Jim Higgins

Hagiography or History

Review of Birchall’s History of IS

(April 1976)

From Workers League Bulletin, April 1976.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

If there is one thing that the revolutionary left requires it is a good, objective, Marxist history of the movement.

Failing that a more restricted history, often the same rigorous intention, of one or other of the left’s component parts would not come amiss. To answer that second need presumably, Ian H. Birchall has produced his article on the History of the International Socialists – the second part of which is being reproduced by the Danish comrades and for which this article serves as an introduction. It would be pleasant to be able to say that Ian Birchall has overcome those difficulties, of the committed and partisan historian, that have afflicted so many others in the past. James Klugman, is one such that immediately springs to mind, his pious history of the CPGB seems to have got stuck somewhere between the General Strike and the Third Period, for obvious reasons. Even making allowances for his much more restricted space allowance, Ian Birchall does not escape the Klugman trap. It is I fear another work of piety, its omissions – to the initiated at least – more significant than its actual content.

Its purpose is not to tell it as it was, so that we may the better order ourselves in the future, but to indicate to the faithful, and to the doubting, that all is well, that I.S. has an even, logical grasp on reality and always has had. That the sacrifice and the struggle are justified, the movement moving from change to consolidation and eventually to victory. Would that it were so.

As one who was rather closer to the centre of IS affairs (from 1958 to 1976) than Ian Birchall I can say with some confidence that what appears, in the History, as an ever, ever upward, progression was in fact a series of episodic attempts to close with reality, too often botched and often-wrong. Increasing membership was all too often a species of “Lenin Levy” drive to bureaucracy, that is not mitigated now that membership has declined to little more than half its 1973 high point of 4,000.

Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect the official, “short course”. History to be overly critical. It is reasonable, however, to expect some element of self criticism and a great deal less evasion and half truth. To illustrate this I would like to take several of the key issues raised in Birchall’s work. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the Democratic Centralist debate, The Left Unity issue, the various Membership campaigns and the most recent faction fight with, and the expulsion of the IS Opposition, this last is diplomatically skirted around in a few less than well chosen words.

The picture presented in the History, is one of great IS interest and involvement in the VSC. It is frankly not true. At the very outset of the VSC, a Bertrand Russell Foundation spokesman approached IS, as one of the larger and saner left organisations, to provide full time workers for the Campaign including the Secretary. This was refused, it would have involved working with British partisans of the Fourth International – at that time going through an ultra left student vanguard phase – and IS control was not assured. In the development of the campaign, IS was largely noticeable by its absence. Certainly IS participated in the Grosvenor Square demonstration and the massive (100,000) march to Hyde Park, but only as those accepting the accomplished fact of a growing movement, in which it might be possible to recruit. That species of opportunism has characterised IS attitudes to all too many other issues, Irish Solidarity, Troops Out Movement and earlier the Greater London Council Rents Campaign. The result of all this has been a failure to capitalise on whatever correct political analysis has been made, a growth of suspicion among the uncommitted and other left groups, and a reputation for good mannered sectarianism, which of late has lost a great deal of the good manners.

On the issue of Democratic Centralism, Ian Birchall is certainly right to characterise this as a turning point in the life of IS but not to see it as any more than a very dubious, mixed blessing. Interestingly enough, the issue of Left Unity was very much intermingled with the internal shift in the IS regime. Democratic Centralism was not a response to the objective needs of the class struggle, an exercise in party building; it was in fact an exercise in inner group manoeuvring. At the time there had been an influx of young students, much exercised by the growth of racism, the May 1968 events in France and the wave of unrest in the universities. Generally ultra left by enthusiasm and inclination, they nevertheless accepted the important IS thesis of the central role of the working class as the active factor in revolutionary change. Numbers were involved in the campaign against rent rises. Others took a very ultra left position on the Labour Party and trade unions. As generally articulate and active elements they were, given the then federal structures of IS, most likely to form a significant minority, perhaps even a majority, of the policy making National Committee. It was in response to this danger that the democratic centralism debate was opened by Tony Cliff, with a one side of quarto collection of aphoristic notes on the question. The storm that greeted this was considerable and the debate went on for over a year. The issue and the contestants were very evenly divided, with such weighty figures as Michael Kidron and Peter Sedgwick supporting the federalist case.

It was at this point that the Unity of the Left issue was raised. The main target of this “unity offensive” was the then recently formed IMG. This group had displayed some success in the VSC and were attracting numbers of youth and students. As a section of the FI, and. therefore committed to the notion of democratic centralism, they would provide a useful, no doubt decisive counter weight to the libertarian federalists. Thus the four points for unity, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, anti-state control of trade unions and for workers’ control, were coined. They avoided such key obstacles to unity as the FI, state capitalism and other theoretical differences. In the event the IMG refused, although some of their members were captured. All that came of it was the accession of the very small Matgamna group (Workers’ Fight), who were inducted, against the wishes of the IS Executive, as a result of a private deal between Cliff and Matgamna which allowed them to join as individual members.

Once joined the Workers’ Fight comrades formed their own faction, the Trotskyist Tendency, which immediately lined up with a group of ultra Bolsheviks, a leading member of which as I recall was Ian Birchall. In and of itself none of this is worth very much more than a footnote in a boring academic treatise. But what is important is that the grand principles, bolstered by historical references to Lenin and Trotsky and countered by Luxemburg and Johnson-Forrest, were reflections of an idiosyncratic view about what was necessary to build the group, rather than an objective assessment of what was required in a real world.

It is possible to trace the subsequent difficulties of IS, its internal wrangles and current autocratic regime, insulated from working class reality, to the actual lessons for the democratic centralist debate, the method of its conduct and its outcome, which, in terms of members lost, was much greater than Birchall allows.

There is a myth, perpetuated by every sectarian and organisational fetishist, that democratic centralism is a set of principles acceptance of which is the sine qua non of revolutionary purity. According to this myth, Lenin elucidated the organisational question for us way back in the past and all we have to do is to fit our current problems into some past Bolshevik experience. It is of course nonsense and pernicious nonsense at that. The debate of 1903 is not only irrelevant to today’s concerns but as irrelevant in 1903, as all the participants – including Lenin – acknowledged. The very idea that dead 70 year old controversies should animate and guide present day revolutionaries should be the object of derision for Marxists.

Democratic Centralism cannot be defended according to a simple set of rules culled from the experience of Russian social democracy in 1903 or1917 for that matter and then rigidly applied in a British context in 1976: The command structure of emigré Russian Bolshevism has no place, is indeed counter-productive, in a country with a sophisticated working class, operating under conditions of bourgeois democracy. It is not only unnecessary but alien to the working class tradition in Britain, whose study has always taken second place to the pre-1917 disputes of Russian social democracy.

Democratic centralism is the self imposed willingness to act in solidarity with others as the result of free, open and structured discussion, there is no way, short of surgery, that minds can be changed because of some imperative command from an immaculate central committee. Any other definition sets aside Marxism and makes us devotees of a form of church where we wait for a pontiff to tell us God’s will.

The current IS cant on the subject: “Discussion of disputed questions inhibits our capacity to act”, leaves out of account the loss inherent in acting blind, without maps or a compass. The so called “Leninist” form of democratic centralism is clearly not essential to revolutionary growth, witness the fact that IS managed to exist for nearly 20 years of its existence, without recourse to its rigours. The more that IS insists on alleged Leninist forms, of late, the more its external influence and membership declines.

There is, in revolutionary groups, a great dilemma which involves the contradiction between building a stable apparatus and, at the same time, involving the worker members in the vital process of decision making and action. The revolutionary worker by definition works and is political exactly because of his experience as a militant against capitalism in his factory or workplace. In addition he will inevitably acquire trade union and related commitment in his spare time. By the limitation of his life, he is unable to devote the attention to the reading, attendance at meetings and discussions that gives him the facility to argue against the sophisticated eloquence of the middle class functionary. Even, in the few cases where workers have left industry to take on full time work for the movement he finds that by doing so he ceases to be a worker.

Interestingly enough, it is the case that every worker who has worked full time for IS, in a leadership capacity no longer does so, most are no longer in IS. The current IS central committee contains not one single worker, although there are a couple of postgraduates who have performed a ritual stint in industry before taking on a full time revolutionary post.

That would be of less significance if there were special arrangements made to consult with, to submit policy to, to learn from, the worker members. In fact the development has been entirely in the opposite direction. Last year the sole remaining vehicle for workers to express some sort of control, the National Committee was dispensed with to be replaced by an “Advisory” Council.

Today the only effective policy body is the six man C.C., which has absolute control between annual conferences, resting its authority on some half learned and ill assimilated lesson from Lenin’s Collected Works. It seems to pass their comprehension that the occasionally dubious organisational practices of Lenin were not justified in the eyes of history because in his hands they somehow became good, but because in 1917 the revolution was actually made. I see no Lenins around today, although I do see a number of dubious organisational practices. In particular, the epigones and pretenders seem most unfitted to make another revolution in Britain or anywhere else.

The building of a revolutionary organisation is, in fact, not in discovering the quickest way to come to decisions. It is the patient development of policy through bringing everyone involved into the decision making process. The bigger and more important the organisation the greater the need for such care.

If this is not done we have the manifestation of the small group psychology. The revolutionary functionary lives in a close and closed peer group. His life becomes the small change of inner party concerns and gossip. In that hothouse all manner of exotic thoughts can bloom, that would be impossible in the colder atmosphere in the workers movement. Cut off from the sources of reality, the limits of ambition become the limits of imagination. They are internal emigrés and the dog days of bolshevism are recreated by choice rather than necessity.

For myself, I reject this completely. Democratic Centralism can only be the method, whatever rules are appropriate at any time or place, by which the worker members and militants can be involved in policy decisions and action.

Similar mistakes were made during the years of the Tory government from 1970 to 1974. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the various membership campaigns. The procedure was described by one member driven to despair as: “Find a picket line and then throw a handful of membership cards at them, if anyone picks one up give him another five cards for his mates.” If that is an exaggeration it is not much of one. During the growing working class offensive against the Industrial Relations Act and the mass strikes against pay restraint a whole new audience was opened up to revolutionary activists. Instead of developing a serious recruitment policy that carefully explained the long term perspective, IS relied on emotional meetings reducing complicated political questions to demands or more and better industrial militancy. In the overheated atmosphere of such meetings, which frequently gave the impression of revivalist fervour, quite large numbers joined, who were never seen again. At the height of this spasm in 1973 IS organisers in the provinces were subjected to the pressure of a league table system, in which good marks and praise were accorded for members recruited. Inevitably those most praised were those with the sharpest pencils and the easiest way with spurious claims. There was no attempt to monitor or check the results, no recognition that the organiser who recruits a convenor in a car factory, after some months of careful political discussion, has probably done a better job than the man who in the same time recruits fifty none of whom stay more than a few weeks. The membership campaigns were in fact exercises in membership turnover; which in 1973 amounted to over 1,500 members. Not only that the emphasis on showy but shallow successes placing, as it did, the emphasis on undirected activism was the issue that caused considerable disquiet in the leading committee. As a result those leading figures, like Cliff, who had placed greatest stress on the issue of democratic centralism, operated – effectively – outside the ambit of the Executive Committee, discipline and collective responsibility became the duty of those who disagreed, whether a majority or not, while free action and indiscipline was reserved with those claiming self appointed political rectitude. This apotheosis of hard necked individualism was, whenever it was questioned, justified by reference to Lenin and his injunction on the necessity of breaking discipline in the greater interest of the revolution. This anecdotal method of analysis which had been used to demand a politically elected leadership was, in its turn, in 1973-4 used to justify a federally based Executive composed of full time workers from the “leading areas”. By further reference to the Collected Works that federal EC was discarded in short order for an EC based on function in the central apparatus, IS Journal editor, SW editor, industrial organiser, etc. These absurd and frequent shifts gave rise to disillusion and mistrust. The expression of one or two individuals prejudices and impatience. Collective leadership, under such circumstances, becomes a screen for manipulation and the expression of political differences in personalised terms. In the process, effectiveness is damaged, and the principles and objectives lost sight of.

Frenetic hopping from one issue to another, one set of leaders to another; from one ill-conceived campaign to the next can appear to be no more than the expression of personal disorder in the leading comrades. In fact it has a logic and an inevitability. It stems from the notion of the vanguard party as the sole repository of the historic experience of the class. It follows from this that the party cannot be wrong. At the same time the party contains a diversity of opinion and experience which if much more homogenous than that in the class as a whole, is nevertheless very real. Any internal divergence must therefore be mitigated by the leadership, circumvented or expelled. If that divergence enters the leadership itself then the only true ark of the covenant must be carried on by the most experienced and prestigious member of the leadership. The result centralism, let alone democratic centralism, is destroyed.

It was exactly this syndrome that afflicted IS in the faction fight with the IS Opposition. The ISO argued, in the wake of the Tory defeat in February 1974 that the new Labour administration would have a very long honeymoon period in which, by their special relationship with the trade union bureaucracy, they would far more effectively damp down industrial and political militancy. In such circumstances the emphasis should be less on campaigns and more on the unspectacular but more fruitful work among the worker militants, shop stewards and trade union activists. The real tasks, said the ISO, was the construction of a genuine rank and file movement that would be capable of initiating the trade union struggle abdicated by the trade union leaders. In the process the rank and file movement would be forced to develop a politics that would act as the bridge to revolutionary activity. That of course would require a great deal of patient explanation, a serious analytical style in the paper, less denunciation more explanation.

Counterposed to this, the leadership put forward the perspective of a short term honeymoon, followed rapidly by a resurgence of mass industrial struggle. In that perspective there was not time for the patient work of explanation, agitation was the watchword, the propaganda of the deed paramount. The trade unions, the shop stewards it was seriously argued have been rotted by full employment and thirty years of reformism. The new element the youth, traditionless and therefore revolutionary, inexperienced and therefore undaunted by the forces arrayed against them, in which presumably was numbered the middle aged militants. The paper should therefore contain short jazzy agitational articles in line with this infectious, youthful activism. Great hopes, even promises, were, held out that this would result in the increase of circulation to 80,000 perhaps over 100,000. (It is ironic to note that at the time of the debate the paper’s circulation was 40,000 and today is down to 20,000).

It will be noted that in this little debate the IS group had come full circle. At the time it broke with the Fourth International in 1950 the comrades had argued that state capitalism was the only theory that could arm the movement against the tendency to substitute non proletarian forces for the working class. In 1975 we find that the working class had acquired a new surrogate in the form of “revolutionary youth”. The organisation then had triumphed but socialist prospects had taken a severe knock.

All of this is a great pity and a great crime. The International Socialists were the most impressive group on the revolutionary left in Britain. Theoretically superior, organisationally more tolerant and politically more flexible, it had an attractive force denied the more orthodox and rigid competitors. With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see all manner of faults in the early years of IS, but none of these was as significant as the misconceived breakthrough to an ill-understood example of the Leninist model in 1968-69. It is not necessary to find in this the great political error, to dignify it by reference to the alien pressure of capitalism, except in the sense of general cultural loss within capitalism. The same things occur in tennis clubs and other social groupings. The trouble is that IS that could have been so much more., has sacrificed its chance at a small but organic relationship with advanced workers for an internal homogeneity that stifles criticism and eventually sacrifices growth.

Ian Birchall’s article does not refer to these problems except in the most exculpatory way but it will not be wasted if it causes those with the willingness to think again.


Last updated on 2.11.2003