Duncan Hallas

The Making of a Myth


Book review, Socialist Review 9, February 1979, pp.35-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Martin Shaw has written a lengthy (45-page) article, The Making of a Party? (Socialist Register 1978), in which he gives his interpretation of the development of the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party) up to 1976.

It is a very peculiar, indeed, as I shall argue, an extremely perverse interpretation. But first the reader of The Making of a Party? should note that Martin’s attitude to verifiable facts is, to say the least; a trifle contemptuous. Many of the “facts” he so confidently states are simply non-facts.

Thus “the first attempt to float the Socialist Workers Party” did not come “at the end of 1975” as he says. It was proposed and debated on the IS national committee as early as 1971.

Nor was the name presented “as a fait accompli never put up for discussion for the membership”. It was presented for discussion, was indeed debated and was finally carried at a national delegate meeting in December 1976 against an alternative proposal that enjoyed the support of such not-unknown IS members as Paul Foot, Tony Cliff and John Deason.

Nor was the Right to Work Campaign sprung by a “virtually monolithic” central committee on an unsuspecting membership as Martin tells us. On the contrary, the proposal came from a section of the membership, specifically from the southwest London district, whose representatives, led by Sandra Peers, convinced the delegates at a national council meeting in the autumn of 1975 that the time was ripe for such a campaign.

Such factual corrections, each one perhaps trivial enough in itself, could be multiplied almost at will. A systematic correction of Martin’s non-facts would make a lengthy article. It will not be attempted here, since I am concerned primarily with the arguments of The Making of a Party? One general point, however, must be made.

Martin Shaw has made use of two articles written by Ian Birchall on the history of IS, which appeared in International Socialism 76 and 77. He acknowledges his debt in a number of venomous footnotes, which seek to cast doubt on Birchall’s integrity and judgement.

Now this is a little unkind of Martin. Much of the superficial plausibility, at any rate to the casual reader, of his own account derives from his use of Birchall’s material and, in particular, the detailed facts and figures it contains. Take away Birchall and what is left of the first half of our critics’ story is a sorry thing, as anyone interested can easily verify by reading the original.

At all events, once Shaw’s tale goes beyond Birchall’s sober and critical account (that is, beyond 1974) the non-facts – by no means absent even in Shaw’s earlier pages – multiply, become even wilder and ever more inexcusable. The later pages of The Making of a Party? bear approximately the same relation to history as a John Wayne movie bears to the realities of life in the American west in the 1880s.

But we must turn to the more important matter of interpretation. What Martin has written is a new version of the ancient myth of Eden, the temptation and the fall.

Once upon a time, in the 1960s, there was a “coherent, open and thinking marxist alternative” called IS. That was Eden. Then came temptation. 1968 – that truly amazing year, in which the membership of IS more than doubled” to “around 1,000”, seemed to create the possibility “of transition from a small group to an embryonic party”.

The old Adam (or should it be the old Cliff?) of IS, and indeed, the entire “IS ‘old guard’”, bit the apple from the tree of knowledge and things have been going to hell on a bicycle ever since.

For the apple they bit was the apple of “orthodox – even, as I have suggested, fundamentalist – marxism, centred on the industrial working class”.

And so it came to pass that the “IS old guard” fell into “workerism” which “helped to undermine the level of politics in the organisation ... assisted the degeneration of IS’s internal life, and prepared the way for the opportunistic, unrealistic and sectarian politics which IS was to adopt in the new political period which opened in 1974”.

That is the thesis. Stated so baldly it is, not to put too fine a point on the matter, a little implausible. Which, no doubt, is the reason why Martin, who is a skilful writer, takes good care to wrap it up in a blend of fact, non-fact, speculation and plain fantasy, masquerading as a history.

What was Eden like? IS at the end of 1968, with its “national 1,000 members” – and Shaw is right about the “notional”; a careful check by Mike Waller and myself gave an optimistic maximum of 880 in late 1969 and the turnover of members was huge, far, far greater than at any subsequent period – was very far from being a coherent organisation. It was, as Shaw concedes, predominantly a student body. And, in spite of its nominal “democratic centralism”, it was a federation of extremely disparate groups.

The most hair-raising ultra-left nonsense was widespread amongst them. And “workerism”, in the real sense of idealising workers, was widespread. As Ian Birchall has noted:

In this period of student domination in IS, it was often enough to proclaim that one was a worker to win admiration and flattery. At one IS conference an industrial worker denounced a document being circulated as “so bad, it must have been written by a sociologist”. He was cheered to the echo by an audience, a fair percentage of which were sociology students.

For this situation the “old guard” leaders were responsible and, in my opinion, they were absolutely right to seize the opportunity to recruit the rebellious students, warts and all, in an attempt to break out of small-circle propaganda politics.

But what next? It is not necessary to be an “orthodox marxist” (although it helps) to understand that for the organisation to have any chance of becoming a serious force it had to break out of the student milieu, to recruit and influence workers, to transform itself into a predominantly workers’ organisation. In short, it had, at all costs, to orient its activity on the working class and, secondarily, on the unions.

Easy to say, immensely difficult to achieve. It required a ruthless concentration on the main objective combined with great tactical flexibility. Nobody else seriously attempted it. IS did make a serious and sustained attempt, with the result that we now have in Britain, for the first time since the Communist Party succumbed to stalinism in the late 1920s, a small but real revolutionary party. And that is an immense gain.

Now if Martin Shaw wants to insist that the process was messy and uneven, that various blunders were made, that some important areas of work were neglected longer than they need have been (and others, I would argue, were entered prematurely) then I will concede all that willingly.

But were we right in our main orientation or were we wrong? Should we, like some of Martin’s present friends in “Socialist Unity”, have looked for alternatives (“red bases” in the colleges, “third worldism”, entry into the Labour Party and so on) to the long hard struggle to root socialist politics in the working class. Which is it to be, Martin?

And what, after all, does the criticism of the SWP’s “traditionalist marxism” amount to? That our perspectives “were firmly hitched to the traditional sectors” of the working class, that we “failed to respond adequately to ... (the problems – DH) posed by the women’s movement and sexual politics in general” and that we failed to understand the “structural changes in capitalism, which the student movement highlighted”.

The first point is rather silly. The problem has never been that the bulk of the membership was concentrated in coal and cotton, steel and shipbuilding to the exclusion of, say, hospital workers, teachers or civil servants and Martin must know that perfectly well.

There s some substance in the second point. Actually, although Martin unaccountably fails to add the charge to his bill of indictment, IS took up(by conference decision) a definitely wrong position on the gay question. However, the matter continued to he discussed and, after considerable debate, a subsequent conference reversed the decision. It would have been more candid to have reported both facts. Instead we get: “On the gay question there could he no such compromise (as on the women’s movement – DH) with the workerist, economistic line of IS”!!

A good many SWP members, possibly a majority. would agree with at least some of Shaw’s criticisms of IS’s activity and attitudes on the women’s question. I do not. But then the organisation has never been the “monolithic” body bearing “a close resemblance to stalinism” – what a vile slander – that is portrayed in The Making of a Party?.

Discussion on this, as on other matters. continues inside the SWP and, indeed, publicly. Or hasn’t Martin noticed the series of articles. some of them critical of the SWP, which has been appearing in Socialist Review?

And “structural changes” and the analysis of capitalism generally? Well, what analysis is offered? None at all in the article under consideration or in any of Martin Shaw’s writings with which I am familiar. Our theoretical and analytical work in this field may well need strengthening but at least it exists.

What have Martin or his friends produced comparable with Nigel Harris’s The World Crisis and thç System (IS100) or Colin Barker’s The State as Capital (IS2:1), to mention only two recent contributions?

We have, of course, no monopoly here, and seek none, but a critic who fails to make a single concrete point can hardly expect to be taken very seriously. Until Martin condescends to enlighten us we shall have to struggle on with what he kindly calls our “seriously depleted intellectual forces”!

That last phrase gives the clue to Martin Shaw’s alienation from the SWP – and he is so profoundly alienated that even when the party adapts something that he favours, it is a cause for complaint rather than approval. In the years immediately after 1967 intellectuals inevitably played quite an exceptional role in IS. Martin Shaw was one of them.

He understood the need for a working-class orientation. He wanted to build a revolutionary party and he understood that any real party must consist, to a large extent, of working men and women who share some of the tastes and attitudes of their fellow workers. Indeed, he has expressed this thought more eloquently than most of us.

However, Martin’s understanding was purely intellectual. Emotionally and practically he was unprepared for the situation in which the great majority of the organisation, manual or white-collar workers, whether men or women, were not intellectuals in his sense, and in which the relative importance and influence of intellectuals markedly diminished. Yet this change, and the transformation of the whole tone of the organisation, were the inevitable outcome of healthy growth.

Another critic, Julian Harber, unwittingly demonstrates this point very clearly: “The degeneration of IS ... in large measure it can be put down to the informal decision taken by the IS leadership somewhere around 1970, that all important theoretical questions had now been decided and the task now was simply to build an organisation based upon them” (Revolutionary Socialism 2, p.26).

The “decision” is another myth but in a sense, Harber is right. The emphasis did shift away from discussion of “grand theory” towards intervention and the recruitment of workers. It had to, if progress was to be made. After all, the theory is not an end in itself It is meant to be a guide to practice.

An organisation that seeks to become a revolutionary party has to terminate certain discussion, at some point, with decisions and stick to them until events seriously call them into question. How else can it call upon people to make the considerable self-sacrifice which membership entails?

The party cannot be forever engaged in debating fundamentals, which is what, I fear, Martin Shaw means by “the practice of constant debate”, which he advocates. That is not conducive to constructive work and it is not an atmosphere in which most people want to function.

Of course, disagreements, conflicts about issues, are quite inevitable and a necessary part of the development of the party. The SWP has not been, nor will it ever be, free from them but the issues normally arise from the practice. There will be exceptions, but they will be rare, as indeed they were before 1968.

There is, I believe, an Arabic proverb: “Take what you want; take it and pay for it”. Martin Shaw and his friends wanted to take but were unwilling to pay. They wanted the party, but not the influence of the workers on it. How else, can you explain his belief that the (very partial) proletarianisation of IS “helped to undermine the level of politics of IS”. (He has, I am sorry to say, a real contempt for the membership of the SWP.)

Of course, he does not see it that way. The trouble is “a highly undemocratic internal regime”. A little calm reflection on his own experience ought to convince Martin Shaw that there is precious little merit in this notion.

The terrible regime never interfered at all with his circulation of critical material or with the discussion of it inside IS. It also published his articles in public journals both before and even after his departure from our ranks. It rescued him once from expulsion for indiscipline by his own district (to which he gave considerable provocation) and would have rescued him again had he shown the slightest interest in accepting the minimal obligations of membership.

There was, it is true, very little positive interest amongst IS members for his post-1974 ideas. That does not, of course, prove that his ideas were necessarily wrong. But it might have suggested the need for a little patience, even the reflection that his fellow members could hardly all be incorrigible idiots and therefore should be treated with at least a little respect.

That is water under the bridge now. Martin currently advocates “a new united organisation”, to be created from various elements of the revolutionary left outside the SWP. The Making of a Party? is clearly meant as a contribution to that end.

The inherent difficulties of such an operation are enormous and, as Shaw has recognised, the maximum possible result would be a lot smaller than the present SWP.

But let us suppose, for argument’s sake, that the difficulties could be overcome and that the “united organisation” could not only be born but could grow to count its members in thousands, as the SWP does, rather than in hundreds.

It would then, without question, bear a strong resemblance to the SWP in many of its features. For these features, which Martin so dislikes, are not the product of original (theoretical) sin. They are the inevitable product of the struggle to root a revolutionary organisation in the working-class movement in the Britain of today.


Last updated on 22.10.2002