Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 11

Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy?
For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?

Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

The growth of IS can be measured fairly accurately by the increase in the number of branches between the 1971 and 1972 conferences. In April 1971, the number of branches was 87 by the following April that had increased to 113. It is interesting to note that over the twelve months the two Manchester branches had merged, following the exit of the Trotskyist Tendency. It was also apparent that the organisational set up of the EC and NC, with various sub-committees, was working with reasonable efficiency.

Over the year, the NC members had put up an impressive attendance record and if, ideally, it could have contained more worker members, at least it had some. It had issued 11 policy statements on subjects ranging from Political and Organisational Perspectives to the Campaign against the Industrial Relations Bill, taking in, IS and the Labour Party, On Unity and several other items.

The Executive Committee was composed of Ian Birchall, international; Tony Cliff; Duncan Hallas, National Secretary; Nigel Harris; Jim Higgins, Chairman; Jim Nichol, Treasurer; Frank Campbell, a building worker; John Palmer; Roger Protz, Editor Socialist Worker; Roger Rosewell, Industrial Organiser and Chris Harman, Editor ISJ. It was a reasonably balanced committee, Harman invariably voted with Cliff, as did Jim Nichol who, at least in my presence, never gave voice to a political utterance, but seemed to understand finance. Ian Birchall had a mind of his own, if given to moodiness and a tendency to resign from IS if at all unhappy. The most difficult thing, and one in which nobody succeeded, was to convince Cliff that his latest idea was not some kind of revealed truth, in the pursuit of which everything else should be set aside. To get across the simple fact that the workers’ movement has certain norms of conduct and definite procedures that are there precisely because it is a collective movement, at its best involving all members of the collective, proved impossible. For Cliff the “brilliant” insights of an individual (himself) could be submitted to popular approval on two conditions: one; that they agreed with his proposal in double quick time, and two; that if they did not agree he won anyway. This cast of mind is one he shares with some trade union leaders. It drives most militants into paroxysms of rage which is why, whenever the bureaucracy is pulling a fast one, the Conference Arrangements Committee report at trade union conferences, is one of the most passionate debates. The existence of this phenomenon is one of the reasons why a genuine revolutionary party has, by definition, to include many experienced militants in its ranks because, among other things, they are the best guarantee against bureaucratic manipulation and capricious, high-handedness. The failure to grasp this simple fact of working class life is evidence of a fundamental and debilitating ignorance and an absolute bar to revolutionary success.

In 1971, a rally organised by Jenny Davidson, attracted 550 people to Skegness. The assembly was addressed by Cliff, Palmer and Hallas speaking respectively on: The International Movement, The Developing Crisis of Capitalism and Towards a Revolutionary Party. This was an impressive turnout by any standards and while it was also a social occasion, with dances, films and Alex Glasgow – an IS member – entertaining, most people came for the solid political core of the weekend. A touring day school on Imperialism and the Third World and Revolutionary Work in the unions was popular as were weekend schools on State Capitalism and the Revolutionary Party. During the summer of 1971, a week long cadre school for young and comparatively new members was held with 37 attending to learn about public speaking, Marxism, Trotskyism, IS traditions, politics and industrial strategy. The Internal Bulletin, like ISJ, was edited by Duncan Hallas and appeared every month, in almost enough copies for each member to have one (1350 copies distributed).

The increase in the proportion of workers in IS, did give rise to some problem for the Treasurer. With a largely white collar and middle class membership, most subs were paid by bankers’ order, which led to a pretty slack attitude to collection in the branches. Manual workers, however, were generally “unbanked” and paid subs in cash, except that branches were not geared up to collect them. This was to give rise to some heart-rending appeals from Jim Nichol. The only other time I felt sorry for him was when he was run over by a distracted nurse – I swear I did not know the woman – outside St Leonard’s Hospital in the Kingsland Road.

There were industrial factions in ten unions and six industrial sections. There were four rank and file papers, with a total print run of just short of 12,000. It was a disappointing outcome considering the level of militant trade union activity and a growing fight against the Industrial Relations Bill, but it may reflect the fact that Rosewell, who preferred talking tough to the nitty gritty of organising, was coming to the end of his tenure of this particular office and spent most of his tine bunking off and catching up on afternoon TV.

The real success story of the year 1971-72 was Socialist Worker. Over the period the average print order had gone up from 13,000 to 28,000, with a paid sale of around 70 per cent. It was calculated that the readership was in excess of 50,000. Most satisfying were tokens of success such as the fact that Docker’ National Stewards Committee decided to issue press statements only to the Morning Star and Socialist Worker and the fact that, during the miners’ strike that year. the paper had been taken and enthusiastically sold by miners. Socialist Worker was staffed by Laurie Flynn, Chris Harman, Peter Marsden and Roger Protz full time, with Nigel Fountain, Dave Widgery and Chris Hitchens giving part time help. Despite the characteristic philistinism of revolutionary socialists, most of the members were quite proud of the fact that the paper looked well designed and professionally produced. The paper was the public face of the organisation, one that a growing number of people recognised and a small but growing number considered required reading.

One small event that was particularly heartening in 1971, was that Harry Wicks joined the Group. Of course he was only one among several hundred, but he was a founder member of the Communist Party and an active member at that. A railwayman he trade, he was, in 1927, sent to the Lenin School in Moscow for a three year course in revolution. While in Moscow he became aware of Trotsky’s arguments and, on his return to the UK in 1931, he met up with other oppositionists such as Reg Groves and Stuart Purkes. In due course they formed the Balham Group, were expelled from the CP and produced a paper Red Flag. Harry Wick's vow In 1932, Harry went to Copenhagen, where Trotsky was to address the Social Democratic Youth on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Harry was to take on the dual role of bodyguard at the meeting and delegate to an informal international meeting of Left Oppositionists. Harry took with him as a present for Trotsky a model of Hamburg, which was used at the Lenin School to instruct the students in street fighting. LDT was, apparently, quite pleased to get this gift and, flinging his arms around Harry, he cried “My dear Comrade Wicks” and kissed him. This secretly pleased but also embarrassed Harry and when I asked him which cheek, so that I too could kiss the spot kissed by Leon Trotsky, it took some time for him to admit that it was both cheeks and he was going to have no more of that sort of behaviour. His decision to join IS was, for me, an indication that the Group was becoming an organisation to be reckoned with.

Later, in 1972, Duncan Hallas became Political Secretary, in addition to editing ISJ, and I was appointed National Secretary. The idea was to improve the communication in the group, to direct the increasing number of full timers and to make the organisation more responsive to the changing situation Duncan and I would complement one another in the national office. As one would suppose, the idea for this came from Cliff and I assumed that, having known me for 13 years, he knew something about me and my strengths and weaknesses, in the same way that I had a fair idea about his. In the course of discussing the job with him, I felt that he, at least was convinced that it was worth taking me out of a job I had been in for 25 years, and from my union, where I was a branch secretary, on the Executive Committee and fairly well known as a left winger up and down the country. Only an idiot, I thought to myself, would expect me to chuck up what was, in effect, half a working life’s endeavour on a whim. At this remove, of course, it is much easier to see who was the idiot and who was the whimsical old prankster.

Between March 1972 and March 1974 the membership of IS increased from 2,351 to 3,310. The number of manual workers increased from 613 to 1,155 during the same period. This welcome improvement in the social composition of the Group was not the whole story: during the membership campaigns of 1973 about 750 additional workers were recruited but could not be integrated into IS. During this same period, the Group was trying very hard to develop a factory branch structure. By July 1974, there were a total of 38 workplace branches, organising some 300 members. A measure of the difficulties, and of IS inexperience, in this work can be seen by the fact that from March 73 to July 74 a total of 56 factory branches had been recognised but 18 of them disappeared or were dissolved. Another problem was that, while IS understood the theory of factory branches – Cliff had written an IS Bulletin of 24 pages (A4 size pages in 8/10 point type) that dealt with the matter exhaustively and paid lip service to patience and caution – its experience in the field was zero. In practice the job was rushed and half the time botched. Setting up such branches with politically inexperienced workers, many of whom were young, requires both patience and a commitment of resources that were just not available. The intelligent thing to do in the circumstances, is to slow down the process and make a good job where you can. As Lenin said, “Better less but better”. The excellent Industrial Report in the 1974 Pre-Conference Report, which bears all the marks of having been written by Steve Jeffreys, details the experience of several factory branches “Branch A reports: ‘The Branch was formed with 11 members. This rose to 14 members. Three or four dropped out after about one and a half months. Others left later on. The branch now has 7 members. The majority left because they thought IS was something else. There was no real discussion or education. The branch was set up (in the opinion of the members left) too quickly. We knew very little about Marxism and even less about revolutionary politics. We therefore think it would have been better if we had joined the local branch and got to know the workings of the branch and got educated on Marx and Lenin ...’ Branch J writes: ‘We have five members now and had eight at one time. The three were not interested in trade union work. They were full of criticisms but refused to fight for positions in the factory or trade union ...’ Branch D reported: ‘...To be frank meetings are terrible’”. Practically all of the reports indicated high hopes at the beginning, followed fairly quickly by membership loss, with a low level of commitment and education. That is the sort of picture that calls for caution and remedial action. Not a bit of it, the report goes on: “Maintaining a revolutionary presence in the factory, training new and young socialists in revolutionary, working class politics, steadily becoming the real leadership of the left in the workplace – these are the sorts of aims that if achieved this year in our first forty factory branches, and over the coming year in another 80 factories, will mean we will be able to give real leadership to significant sections of the working class within the course of the next 18 months. We will have become a working class party.” This is the kind of vainglory that makes one cringe retrospectively. From evidence that shows fairly clearly that what the factory branches have done over the year is to survive, we extrapolate to 40 factories with a fully fledged revolutionary leadership, then with a perspective of another 80 such paragons, we will be leading the working class in 18 months.

It is probably true to say that the factory branches were a pre-ordained failure, no matter how much was put into them they would not have succeeded, because IS just did not have enough factory members. More significantly, the IS Group did not have, and was not aware that it needed, the sort of infrastructure that would enable it to assist these fledgling branches to develop into functioning industrial and political entities Such patient development was precluded because IS policy was predicated on a quite false perspective of an imminent general crisis of the system. A fortunate conjuncture of circumstances had given the Group the opportunity to grow to thousands, rather than the hundreds it had been a few years before, and the tens it had been a few years before that, but that should not have been seen as a promise of uninterrupted growth. It is all too easy for socialists to believe that the thing they most earnestly desire is just one big heave away – that we could pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, if only we pulled harder, while failing to observe that we have no boots.

In the early 1970s, just around the corner from the National Office, was Tina’s Cafe, a small but pleasant dining room. It was here that comrades from the centre would partake of a little light refreshment. As is the nature of the beast, the comrades would discuss politics as they dined. Often what started out as an outlandish suggestion would, in the time taken to drink a cup of tea and consume a plateful of sausage, egg and chips, be transformed in discussion into an eminently reasonable and practical proposal. Extensive research reveals that Tina’s Cafe Syndrome afflicts revolutionaries, with deadly effect, whenever they start to believe their own rhetoric, even without a high cholesterol diet.

Another quite debilitating complaint is the virus that infects people with the Collected Works of Lenin on their bookshelves. This particular malady manifests itself in the patient’s inability to observe any present day situation without bending it into an analogy from the history of Bolshevism. In the chronic phase, Cliff is a text book example, the sufferer turns into a secular Thomas A Kempis writing On the Adoration of Lenin. If you read the history of the Russian Revolution, you will notice that the Bolsheviks were strong in the factory districts of Petrograd, particularly in the Putilov Works, the largest factory in the world in 1917. Reading further, we will note such occurrences as the Bolshevik central committee discussing plans for an armed manifestation on the streets. A decision is taken and the agitators are dispatched to the factories. And, in due course, just such a manifestation takes place. Now that is power and in a few short weeks they actually took it all. In Britain, of course, we were not in a position to have any armed demonstrations but we could have factory branches and we could dream that, in the not too distant future, we might be sending in the agitators for an assault on our own Winter Palace. What could not be hidden, despite a primer by Rosewell, three undercoats by Steve Jefferys and a 24 page gloss from Cliff, was that a few factory branches are not necessarily the prelude to storming anything. Activity that was correct if it was done in a careful and structured way was performed in a silly slapdash rush. Factory branches have to have a basis in political experience and a proper group infrastructure. A rank and file movement is absolutely necessary but it cannot be built by edict and a rudimentary factory branch structure.

What did exist was hopeful but tentative, something that could, with tender loving care, grow but could just as easily wither and die. On top of all this was Cliff’s overweening ambition and soaring imagination; the two coexisted in a dialectical relationship where ambition fed imagination and vice versa. If problems existed, they could not be part of objective reality, there was always a human culprit, or culprits, lurking in the background. Cliff’s unease at the pace of recruitment which neither matched his ambitions nor, as he saw it, the opportunities available were expressed in a series of half baked schemes for building the group in a hurry. Cliff arranged to have himself appointed membership secretary. The first fruits of this brainstorm was to set up the full time local organisers for a bit of socialist emulation in the recruitment stakes. At each National Committee, a league table of organisers was produced with the big time recruiters at the top and the no goodniks at the bottom. What it did produce, apart from sound and fury, was an accelerated turnover of new members into ex-members and some creative accounting by the organisers. An ace recruiter and SW seller was John Charlton, from Yorkshire. John was an amiable chap, with a quite touching belief in Cliff’s infallibility, whose friendly disposition did seem to attract people to IS. On one embarrassing occasion, at Cliff’s request, he delivered a quite lengthy exposition, at the NC, on how to sell Socialist Worker on the knocker. First was the need to be reasonably well turned out; it was also pretty vital to shut garden gates; sellers should not bang too hard on the door; when the door was opened a smile was mandatory; as was the offer to shake hands and the need give one’s name. Having observed all the social amenities, only then could Socialist Worker be proffered for sale followed by a bit of a chat. John’s talk was rather like a Kleenezee salesmen’s seminar, delivered with all the wide eyed enthusiasm and certainty of a Seventh Day Adventist. He was, nevertheless, a very serious and dedicated comrade who, because of his leading position at the top of the recruiting league table, earned the right to whisper in Cliff’s most impressionable ear – that is, if the space was not already occupied by the forked tongue of Roger Rosewell.

For a brief time it was these two sterling recruiters who exercised the maximum influence on Cliff and it was from their example that Cliff invented the “Leading Areas” theory of organisation. It was in some ways an interesting theory, that prefigured the ideas of Margaret Thatcher – I have nowhere seen her acknowledge the debt, but that’s Tories for you – it was simple, it was backed by preconception rather than evidence and it was, in practice, quite ineffective. According to this thesis you put maximum effort and resources into the leading areas, leaving the smaller and the less hopeful to experience a trickle down effect. A failure to appreciate the profound wizardry of this stratagem condemned you as a conservative element beyond hope of Leninist redemption. The accusatory finger inexorably pointed at the EC. Here, for Cliff, was the root of the problem, a committee endlessly obsessed with the Group as a whole, concerned that even the least among us should get their due measure of attention. This kind of negative thinking proved conclusive so far as Cliff was concerned, the personnel at the centre had to go. He absented himself from meetings for weeks on end and his initiatives would materialise in the leading areas, without passing through the committee set up specifically for this purpose. When eventually called to account, Cliff’s response was that he was not sure if his initiatives would succeed. In fact he did have a low success rate, and he feared that the EC would oppose what he thought to be the correct course. A moment’s thought about all of this will indicate, that what we are seeing here has nothing to do with democratic centralism, but something much akin to anarchism. In all of this it seemed to some of us that there was not much Lenin and a lot of Louis XIV, as in: “L’Etat c’est moi.”

The debate that surfaced in the EC was on the question of the Rank and File Movement. As recently as the 1973 IS conference in April, the Group had reaffirmed its intention of working toward the setting up of such a movement. The EC, including Cliff were convinced that the propitious moment was approaching and all were agreed that such a movement was an essential prerequisite for the development of a mass workers party. It was not something that the IS could, or should, control, but it would need the resources and initial input of the Group to set it up. It was the method of transitional politics that we expected to be a bridge to the party. With our Factory branches and the industrial and trade union fractions, the rank and file organisations together with their journals, it seemed that we might, with a lot of effort, set the Rank and File ball moving. The optimistic hope was, that the Rank and File movement would grow, after the initial kick-start, into a movement in which IS would be the predominant, but not the only, political tendency.

This pleasingly unanimous view on the Rank and File conference did not outlast the opposition expressed by Rosewell and Charlton at the National Committee meeting. Their arguments were not at all convincing and the NC rejected their call. Cliff turned up to the next EC meeting with a resolution to scrap the Rank and File Conference and substitute a recruiting rally at Bellvue, Manchester. After a lengthy and exhaustive discussion, the EC voted down the resolution with, I think, only Cliff and Harman in favour. At this setback, Cliff demanded three months leave of absence. He intended to retire to Nigel Harris’s country cottage and finish his book on Lenin.

None of us, of course, imagined that Cliff’s leave was a gracious admission of defeat, to be followed by three months of industriously clipping Lenin’s Collected Works in the sylvan surroundings of Nigel’s dacha. Not a bit of it. This was to be three months of frenzied activity, with Nigel’s telephone almost bursting into flames through the heat of long winded, long distance lobbying, as Cliff badgered, bludgeoned and persuaded as many people as he could to overturn the NC. Fearing for Nigel Harris’ solvency when the phone bill came in and also to avoid an unnecessary fight, I managed to persuade a majority of the EC to agree to a compromise: Cliff should have his rally in November 1973 and the Rank and File Conference would be held in early 1974.

Strange as it may seem, so long as he had his rally, he no longer required a leave of absence, but his animus towards the “conservative” EC remained undiminished: the night of the long knives was fast approaching. The putsch, when it came, found its justification in the leading areas theory. In this case, if the EC did not go to the leading areas they must come to the EC. In a proposal that was almost boring in its predictability and stupidity, the old EC was to be dumped, to be replaced by a body comprising, Cliff, John Charlton, Roger Rosewell, Roger Kline and Jim Higgins, National Secretary, Roger Protz, editor of Socialist Worker and Andreas Nagliatti, Industrial Organiser. Non-voting places were offered to Chris Harman, editor ISJ, Jim Nichol, treasurer and Nigel Harris chairman of the London Region. Nigel declined this dubious honour. John Palmer, Ian Birchall and Chris Davidson were excluded because they were unable to attend meetings in working hours, which is when ECs were held.

Readers who have followed this story with care will have noticed that someone is missing from the cast list. Duncan Hallas had become an unperson. This seemed odd: Duncan was one of the most experienced and talented comrades in IS, he was the leader writer for Socialist Worker and, at least nominally, the Political Secretary of the Group. Despite his obvious qualifications, he did manifest a serious failing – he often acted as if not every word of Cliff’s had been ticked by God and given ten out of ten. As Roger Protz and I took a similarly blasphemous view, Duncan’s presence on the committee would play havoc with the EC’s voting arithmetic. Nagliatti was generally sound from Cliff’s point of view but he might prove a loose cannon when it came to the Rank and File Movement. This is not at all to say that, apart from Cliff and his coterie, anyone else was behaving in a factional manner. Duncan was as likely to disagree with me as he was with Cliff, and similar considerations applied to Roger Protz. Nevertheless, when I raised the question of Duncan’s inclusion on the EC, I was astonished at the degree of opposition and the vehemence with which it was expressed. His presence, I was told, would ruin any chance of the changes working and lead to frustration and loss of efficiency. Such was the extent of his disenchantment with Duncan that Cliff was proposing to sack him from full time duties. I felt that this was a case less of throwing the baby out with the bathwater than of hammering the poor little bugger down the plug hole. I proposed, and the NC accepted, that Duncan should become Deputy National Secretary.

This assertion of a small degree of independence seems to have been rather like handing over a signed and undated suicide note for safe keeping. Cliff and Rosewell began to canvas for a new National Secretary, offering the job to John Charlton for one and then Dave Peers for another. As the campaign mounted, a sort of parallel centre was established in Cliff’s home, the National office was sidestepped and marginalised. The tasks of administration that a growing group, or even one that wants to grow and to monitor its success, or even one that wants to measure how leading are the leading areas, requires some sort of admin. For Cliff in his Nechaev mode all this was anathema: “smash the duplicator” was his merry cry. According to this school of thought, or rather non-thought, the members did not require minutes or Infernal Bulletins, they just needed to be told what to do; better still just, enjoined to follow the example of the leading areas. After a few months of being bypassed, marginalised and worn down by a steady drip of slander I began to get the distinct impression that I was at a party where the invitations could be retrospectively withdrawn and mine was long overdue for the shredder. The final straw came when EC meetings always started late because Cliff and his faction had to meet, in Tina’s Cafe to decide what decisions would be imposed upon me without discussion. I resigned and took a job as a reporter on Socialist Worker.

Over the years several people have asked why, given the undeclared factionalism of Cliff and his satraps, I had not utilised the position of National Secretary to organise a more effective opposition. Operating from the Centre, it would certainly have been possible to organise quite a few of the neglected non-leading areas and, as a matter of fact, a couple of leading ones too. The reason for what I know see as a neglect of duty was that I was convinced of the favourable climate for IS to grow and break out of the frustrations and idiocies of sect politics. A serious faction fight would have, I thought, put in jeopardy the hard won gains of the last couple of years. Effectively having two competing national offices was a recipe for a split and I shrunk from such a prospect. Unlike Cliff, I was not prepared to devote every waking hour to getting a mean advantage to falsify the past and lie about the present. The “leading areas” thesis I now realise was not seriously worked through but was a tattered fig leaf Cliff hoped would cover his rather sordid manoeuvring. It was successful in that limited objective and was then dropped, never to be heard of again, except from the disgruntled and disappointed.

So little was I interested in factional advantage, rather than what I conceived to the good of the Group, that I was instrumental in getting Steve Jefferys, then the Glasgow Organiser and a very good one, to come down to, London, to replace Andreas Nagliatti who had resigned, as Industrial Organiser, with a seat on the EC. This was a mistake because his organising talents were used to the full in the later fight against us.

On all the other counts I was also wrong. There was a great deal more dissatisfaction than I realised and it was a mistake to forego whatever advantage one might have had. One had to assume, as Cliff always did, that there would be collateral damage, but that is in the nature of such struggles and may be minimised with more balanced forces. In the event, the faction fight that did eventually break out displayed a smaller minority than might otherwise have been the case. Even then, the majority found it necessary to use their control of the Centre to gerrymander the decisive conference. The opposition thought they were fighting for the soul of the party, while Cliff struggled for his permanent casting vote.


Last updated on 2.11.2003