Debate: what went wrong in the '70s

Submitted by Anon on 13 June, 2007 - 12:42

Martin Thomas replies to Sheila Cohen

For Tom Unterrainer, click here
For Martin Thomas, click here
For Sheila Cohen, click here

In Solidarity 3/111, Sheila Cohen defines the key fault of the left in the high days of industrial struggle as “failure to build a network out of the militancy and activism of the upsurge period that could have consciously worked out strategies based on two simple but crucial principles — class independence and rank and file membership involvement”.

Incongruously, she then repeats the praise given in her book Ramparts Of Resistance to the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, run by the Stalinistic, reformist Communist Party from 1966. It was good until it was “subordinated in the mid 1970s to the CP’s courting of left MPs and union leaders”.

The politics don’t matter at all? Sheila seems to say as much. “I joined IS in 1970 because of its ‘turn to the class’. Ever since then, I have been ‘turned’ to that class. Nothing much else, politically, has ever mattered to me”. So the politics with which we “turn to the class” — Stalinist or anti-bureaucratic, revolutionary or reformist — don’t matter?

Sheila seems to believe that if we only build a “network” of industrial activists “non-sectarian” enough, and fend off “politicism”, then ideas of class independence and so on will just well up naturally from workplace experience.

Yes, working-class experience tends to push workers towards socialism and working-class political self-assertion. But it is not just a matter of economic impulses impacting on workers’ brains which previously are blank slates.

When someone enters full-time work, they already have had 16 or more years of thinking, listening, reading, and filtering influences. They already have a world-view.

It may be incoherent and contradictory. A manual worker may well be less confident and fluent about expounding her or his world view than a professor.

But no worker is a blank slate, “moving” ideologically only Pavlov-dog-like in response to grievances on wages and conditions.

A revolutionary socialist organisation is an organised collective effort of study, discussion, and organised learning-from-experience, geared so that it can enter with sharper, clearer, more conscious ideas, and more confidence and energy, into the raucous dialogue in which workers respond to experiences, including experiences of struggle.

Everything depends on the outcome of that dialogue. As Lenin put it, “Catholic labour unions are also an inevitable result of the interaction of environment and elements, but it was the consciousness of priests and not that of socialists that participated in this interaction”.

Sheila's book expresses undiscriminating disdain for at all groupings of the revolutionary left of the 70s. However, her article suggests endorsement for one of those groupings. Not, oddly, the one that Sheila was in, Tony Polan’s “Discussion Group”, but the IS opposition grouping around Jim Higgins which was expelled in 1975 and briefly formed the Workers’ League.

Sheila praises the IS she joined in 1970 and the Rank and File Movement it initiated in 1974. In the same terms as Higgins, she blames the demise of that Rank and File Movement on “Cliff's eagerness to ‘build the party’.”

It needs explaining, then, why the Higgins group, despite having lots of talented people and experienced trade unionists, built absolutely nothing.

I’d say the reason was lack of politics: the fact that the late-1960s IS idea that the role of socialist organisation was to “link the fragments” of industrial militancy (without much politics) was, by the mid-70s, terminally inadequate.

There would be nothing shameful in Sheila writing that further thought has convinced her that the Discussion Group's disdain for workplace militancy was entirely wrong, and that all the other currents were faulty in that respect too — though obviously none of them as bad as the Discussion Group.

Though not in the least shameful — and perhaps compelling of attention for its sheer boldness — that explanation would of course be painful. I supposed that was why the blurb on Sheila's book was written so as to indicate that she had not been politically active before 1990.

But the debate takes a surreal twist with Sheila’s assertion that it is “inaccurate” to suppose that she has rejected her politics of the 1970s and 80s.

She writes that my account is “inaccurate”, but cites no inaccuracies. (If she was with the Discussion Group, then of course she wasn’t with any of the groups that split off from it. I don’t know what personal contact Sheila had with the WRP people who produced Labour Herald in the early 1980s; but I do know that the Discussion Group was heavily and prominently involved in the Herald; indeed, it was the major public activity of the Discussion Group’s entire existence).

But Sheila still holds to the Discussion Group’s ideas? How do you make sense of that? The only common ground I can see between the Discussion Group of the 70s and 80s, and the ultra-“economism” which Sheila propounds today is the disdainful attitude of both to left political activism.

Martin Thomas

• Longer version of this article:

p>• The “Discussion Group”:

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