Biblical scholars have, I understand, a terrible time of it working out what some of the long-vanished early Christian groups believed.
They have to rely on such chance survivals as the "Dead Sea Scrolls". Most of the rich history of the competing Christian groups is lost: the victorious Catholic Christians entwined with the Roman and later states from the early 4th century onwards, suppressed their opponents and left little trace of them and their beliefs except factional slanders and lies. Mostly we don't know what they believed.
If all the files of Socialist Organiser were to be destroyed and future historians of British socialism had to rely on the comments of our "socialist" contempories and critics, they would face a similarly hopeless task establishing what Socialist Organiser believed in.
Examples of grotesque misrepresentation are legion. Some are products of emotion blended with incomprehension. For instance, on issues of national or communal conflict, like those in Northern Ireland and in Israel/Palestine we base ourselves on the Marxist idea of consistent democracy, and take as our model the application of that idea by the Bolshevik party in the vicious cauldron of ethnic and national conflict in which they operated (and which is now bubbling furiously again: anybody on the left still capable of thinking about Ireland should look at the Catholic-Protestant conflict through the prism of events in Yugoslavia).
We reject the demonisation of Israeli Jews and Northern Ireland Protestants; we say there is right on both sides and that no national or ethnic group forfeits its right to exist because it is, for now, an oppressor or a would-be oppressor; we advocate mutual accommodation and a common struggle of the working class in the conflict-ridden peoples, based on support for the oppressed and mutual guarantees against fear of future oppression. Thus we propose a federal Ireland with local autonomy, and two states for the two peoples in Israel/Palestine.
Ignorant of the ideas of historical Marxism on questions like this; delirious with vicarious "Third Worldist" national and communal chauvinism distilled from sympathy with those presently oppressed; religious in denying that such peoples can ever be chauvinistic, the sectarian left denounce us as supporters of the oppressors, as "pro-imperialist", or as people who lack the moral fibre to withstand the pressure of... the Labour Party!
Thus the SWP, not just in offhand heated exchanges but in an official document written by junior guru Alex Callinicos, accuses us of supporting the Israeli state's terror in the West Bank and Gaza! They seem unable to comprehend what we are on about. Some of the incomprehension, no doubt, is our fault; but communication is a two-way enterprise.
Or take the Falklands war. We opposed that war. But we did not, like the "anti-imperialist" left (and much of the Labour left), support Argentina; nor did we dismiss the claimed rights to self-determination of the British population of the Falkland Islands, 400 miles from Argentina.
Since the Falklanders oppressed no-one, the islands were not a British base for oppressing anyone, and the British had been there 150 years, long before the modern Argentinian state existed, we saw no reason to back the claim to the islands of Argentina, which was then in the grop of the fascistic self-aggrandising junta who invaded the islands.
But we were, by any standards, against Thatcher's war of prestige and nostalgic gunboat imperialism. Throughout the war we carried on SO's masthead a variant of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg's slogan in World War I: "The enemy is at home". Yet ask any sectarian today, and you'll hear that SO did not oppose the Falklands (sorry, "Malvinas") war.
Then again: SO, which tries to be an open paper, carried an article by the then MP Reg Race advocating economic instead of military sanctions against Argentina. The same issue of SO opposed that idea editorially - on page one. Nevertheless the sectarians say, "SO called for economic sanctions". And so on.
All that sort of thing - and there is a vast bulk of it - is compounded from incomprehension mixed with malice and hysteria. And then there is the outright lying and falsification.
One of the worst examples is a pamphlet put out in 1970, and kept in circulation for over a decade, by the SLL/WRP. It alleged that Workers Fight (a grouping in which some of us now involved with SO were then active) supported the deployment of the British army in Northern Ireland.
It had a picture of British soldiers searching a man in Northern Ireland with his hands In the air, and the caption seemed to blame us, and me personally, for it! In fact Workers' Fight opposed the deployment of the troops in 1969 (though who was right and who was wrong in the debates of that time, and to what extent, is a complex question). When the SWP (then called IS) supported the deployment of troops, the Workers' Fight grouping inside IS organised an opposition to that policy and, after a heated campaign, forced them to reverse it.
I co-authored a pamphlet which helped change people's minds and went round the country speaking and debating on it; I moved the resolution at the IS National Committee in May 1970 which reversed the policy. Before that I had happened to be a member of the council which, between August and October 1969, ran Catholic Derry behind barricades to keep out the British Army. When the people now in John Hume's SDLP moved that we remove the barricades and let the British Army in peacefully, the local leaders of the left backed the motion - they felt we were in a complete impasse - and I moved the defeated motion of opposition to letting the British Army take over "Free Derry". My amendment rejected the right of the committee to liquidate "Free Derry", and proposed that the issue be put to a mass meeting of the people who lived there.
Later, the Workers' Fight group became the only British left group to have its headquarters raided by armed police in connection with Ireland (in September 1973: the WRP "college" was raided by police in 1975, after a member had complained about ill-treatment there).
But still, we, and myself in particular, were branded as supporters of the British Army in Northern Ireland in 1969, and we had a direct responsibility for what the British state was doing in Northern Ireland! Or so the WRP said.
Everyone knows that the Healy WRP were liars. But so is the IS/SWP. In the mid-70's SWPer David Widgery edited a Penguin book on The Left in Britain consisting almost entirely of old IS/SWP articles. In it he defined WF as a group which "proposed the repartition of Ireland". It was a lie.
It might be argued that some of the things we said then might - if X happened that way, and then Y this way - have led to a repartitioned Ireland. We did not advocate that, we did not want it, and nothing we proposed was meant by us to achieve that. Yet the story still circulates.
Or take this more recent example: during the Walton by-election an article in Socialist Organiser rejected Militant’s claim to be the political heirs of Eric Heffer.
“Rivers of blood” separated Heffer, the consistent anti-Stalinist, from Militant, wrote Anne Field. Militant “regards the now-collapsing Stalinist states as workers’ states and even supported the Soviet Union’s bloody occupation of Afghanistan” (Emphasis added; and there are examples other than Afghanistan of Militant’s enthusiasm for Stalinism, though none so terrible).
At least two publications have denounced Socialist Organiser for equating adherence to the theory that Stalinist states are “degenerated and deformed workers’ states” per se, with sharing responsibility for the Stalinist “rivers of blood”!
A broadsheet by the “Revolutionary Internationalist League” (RIL), given out at Labour Party conference, put the anti-Socialist Organiser canard like this: Socialist Organiser said “rivers of blood” lay between Eric Heffer and Militant because “they regard the East European states as deformed workers’ states”. Full stop! That would indeed be strange – and indeed very cur-like – since we ourselves were “workers’ statists” when we took the opposite view to that of Militant on Russia’s “Vietnam War” in Afghanistan!
RIL is on the extreme idiocy wing of kitsch Trotskyism (the same publication called on the – mainly Kinnockite – conference delegates to “disrupt” conference and force a way in for Nellist and Fields!)
The lie seems to have originated in the “Workers’ Press”, published by one of the saner splinters from Gerry Healy’s WRP. There the sentence from Anne Field appeared in full quotes, but with a full stop after “workers’ states” and the example of Militant's line on the invasion of Afghanistan simply lopped off, with no indication of a cut.
The author of the “Workers’ Press” effort was a certain Charlie Pottins, who used to lend his name – and his status as a Jew and a member of the all-too-tolerant Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) – to some of the foulest anti-Socialist Organiser polemics produced against us by the Healy WRP. Themselves subsidised by Arab governments – Iraq, Libya – and paid by them to spy on Arab dissidents and prominent Jews here, they used to have crazy articles accusing us of being in a “Zionist conspiracy” with Reagan and Thatcher!
(The episode, in passing, demonstrates with wonderful irony the advantages of principled Leninist politics over everything else on the left. The JSG is a rather strange and loose political group, organised round an ill-defined Jewishness rather than precise political ideas. Here, their a-political solidarity with Pottins meant that they allowed themselves to be used as camouflage for Healy's WRP, who were the paid agents of various Arab governments, agents whose brief included the task of spying on prominent Jews in Britain. A blinkered a-political self-definition as "Jewish" led these Jewish socialists into an unwanted - but, for the Healyites, very useful - association with mercenary anti-Semites who were nothing less than potential pogromists. The JSG may not recognise Leninist politics, but Leninist politics recognises the JSG!)
"Workers' Press" is sectarian and disoriented, but it has made strenuous efforts in the last 6 years to slough off the lying practices of Healy. So why this misrepresentation of Socialist Organiser? What purpose is served? Maybe they need to send Charlie Pottins back to the de-Healyisation centre, and preferably for life!
This great bog of myths, half-truths and lies, cynical or hysterical, of which I have surveyed a few patches here, testifies to the ideological decay of the left.
It presupposes a world of closed groups, the "Trotskyist" archipelago, with little dialogue or exchange of information between the inhabitants of the different atolls, and little desire or demand for it — a demand, on the contrary, for myths and lies and the sustaining half-truth, and a keen eagerness to believe stories that the people of the neighbouring island go around with their heads under their arms because their ears are three feet long. It testifies to a political world way below the standards of truth and objectivity of even the serious bourgeois newspapers. It presupposes a mental world where people don't want to know, or - and this is the point, I think - cannot afford to let themselves know if they are to sustain their commitment and their conviction. They cannot afford to let themselves think.
It is a world in which the citizens have lost the battle on the ideological front against bourgeois society, and have retreated into private political worlds of their own, hidden behind protective barriers of myths, lies and special pleading to protect them from the often painful choices of the real world. A healthy revolutionary socialist movement would engage critically and creatively with that real world, going out to take on the ideological battle rather than sheltering behind lies, myths, and demonisation of those who refuse to hide as they hide – who refuse to put their own political eyes out.
Socialist Organiser 505, 1 November 1991