Duncan Hallas

Centrist Currents

(February 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.75, February 1975, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Socialist Register 1974,
Edited by Ralph Miliband and John Saville.
Merlin £2.

‘ALL is flux, nothing stays still’ said Heracleitus, but, as he might have added, some things stay much stiller than others. The Register, in spite of the enormous changes in the world since its first appearance in 1964,’is still very much what it has always been. It has ‘managed to straddle the divide between reform and revolution on the one hand and Stalinism (or rather sophisticated defences of Stalinism) and anti-Stalinism on the other’ as the reviewer of the 1971 number remarked in this journal. This is equally true of the 1974 issue, indeed of every one of the eleven issues to date. The Register is a classically centrist publication, neither reformist nor revolutionary, consistent only in its evasiveness, neither fish nor flesh nor fowl nor good red herring.

Yet it is not the publication of a centrist movement. What purpose does it serve then? Why does it continue to appear?

‘... the Socialist Register is, in part, the latest instance of another form of adaption,’ wrote Peter Sedgewick in IS31 ‘that of the left academic who is trying to ride the horse of his specialism at the same time as he sports Karl Marx’s colours. The first noticeable feature of the volumes of this annual is the slightly prissy, subdued flavour of nearly all the titles of the essays. This arises because the considerable time and energy spent in writing them may have to be justified to departmental colleagues or seniors and their names may well be included in a list of published works submitted in application for a research grant or a job. (How do I know? Guess).’

Cruel but probably true of a good many Register contributors. At the same time the Register has often included the odd piece written from a consistently revolutionary point of view. This present volume includes one of outstanding value, a thoroughly researched and devastatingly effective critique of the Institute of Workers’ Control by Richard Hyman.

If, in the near future, any substantial centrist movement with a working class base were to develop (and as the crisis deepens such a thing is not at all excluded), then the IWC is one obvious source of its ideology. ‘In so far as there exists an ‘orthodoxy’ of the IWC, its principal exponents are unquestionably Ken Coates, Tony Topham and Michael Barnett Brown’ writes Hyman.

Unlike the centrists who produce the Register, these three left academics have a material base ‘it (the Coates group – DH) is also closely involved with the Bertrand Russell Foundation with which the IWC shares an office and a secretary,’ and an extensive network of trade union connections from Ernie Roberts and Brian Nicolson right through to Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones.

Ken Coates, the driving force of the IWC, left the Communist Party in 1957 or thereabouts (on the issue of Russian repression of the Hungarian revolution). He became one of the main leaders of the ‘Trotskyist’ group that produced The Week, forerunner of Black Dwarf, Red Mole and Red Weekly. The Week like Gerry Healey’s Socialist Outlook, a decade and a half earlier, was one of those clever ‘broad left’ publications which carried contributions from all manner of ‘left’ MPs and trade union officials but which was controlled by a tightly knit group of undeclared ‘revolutionaries’.

Such ventures come, inevitably, to a crisis at some stage or another. In the case of The Week the crisis came in the middle sixties when Ken Coates’ mentor Ernest Mandel, abandoned his structural reform strategy for transforming capitalism (see, e.g. Mandel, A Socialist Strategy for Western Europe, IWC pamphlet No.10) in favour of the ‘New Youth vanguard’, (see, e.g. Mandel, The Revolutionary Student Movement, Pathfinder Press 1969).

This turn produced a split in the inner circle controlling The Week. Some followed the pied piper of Brussels into ‘youth vanguardism’ and founded the IMG; others, most notably Ken Coates, remained attached to what they regarded as a ‘working class’ orientation, in reality an orientation towards the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy, and to ‘structural reformism’.

The IWC functions as the vehicle for the politics of this latter group. It’s role, according to Ken Coates, is:

‘... to act as a research and educational body, to coordinate discussion and communication between workers’ control groups and trade unions, to provide lists of speakers and to publish important material on the subject of industrial democracy and workers’ control.’

For ‘trade unions’ read ‘leftist trade union leaders’ and you are nearer the mark; ‘from the outset’ notes Hyman ‘a major objective of the IWC has been the cultivation of left-wing leaders as vice-presidents of the Institute, speakers at its conferences, and authors of its pamphlets.’ Take what you want, goes the Arab proverb, take it and pay for it. The price of the tolerance of Hugh Scanlon, Laurence Daly, Danny McGarvey and Jack Jones (all prominent IWC supporters at various times) is the castration of any real struggle for workers control, not least for workers control of their own unions! Above all, it involves avoiding genuine rank and file movements like the plague.

Not that our hero’s are entirely uncritical of the union lefts. ‘Occasionally such actions (sell-outs by ICW linked leaders – DH) are noted with regret in the Institutes’ own publication ... yet criticism presented in any but the most muted and apologetic fashion is liable to be denounced as sectarian, as character-assassination or as an attack, on the very institution of trade unionism’. Exactly.

Hyman shows in detail how the policies advocated by the IWC (‘open the books’, the ‘control bargain’ and so on) in its publications (‘38 pamphlets, a bulletin ... and two symposia’) are adapted to ‘the tactical requirements of the goodwill of influential labour leaders.’

It is only necesary to add that the IWC’s practise is even worse than its precept. To refer only to the most infamous example; at its ‘Eighth Extraordinary Conference’ in October 1970, which was convened specifically to discuss the fight against the impending Industrial Relations Act, the IWC leadership resisted an attempt to call on the 1203 delegates ‘to win the support of their organisations and work places for the call for a day of industrial action on 8 December made by the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions.’ Such a step, it was said, ‘might divide the movement’! (In the event the call was carried in spite of the IWC Council’s attempt to prevent a vote).

Centrism is a very variegated thing. Centrists come in all colours of the rainbow as Trotsky once said. It is conceivable that, in the development of a mass revolutionary party, some of the left centrists of the Miliband type will be won to revolutionary politics. It is inconceivable that the Coates-Topham-Barrett-Brown-IWC axis will ever be more than a left face for sections of the trade union bureaucracy and its political counterparts.


Last updated on 19.10.2006