I. S., the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, and the I S "Turn to Industry": After October (1968)

Submitted by AWL on 2 June, 2014 - 1:29

Rachel Matgamna, a member of the Trotskyist Tendency (forerunner of AWL), in International Socialism magazine (winter 1968-9), calling for an effort to turn the young activists mobilised over Vietnam to the working class.

This article was published soon after the Workers' Fight group merged into IS (forerunner of the SWP), and - by explicit agreement with the IS leadership - reorganised as the Trotskyist Tendency in IS. Later the IS leadership would be less willing to print articles by members of the tendency.

The call for Vietnam activists to turn to the working class was one of the major planks which allowed IS to grow rapidly at the time.

VSC: After October

International Socialism 35 (magazine of the IS-SWP at the time), winter 1968-9

Novelty-seekers are declaring that after October 27th ‘VSC is dead’. Overwhelmed by the vast numbers and befuddled (perhaps even let down) by the lack of ‘incident’, many recalled the death of CND and drew an obvious but superficial parallel. CND used to have big. peaceful demonstrations; VSC has just had a massive, non-violent demonstration.CND died. Therefore VSC will... QED.

Not quite. As well as similarities, there are serious differences between the two movements. The lack of violence - conditional anyway on lack of police provocation - was the result of a conscious tactical decision rather than an immutable principle. (Whether that particular tactic was the one designed to make the most of the possibilities is a different question.) The main feature in common - that of a mass movement - is actually the best feature CND could ever boast. And this, though naturally a fragile thing in any but a revolutionary period, was not in itself the reason for CND’s demise.

The real reason lay in CND’s illogical and untenable political position: it attacked the defences which are fundamentals to capitalism's survival. but declined to struggle against capitalism itself. Indeed, most of its leading spokesmen completely accepted the continuation of the capitalist system, and confined themselves to protesting one of its effects. Thus, though it got a somewhat slippery foothold in the labour movement (thanks to the existence then of a left ’ reformist current) it didn't even attempt to link up with the struggles already taking place every day against the nuclear system: the struggles of the working class. CND was a predominantly middle-class, one-issue campaign which deliberately turned its back on any other struggle and thus failed to win to it the working class.

VSC is somewhat different. Its slogan from the beginning has been support for a.revolutionary anti-imperialist movement. It has always seen this struggle as part of a world-wide fight, linking it up readily with other ‘Third World’ struggles (including those of black America) and rather less readily with those of the working class of this country. The attitude on the latter has varied: from the ‘Vietnam is hitting you, too’ line of propaganda, to the solidarity position that the NLF are actually fighting for us, fighting our enemies;

Even so. VSC has remained determinedly fixed to one issue. And this single-issue aspect of the movement, though at the beginning it may have been its strength, now threatens to become its major weakness. It is not entirely the fault of VSC that this should be so: but if it is to consolidate its position in the present situation, there must now be a radical change of direction.

Though many people come into revolutionary politics via a single issue, that issue alone is rarely sufficient to maintain anyone in politics. The Vietnam war is no exception. Its horror, its drama, the heroism of the NLF, have attracted tens of thousands of young people into their first political action. The militancy and elan of the past demonstrations made sure that it was VSC, and not one of the peace groups. that gained their support. But those who initially see only Vietnam can, given not only VSC’s correct political stance but also a suitable organisational framework, move very rapidly on to other issues and develop into socialists playing their part in a long-term struggle against capitalism (including also giving continued and deepened solidarity to the NLF). If they do not have the opportunity for this development, most of them will not last long in the Vietnam movement either: even if they do their activity will tend to become less meaningful. They are certainly unlikely to be so committed as to undertake regular and responsible work, which is a far cry from coming on a single - and well-publicised - demonstration.

Neither are all those who act for the first time necessarily only concerned about Vietnam. According to the survey made by New Society, 68 per centof those who demonstrated were against capitalism in general. This to some extent contradicts the theory that VSC has grown so much because it concentrated on just one issue. In fact it seems more complex than that. To some extent, in the great vacuum that exists through the utter uselessness of the old- established Labour left. VSC has actually substituted for a general, wide left.

In a. situation of chronic difficulties for British capitalism and an international ferment among student youth, a mass of young people are moving into opposition to the system. In the absence of a large party militant enough to attract them, they have turned out in thousands for the big demonstrations on Vietnam.

In this situation a newcomer to socialist politics is given little choice. He can be active in a limited way on the Vietnam issue. or. if he wants to widen the field of his activity. must make the leap into the strange, and perhaps forbidding, land of the revolutionary groups, sects or aspirant parties. To date, though many have reached this ‘other shore’, they are still a minute proportion of the supporters of VSC. A far. far higher proportion, denied the opportunity to be active on a wide series of issues in a broad revolutionary movement, very quickly tire of one-issue politics and disappear, perhaps via the (essentially temporary) field of student politics.

If VSC is now to survive, and if these new people are to be permanently involved, it must do more than organise bigger and better demos, good public meetings or imaginative local activities. What it is faced with is the need for a complete change of character. If it owes even a small part of its success to the default of a broad revolutionary left, then it must begin to play the part of such a left; or at any rate help it into existence. It can no longer leave it to chance whether the people attracted to it will develop politically or fade away. Many of the local ad hoe committees which came together to organise for the big demonstration are a ready-made framework for the undertaking of action on a broad variety of issues. There is a pressing need for good, united action against a whole range of Government policies, for the co-ordination of the at-present fragmented struggles of the industrial workers, the students, the immigrants, the tenants, etc. It is time that such a general socialist opposition was organised. and time that the thousands of young people coming to politics had a chance to be active in such an opposition.

That is not to say that Vietnam is no longer relevant, that vocal solidarity . is no longer necessary. It is to say. that. in the framework of a general socialist movement, the cause of solidarity will be aided and consolidated enormously. The working-class support which we tried to enlist by emphasising international class solidarity will far more'easi1y be wan to initial struggle on the political issues that directly - impinge on the life of the British class. And - no less important - such a movement would enable the middle- class youth moved initially on Vietnam to shed some of the limitations of their class background and enlist in the struggle for the workers’ revolution.

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