International Marxist Group & Chris Harman


An exchange of views

(July 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 7, 14 July–6 September 1980, pp. 26–28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘If only the different bits of the left could get together...’ It’s a cry we hear time after time, especially from non-affiliated socialists. They are encouraged in this by the taunts of right wingers who love to joke about the multitude of varieties of revolutionary organisations. All too often, however, concrete talk of unity is not of unity in action of the whole left against the Tories, but rather of how one part of the left – albeit the biggest part of the revolutionary left – the SWP might be able to unite with a much smaller part, the International Marxist Group. We dealt briefly with the problems such an approach faces in our issue of 1980 : 3. For the information of readers we reprint here an exchange of letters between the IMG and the SWP that has taken place since.

* * *<&h4>

Dear Comrades,

We are writing to inform you of the decisions of our national conference and the recent meeting of our Central Committee in relation to the SWP.

First, our conference voted to withdraw the resolution sent to you in July 1978 as the basis of relations between our organisations. Our conference passed a new resolution Why Fighting for a Joint Revolutionary Organisation with the SWP(UK) is a central task for the IMG, which has recently been published in Socialist Challenge.

Second, our conference affirmed our characterisation of the SWP as a revolutionary organisation, and on the basis of this decided to propose to you that the political basis exists for us to construct a joint organisation. We believe that such a political basis for a common organisation exists; and that such an organisation could act as a powerful pole of attraction to workers breaking from reformism, as well as challenging the CP as the main organisation to the left of the Labour Party. Such an organisation could have an impact far greater than the sum of its two parts.

On the basis of these conference decisions, our Central Committee decided to propose to you a joint meeting of our two leaderships to discuss this question.

We further make the following proposals for joint activity:

We are well aware of the fact that there are many differences between us of both a tactical and programmatic character; those which we regard as central are outlined in the document passed at our conference. In particular we think the SWP should be part of the Fourth International. Nonetheless we feel that these should be debated out in a common organisation based on democratic centralism.

We remain convinced that the irresponsible splitting of the revolutionary left is an obstacle to the building of a serious alternative to reformism, and thus to winning workers to revolutionary socialism and building a revolutionary party. We therefore urge you to seriously consider the proposals that we make, and to suggest an early date for a meeting between our respective leaderships.

We look forward to a speedy reply.


Revolutionary greetings
International Marxist Group Political Committee

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Dear Comrades,

I have been asked by our Central Committee to reply to your letter suggesting that our two organisations establish ‘the framework of a fight to build a joint organisation.’

You state that at your conference that you agreed ‘to withdraw the resolution sent to the SWP in July 1978’ which, as you will recall, declared that we were a ‘syndicalist break with Marxism’. This you suggest enables our two organisations to engage in joint work and discussion with an ultimate view to fusion.

As we wrote in our reply to your letter of 1978, if our two organisations were agreed over our analysis of the present situation and what had to be done it would be very wrong of us indeed not to unite our forces. However your attitude at that time made it absolutely clear that we were far from such agreement. Given your view of us you had to see it as your duty – whether or not we were formally in the framework of the same organisation – to wage a struggle to smash our leadership and our traditions, since they were likely to lead us ‘to cross the class line’ if it came to any large scale convulsion. We concluded that for you any talk of ‘unity’ could only be a manoeuvre designed to make that easier for you to do.

Have things changed as a result of the resolution that was passed at your last conference? Not if the only change to your basic perspective and orientation has been terminological, without any real shift in your analyses and practice. For, without a shift such as this, you would be forced in any joint activity or in a fused organisation to try and counter our method of work, to undermine our influence and to substitute your own.

You quite rightly remark in your latest conference resolution on ‘unity’, ‘we are opposed to a fusion where one side calls the other “centrist”’. Such ‘unity’ can only mean a permanent slanging match between ‘government and opposition’ inside a formally united organisation. Yet two years ago when you waged an offensive over the question of unity, you did regard us as centrist. We cannot help suspecting that your basic analysis of our tradition remains the same despite your willingness to jettison the word ‘centrist’ itself.

The resolutions and speeches at your conference and articles in Socialist Challenge since have reinforced these suspicions. At your conference speakers supporting the resolution in favour of a unity approach accused their opponents (nearly half the conference) of effectively seeing us as centrist; and certainly within the opposition there was a grouping, small but closely linked to leading elements in the Fourth International, who openly call us centrist. Yet you want us to ‘fight for a united organisation’ including all these elements. If the unitarians in your organisation were serious about the terms of their own resolution, they would have to break with those people who believe that we are centrists and then approach us for unity With only those who do not believe that we are centrists. Otherwise they are asking us to accept precisely the kind of unity they say is undesirable.

But that is perhaps not the most important point. More significant is the fact that nothing in the analysis of your conference or of Socialist Challenge leads us to suppose that you have shifted your positions fundamentally on the way you judge our basic approach to the class struggle. Your conference’s grudging admission that we are a ‘revolutionary’ and not a ‘centrist’ organisation was accompanied by sniping reference by speakers for all tendencies to our ‘rank and filism’.

A hostile tone

Even the resolution on unity insisted that our rank and file approach, ‘starts from a false choice. Do we base ourselves on the activity of the rank and file or do we also include the reformist leaders? Their rank and file teachers group fetishes school based actions and unofficial strikes ...’

The tone has been maintained since in Socialist Challenge.

Take for instance the article by Valerie Coultas on the Great Debate in Central Hall. For Valerie, Paul Foot’s argument against Benn could be summed up in the most hostile terms: ‘Paul Foot echoed Hilary’s (Hilary Wainwright – CH) semi-syndicalist theme of ‘going where power lies’ on the shop floor.

Yet Valerie claims to be a supporter of unity. With supporters like that who needs splitters? We can only wonder whether being ‘semi-syndicalist’ we are still in Valerie’s eyes a ‘syndicalist break with Marxism’.

The same hostility to our basic strategy was shown in the major article in Socialist Challenge on the lessons of the steel strike (by Brian Grogan, 10.4.80). Apparently, in that strike the activities of the SWP ‘only detracted’ from what is presented as the major task of the strike ‘the building of the unofficial national strike committee’ and ‘support for the key militants involved’.

Note the word only. Nothing we did in the strike had any beneficial effect. The hundreds of thousands of leaflets, the many national and local bulletins, the fortnightly meetings of up to 40 militants from different parts of the country to discuss tactics, the work around picket lines and flying pickets, even the call for a national strike committee when it seemed a realistic prospect – it all ‘only’ deflected the attention from the key task. For comrade Grogan, as for those who would designate us as ‘centrists’, we are ‘only’ an obstacle in the class struggle to be got rid of as soon as possible.

But that is not all. Apparently, besides this destructive ‘deflection’ our comrades in steel committed another grievous sin as well. They failed to hide their identity as revolutionary socialists. Instead, week after week, in most major steel areas they made the ‘mistake’ of producing SWP bulletins called Real Steel News analysing what needed to be done from a revolutionary socialist standpoint. The result, Grogan claimed in a letter in Socialist Challenge a fortnight later, was the isolation of the SWP comrades from the real development of the rank and file movement. By issuing Real Steel News as well as taking part in the strike committee, pickets etc., we were ‘trying to impose a party bulletin on the fight inside the structure of the union, most notably the strike committees. This could only undermine the development of the rank and file leadership.’

For revolutionaries to be open about the lead they offer to non-revolutionary activists (Grogan lists: ‘councillors, JPs’) stops the development of rank and file leadership! One begins to wonder who are the real syndicalists.

Now the IMG are entitled to their own opinion of what needs to be done and of where we go wrong. But such a fundamentally divergent view from us in a key strike as to lead you to say we only deflected people away from the major task hardly lays the basis for real unity of our organisations.

If the articles of comrades Grogan & Coultas were isolated occurrences maybe we could just let them pass. But they were not. As we have seen, they followed on from the terms of the unity resolution itself. And their points have been repeated almost word for word in articles since, for instance in an article by another ‘supporter of unity’ Stephen Potter in Socialist Challenge of 22nd May.

Like Grogan he objects to revolutionaries being open about where they stand:

‘It was clearly a mistake in the steel strike to build a party front in opposition to building a national strike committee.’

The hostile tone is contained in his comments on an article by Tony Cliff calling for united front action against the Tories. We are told that Cliff’s call for a united front approach against the Tories ‘contradicted some positions adopted by the last conference of the SWP’.

The lie that the SWP was opposed to united fronts (because we refused to hide our politics inside them) was common currency from the IMG when you still described us as ‘centrist’ (despite the fact that year after year our conference passed resolutions on the united front – two at the last conference – and we have taken numerous actions on these). The fact that you can continue to repeat the lie again indicates that the attitude of many of your leaders to us remains unchanged.

Unity – or a slanging match?

There is another element of hostility in your attitude to our organisation to which we unfortunately have to refer. This is the way you continually repeat the lie (for instance in your unity resolution) that the ‘SWP does not have a democratic internal regime’.

This must amaze the thousands of our members who, for instance, argued out differing analyses of the class struggle, the organisation of blacks and women, the structure of our organisation, before our conference last year; or who argued just as vigorously over the sort of paper we needed the year before.

Your justification for your lie is tortuous in the extreme: Steve Jefferys supported minority positions, the movers of the majority positions opposed him being elected the National Committee, and the ‘rank and file’ delegates overturned that opposition. The fact that the conference delegates vote down the recommendations of the leadership shows that the organisation is undemocratic!

You virtually admit in you unity resolution that what you foresee is not in reality united action from a single organisation, but endless arguments between our two organisations even if formally united:

‘In fighting for unity with the SWP we would not dissolve the key political differences between us ...’ (i.e. your contention that we are ‘semi-syndicalist’)

‘A polemic on our positions on the united front, the independent women’s movement and so on will be conducted before, during and after fusion ...’

So the ‘fight for unity’ will involve you arguing in the tone we’ve already heard from comrades Coultas, Grogan and Potter – and us presumably, replying in kind. Is this really the way forward to building an organisation that can overshadow the CP and appeal to those workers looking to the Labour Left at present? Or isn’t it really a guarantee of reproducing on a larger and more disastrous scale the sectarian inward-lookingness that characterises groups such as the Spartacists, the WSL, RCG and RCT? You go on to say, ‘Public discussion on all the points that divide us would be valuable’. We wonder whether you can really believe this. All the points that divide us would go right back to 1947. No doubt in some of us too there lurks a little sectarian demon that would like to recall the about turn of the Fourth International in 1948 in suddenly discovering that workers’ states had been created three years before without the working class, or your claim in the mid-sixties that there was a ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ in Algeria etc., etc., ad nauseam. But is that really the recipe for building a party rooted in the workplace?

The very fact that you can even suggest that such discussion is ‘valuable’ indicates to us, that a good chunk of your leadership want not a united interventionist organisation, but a permanent debate in a framework which would lead us right away from the problems of the working class today. What we would end up with would be a slanging match (the tone of your articles already prove that) which would hinder the modest work that we have been doing to build a revolutionary presence in the class. We regard it as our revolutionary duty to avoid such a slanging match like the plague, Since that is what you mean by ‘fighting for unity’ we have to say that we can have none of it.

We say it regretfully because we know that within the IMG there are many revolutionaries who have begun to break out of the sectarian style of politics and who have begun to seriously appreciate what we are trying to build. Indeed on the basis of discussion with individuals, some of us began to feel in the run up to your conference that a reorientation on your part might open prospects for organic unity. The tone of the contributions at your conference and in your paper since have dished any such hopes. It is clear that those elements who are genuinely moving towards our positions only got a majority of your conference by compromising with those whose positions remain in essentials what they always were.

Political questions

At the same time the essential political differences between our organisations have if anything grown since your conference. This is shown not merely by your sectarian snipes about our work round the steel strike, but also by the way in which you described one of the most significant developments in the women’s movement (the taking of direct action against the Corrie Bill in Parliament Square in February) as being counterproductive and also by the way in which you have slid into pro-Russian apologetics over the question of Afghanistan.

What is the common thread that underlies these differences?

We base ourselves squarely on the insistence that the ‘emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself’. We regard it as substitutionist nonsense to talk of workers’ states where the working class has no control over the state power, to See students, third world guerilla leaders or ‘left’ trade union officials as able to act in place of the working class, to identify the armed forces of the Russian state as the ‘Red Army’ acting as the agent of socialism, or to love up to left MPs in the abortion campaign.

The same starting point underlines our attitude to Afghanistan, over the steel strike and over the abortion campaign. You denounce our approach on all these issues as ‘rank and filism’ or ‘semi-syndicalism’. It is this which explains your repeated insistence against all the evidence that we oppose the united front – because you cannot understand that for us the precondition for any united front activity, with MPs, union leaders or what not, is our real ability to propagate notions of independent, revolutionary, class action.

Towards a really united party

Nothing in your conference or your letter leads us to believe that these differences have diminished since your last letter of two years ago. This is unfortunate, since although we are six times your size, for us to be able to unify with other forces around a common appreciation of our tasks would make our job as revolutionaries a little easier. But that common appreciation does not exist yet and without it we will merely get continual sectarian wrangles. Under such circumstances your invitation for discussions of a ‘fight for unity’ is a waste of time. We do however repeat our call of two years ago to those of your members who are beginning to appreciate what we are about: break with the sectarians who still see us as centrists; break with those who talk in the tones normally applied towards centrists; break with those who still see defence of the actions of the ‘Red Army’ as the lodestone for their world politics; join with us in building a party to lead working class self activity in the struggle for socialism.


Yours Fraternally,
Chris Harman

Last updated on 21 September 2019