanced ourselves from. Why, then, spend time on them?

Firstly, they are to a considerable extent our creation. As we shall see, their politics were initially at least largely based on ours, and even today they remain a sort of grotesque sectarian shadow of our organisation.

Secondly, the very eclecticism of their politics is of a certain interest to us. Few organisations have embodied quite so many of the deviations that have afflicted postwar Trotskyisrn, and in such a short space of time. They are a microcosm of much (if not quite all) of what has been wrong with "Trotskyism" since the late 1940s.

The "Recapitulation Theory" in biology attaches great significance to the fact that the human embryo in the womb passes through just about every evolutionary stage from amoeba to fish to invertebrate, etc. etc., up to primitive human form. As a biological theory "recapitulation" may be discredited, but the fact remains that the process does occur: Workers' Power represents a kitschTrotskyist version of it, having passed through almost every stage of postwar Trotskyism from Cliffite economism to Pablo/Mandel ThirdWorldism, taking in Healyite/Spartacist sectarianism along the way.

Finally, despite its many idiocies, Workers' Power does project a certain aura of "seriousness" which, though largely spurious, can be attractive to people repelled by the obvious opportunism of groups like the SWP and Militant Labour: thus we sometimes find ourselves in competition with them.

Workers' Power began as the "Left Faction" of the International Socialists (IS, now SWP) in 1973. At that time IS was at the height of its "turn to the class" and had won small but significant gains in industry.

Inevitably, many of the workers recruited to IS at this time were politically raw and sometimes backward on particular questions. The IS leadership round Tony Cliff; instead of educating and developing these workers, cynically manipulated them to create an atmosphere in IS in which crude economism was the order of the day and concern with issues like women's and gay rights, internationalism, or indeed politics as distinct from militant trade unionism, was the mark of the "petty bourgeois", "student types" and "people who ought to be in the IMG" (all commonly-used terms of abuse at that time).

The "Left Faction" opposed this economism in a limited, but nonetheless positive, way.

However, it is not quite true that Workers' Power began with the Left Faction. The core of the WP group, around Dave Hughes and Dave Stocking, existed as a distinct grouping in the Birmingham and Stoke branches of IS for some years before 1973.

They had been mildly oppositionist before 1973, too. IS between the late 1960s and the early 1970s was very different from the SWP today. It was a lively, loose, ramshackle organisation. Many small groupings criticised the leadership's economism. Hughes, Stocking, and their friends were one such group. And "friends" is the right word: they were tied together by a network of associations going back to college and even school days.

In 1971 they swung back to loyalism. We do not know why. Maybe they were rightly repelled by the conservative, cliquey, wiseacre attitudes common behind the "correct" politics of many of the critics of "economism". In any case, when the IS leadership expelled Workers' Fight (the "Trotskyist Tendency", a forerunner of the AWL) in late 1971, the Stoke branch, led by Dave Stocking, supported the expulsion so enthusiastically that the IS leadership had to pull them back into line for trying to carve opponents of the expulsion out of their branch delegation to the December 1971 IS special conference.

Here already, in WP's "prehistory", before even the formation of the "Left Faction", two enduring traits of the WP group had been defined: its cohesion was that of a clique or a cult around predefined leaders, rather than that of a group defined by consistent politics; and those leaders were liable to sudden emotional lurches and splurges in their politics, followed by frantic "theorising" in defence of the new line.

From that "loyalist" lurch, however, they did sober up, and soon. In early 1972 they rebelled again the IS leadership's line on the official IRA's bombing of the Parachute Regiment officers' mess at Aldershot barracks - a line expressed by the then National Secretary of IS in the statement that it was no use killing British soldiers, since for each one slain a thousand would take his place. (It was the first bombing in Britain in the course of the "Troubles", and was specifically in retaliation for the Parachute Regiment's "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Derry in January 1972).

They started talking to the Workers' Fight people whom they had expelled only a few months before, and eventually produced a factional platform for the 1973 IS conference.

After the conference Hughes and Stocking "dissolved" their faction. Under rules adopted by IS when it expelled Workers' Fight in 1971, they had to dissolve or be expelled. But, they said at the time, this was no bad thing: the faction would be re established on former ideological foundations after further discussions.

In fact the grouping never dissolved, and in 1974 the LF leadership waged a struggle against an impatient section of their members around Jo Quigley (who is now the GMB fulltime official whose work for the Burnsall strike has aroused such controversy).

The Quigleyites eventually split, launched a barnstorming and incoherent kamikaze attack on the IS leadership, and soon scattered to the four winds. Quigley insists to this day that Hughes and Stocking did a deal with the IS leadership (in the form of Duncan Hallas) to save their own skins at the expense of sacrificing their former allies. We cannot vouch for the truth of this. What they certainly did was to retreat towards IS loyalism, going so far as to say that IS was "the healthiest political tendency to emerge from the disintegration of postwar Trotskyism. All other pretenders remain either impotent sectlets, abstract propagandists, or have capitulated to reformism". This was not only ridiculous hyperbole, it was consciously hypocritical: in private discussions the LF leaders had already expressed sympathy with WF and great disillusion with IS.

In 1975 IS hit a severe crisis. Many, probably, most of IS's industrial workers left the organisation; a large section of the old IS leadership, round Jim Higgins, John Palmer, and Richard Kuper, was pushed out. (They formed a shortlived organisation called the Workers' League, and some of them are still active around the Socialist Society). The LF was reforrned with a platform marking an definite improvement on 1973, and very close to Workers' Fight's politics. They were duly expelled. After discussions, the exLF, now called Workers' Power, fused with Workers' Fight to form the InternationalCommunist League (ICL) on 14 December 1975.

The political differences between WP and WF were small. WP still called the USSR "statecapitalist" (though the WP leaders had long agreed that Tony Cliff's theory was unMarxist); WF still called it a "degenerated workers' state" (though we said openly that this description was unsatisfactory). The ICL would be for the defence of the USSR against Western imperialism as its majority position. The exWF side wrote in to the fusion resolution a proviso (copied wordforword from the WF platform of 1971) that "In any conflict, or apparent conflict, between defence against imperialism and the proletarian struggle against the bureaucracy, we believe in the primacy of the workers' struggles and the duty of revolutionaries to support them".

WP saw less need for work in the Labour Party than WF did: we agreed to leave flexibility for individuals on whether they would be involved in this work or not until the first ICL conference. In practice this flexibility agreement worked very well and almost everyone opted to be involved.

To ease the fusion further, WF proposed, and it was agreed, that the leading committees of the ICL be constituted with equal numbers from each of WF and WP, thus "overrepresenting" the exWP element (about onethird of the fused membership). In fact the daytoday leading committee, the Political Committee, was to acquire an "exWF" majority, not by any bureaucratic measures, but by the voluntary withdrawal of two "exWP" people.

There were few disputes on the political line of the ICL, and those there were, were mostly "exWF vs exWF" arguments, rather than exWF vs exWP. Along with the fusion, a new weekly paper was launched, Workers' Action, replacing the weekly Workers' Fight.

Yet nine months later, in September 1976, Hughes and Stocking walked out of the ICL. The prefusion WP group - which, it became clear, had never really dissolved into the fusion - split, and Hughes/Stocking took about two-thirds of the exWP members with them.

What led up to this? In early 1976 there were some squabbles about such things as the internal affairs of the Troops Out Movement of that time, but those are now of no consequence, and were not fundamental then.

Serious political-seeming conflict began with a row over a draft "Action Programme/Manifesto". At fusion, Sean Matgamna had been commissioned to write the draft. He produced it in February 1976. Hughes and Stocking denounced the draft as timeless, doctrinaire, abstract.

Amendments to the draft, leaves of absence for Stocking (a fulltimer) to write an alternative text, a Drafting Commission, discussions on general concepts of what a Marxist programme should be - they all failed to resolve the dispute. Part of the problem may have been different concepts of what a programme should be - as indicated in extracts included here.

Probably a bigger part was that Hughes and Stocking regarded programmewriting as their forte (they had criticised IS/SWP at length on the issue). "Perspectives" (the Hughes/Stocking catchword of the time) also played a role. They had come out of IS as part of a big bloodletting which took probably the majority of IS's industrial workers of that time. In the fusion discussions Stocking had declared:

"Workers' Fight is underestimating the possibilities of growth for a revolutionary group in the coming period. In the coming struggles, with political questions more sharply posed, transitional demands will become increasingly relevant, and a small but clear revolutionary tendency can recruit through industrial work".

They thought that they could grow rapidly, regrouping many of the workers who had left IS. This was one of the key reasons why they were sceptical about Labour Party work. And the "Action Programme" was to be their main means of regrouping those workers.

WF had argued in the fusion talks that this perspective was unrealistic. In the event, the possibilities of mass industrial work were smaller than even the most pessimistic of us thought. 1976 (and late 1975) was a period of lull in the generally high industrial militancy of the 1970s.

Hughes and Stocking were understandably frustrated - and expressed their frustration incoherently.

In early May preparations began for the ICL conference. It was slated for July, though in June Matgamna and Hornung would propose, successfully, that it be postponed to September to give a better chance of it not being a heated voteout on emotive but illdefined differences.

Martin Thomas drafted a document on orientation. Again, uproar. Hughes and Stocking denounced the draft as biased towards Labour Party work and tending to liquidate the ICL's industrial work (although Hughes, given the job of industrial organiser as yet another measure to ease the fusion, could not cite any initiative he wanted on which he had failed to get support from the exWF people, or any request for resources which had been refused).

Again, attempts to resolve the issue - amendments, discussions, hundreds of pages in discussion bulletins. Again, no progress. At an ICL summer school in July, there were a series of knockdown and dragout debates before a large part of the membership. Hughes and Stocking manifestly lost the arguments on the Labour Party. Manifestly, too, they felt that they had lost them; they retreated into sullen silence.

On 5 September the National Committee had its last discussion on "orientation" before the conference, then three weeks away. Hughes's objections had been reduced to nine amendments, mostly very small: the main one insisted that only one third of the members of each branch, no more, should be heavily involved in Labour Party work. There was an argument about the Walsall byelection then forthcoming: Hughes and Stocking wanted to back the IS candidate, the majority backed Labour. Neither Hughes nor Stocking nor any of their co-thinkers raised any objections about the arrangements for conference. At the end of the meeting, however, they distributed a document, "Factionalism or Perspectives", which set out to rally "ex WP" opinion against the exWF leaders, who were allegedly turning the ICL into a "splenetic impotent sectlet".

At the Political Committee of 10 September Stocking and King said they would not abide by the decisions of the forthcoming conference. At a Midlands regional meeting on 12 September Stocking repeated the declaration, and was backed up by Hughes, who had been absent on 10 September.

On 13 September the ICL suspended Hughes, Stocking and King from membership, with provisos to readmit them immediately to membership and to all their offices and positions if they would accept the conference's authority. On 15 September, the supporters of Hughes and Stocking walked out of the East London and North London branch meetings. Michele Ryan, the leading exWP woman activist, memorably told the North London branch: "We, as rank and file members, cannot possibly argue the issues. We don't fully know the debate and our leaders' positions - we may not even accept them all". Unsure a she was about the political positions of Hughes and Stocking she was quite sure that they were her "leaders", and she walked out to join them. She and the other Hughes/Stockingites refused even to try to talk to the bulk of the ICL membership, branding us as zombies whose minds had been irreversibly poisoned. They refused even to talk to people who had supported them on some of the political disputes.

All attempts at conciliation failed. "As late as Tuesday night 114 September] Hughes talked to Hornung and Lever on the phone and proposed a deal. He wanted parity restored on the Political Committee and abolition of the Secretariat until conference. He wanted also a cancellation of conference, though that was negotiable if the other two points were conceded.

I"On the Wednesday morning [15 September] Lever, speaking for herself and Matgamna, phoned Hughes to say they would agree with the first two points provided the conference was held on schedule, and try to persuade the rest of the Political Committee to agree. But by then Hughes had had a good night's sleep and decided 'no deals'. The only negotiations between the semimythical 'WP group' and the ICL would occur after the ICL, exWF and exneither, had kicked out the entire Political Committee!" (from "Stop the Wreckers!", an I-CL circular of 17 September 1976).

On 19 September, Hughes and Stocking called a meeting of "comrades on the line of the exWP group". Arnie Prout and Pete Keenlyside, leading exWPers who agreed politically with the ICL majority, were excluded; so was Alasdair Jamison, who largely agreed with Hughes and Stocking on the Labour Party and other arguments, but was not exWP and opposed a split.

Six people, including Jim Denham, voted against a split, and 19 for.

All participants in the split were freely invited to the last session of the ICL conference on 26 September. Only Hughes and King came. Hughes told us that he did not, in fact, say that we were mindless zombies not worth arguing with, "gooks and monkeys". No, he said, "prove that you aren't - by throwing out the leadership of the Matgamna group". Failing to do so, we were "gooks and monkeys" after all, and that was that.

Two political threads from the "prehistory" of WP were in operation here: the cliquishness and the propensity to sudden emotional lurches.

The Hughes/Stocking group walked out of the ICL as a clique, a circle of friends, hurt by a threat to the status of their leaders (i.e. they would be in a minority at the conference, albeit a minority with full rights - the exWF people had stated in advance that they wanted to keep Hughes and Stocking on the leading committees). They did not move as a political group motivated by politics. They were motivated neither by the interests of selfpreservation nor by those of building the sort of organisation we had jointly set out to build nine months earlier.

And they did it in a sudden emotional lurch. On 5 September they were taking part in a moreorless normal committee meeting, by 26 September they were denouncing those who stayed with the ICL, as "gooks and monkeys", and all this without any new political issue arising!

The split also showed another lasting trait of WP: that its literary revolutionism is combined with feebleness in any real political struggle.

They had repeatedly been submissive, diplomatic, even hypocritical, in IS. Then they walked out of the ICL without waging a struggle, without even daring to take the opportunity to argue their corner at the conference. The same trait can be seen today in, for example, WP's record as a "loyal opposition" to Red Action in AntiFascist Action.

The split was fatal to WP's political development. It left them demoralised, disoriented, and with no viable perspective. For some time afterwards, their polemics against our supposed "bureaucratism" led them to function only as a looselyknit circle.

They had virtually no differences of public political line from the ICL, so they could not be sustained by the consciousness that they defended some vital idea against the stream.

They claimed to stand for dynamic, agitational, industrial mass work - but almost all the few industrial workers who had backed them in the arguments inside the ICL refused to join the split, and Hughes himself, before the split, admitted to a wavering comrade in Nottingham that "no serious industrial work" would be possible outside the ICL. Just as there was something appropriate about the fact that the Healy organisation, in its last period, found its main base among actors and actresses, so also it was somewhat fitting that the new `'WP" was dominated by college lecturers.

Mobilising for the split, they had claimed that the exWF leadership was so sectarian and propagandist that it was about to ditch the weekly Workers' Action and replace it with an abstruse ultrapolemical magazine. But now they were in no position over the next two years to produce anything more than seven issues of a magazine very much oriented to intraleft polemic.

And, despite all that can be said about the incipient tendencies towards "lecturers' socialism" in what they wrote about the revolutionary party and the programme, the WP members of 1976 were IS/SWP activists from a period when the IS/SWP had some workingclass base and a vigorous (if econornistic) orientation to rankandfile industrial struggles. They saw themselves as, and generally speaking were, people who wanted to build struggles, not people to stand on the sidelines priding themselves on having the most ultrarevolutionary criticism.

Analysing the bleak prospects before them, we concluded that they would either become a satellite group of the IS/SWP or join the IMG (forerunner of Socialist Outlook and Socialist Action - but then a relatively large and lively organisation). We were wrong about that (though they did negotiate with the IMG, and the IMG made itself the spokesperson for their claims about the split being due to us being "bureaucratic") but we were not wrong about the unviability of other prospects.

They "sweated it out". A number of prominent people peeled away, but they kept going as a group and over the next few years mutated into an "orthodox Trotskyist" sect of the sort which you might expect to emerge as a splinter from the Healyite or the Spartacist tendencies.

We do not know the full inner history of this mutation, nor its precise connection with the fact that, over the 1980s, the active leadership of WP shifted from Hughes and Stocking to new people who had never been part of the pre1976 WP. Dave Hughes died, aged 43, in August 1991; Stocking is still alive and in WP, but apparently not central; however, the decisive "emotional lurches" in WP's politics were made when Hughes and Stocking were still its main leaders.

Three factors, however, seem important. First: the group shrivelled in the late 1970s, not just in body but also in mind and spirit. Over the years they adapted to the situation of being a sect, defined politically by hairsplitting and often contrived criticisms of other groups, and began to make a virtue of it.

Secondly: they came under great pressure from the Spartacist League, which "colonised" a number of experienced people from America and elsewhere in Britain in the late 1 970s and was for a while quite vigorous. The Spartacists "targeted" Workers' Power, attending all their meetings in force, constantly buttonholing them, battering them with criticisms and polemics (they recruited one core WP member, Charlie Shell). WP shifted politically to protect itself, to try to ensure that the Spartacists could never accuse them of not criticising reformists enough or not being antiimperialist or anti"revisionist" enough.

Thirdly: their evolution was driven partly by sheer venom against the ICL and Workers' Action, and then against its continuators, Socialist Organiser, the WSL, and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.

The degree and recklessness of that venom was shown in 1982 when, at the height of the first phase of the Labour Party witchhunt, they published WSL internal documents in the issue of their paper sold at Labour Party conference. John Golding then Labour's archwitchhunter, gleefully showed that copy of WP to our organiser John Bloxam as proof that he had "got" us. Hughes, when challenged about this, commented: "That's your problem".

Nevertheless, WP had split without any good reason to do so and probably without thinking it through. And when it came to justifying the split with ringing fullblast denunciations of us they were stymied by the fact that they had no major political differences other than the one on characterising the Stalinist states. On that they were unsure anyway, and in early 1980, three years after the split, they would turn into the sort of "workers'statists", backing Stalinist imperialism in Afghanistan, that we never were, and, given our commitment to the working class and the oppressed peoples caught in the maw of Stalinism, never could be.

When new issues emerged which offered scope for plausible differences - chiefly, our efforts to organise the Labour Left in 1978-81, the Russian troops in Afghanistan in 1979-80, and the Falklands war in 1982 (there were other issues before then, but they were small beer by comparison) - they seized on the issues and "improved" them by theoretical generalisation.

We were "capitulators" to Labourism, to imperialism, to revisionism; they were our opposites, the most ruthless (and sectarian) critics of any Labour Left movement, the most vehement antiimperialists (even if that meant endorsing the presence of Russian troops in Afghanistan conducting a genocidal war like the Americans in Vietnam, or the Argentine military junta's minicolonialism), and the most rigid orthodoxists (even if this meant mindnumbing contortions to explain why the systems spurned by the workers of Eastern Europe in favour of western type capitalism were "workers' states" after all).

This evolution has produced WP as we described in at the beginning of this introduction - a sort of composite of different strands of modern kitschTrotskyism, mixed in with a few ideas taken from us and given a sectarian twist (on the general strike, on Europe, on the "mass working-class-based women's movement", on trade-union rank-and-file movements, and on the Fourth International, for example).

This collection of extracts aims to help WP members and sympathisers to find a path to genuine Marxism; AWL members and sympathisers to see better why and how we broke from kitschTrotskyism; and anyone interested in the Trotskyist spectrum to understand it better.

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