I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade
Alan Seeger 1888-1916
Jim Higgins has written a witty and wise book about the dashed hopes of socialists in the 1960s and 1970s. In a cynical age, when we are told by such gurus of New Labour as Will Hutton that “socialism is dead,” it is worth recalling those clays of heady activism, mass demonstrations and latent working class power, when it seemed not only desirable but possible that British society could be remodelled in a truly democratic and egalitarian fashion. The need remains and it is worth pointing out to Mr Hutton and his ilk that the “socialism” they so earnestly despatch to the knacker’s yard comes in the twin form of social democracy and Stalinism, over which we shed no tears. In a vulgar, tawdry and increasingly squalid society, where millions live in deepening poverty, a minority stick their trotters and snouts in the privatised troughs and a manufacturing base is destroyed in a rush to base an economy on service industries and hamburger restaurants, the case for root and branch social change has never been greater.
The main purpose of Jim’s book is to paint a picture of the recent past in the hope that the mistakes of that period will not be repeated. Some readers will bridle at the caustic tone and harsh humour. But it must be stressed that the participants in the struggles recorded here made enormous self sacrifice for the movement and found themselves cast aside by “comrades” who did not give a fig for the distress they caused. Jim plays down his own central role in the events he describes but I recall how a man plucked from a key position in his trade union to become national secretary of the International Socialists was sidelined within less than a year, the victim of dishonourable, sectarian manoeuvring and back-stabbing. As a result of the bitter and unprincipled in-fighting within IS, a whole cadre of fine and committed people were lost to the cause of socialism, reduced to working at the margins of the struggle instead of being centrally involved.
It has been said many times that revolutions devour their children. Less attention has been paid to the ability of small revolutionary groups to ingest their offspring long before the first barricade has been built. The high hopes of the members of the International Socialists were smashed as the result of many factors: a lack of a coherent long-term strategy, wild changes of tack by Tony Cliff, with blatant disregard for democratic structures that would leave Tony Blair breathless with admiration, the advancement of placemen and opportunists at the expense of experienced members and a ruthless and savage demonising of opponents of the latest “line”.
The tragedy of what happened to IS is that it did not start out that way. As Jim graphically records, the early group was based upon a genuine comradeship and shared intellectual abilities. I had spent my formative years in Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League and was in urgent need of a political oil change and decoke when I joined IS. I was impressed and enthused by the wide-ranging, open debates, the lack of tin-pot dictators, the intellectual rigour of International Socialism, good humour and good beer after meetings and, above all, a decent humility about the potential of a group with just a few hundred members. What a difference from the later IS that drew the conclusion that its lack of success demanded not retrenchment and self-criticism but the absurd leap into the crassly named “mini mass party” of the SWP, with the expulsion of those who objected to the very type of “substitutionism” that the early IS had always ridiculed.
It is not just water under the bridge. The case for socialism remains unaltered. In reviewing and analysing the mistakes of the past, Jim Higgins’ aim is a simple one: to avoid those mistakes in the future, to hope that a younger generation will build a movement based upon democracy and tolerance, and, in so doing, will pick up our guttering torch and blow on the flame.
Last updated on 2.11.2003