Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 10

Avant trente ans revolutionnaire, apres canaille
Under thirty a revolutionist, thereafter a wretch

French saying quoted by Leon Trotsky in 1932 interview

The problem with Marxism is Marxists. Having discovered this world system, they are persuaded they have acquired a hammer-lock on infallibility. Trotsky, in his least convincing mode speaks of Marxism as “science”. It is as if, having elucidated the laws of motion of observable phenomena, you just have to apply the formulae according to your preferred theoretician’s instructions and hey presto, revolutionary success will come knocking at your door pleading to be let in.

Unfortunately, not least for Trotsky but also for the rest of us, it is not like that. Trotsky’s errors in analysis are manifest and quite numerous but his score is still better than almost everybody else because he got a few things spectacularly right. It is, though in the prediction department that Marxism needs get its act together. You do not, for example, win a major prize for your 1938 prediction, that capitalism will no longer develop the productive forces and that the only alternative is socialism or barbarism, if capitalism subsequently not only expands phenomenally but invades new areas in a quite spectacular way, improving in the process the living standard of countless millions of people. It does no good to argue, as LDT’s more besotted fans do, that nuclear war and its prospect are barbarous, or indeed that any improvements in standards have been very unevenly spread. Although all of this is true it is not at all what Trotsky was talking about: he did not know about the first and denied the possibility of the second. He really did mean that, to all intents and purposes, capitalism was irrevocably knackered.

It was this failure of prediction that disoriented orthodox Trotskyism. The Trotskyists screamed about the imminent general crisis of capitalism, hoping that one day, if they screamed it often enough, it would become true. And so it will, but we ought to do better than rely on the law of averages. What gave IS the advantage in the early 1960s, was the more sophisticated analysis which offered an explanation for capitalism’s apparent stability and a perspective for rank and file activity with the prospect of revolutionary organisation.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it is clear that while both of these insights were valuable, they were quite inadequate to encompass either the extent of the changes to the system, or the varied and unexpected responses to those changes. The student revolt was one such change, the women’s movement, gay liberation and the campaign for racial equality, spearheaded by blacks, were others. These movements were militant and accompanied, and sometimes surpassed in intensity, the developing industrial unrest. They were militant in their own terms and took strength from and learned from each other. Because they were a natural response to the pressures of a changing world, the theorising about them was post facto and often fanciful to absurd – as in the notion that to be white is ipso facto to be racist, or in the similar notion that oppressing women is an immutable feature of the male psyche. For Marxists this cannot be the answer, or their theory is completely invalid. Indeed, not only has 150 years of Marxism gone for nothing but the whole age of enlightenment has proved to be an illusion.

If the theories seemed to be largely composed of hot air, the movements themselves were real enough and they were all not just potential allies but an integral part of the struggle for socialism. With the possible exception of the IMG, this phenomenon was not much appreciated. From the outside it seemed that the IMG’s interest was a function of its lack of influence and inability to acquire any in the working class movement, but that may be uncharitable. In IS, what were essentially new opportunities were seen as a diversion from the central task of recruiting workers. Women workers, black workers yes; women in general and blacks per se, no thank you. This could, in part, be attributed to the fact that a significant part of the leadership of IS, by age and experience, did not understand the significance of these new movements (as part of that leadership at the time, I would certainly have to plead guilty). Even more significant was the simple fact that once more we had got the future wrong. The general expectation among all the parties to the democratic centralist argument was of an increasing and rapidly deepening working class radicalisation. The experience with Workers Fight was, especially for Cliff, a torture. He justified his increasingly draconian suggestions by reference to the great strides we could make without having to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing with Sean Matgamna. To contemplate the sort of reorganisation that would be necessary in building a homogeneous revolutionary group, with all that implied in the way of faction and dispute, was almost too much to bear thinking about So we did not think about it and resisted when others did. It was not admirable but seemed sensible.

With our NHS adjusted hindsight, it is clear that in the long run the Group was denied an opportunity to build a more socially significant and bigger organisation and one that would have been able to have considerable influence on the newly emerging movements, to the benefit of all. To do so it would probably have been necessary to change the entire leadership, including Cliff, but a period of quiet contemplation would have been good for them, especially him.

In 1970, however, with all the myopia of the present, the whole emphasis was on the growing militancy of the organised workers and the chance to channel this into rank and file organisation. With the election of the Tory government the trade union bureaucracy who had signed up for In Place of Strife under Labour were far less inclined to support Edward Heath’s corporatism. If IS mistook this anti-Tory element in militancy, it is also the case that many rank and file workers were fairly fed up with the bureaucracy’s too ready acceptance of the Labour government’s wage controls.

First fruits of this were seen in the NUT, itself a manifestation of a new white collar militancy, where the rank and file teachers’ organisation very quickly became an unofficial opposition within the union and a militant leadership in some of the NUT branches. With greater or lesser success, similar movements were beginning to develop among local government manual and white collar workers, in the London buses, the NUM, the Docks with a number of widespread and episodic efforts in the AEU.

The pattern was beginning to be set and the lessons of the Minority Movement assimilated. The role of the revolutionary organisation was to initiate and service activity, to help develop the sort of programme that would help the workers concerned to build their own strategy for advance. It would be transitional, both in terms of the expansion of trade union demands and in raising and expanding political consciousness. The Group should provide the framework where this could take place, allocating the necessary resources wherever possible. The extreme unevenness of the workers’ movement meant that in one place one might be dealing with individuals helping them to produce trade union leaflets to organise their workplace, and in another developing a rank and file paper to appeal to militants across a major industry. This was not organising across the whole spectrum of the alienated and recently radicalised, but it was something of which we had learned a little and were beginning to do, if not well, better.

The Heath administration saw it as one of its priorities to negotiate British entry into the common Market and, on taking office, vigorously pursued this course. Naturally there was a powerful chauvinist and Little Englander response from the Labour Lefts around Tribune and the Communist Party. The argument, especially in the mouths of some CP leaders became positively racist and those of us working in the trade unions did our best to counter this in print and by speeches. In doing this we were bolstered by the fact that, in pursuing a defencist rather than oppositionist line, we were following a long established policy of IS, best summed up in ISJ, No.11, 1962: “In itself the Common Market cannot tilt the class balance against us, but if we get lost in arguments for or against, instead of ensuring that workers neither pay for the preparations nor suffer the consequences in employment, wages or prices, it can or might.” This was the outcome of discussions in IS, stimulated by the Macmillan governments’ stalled attempt to join the Market, that had gone on for some time during which a minority argued for direct opposition.

At the 1970 and 1971 IS conferences, Peter Sedgwick argued for outright opposition to EEC entry; the traditional line was reaffirmed, however, with a united leadership arguing against any change. As the prospect of Britain actually joining the EEC became likely, and just a couple of weeks after the conference reaffirmed its traditional position, Cliff ably abetted by Chris Harman began to worry about how this would affect our trade union members who found themselves on delegations to the TUC and Labour Party or their own union conferences, in the face of the emotive campaign worked up by the CP-Tribune axis and submitted a document to the NC calling for a change of line. This concern for IS trade union activists was touching if misplaced, trade unionists with some experience – such as Geoff Carlsson, Ross Pritchard and Jim Higgins – were concerned that they would be embarrassed by suddenly changing the line they had been pursuing for some time. That the question should arise at all was a measure of the inexperience of Cliff and Harman in these matters. That the NC should endorse such a policy shift from Cliff and Harman, whose total working class experience comprised the three days that Cliff spent helping a building worker in Palestine, although it may be that Harman once had a paper round, also measures how inexperienced in these matters was the NC.

To justify their position Cliff and Harman produced a document which concluded: “Our aim in union conferences and the like should be to fight for resolutions to this effect, thus making clear both our opposition to the Common Market and our separation from confused chauvinism of the Tribuneites, CP, etc. However, if we are defeated on such a stand we should then vote with the Tribune-Stalinists in opposition to entry.” As a document from several NC members reasonably responded in an article in the Internal Bulletin: “What must be clear to anybody who knows anything about the penetration that the IS group has managed to attain in the trade union movement is that the possibility for a principled intervention prior to unprincipled combination is practically nil.” [1]

Having been foolhardy enough to place their criticism in the Internal Bulletin the opponents of the new line found that their article was cheek by jowl to a response from Chris Harman of Tottenham. Not for the first time, and certainly not the last, Cliff had arranged for Chris Harman to pop his head above the parapet, to see if the banging noises meant gunfire and, if so, was it really dangerous. Under the stimulating crosshead: What should be the attitude of revolutionaries at this conjuncture? Harman expatiated in a style redolent of all internal bulletins, since the time when monks in cold cloisters decorated them with illuminated dropped capitals: “l. We are against anything that rationalises or strengthens capitalism in an epoch in which the productive forces have developed sufficiently to make socialism an objective possibility ... 2. We are for weakening the mechanisms by which the ruling class exercises political-ideological control ... 3. We have to maintain completely our ideological independence on a class based standpoint. That means complete opposition to all chauvinistic arguments. It means a refusal to campaign alongside those who propagate such arguments. If approached to do so (e.g. by the CPs in the localities) we have to demand as a precondition for any joint campaign that it be based on class demands and rejection of all talk of ‘national independence’.”

The document goes on quite a lot in this vein and, apart from its spine wrenching convolutions, it serves to display a sublime ignorance of what happens at union conferences, not least in the suggestion that the CP might have felt so short of allies as to approach us to form a united front on the Common Market. Assuming that some aberrant Stalinist did so, we have further to believe that even though we suggested our rejection of all the CP’s chauvinist arguments in favour of principled class based opposition to capitalist rationalisation, at the end of the day we would vote for a fatally flawed resolution, our mythical Stalinist would be bowled over by the stunning power of our dialectic and amend his own resolution to our complete satisfaction. On the other hand he might have told us to,” go take a flying kick at a rolling doughnut”. In the final vole on the question at the NC, the Cliff-Harman axis were once more successful by a narrow majority, augmented this time by the vote of Paul Foot, whose undoubted talents were, unfortunately, not accompanied by intestinal fortitude when under pressure from Cliff.

The developing militancy in the working class and the organisational changes in IS were also accompanied by developments in the physical resources open to the Group. By instituting a fighting fund and leaning heavily on the members, the Group was able to purchase a decent sheetfed Heidelburg press and offices in Cotton’s Gardens, just off the Kingsland Road near Shoreditch Church, that served as both a print shop and an administrative centre. Ross Pritchard manned the press, Michael Heym manned the reproduction camera and made printing plates. Roger Protz edited the paper, with its name changed from Labour Worker to Socialist Worker. Diane Nair operated as admin secretary and Jim Nichol, a member of the Newcastle branch and a clerk in the National Coal Board, was employed to look after the books. Despite the cramped space in the press room it was not too long before an East German web press was installed. It had a rough hewn aspect, rather as if it had been chewed from the solid metal by GDR craftsmen using their teeth and an old file. This machine required the attention of Ross Pritchard, only someone of his considerable skill could deal with its temperamental eccentricities and so Jim Nichol’s brother Paul was introduced to operate the Heidelberg.

A bit later, a wealthy and extremely dedicated and generous comrade was prevailed upon to put up quite a substantial sum of money to buy commodious premises at the Oval, between the Hackney Road and Cambridge Heath Road. Here in a more spacious press hall, it was possible to place the presses and install folding machinery and other ancillary bits and pieces. The Group had acquired a nice little earner. It is to this particular development that some critics among them Joan Smith, point as the significant fact in the degeneration of IS. There can be no doubt that the profit from commercial printing subsidised the Group’s own publications and provided the money to employ a number of full time organisers. In general, but not invariably, the full time workers were uncritically loyal to the centre and to whoever suggested their appointment, usually Cliff. It is also the case that the profits were partly a function of the extremely low wages paid in the printshop and the flouting of a number of union rules.

Even so, it does not follow from this that socialists should deny themselves the opportunities of building a cadre of professional revolutionaries to increase the effectiveness of their work. If we are to assume that all such surplus is in some way unmerited or tainted and that its possession will inevitably lead to an autocratic regime policed by glassy-eyed apparatchiks, then I fear we must also concede the truth of original sin and start making our peace with the Almighty. In other, and happier, circumstances I would recommend employing organisers of the calibre of Granville Williams and Steve Jefferys. I would also recommend employing Chris Harman, providing that he spent at least five years in gainful employment first. So far as Cliff is concerned it is certain that paid or not he would want his own way and do everything possible to get it. I am told that Peter Taafe of Militant, when they finally got rid of Ted Grant, breathed such a heartfelt sigh of relief that even people who knew Taafe well felt retrospectively sorry for him.

Duncan Hallas also became a full time worker as National Secretary, a job that had not really existed before. In the sense that he was a man with a high degree of political knowledge and sophistication, an ability to speak well and to write simply, but as well as he spoke, he was a good choice. As a man to look after the administration and to monitor the work of the branches and the organisers, less good. Nevertheless, it was a significant advance. Of much more dubious long term value was the appointment, at Cliff’s urging, of Roger Rosewell as Industrial Organiser.

Rosewell was recruited in Kingston in the early 1960s by Mick Teague and John Palmer. (They have both apologised profusely several times but I still feel that something painful and mediaeval by way of penance is appropriate.) He was a member of the YCL and then the LPYS and a member of some very small craft union, the Society of Metal Mechanics, I believe. The most notable thing about him was his conceit: despite the fact that he was a rather short, slight of frame and, even when quite young, going prematurely bald, he strutted about as if he were a cross between Robert Bedford and Argold Schwarzenegger. So that he would stand out amongst the casually dressed IS members he wore pin-striped suits complete with waistcoat. At Cotton’s Gardens one might, on occasion, come across him practising some kind of martial art in a noisy and theatrical fashion.

In direct imitation of Gerry Healy, whose style he much admired, he would orate with his thumbs tucked behind his red braces. This admiration for Healy, who he knew not at all – and certainly Healy would have eaten him for breakfast – was of a piece with his “toy bolshevism”. This image of the hard man that he presented to the world was a smokescreen to a timid fellow, given to indolence and cowardice.

The highpoint of his alleged stewardship of the industrial work was when he shared a platform for a few meetings with Bernadette Devlin, who was close to IS at the time. Bernadette, who possessed all the qualities that Rosewell lacked, including modesty, was the one who drew the crowds and made the significant speeches while Rosewell provided the braces-snapping demagoguery. After a time, to listen to Roger, one might have thought that the hundreds who turned up came to hear, and could not get enough of, the man in the red braces and the embarrassing oratory.

If he felt unloved which must have been often, he would retreat to some provincial funkhole and sulk. If really upset and unable to cope, he would go and stay with Cliff. Together they could watch children’s television, maybe to catch up on Blue Peter, in case it gave a specification for building the revolutionary party out of some sticky backed plastic, an egg box a Squeezee bottle and a pair of Val’s old knickers. On one occasion I was invited by Cliff to talk to the distraught Rosewell. He was tearful and told me that he was unhappy, unsuccessful and unworthy and he wanted to go to Israel and live on a kibbutz. Perhaps inside every hard man there is a Roger Rosewell trying to get out. To my regret, I talked him out of this piece of nonsense. (Half a million Hail Marys and twice round the Vatican.) On another occasion he was sent to Teesside, where the first strike at the steelworks since the General Strike was taking place. One of the leaders of the strike was Arthur Affleck, a very impressive militant and an IS member on the National Committee. A meeting was arranged at which Rosewell was billed to speak in support of Arthur. He failed to turn up, giving as his excuse that he had to watch the Maltese Falcon on TV. What a prince that man was.

For some reason, which escapes me, Cliff would protect Roger from the consequences of his derelictions. At one stage, thinking it would be good for him to settle down, he suggested to at least one young female comrade that she might like to marry Roger. This concern for Rosewell, up to and including marriage broking was not extended to others and, Roger being Roger, the affection was not reciprocated. Having resigned from the Industrial Organiser post, he was, for a time, Liverpool organiser. Here in concert with Andreas Nagliatti – he always needed somebody to supply the brains – he operated as the British end of the Italian, sub-Maoist, Avanguardia Operaia group.

Having left IS he went to Ruskin and thence to Oxford and, having acquired his degree, worked closely with Frank Chapple, the far right General Secretary of the ETU. He also wrote an expose of IS in the Daily Mail, in which he claimed, among other lies, that Cliff had forbidden him to marry the lady of his choice. From ultra-right wing Labour he moved in with the Jenkins-Owen SDP. This, however, was just a way-station with no future and the logical next step was the Tories. Here he met Lady Porter, the eldritch creature who ran Westminster Council like some branch of the penal system. In great, but ineffective, secrecy Rosewell was whisked into an anonymous room at Westminster Council offices, to help her to plot and to gerrymander, for the Tories’ benefit and to disenfranchise the poor and the homeless, all at the ratepayers’ expense. An appropriate symbol for a wasted and worthless career.

Rosewell, of course, was not active in the IS Group’s work on Ireland. That was largely down to John Palmer, Jimmy Greeley, Brian Trench, Paddy Prenderville, and Paul Gillespie. As a result a number of the People’s Democracy people were brought in to the Group, among them Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann: in their turn they brought IS in contact with Benadette Devlin prior to her election as an MP. It was quite natural that she worked closely with IS when she came to Westminster and, famously and quite splendidly, fetched Reggie Maudling a clout. As part of that association, Bernadette supplied the attraction and IS supplied the organisation and the people to set up meetings. These were the biggest meetings that IS has had, either before or after. Her meeting in Dagenham attracted an audience of 4,000, with hundreds unable to get in, and was also addressed by Eamonn McCann, John Palmer and Terry Barrett. A similar meeting filled Wimbledon Town Hall to the gunwales.

Despite the success of these big set piece events IS did not succeed in building an organisation in the six counties, although Brian Trench and Paul Gillespie did succeed in setting up the Socialist Workers’ Movement, very much on IS lines. Through its press, through public meetings and internal education, IS did influence the British left to a clearer understanding of the Irish struggle. It certainly avoided the sort of “left Unionism” of Militant and the IRA tailism of the IMG. IS was especially influential in the anti-internment campaigns.

One of the more controversial stands of the Group was to resist calls for the immediate withdrawal of British troops, after the pogroms in the Falls road and Derry brought them in, to the evident relief of the catholic population they were, at the outset, protecting. This particular stand was one of the subjects for extreme criticism from the Workers’ Fight. One might have taken this a little more seriously if Sean Matgamna had not, at an IS conference, circulated a photocopy of a map from the Economist, showing the location of the different religious sections of the population. This distribution, Sean suggested, showed how exchanges of population and territory between the North and South, could be facilitated and thus overcome sectarian difficulties. I understand that today his Irish policy implies a new partition.

For all that the Group was aware of its shortcomings in face of radical developments that it predicted and confidently expected, nevertheless, IS seemed to be best able to take advantage of those changes. Whatever its shortcomings, IS now thought of itself as the nucleus of the revolutionary party. Small mass party That needs some clarification, because it did not mean for IS, as it did for so many messianic sects, that it was the party in miniature in, the Shachtmanite, immortal phrase: “the small mass revolutionary party”. There were developments to come that we could not foresee that would impose their own necessary changes on the organisation. In particular, it was well understood that a revolutionary party is one that organises a significant number of workers. It is one that can operate autonomously and begin to set a working class agenda. For example, if and when it calls a one day general strike, neither the members nor the workers will go to work that day. There was a long way to go before that could come to pass but in the meanwhile, the organisation could learn to campaign and to develop its strength in industry.



1. The Common Market and the IS Group by Cdes Nagliatti, Foot, Higgins, Pritchard, Edwards and Carlsson.


Last updated on 2.11.2003