A tragedy of the left: Socialist Worker and its splits

Submitted by dalcassian on 3 September, 2013 - 1:11
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Abridged introduction

How did the Trotskyist left in Britain come to be scattered and divided into hostile and competing groups? At the root the divisions are a product of the repeated defeats and the continuing marginalisation of revolutionary socialism.

Small groups - and the biggest of the groups in Britain, the SWP, is still a small group - groups without implantation in the working class, have little power of cohesion when strong political divisions emerge. When members of a small organisation whose raison d'etre is propaganda for certain ideas begin to disagree, especially on some emotion-charged issue, then there is little motive for the minority not to break away. Little or no disruption of work follows division; there is no coercion available to the majority except persuasion or moral pressure; in practice the majority is often keen to be shot of the minority; and the minority, given will and determination, can set up a new organisation making more congenial propaganda.

The existing groups are not parties, whatever they call themselves. They are nowhere near being able to play the role of parties vis-a-vis the working class or the existing bourgeois system. This is as true of the biggest groups as of the smallest. The groups are factions, not parties. These are the structural reasons for the state of things on the left. There are, however, turning points in the history shaped by these basic conditions. The collapse in 1949-50 of the RCP, a group into which almost all British Trotskyists had been united for some five years, produced what became the Militant, the SWP, and the Healy WRP.

The next such "turning point" can be dated exactly: 4 December 1971. On that day the International Socialism (IS) group (which later became the SWP) held a special conference at which, by a vote of roughly 60-40, a motion from the National Committee was carried "de-fusing" IS and an organised tendency inside IS, Workers' Fight, which had fused with IS three years earlier.

Almost in passing the conference outlawed all groupings in IS which had differences with the leadership across the board and not just on special issues. That is now how it was phrased, but that is what it meant, as those critics of the leadership who tried to stay in the organisation soon found out in the years following the "de-fusion" of Workers' Fight on 4 December 1971.

The conference decision produced immediately - we were expelled! - Workers' Fight Mark 2, forerunner of today's Alliance for Workers ' Liberty and Socialist Organiser. In early 1973 a group which soon became the RCP and RCG was expelled. In 1975 the IS regime set up on 4 December 1971 purged a sizeable chunk of the cadre and leadership of IS as it had been on 4 December 1971! That "IS Opposition" soon disintegrated.

4 December 1971 was the point at which IS changed radically, and set off down the road to becoming what it is today, a caricature "toy-town Bolshevik" party.

How did IS get to that stage, having, for 20 years before 4 December 1971, devoted much of its energy to denouncing this sort of politics? After the RCP broke up in 1949-50, the Healy group was a serious organisation. The other two ex- RCP groups, the future Militant and SWP, were tenuous enterprises at best. The group around Cliff began in 1950 with about 70 people (the figure comes from one of the group's then joint secretaries) and published Socialist Review, a small duplicated (later printed) monthly, which lasted until 1962. When an anthology of articles by the group was put together in 1965, the editor explained that no articles before 1957 were weighty enough to merit reproduction, and he was not wrong. Reading a file of the paper you are left wondering why they bothered, or, bothering, why they did not make more of an effort. The paper made stodgy general socialist propaganda with a strong pacifist tinge to it. The group's central leader, Tony Cliff, was writing studies on the USSR satellites and on Mao's China, but they were books obviously written for the academic market.

The group seems to have had little life to it, and declined slowly through the '50s. They sold the magazine of the US Shachtman group, which did have intellectual life to it, but was slowly moving away from Leninist ideas. By 1958, when the Healy group had grown into a considerable organisation, recruiting hundreds from the CP after the Russian suppression of the Hungarian revolution, the Socialist Review group numbered 20. So disgruntled with their existence did they become that a gathering of the group decided, with only two votes against - Tony Cliff and his wife, Chanie Rosenberg - to try to fuse with the Healy group (nothing came of it. Source: T. Cliff).

The decay was not just organisational. In 1950 the group subscribed to all the ideas of Leninism, differing from other Trotskyists only on their characterisation of the USSR. A decade later, they did not seem to know quite what they were.

Cliff, in his big pamphlet on Rosa Luxemburg, published in 1959, said that Lenin's ideas on organisation were not suitable for West European conditions. The group was a loose and variegated federation of individuals, with an incoherent and ill-defined but distinctive libertarian tinge to it, combined with a seeming commitment to the idea of an organic ripening towards socialism by the existing mass working class movement: the job of the revolutionary, said Cliff in Luxemburg, was to stay with organisations like the Labour Party all the way through until the socialist revolution.

An attempt to build any sort of Leninist organisation, said Cliff, even one like the SLL in 1959, which continued to work in the Labour Party, was just "toy-town Bolshevism". Polemical opposition to the Healyites' increasing emphasis on the "revolutionary party" lent momentum and emphasis to the Socialist Review group's evolution on this question.

When, from 1960, the group began to grow, recruiting youth, what grew was this federalist, vaguely libertarian, vaguely social-democratic, explicitly anti-Leninist hodgepodge. In the middle 1960s Cliff would, when talking to Leninist critics, tell us that "IS is centrist" [i.e.. half-revolutionary, half-reformist], though he himself, he insisted, was a Bolshevik. The others, such as Michael Kidron, had no "Fourth Internationalist background", but he, Cliff, had, and that was why he remained a Bolshevik despite the group's "centrism"!

His writings said otherwise, and so did the group he (and his writings) had built, but he meant it, and it was important for the future. The mistake of his critics - and of some of his supporters - was to take seriously what he wrote polemically and sometimes speculatively, or to serve as ideological buttressing for what he wanted to do at a given moment, when in fact he would casually ditch or re-write such arguments when external pressure, new opportunities or sheer caprice led him to want the opposite.

That would happen in the late '60s.

And yet, when all is said and done, the Socialist Review/IS group seemed the most hopeful organisation on the left by the early or middle 1960s. The Healy organisation, the SLL, was still much bigger, but rigidly Stalinist in structure, more and more destructively sectarian, and held in an unbreakable grip by men-in the first place Healy-who were going mad politically (and not only politically). By contrast, Cliff's group was alive, ostentatiously committed to maintain the freedom and the duty of its members to think for themselves, and led by people, in the first place Tony Cliff, who had not yet let their minds become pickled and petrified by dogmatism and the fear-based pseudo-political religiosity which saturated the SLL and made the rank and file of the SLL helpless against the whims of their all-controlling popes and cardinals.

More: in the 1950s Cliff would probably have said that he was trying to recast, redevelop, and refocus the fundamental ideas of the Lenin-Trotsky tradition in the new and unexpected conditions of a post-war world dominated by capitalist stabilisation and growth, and by Stalinist expansion in the more backward parts of the world. In his analysis of the USSR and of East Europe and China, and in the early editions of the International Socialism magazine (after 1960), he had tried to tackle some of this work. What went wrong?

What went wrong ultimately was that he lost heart and lapsed back into the sort of caricature "Leninism" he then despised. What went wrong also was the quality of Cliff's theoretical work, and Cliff's method of work: it was this, I think, which, buoyed up by the conditions of that time, led him to abandon all such concerns after 1968.

Any such theoretical re-working, re-elaboration and development of the Lenin-Trotsky tradition, such as Cliff set out to do in the '40s and '50s, is either freelance work which may, one day, help build a socialist organisation, or work done in conjunction with continuing to build an organisation. If the latter, then the other basic ideas and norms of the movement must be stubbornly held on to and defended while the problem areas are tackled and dismantled, or else everything is let go to pot and to seed-as the Cliff group went to seed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Much of Cliff's work never got beyond hints and half-thoughts. For example, he wrote an important article on the question of "substitutionism" - the fact of the Bolshevik party's progressive substitution of itself for the working class when the Russian Revolution became isolated - to mark the 20th anniversary of Leon Trotsky's death (an article heavily indebted to Isaac Deutscher's second volume on Trotsky, "The Prophet Unarmed", published 18 months earlier). This was a variant of the question: did Bolshevism generate Stalinism? Was the Bolshevik party's method of organisation a distinct and independent cause of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution? (This was a favourite thesis of "left" critics of the Bolsheviks).

Cliff - as the discussion in one of the articles in this collection establishes - did not manage to answer the question clearly one way or another, but, by hints and half-thoughts, he said, yes, Bolshevik organisational methods did contribute to the development of Stalinism, or may have done. But he did not decisively leave the ground of Bolshevism and take up position on another ground: he kept a foot in both camps - while building an organisation sharply committed to the idea that any sort of "Leninist party", any sort of "leadership", leads to "substitutionism".

And Cliff's theory of state capitalism was not a theory of state capitalism at all, as both state capitalism and capitalism had been theretofore understood by Marxists! Cliff locates the state capitalist character of the USSR's economy not in exchange values, or in any economic relationships at all, but in the competition of the Stalinist system with the West over the - potential - use values of the arms produced by the rival US-led and USSR-led blocs. He crammed a society which, by his own description, is not capitalist, but a new form of society, neither capitalist nor socialist, into a confused collage of labels taken from historic-real-capitalist formations. Subjectively and arbitrarily he argued that the USSR was capitalist as a result of something-use value competition-common to every economy throughout history.

And the place of Cliff's "state capitalism" in history? He vehemently denies as against the workers' state theories - and against Max Shachtman's bureaucratic collectivism - that this system is "post-capitalist". Yet he himself defines it as at the very end, at the last extremity, of capitalist development before socialism. He was right against those who believed that Stalinism was some sort of "post-capitalism". But, in placing state capitalism at the very end of capitalist development, he was almost as wrong as them, almost as far away from the truth, about the place of Stalinism in history. And that is the decisive question for Marxists, underlying the dispute about labels.

One tip-off, unmistakeable in itself, as to the quality of Cliff's work, was his treatment, in his study of Russia, of the ideas of Leon Trotsky. He does not really come to grips with what Trotsky is saying.

His "exposition" of Trotsky's ideas is a shoddy travesty, in fact a disloyal travesty. Instead of coming to grips with what Trotsky really says, which would have been one way of going forward theoretically, Cliff chose instead to polemicise against straw men on whom he put a mask with Trotsky's face. Serious work would have had to take Trotsky seriously, especially when refuting his ideas.

Much of Cliff's work is crude economic statistics-gathering passed off as politics (in the same way, I suppose, as his party's numbers-gathering to "build the party" is passed off now as politics). In his writings on the Middle East, for example, from the 1940s onwards, Cliff focuses more on the price of Middle East oil than on the issues motivating and dividing Jews and Arabs. That was his approach even when his political conclusions were closer to ours than to his own position today (that the Israeli Jewish nation does not have a right to exist) - see, for example, his pamphlet on the June 1967 war.

Cliff uses statistics and quotes like a Stalinist - to back up a preconceived thesis or objective. Thus, when he decided to be a "Leninist" again in 1968, he simply re-wrote a paragraph in the Luxemburg pamphlet, with neither explanation for the change nor even reworking of the exposition leading up to the changed conclusion. He was convinced now that Lenin had been right on the question of the party as against Rosa Luxemburg (and as against the Cliff of 1959!) He never explained himself even when visibly embarrassed and under pressure at internal meetings from people like the present writer. How or why he changed his mind remained a close secret. All the observer could know was that Cliff, the scourge of "toytown Bolshevism", had switched tracks "back to Lenin".

Cliff's attempt in the 1950s and '60s to reanalyse reality led not to disciplined constructive development, or enhancement of the traditions or positions that the Socialist Review group started out with in 1950, but to the group's decay and disintegration both politically and organisationally in the 1950s, and then, in the 1960s, to incoherent political and organisational zig-zags. Cliff the "Bolshevik" found himself at the centre of a middle-class academic-student discussion club trained in anti-Leninism; then in 1968 he took a flying leap backwards, declared himself to be a Leninist again - and set about restructuring the organisation on centralist lines.

The group had grown rapidly in the mid-'60s, recruiting vaguely libertarian youth. It started a turn to the working class in 1965 around a pamphlet on the Labour government's incomes policy written by Colin Barker and Tony Cliff. Then came the youth revolt, and the giant demonstrations against the Vietnam War. IS grew steadily. To grow during the anti-Vietnam War movement they had to radically change the position which had differentiated them from the workers' statist Trotskyists in 1950 on the Korean War.

In 1950 they had refused to take sides in the Korean war; now they joined the chants of praise to Ho Chi Minh on demonstrations against the Vietnam war.

By 1967, when the youth upsurge was already under way, the Labour Party left had collapsed. IS pulled out of the Labour Party, raggedly. Cliff, who used ideas as buttresses and counters, hastened to produce the necessary rationalisation. He wrote articles for their paper (renamed Socialist Worker, having been Labour Worker since 1962) proving that Labour had never been socialist in the first place! As if that was ever the reason why Trotskyists were in it! Keir Hardie, he now discovered, was a fake.

The decisive change governing all the changes in the group, and probably spurring Cliff's re-thinking, was the astonishing political suicide of the Healy SLL, which had overshadowed IS and against which much of IS's anti-Bolshevism was directed. In the late 1960s the SLL started to go mad.

It responded to the big anti-Vietnam war demonstration in October 1968, at which there were over 100,000 people, with a leaflet which explained "Why the SLL is not marching". The march, it said, was a conspiracy set up by the capitalist press to boost the prestige of the march's organisers on the left at the expense of the great Marxist leaders of the SLL.

The possibilities for growth facing IS, already now having some hundreds of members, mainly young enthusiastic middle class people, were dazzling in these circumstances.

The barrier to growth was the loose, messy federalist organisation built by people educated by Cliff to equate any centralised small revolutionary group with "toy-town Bolshevism'' and "substitutionism". That now stood in Cliff's way. But not for long!

Early in 1968 Cliff and his close friends came out for "Leninism", and conducted a campaign that lasted for the rest of the year to "centralise" IS. It was an astonishing change. Many of Cliff's previous supporters denounced him as a traitor to libertarian socialism! Lots of them left.

Others left the group for other reasons: an important group of workers in Manchester left in protest of IS's denunciation of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia!

The "de-fusion" conference of 4 December 1971 was the culmination of a long process of ''tightening up" the IS group. The organisation was growing, the class struggle was burgeoning. A stroppy democratic organisation inhibited the leadership, and constricted its room to manoeuvre.

So Cliff and his friends began to substitute themselves and the leading committee for the organisation. In 1971 it was still a volatile organisation, with many new members who did not know its history even two years back. It became necessary for Cliff (and with him the people who now publish Catalyst) to maintain prestige by, for example, denying that IS had ever had any other position than calling for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, when in fact Socialist Worker had made propaganda in support of the good work of the troops when they were first put on the streets, in August 1969.

The issue that brought it all to a head was the European Community. Britain was due to join the EC in January 1972, after much hesitation. All the revolutionary left groups had initially refused to take sides with either of the ruling-class factions, for or against EC entry. IS journal had said this in 1963, when Britain had previously attempted to join. "In or out of the Common Market, the problems facing the British labour movement are likely to be very much the same. Indeed the point is that the issues facing us are more similar to those facing European and American workers than at any time in the past 40 years". Even the Healyites had said: "What in fact has happened is that labour and trade union 'personalities' and journals have found themselves quite naturally taking sides on the question: what is best for British capitalism? In most cases that is not surprising, but it exposes the misleadership or lack of leadership of both the Right wing and the Tribune and other Lefts..."

But the Communist Party (following USSR foreign policy), the trade union bureaucrats (comfortable in their cosy coexistence with the institutions of the British state), and the Tribune left (reflecting both the latter), all came out against the EC. Narrow and obtuse British nationalism was what their attitudes came down to.

After initially treating the nationalist left with contempt, the revolutionary groups bent under its pressure and, for fear of isolation from the workers influenced by the nationalist left, changed their positions, one after the other. They used slogans like "the Socialist United States of Europe" as a deodorant to cover the nationalist smell. IS was the last to jump on the anti-EC bandwagon. It voted overwhelmingly at its 1970 conference against a proposal to oppose Common Market entry. At Easter 1971 a motion putting the same position - ambiguously worded in places, but presented and argued for as reiterating the position of previous years - was again overwhelmingly carried.

By June 1971, however, the IS leaders began to face the problem that the vocal militants in the labour movement influenced by the CP, by the Labour left, and by general chauvinism, were against the Common Market and would not take kindly to IS or anyone else who told them they should not be. Tony Cliff, a gifted intuitive politician, produced, with Chris Harman, Theses on the Common Market.

Those Theses argued, falsely, that Common Market entry represented an especial threat to the working class, but did not challenge the 1971 Conference position in principle. They were concerned with how, tactically, to relate to the anti-Market left. They proposed that IS members should put the old Trotskyist case, but "vote with the left". A substantial minority of the National Committee, including Workers' Fight members, opposed the Theses, but they were accepted.

Thereafter there was a rapid slide downhill. A longstanding position having been overturned under cover of jesuitical "reinterpretation" of the 1971 resolution, and the NC having been persuaded to authorise "flexibility" in voting, the leadership now had the bit between its teeth. Within a month, Duncan Hallas, the most supple-spined and least fastidious of the IS leadership, and then its National Secretary, was making propaganda in Socialist Worker in favour of "No to the Common Market".

Workers' Fight challenged the IS leaders' right to behave like that. We demanded a special conference. We needed support from one-fifth of the IS branches to get a recall conference - 23 branches. We got 23 - but no conference. The National Committee put an arbitrary deadline beyond which branches could not declare for the recall conference. The Executive Committee admitted to 22 branches endorsing our call. From the 23rd branch the National Secretary denied receiving notification. He was lying or the secretary of the branch was lying, and if we ask who gained, the balance of probability tips decisively against the EC.

Thereafter the IS/SWP echoed and sometimes amplified the chauvinist "broad left" rejection of European unity. Today, a mere 20 years later, faced with an anti-European furore led by Margaret Thatcher, SW has swung back, and on Europe now sounds like Socialist Organiser.

The argument against a special conference in 1971 was that it would take time and effort that could ill be spared-though our proposal had been that one day of a weekend rally already scheduled for October 1971 be organised as a special conference. The IS leaders were soon to find time not only for a special conference, but for a six week campaign to prepare for it. Its purpose was to eject the Workers' Fight tendency from IS.

The leading tendency, controlling the organisation by machine manipulation and demagogy, could no longer - so the experience of the fight on the Common Market convinced them - afford the luxury of free discussion and free debate. They had decided to grip the organisation firmly by the throat, and in the first place they gripped us by the throat. They called it "de-fusing", as if it were reversing the fusion of Workers' Fight and IS in 1968, though not more than one in six of the 1971 members of Workers' Fight had joined IS in that fusion. The campaign to expel Workers' Fight was the last dying kick of the effervescent, anarchic IS of the 1960s. If you discount the slanders, demagogy, distortion of positions, and unscrupulous use of the IS machine, it was all quite liberal. When we pointed out the inexorable logic of what was happening, and the qualitative transformation that must follow, the immediate facts seemed to contradict us. The experience of IS/SWP since does not, alas, contradict us!

Workers' Fight was duly "de-fused" on 4 December 1971. On 14 January 1972, Workers' Fight no. 1 appeared. A short statement on the separation of WF from IS concluded as follows: "The real tragedy, though, is that the opportunities for the revolutionary left which existed in 1968 should have led only to the consolidation of a tightly controlled left-centrist sect, which is most certainly what IS now is".

Organisations change: few have changed as spectacularly as Cliff's. Today the SWP has one central answer to more or less every question posed in politics: "build the Leninist revolutionary party". It must seem strange to anyone familiar only with the present-day SWP to read the first document in this collection, dating from Easter 1969, a criticism of the Cliff tendency for its longstanding anti-Leninism.

Yet those criticisms are central to any explanation of the evolution of the group after it declared itself Leninist. As the document proves, and as the subsequent history also proves, in i968 Cliff and company did not in fact set about building a Leninist party, but merely creating a centralised small political machine. They did not know what a Leninist party was then any more than they had known what it was in all the preceding years when they had identified Gerry Healy's sect with Leninism and denounced Leninists as "toytown Bolsheviks".

Today the SWP is a largely de-politicised political machine. "Build the party", its central all-purpose slogan, is not politics. A party is merely an instrument of politics, it cannot be a substitute for politics. The 1969 "Critique of Cliff" explained in advance why this would be so. It pinpointed the central weakness of the whole new "Leninist" project Cliff and company had taken up, and linked it with their radically false view of what a Leninist party was.

It also, albeit cryptically, criticised the IS/SWP's approach to the Labour Party. " 'Whether the IS group will by simple arithmetic progression grow into a revolutionary party, or whether the party will grow from a yet unformed group, is not important for us' (Political Committee document, October 1968). On the contrary, it is vital. If the strategy is one which expects any big changes from the shift to come in the already organised labour movement (all experience in the past suggests that this is the likely way a real mass revolutionary movement will develop in a country like Britain) rather than by arithmetical accretion, then this decrees the need for us to build a cadre movement to be able to intervene..."

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