Jim Higgins

Breakthrough for the Trots?

(November 1977)

From the Spectator, 12 November 1977.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The revolutionary Left in Britain, or elsewhere for that matter, is like other religions – secular or spiritual – supremely logical in its development once the basic assumptions have been accepted. Even so, it is not always easy to plot its course because that so often depends upon rather subjective exegetics on the holy texts. Nevertheless, once these reservations have been made, it is possible for those with that sort of mind to find some post facto rationality in what might otherwise seem to be a perverse shift of direction, even a departure from principle. Without such reservations one might be forced to the conclusion that the pious are at best demented or at worst more than a touch dishonest.

So it is with the Socialist Workers’ Party, formerly the International Socialists. The SWP – following their spectacular piece of street theatre at Lewisham – have been gratified at the attention they have received from the press. If ambition were to be measured in column inches then the SWP has certainly attained one of its objectives, which is to outstrip the Communist Party. It was not always this way. In one or other of its several manifestations the SWP has been in existence for nearly thirty years; first as a faction within the official Trotskyist movement, later as a very small entryist group in the Labour Party, and finally, and most recently, as a more and more stridently self-proclaimed alternative to all other socialist organisations.

For the first sixteen odd years of its existence the SWP remained small (a hundred or less), dependent for survival on its parasitic role within the Labour Party. It had few prospects and little influence outside the overheated atmosphere of the Young Socialists. Then, in 1968, two unconnected events led to a certain take-off; first, and most significant, the May 1968 disturbances in France, and secondly the dockers’ march in support of Enoch Powell’s views on immigration. Contradictory though these two happenings may be, and at the time they both seemed to have a certain elemental character, they had the effect of galvanising a section of the student body in our universities. Such organisations as the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation were formed. The International Marxist Group developed a theory of the universities as “red bases” from which the revolution would spread to the working class. The SWP was less euphoric about the revolutionary catalyst within the dreaming spires. It was, however, gaining useful, intelligent and idealistic recruits who could be directed to more fruitful fields of endeavour. The student cadre was “turned toward the class”, a euphemism for propaganda outside factories and in a few cases directing graduates to factory jobs, where they could “struggle for leadership”.

Although, at first sight it might seem an odd choice to thrust some pass degree sociology student into the maelstrom of Linwood, in many cases it worked. Ex-students did attain the eminence of shop stewards and, fortunately for them, the Tory government was elected on a union-bashing platform. The history of the escalating industrial strife that marked the Heath administration has been well documented, but less well noted was the growth in membership of the SWP during that period. That growth was, for the first time, at least half composed of industrial workers and white collar workers. By the time that the Tories were brought down by the miners the SWP had 4,000 members, a good sprinkling of whom occupied positions of some influence in trade union bodies.

For the SWP the perspective was one of ever-increasing industrial militancy, accompanied by massive growth in their organisation. Unfortunately for them, the Labour government was returned to power in February 1971, and after a brief period, in which wage rates were let rip, the Jack Jones-inspired social contract held sway. The life went out of wages militancy and the comrades were left with an infant National Rank and File movement, which they paid for and sustained, without the industrial suite to breathe life into it.

A new tactic was required, and as unemployment grew, the Rank and File movement was transformed, overnight, into the Right to Work campaign. In a rather slavish imitation of the pre-war hunger marches, contingents of young enthusiasts were conducted on foot from Manchester to London and then from London to Brighton. At the culmination of the Manchester march there was the fracas with the police at Hendon. The party was on the streets and engaging the agents of the class enemy. For all the spectacular mayhem, though, the campaign did not attract more than a few recruits.

It was the rise of the National Front and the adoption of anti-fascist activity, that gave the SWP its chance for publicity and recruitment. The slogan was to change the colour of the SWP; it had to be darkened by the infusion of coloured youth and workers. It was successful, at least in this objective. The NF, a disparate collection of ex-Nazis and apoplectic racialists, cannot mobilise a force on the streets of any significant size, whereas the SWP, if it pulls out the stops, can mobilise two, three or even more times their number. Punch-up politics are not without some pay-off for those who engage in them. SWP membership increased – as did that of the NF.

As part of “going public”, by-elections were fought and their ageing boy orator Paul Foot was trotted around the country on a well-organised speaking tours. It was all very exciting, but it was really marking time until the next breakthrough into the “real” working class.

That is the stage that seems to have arrived. The power workers have takers unofficial action. The miners are intent upon a large increase untrammelled by productivity strings. The SWP calculation is that a rerun of 1973-74 is the order of the day. The question that remains is: will the recent recruitment constitute as firm a base as that of 1968? There will undoubtedly be some attrition of these who joined on a wave of anti-fascist euphoria and can find no place in an industrially oriented strategy. Again, it is a big question whether they now have sufficient numbers to maintain a certain public political presence while putting the main emphasis on industrial struggle. That is certainly their intention: a broad anti-fascist body is in process of formation which will include some forty Labour MPs among its sponsors. At the same time a reconvened National Rank and File conference will take place for shop stewards and trade union militants in December. Whatever their ability to balance the conflicting demands of agitation, the justification will be found in some text from the Leninist canon and the raison-d’etre in industrial militancy.


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