Jim Higgins

Sectarianism, Centrism and the I.S. Group

(October 1971)

From IS Internal Bulletin, October 1971. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

All sections of the organisation, including the “Trotskyist Faction”, should welcome the National Committee decision to hold a Special Conference on the proposal to dissolve the fusion with Matgamna’s group. This opportunity will clarify a number of questions, not only about revolutionary unity (that is, the unification of organisations with similar programmes and objectives, and the willingness to put in perspective those things on which they disagree in the interests of shared common struggle), but also about the norms of behaviour within a revolutionary party in a full, free, frank and democratic discussion.

The Matgamna group entered I.S. in late 1968. Let me say right at the outset that I believe the fusion to have been botched, whatever the good will on both sides. On the basis of some joint work in Manchester, discussion in Cliff’s front room, and the publication of a few patchy but hopeful issues of Workers Fight, the unity was consummated. One of the first lessons that can be drawn from the balance sheet of the last three years is that unity cannot be achieved in any meaningful sense in this way. Time, care, and serious analysis cannot be replaced by general feelings of good will. A lasting unity has to look further than the immediate situation. Organisational concessions may well be made – indeed would have to be made – to effect unity. But subordination of principled differences to achieve a fusion can only lead to difficulty and recrimination in the future.

Matgamna will argue, and indeed has argued, that his and his adherents’ entry was based on a wish on the part of the I.S. leadership to enlist their support in the turn to the class epitomised in the debate on democratic centralism. This assertion, like so many of Cde. Matgamna’s, is unproved and unprovable. In any case, whatever anyone on the I.S. EC may have thought about the usefulness of Cde. Matgamna in this debate, any hopes they had were to be dashed.

As was to happen so often in the future, the credit balance of Matgamna’s infrequent support was counter-balanced by the debit of his sectarian approach and his predilection for combination with anyone who was aggrieved or disagreed with the Group’s political line. The authors of the Platform 4 document, a document originating in Manchester and critical of a number of points in Group policy, were the first to receive the dubious attention of the Matgamnaites. In short order, the Platform 4 comrades had quit Matgamna’s sectarian waiting-room, vowing never to patronise that particular line again.

Since this first essay into oppositional combination, Matgamna has been industrious in his search for disaffected partners, making overtures to libertarians at one time, and the erstwhile DC’s at another, without a blush or any apparent damage to principle, even though credibility took one or two hard knocks. Let any member of the NC or EC indicate some disagreement with a facet of current Group policy, and he or she will find himself encumbered with the embarassingly heavy-footed aid of Matgamna and his followers.

In all these attempts to combine with others to cause the maximum discomfort in the Group and to attract to their faction, the Matgamnaites have never attempted to form a faction that would transcend the closed sect of the “Trotskyist Faction”. They argue that all the disagreements that have arisen since their entry, where they have always supported the opposition to the leadership, though these disagreements may come up episodically, they are organically linked in the sense of the basically non-Marxist method of analysis employed by the current group leadership. In this sense, they presumably think that only their defined position is capable of countering our anti-Marxist for formulation. This may be so, but what is true is that at no stage have they attempted, either alone or in concert with others, to mount a debate on these questions that for serious people must be of paramount importance. Never mind their disagreement with Group methodology, they have never attempted to seriously discuss their own platform. Only when discussion has been forced on them, on their alleged basic position, have they been willing to discuss at all. The history of their existence within I.S has been to wait for an issue that causes controversy, and then to climb on the bandwagon, causing the maximum discord possible.

Why is this the case? It cannot be and should not be argued that the “Trotskyist Faction” contains a parcel of malevolent malcontents. To be sure, the faction includes some excellent people, whose dedication to the revolution is beyond question. But then, so does the RSL, the SLL and the IMG, to name but a few – and they, of course, have the decency to maintain their own organisations. The reason, then, is to be found in their estimation of I.S. Since joining, they have made no secret that they consider I.S. to be “Centrist”. It should also be said that the amount of work that they have done in arcing their position in a non-Factional way in the Group journal has been comparatively nil. For a faction that claims to represent the tradition of Trotskyism, one would have thought that they would welcome the opportunity to publish in the group’s theoretical magazine. Instead they preferred the internal publication of duplicated trivia. This of course is consistent with their objective of building the internal sect; it is, however, inconsistent with loyal work in I.S. and a desire for genuine fusion.

Let us be absolutely clear: For a Trotskyist with any claims at all to orthodoxy and a passing knowledge of the small change of the history of the movement, a larger organisation characterised as “Centrist” is ripe for entry, with any one of three perspectives a possibility: (1) To fight for the leadership and transform the subject organisation (as the Trotskyists tried in the ILP in the 30’s); (2) To split the organisation into separate healthy and unhealthy components, removing an impediment to the growth of a genuine revolutionary party (as with the SWP in the American SP in the mid-30’s); or (3) To increase the strength of the sectlet to be regurgitated as a sect by the offended organisation (as in the SFIO in the early 30’s). Parenthetically, it is worthwhile adding that the comparative mildness of the I.S. internal regime and the Matgamnaites’ lack of success in building an independent sectlet into a full-blown sect, recognised by one of the Fourth Internationals, gave added impetus and urgency to their decision to join I.S.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to see that Point (3) was the course chosen. Cde. Matgamna’s cadre was young, inexperienced, and dependent on his and one or two others’ frequently faulty knowledge of Trotskyist history and tactics. To make a bold stroke for the leadership was clearly out of the question, and would require hard work along the line of the I.S. Group’s orientation, so that a proved record of building the organisation could qualify them for leadership. In this context it needs to be pointed out that, with one or two exceptions, the Workers Fight comrades have not attempted to build the Group, but to recruit to their faction from those already in I.S. membership.

To seriously split I.S. would also require a far more disciplined and theoretically able cadre than the Matgamnaites possessed. Even Matgamna, in 1968, professed to be agnostic on the Russian question and the permanent arms economy. It may be, of course, that this agnosticism was of a diplomatic character, to enable him to influence those discontented I.S. members still adhering to traditional Group positions. If this is so, then it casts doubt on his loyalty both to the Group and to his factional comrades.

It is clear, then, if (1) and (2) are excluded, that (3) is the indicated course. A “Trotskyist Tendency” is built, battening on genuine disagreement, turning activist branches orientated on the working class, into talking-shops dedicated to discussion of orthodox sectariana and the sins of the leadership in general and T. Cliff in particular. Is it any wonder, that workers who joined the Group on our analysis of the industrial struggle (incomes policy, productivity bargaining, the rank and file trade union movement, etc.), and the political scene (the decline of social democracy and Stalinism, the Tory offensive, and the need for a revolutionary party, etc.), are repelled by a flood of carping sectarian criticism. It should surprise nobody that on occasion we have been forced to split branches into those who wish to build their own sect and those who wish to build a revolutionary workers’ party. This regrettab1e but necessary procedure has been described by the Matgamnaites as “ghettoisation”. If so, it is a ghetto they themselves have built by their refusal to see the main orientation of the Group on the working class and the building of the organisation as a priority by their refusal to conform to the norms of reasonable branch behaviour.

Since the discussion on the Common Market which they, as usual, opportunistically joined (not in concert with others, but as a separate, closed sect), they have been busily exporting their comrades to spread disaffection. The Common Market debate is for them not the opportunity to clarify politics, but the chance to attack the I.S. Group.

The Bolshevik Party of Lenin would not have permitted such conduct; No section of the Fourth International (ICFI, USFI, or Posadist) would permit such conduct; The I.S. Group has permitted it too long.

One of the real problems that confronts many loyal members of the organisation who find themselves at some time or another in disagreement with some part of Group policy or activity, is that they have continually to be looking over their shoulders to discover whether the Matgamnaites are attempting to make sect propaganda out of the issue. This was a feature especially of the Irish and Common Market disagreements. In a very real sense, the elucidation of politics for discussion and disagreement are stultified by the existence of this permanent sectarian opposition.

The “Trotskyist Faction” claim to be a tendency with a clear and distinct programme that sets them apart from mere transitory factions that find their raison d’être in arguments on specific points of disagreement. Leaving aside the question as to whether a finished programme exists in a religious-type devotion to the first four congresses of the CI, the Transitional Programme of Trotsky, and a call For the formation of a new Minority Movement or a new Militant Workers’ Federation (this last displaying a lamentable ignorance of the factors that made a Minority Movement and a Militant Workers’ Federation possible), coupled to a sneaking regard for the moribund USFI – leave all this aside. In the ghetto of their own minds, the Matgamnaites fondly imagine this rag-bag to be a programme. That being so, they are merely proving the case for dissolution of the fusion. In reality, at every point in both their contributions and published material, they are to all intents and purposes a separate organisation, with privileged recruiting rights within I.S.

In an attempt to deny the logic of their description of I.S. as “Centrist”, Cde. Matgamna at the October NC chose to see a difference between different sorts of Centrist: Centrists of the Martov/Andreas Nin variety, which he equates with I.S., being acceptable, while the Kautsky/Maxton brand were definitely persona non grata. This distinction indicates either a lamentable lack of knowledge of Marxist history, or an attempt to extend the miseducation of the “Trotskyist Faction” comrades to the Group at large. Martov, as with Kautsky, was ineligible politically to join the Communist International. Indeed, the statutes of the CI were specifically designed by Lenin to exclude Centrists of the Kautsky stripe, and with splendid impartiality, those of the Martov stripe as well. Andreas Nin, and the POUM (not the P.O.E.U., as one member of the “Trotskyist Faction” has it) were castigated by Trotsky with more vigour than Maxton and the ILP. For good reason: their Centrist crimes were greater, because their revolutionary possibilities and failures were so much greater. Indeed, those within the Fourth International at that time who solidarised themselves with the POUM (Vereecken and Sneevliet) were expelled from the international, and rightly so. Lenin and Trotsky preached at all times unremitting war against Centrism. It is clearly the duty or genuine revolutionaries to oppose and to attack Centrism wherever they can.

If I.S. is Centrist, then Matgamna and his co-thinkers are absolutely correct to oppose it, to fight it, to impede its progress, if necessary to smash it. (In this connection, the “Trotskyist Faction” has gone so far as to append to their latest platform document at least two signatures of comrades who do not subscribe to the document nor to the Trotskyist Faction. Two conclusions can be drawn from this: They care so little for their reputation within I.S. that they stoop to forgery; or, they are so careless as to suggest that their attitude to politics is light-minded. Either of these conclusions casts no credit on the authors of the document.) That they do think I.S. is Centrist is proved by their own publications, from their entry document through Cde. Hornung’s “Centrist Current” (Comrades will recall how he claimed with little modesty but some accuracy to be “driven on by the steam hammer of his own polemic”), to the latest effusion posing as their platform.

The accusation of Centrism is of course nonsense, whether the shade of Martov or Nin is conjured up to give the argument a shadowy substance or not.

The I.S. Group now contains within itself the foundations of a revolutionary party. It would de criminal, in the current comparatively favourable climate, to waste more time in counter-productive bickering that cannot be, and will not be resolved. As the Group and its opportunities expand, we can afford even less the luxury of this time-wasting irrelevance.

The “Trotskyist Faction”, if the Conference passes the National Committee’s resolution, will have the opportunity of putting their ideas on organisation and politics to the test of the real world. The hard facts of that experience will turn them into either a tight little group of friends, parasitic for their discussion and documents on the “crimes” of I.S. and any other group that differs from them by a comma, or they will begin to understand the real ABC of Marxism in the working class movement. If the latter alternative (and we hope that it does) should take place, then a real and lasting unity can be forged; if the former, then of course we are not interested.

The history of our movement has been marred by the in-bred factionalism that derives from isolation and repression. The opportunities that revolutionaries lose are not regained easily. For perhaps a brief period we have the chance to make contact with larger numbers of workers than ever before. If precious time and resources are to be wasted in arguing with Matgamna and his circle, when we should be taking these chances to engage in real class struggle, then we deserve the irrelevance that has condemned, and condemns, too many revolutionary groups.


Jim Higgins
October 1971


Transcriber’s Note

1. Higgins, a leading member of the EC of IS, here states why the fusion between the Matgamna group and IS must now come to an end. This was voted on by the membership and the transcriber, Ted Crawford, was among those voting for the ending of this fusion.

Last updated on 15.9.2012