Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 13

if desired a man can be completely changed
... and after each a change has been accomplished,
he will be suitable for any purpose.

Bertolt Brecht

Arising from the furore about the changes in orientation and staff on Socialist Worker, it was necessary for the leadership to establish the theoretical basis for their antics. For a job like this Cliff was outstandingly well qualified and he obliged in the May 1974 Internal Bulletin, in a piece entitled The Way Ahead for IS (see Appendix 5). The central political point was effectively answered by Ruth Nelson (also in Appendix 5). What she did not take up was the essential dishonesty of Cliff’s article. It starts with a weary reference to this, “petty squabble”, as if “nasty types” or “weak nerved dilettanti” had forced the quarrel on him. After all it was he who rewrote theory on the hoof to justify dubious and ultimately unsuccessful organisational proposals.

Like so many of his articles it starts with a quote from Lenin without reference, a sure sign that a full reading of the text would probably indicate the reverse of what he was attempting to prove. Certainly he never produced a quote from Lenin in which the great man damned experience and tradition in mature workers.

The reference to Kidron’s article in International Socialism, No.7 is to a piece entitled Reform or Revolution: Rejoinder to Left Reformism. It is essentially an exposition of the Permanent Arms Economy (a theory, readers may recall, repudiated by Kidron in 1977) with just one page devoted to “the diffusion of the locus of reformism”. In a very abstract manner, it is true, Kidron confounds Cliff’s notion that there has been a “depoliticisation of the mass of the workers”. He wrote: “For him [the worker] reform and revolution are not separate activities, enshrined in distinct and separate organizational loyalties; his transition from reform to revolution is natural, immediate and unhampered by the vested interests of a reformist organisation and one eminently responsive to changing circumstances.” Kidron is making the point with some force that the new politics of shop floor reforms have the possibility of going over to revolution in the pursuit of their aims. The form of organisation is the one that the worker can relate to closely and control. It is the shop stewards’ committee or whatever is the rank and file form that fits the job and is best able to carry on the fight. Hardly a recommendation for the young and traditionless.

The discussion on the Cliff-Barker pamphlet, Incomes Policy Legislation and Shop Stewards, is even less apropos. This was a thesis which, somewhat optimistically, counterposed the linking of rank and file committees to the government and trade union leaders’ collaboration in Incomes Policy laws. When it was published, the very notion that it was directed to the very young would have been laughed out of court. Indeed, the fact that it contained an introduction by Reg Birch, at the time a long standing and leading Communist in the AUEW and who was adopting an oppositional line to King Street, shows that it was a pamphlet addressed to mature trade unionists. Further still, the work that succeeded the Incomes Policy book was the Productivity pamphlet. This was a work that presented a detailed plan for productivity bargaining which included a sliding scale of demands. It had been written after a long series of discussions with shop stewards and rank and file workers in a number of industries, especially engineering. Suffice it to say that the general run of Cliff’s informants were not particularly young or inexperienced, or that the book’s prescriptions for militant struggle were primarily directed to those who did not fill a shop stewardship or other rank and file representative post.

Perhaps the most telling refutation of Cliff’s new insight into the wellspring of workers’ revolution is in the experience at ENV. Here, Geoff Carlsson, a well established and talented IS member had, over time, been instrumental in bringing to the organisation a number of militants, many of them ex-CP members, to form an IS branch that was Cliff’s pride and joy – the apotheosis of his theory about the locus of reformism. It was the living denial of his later nonsense.

He was right to say that IS recruited more young workers than older ones, but absurdly wrong to suggest that they were in some way more pure because unsullied by trade union experience. It is always the case that the young are more readily persuaded to revolutionary politics and it is equally inevitable that revolutions are not made without a lot of revolutionaries across the whole length of the age range. If being over 25 is, by definition, to be reformist then Cliff is already a three time loser.

To compound this error Cliff went on to cast severe doubt on his own judgement by suggesting that these paragons of youthful virtue should be contesting for shop stewards’ positions. Had they got enough workers to vote for them to ensure election, then they would have then actually have had to carry out some stewardship, like representing discipline cases, allowances, rates and favourably implementing national agreements, not all of which are susceptible to an excited cry of, “all out.” Which, of course, is why the youngster would not get the workers’ votes.

If words mean anything, the “Workers’ newspaper” was to be written by, and the “Workers’ leadership” was to be drawn from, this youthful band. This pathetic rationalisation piled absurdity on absurdity, concluding in a great heap of mystical nonsense. Because they were workers, they could write about industrial matters in an agitational way, relating it to the overall politics of IS. Fresh from this synthesis, they could work their magic on the politics of IS. This they would do not on the basis of their experience in leading workers in struggle, but because they were workers. Using the same fractured logic, every Tibetan male could be the Dalai Lama.

As a matter of fact, inexperienced these youths might be, but they certainly would display less ignorance of the workers’ movement than Cliff and his middle class cadre. Of course, neither these nor any other workers wrote for Socialist Worker in any significant numbers, nor did they have any leadership role in IS politics. They had become, like the ark of the covenant, an object of veneration, fulfilling a purely decorative function. Their inherent revolutionary merit could be measured in voting positively for anything Cliff proposed.

The very idea of a Rank and File Movement that transcended single industries unions and enterprises, but did not have a solid base of shop stewards and lay union officials, is a contradiction in terms. No matter how Cliff and his minions squirmed, rewrote IS theory and misquoted Lenin, the contradiction remained. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that Cliff did not believe that IS had the capacity even with the correct orientation, to build a Rank and File Movement. It is, of course, perfectly honourable to hold such a view. What is totally dishonourable is to conceal that thinking and to dredge up some half-baked theory, adherence to which will ensure the failure of any Rank and File strategy. When one consider that the Rank and File strategy was formally the focus of IS activity for several years – despite the fact that after a promising start it very rapidly became moribund – only to find fitful life as the vehicle for the Right to Work campaign, one can sec that it was a facade to conceal some very tattered credibility.

For a number of us, who had spent some time in IS congratulating ourselves on its comparative sanity, all of this came as a nasty shock. We did not believe that IS was teetering on the brink of becoming a party, but we did believe that it had grown sufficiently to become a force of attraction to militants and a source of embarrassment to the union bureaucrats in several industries and unions. At around this time. for example, Clive Jenkins, the General Secretary of the ASTMS, became quite paranoid about IS and its attacks on himself and his Stalinist allies.

The signatories to the document Socialist Worker Perspectives and Organisation realised they were faced with more than a bureaucratic attempt to do a clear out on the EC and Socialist Worker. Here was an attempt to rewrite the working class content of IS politics, to write minus where before we had written plus. The theory of State Capitalism was a persuasive explanation of what had happened in Russia, Eastern Europe and China and it was that analysis that helped us to keep our eyes off the “socialist forms” of state property, etc, and to concentrate on the working class content on all the relevant political questions. Even so, it was not essential to adhere to State Capitalism to accept the notion of the centrality of the working class and to analyse and build on contemporary working class experience. For us, it would have been a lot easier to swallow if Cliff had engaged in an agonising appraisal of State Capitalism – so long as he did not replace it with any guff about workers’ states or bureaucratic collectivism, the PAE and Permanent Revolution – than the grievous bodily harm that was done to hard won insights on trade union and industrial work. To wrench the group about in this cavalier fashion required not only a compliant leadership, but also a complete about face on the question of the regime.

With a fairly heavy heart, a majority of the signatories decided that it was necessary to form a faction to defend the essential core of IS politics. Oppositionist The name IS Opposition was deliberately chosen to indicate that we stood on the basic traditions of the Socialist Review and International Socialist’s past theory and practice. It was then that we lost Duncan Hallas. After a lengthy discussion with Cliff, Duncan informed us that he no longer wished to be associated with our opposition. It has to be said that this was disappointing. Not only was he one of the more persuasive speakers and writers in the group but he was also the most vigorous proponent of our original protest, and it seemed to me that, having willed the struggle, it was only proper to bear the consequences, if and when they came.

Duncan took a different view, bolstered no doubt by the promise of continued full time employment, the return of his seat on the Executive Committee and the promise that the sunny side of Cliff’s countenance would shine forth upon him in the future. What is responsibility, solidarity and political principle compared to these treasures? Not very much apparently. Cliff’s cynicism in all of this was quite breathtaking. Duncan Hallas, whose presence on the EC a few month’s before would, according to Cliff, have completely vitiated its work, was now welcomed back with open arms. We were aware that the dialectic is about contradiction but this sort of hypocrisy was a contradiction too far.

The new EC – Dave Peers, National Secretary; Paul Foot, SW Editor; Steve Jefferys, Industrial Organiser; Chris Harman, ISJ; Jim Nichol, Treasurer; plus Duncan Hallas, Nigel Harris, Tony Cliff, John Charlton, Ross Pritchard – was split into two camps: the majority had degrees and the minority, Cliff, Nichol and Pritchard, did not. This was the committee that was to represent the leading areas and enshrine worker leadership. It was not bad, just no better than any other six possible committees – certainly not such an assemblage of talent that it was necessary to set the Group in a turmoil to seat them. Ross Pritchard was, of course a worker but did not fit Cliff’s ideal prescription in that he was in his mid-thirties, a very experienced trade unionist and had been in the group since the early 1960s. He atoned for these errors by not staying on the EC for long. Truly the mountains had been in labour, having forgotten how they got pregnant to the first place.

The basic document of this IS Opposition was called, The International Socialists: Our Traditions. In ten duplicated A4 pages it set out to call the members’ attention to serious problems developing in the group. It attempted to show that the disputes were not about a couple of old party hacks being nasty because they had been fired. It spoke of the growth of IS and the need to consolidate and avoid spurious get rich quick policies like the Buyers into Sellers. It criticised the youth vanguard thesis. The document went on to oppose another stratagem for putting on members, the white collar branch and the student branch. This last laughable piece of froth had all sorts of comic consequences. Teachers branches were formed under the tutelage of the junior Industrial Organiser John Deason, who seemed to think that they could operate rather like the ENV branch might have done, taking the national agreement and building on it in the localities. Never mind that in teaching agreements are reached and all the i’s dotted, and all the t’s crossed far away from the reach of any rank and file teachers, even those being hectored by John Deason. Chamber of horrors The student branch notion was even more risible, with Chris Harman giving voice to the proposition that, to save the workers being swamped in student excesses, the student branches should be given only half the votes of other branches. At the time, this particular sally almost convinced me that he had a sense of humour.

The greatest of the offenses committed by the ISO document was the brief section, Cliff’s Influence Within the Leadership, which detailed a few of the more glaring faults displayed by Cliff. It did so in muted tones that I now think to have been altogether too restrained, saying inter alia: “Cliff has great and probably indispensable strengths ... Unfortunately, they are accompanied by a number of less desirable traits. Unlike Trotsky or Lenin, he finds detailed work of organisation or administration boring unless it is directed to his own immediate preoccupation. His rigid certainties, so long as the passing enthusiasm lasts, brooks no contradiction ... Cliff is not a disciplined member of a collective and leading committees are good to the extent they agree wholeheartedly with his ideas and bad to impossible to the extent that they do not.” These few thoughts on Cliff, a commonplace amongst those who knew him well, were received in the same spirit as one imagines the devout Christian would display if he caught someone using the Holy Grail as a chamber pot. Nobody actually shouted “sacrilege” but it was made clear that Cliff and his coterie found this kind of open critique deeply offensive and a spur to increasing their covert campaign of slanders against the ISO.

A note on the IS Traditions document reported that it was supported by, “The following National Committee members: Ken Appleby, Rob Clay, Jim Higgins, Ron Murphy, John Palmer, Wally Preston, Granville Williams”. As if to prove the twin adages that it is best to be at the top of the ballot paper and that it pays to advertise, Ken Appleby was offered and accepted a job as Assistant Industrial Organiser, to work with Steve Jefferys. Ken was, incidentally, a very nice chap; a very capable and experienced militant, a draughtsman who had conducted long strikes and been victimised by employers. His new job also involved lengthy struggles and ended with him being victimised by the ambitious and hyper-active John Deason. Not a pleasant story but there was a lot of it about at the time.

At the September 1974 IS conference, the disputed questions were not clarified and, due to the vagaries of the agenda, hardly discussed. A few of the ISO comrades were elected to the National Committee – John Palmer, Granville Williams and Rob Clay. The fact that the ISO would not go away and still insisted that it was defending the IS tradition against the existing leadership proved to be one obstacle too many to the vanguard of the workers’ vanguard. One fairly hefty straw in the wind was the appointment of Jim Nichol as National Secretary in place of Dave Peers. While one might view with some trepidation the outcome of the deliberations of a jury of one’s Peers, it would be a foregone conclusion that, with a jury of Nichols, you needn’t bother with the prosecution case, the bastard’s already been found guilty.

IS now had what might be called a balanced political leadership. Paul Foot produced the sort of paper Cliff wanted, Hallas and Harman produced the justification for Cliff’s latest wheeze and Nichol could sort out organisation questions to the detriment of the ISO. In pursuit of this objective an Organisation Commission was formed. Cliff delved deeply into the 1922 Dutt-Pollitt report for the CPGB and regurgitated it practically whole. As Harry Wicks wrote to me in April 1975: “It is not an exaggeration to say how heavily they have borrowed from Dutt. Christ they have even pinched the punctuation.”

Here we have the emphasis on locals and district committees, on security and the imitation of the Bolshevik model. Cliff was unaware, or chose to forget – even though Harry Wicks who had been in the CP at the time could have refreshed his memory – that the Dutt-Pollitt report was not just a reorganisation of the party. It had far more important objectives: to displace the leadership of ex-SLP members such as McManus, Paul and Bell and to install a leadership more compliant to the Russian party. The year after its implementation it had to be severely amended, having achieved its original objective.

For Cliff and Nichol the historical question was beside the point, it provided a ready made solution on how to minimise the presence of the ISO at the conference. Delegacies to the conference were to be increased from one per 15 members to one per 30 members. Elections were to take place at District meetings instead of branches. In very few places did the opposition have a majority in Districts, although it did in a number of branches. Contrary to Cliff’s 1968 ideas for minority representation, the elections were to be on a winner take all basis. The net result was that the ISO, who had significant minorities in a number of Districts was denied its fair representation.

The existing structures of a National Committee – theoretically in overall political control and electing an Executive Committee to carry on the business of the Group between monthly NCs – was to be jettisoned in favour of a Central Committee elected at conference and an advisory National Council with delegacies from districts and fractions, that essentially reverted to the federal system of yore. What was clear was that a system that had only fitfully been able to restrain the full time apparat was being replaced by a system of absolutely no control at all.

To add to the general air of hysteria it was decreed, on the grounds of security, that the coming conference would be open only to delegates. This was a significant break with the past and one that was definitely not in the spirit or practice of Bolshevism where, even at the height of repression, members were entitled to attend such gatherings whether or not they were delegates. The venue was to be kept secret and this particular stratagem, to keep the ISO even further at bay, led to the ludicrous situation where delegates wandered about Finsbury Park looking for the comrade who would guide them to the conference. Whether the guide wore a red carnation in his button hole I cannot remember, but I do recall that it took about five minutes to discover in which hotel the conference was being held, a puzzle that would have taken even the dumbest agent of state repression not much longer to solve. All of this high drama – which was, in reality, even higher farce – was made more absurd by the fact that, while the members were kept away, guests at the hotel and those availing themselves of its public facilities could indulge themselves with the pleasure of listening to Cliff in full rant. As it happens, not many of them did so. Perhaps he was off form that day.

The thing that is of passing interest about all this constitution changing is that it was unconstitutional. Clause 14 of the IS Constitution says categorically: “These rules shall only be amended at Conference”. In a neat reversal of the democratic norm, the delegates were elected under a set of rules that constitutionally did not exist, which they could, as unconstitutional delegates, then proceed to validate, at an improperly constituted conference. If it does not hurt your head, you can begin to realise the deep creativity of Cliff’s Marxism. One is reminded of the ruler in the Brecht story who found that the people were deeply repellent to him and resolved to elect a new lot.

The publication of the document Platform of the IS Opposition (see Appendix 6 for the text and also the later Reply to Comrade Hallas), elicited a quick response from the CC. That it was not long delayed was not at all surprising, and in a way I suppose it was equally unsurprising that the author of the reply should be Duncan Hallas. There is a certain dreadful symmetry in the picture of a man who had a short time before subscribed to most of the ISO’s criticisms and, indeed, had been the first to articulate many of them, should now be pressed, or maybe volunteered, to fill the role of hammer of the opposition. Suffice it to say that it was the signal for a stiffening of attitude to the Opposition.

In the West London District, the full time organiser, a nervous incompetent called John Rose, was flushed with loyalty to the CC and produced a tendentious document denouncing the Twickenham branch for its association with the ISO. His intention, it seems, was to make Harry Wicks articulate his own political position in the debate. Harry was always willing to oblige and so that there was no dubiety, this polite but politically tough man expressed himself with some vigour: “It has never occurred to me before that anyone was in any doubt as to where I stand: For those who do nurture such doubts, let me say as clearly as possible; I go all the way with the IS Opposition and further [emphasis in original] ... The organisational changes introduced on the eve of the conference I consider are an impermissible violation of the norms of democratic centralism ... Let me make it clear. All the time I am in IS I shall fight against any concession to the Maoist and neo-Stalinist conception of the monolithic party.” [1] These signs of opposition from Harry Wicks were most unwelcome and Rose took steps to isolate the Twickenham branch and to pursue a kind of vendetta against them. Ted Crawford, who was a member in the West London District but not the Twickenham branch, was moved to write to John Rose, “... I find your treatment of comrade Wicks quite insolent. You cannot answer him politically. Having jacked up somebody to stand against him and canvassed the vote, your young proto-Bolshevik could not even attend conference ... Do you really think in your factional zeal that comrades could not learn from Harry? He might be wrong but would you be able to tell unless your employers told you?” [2]

In the same letter, Ted describes how in two years, “I have seen the membership [of West London District] halve from nearly 100 to 44 ... in your position I would hand in my cap and jacket as a full-timer.” At the September District Aggregate, Rose had reported that, as there was an imminent wave of repression and the Group would be semi-underground, all standing orders to the Group should be suspended and subscriptions paid in notes to the treasurer. This may have been a directive from the Centre, but far more likely an excess of zeal on Rose’s part and, given the membership, played havoc with the already reduced District’s income. This may be why, two months later, the policy was reversed. Eventually the Twickenham branch and Ted Crawford were suspended at a meeting they were not permitted to attend.

At the Northern Home Counties Aggregate, in May 1975, ISO resolutions on Democratic Centralism, the Rank and File Movement and Women were carried by two to one majorities. Unhappily they had insufficient time to discuss the political perspectives and so a further meeting was arranged for a week later with a speaker invited from the EC. As a mark either of their contempt for the District, or for their own political perspectives, the EC sent down Jim Nichol. True to his reputation as the first non-political National Secretary of IS, Nichol took up his allotted time attacking the Harlow Branch, which supported the Platform of the ISO. It emerged that he had spent his day happily perusing the files of the local press at Harlow public library. As a result of this research he claimed the branch had not acted on strikes, redundancies and public expenditure cuts. It just happened that the Harlow branch, which contained such excellent members as Hugh Kerr, now an MEP, Barbara Kerr and Sue Lambent, was one of the most active on local issues and had fought on all of these questions. It takes more than being absolutely wrong to faze Jim Nichol and he went on to attempt to force a re-election of the conference delegates who were supporters of the ISO. No success there either.

By May of 1975, some 135 members had declared their support for the Platform of the ISO and others were known to exist. At the April NC, 14 voted against the proposed organisational changes, 12 of them workers. A collection of representative bodies within IS (Industrial and geographic branches and some District Committees) protested the new rules. At a number of district aggregates, debates between EC and ISO speakers frequently resulted in a win for the Opposition. John Palmer was particularly active and successful. Of course, the debates were usually held where the ISO had some presence because in totally loyalist areas they made certain that ISO speakers were not invited.

In the event, the leadership’s gerrymander was effective and only 17 ISO members were elected as conference delegates. Not surprisingly, the organisational proposals were endorsed by large majorities. All that was required now was tidying up operation. The ISO were told to disband; its arguing license was being withdrawn. As if to reinforce the fact that there was no longer a place for “conservatives” who clung to the old traditions that had animated, sustained and built IS over the years, the new orthodoxy required a dramatic gesture, a real blood-letting sacrifice of the past.

In Birmingham where, incidentally, the ISO probably had a majority, the organiser, Granville Williams, had been an excellent recruiter and builder of the Group and was particularly good at bringing experienced trade unionists and stewards in to membership. Naturally enough, and this is another reason why Cliff and his dopey youth thesis was wrong, shop stewards do not come washed and shriven to the movement, a blank consciousness on which the leadership can write its revolutionary software. They come to revolutionary politics through their own experience and, precisely because they are experienced, they live in a real world where they have commitments and alliances that are not easily set aside because someone on the Central Committee has had a rush of blood to the place where his brain ought to have been. In this case, the cerebral haemorrhage was in pursuit of the desirable, but long term, ambition of replacing the CP as the recognised left in the AUEW. It seemed like a splendid wheeze to run an IS member in the upcoming election for National Organiser. So overcome were the CC by the manifest splendour of the new policy that they did not feel the need to discuss it with the AUEW fraction. After all, only a beast argues with revealed truth.

Largely as a result of Granville’s efforts, there were more than 20 IS members in the AUEW in Birmingham, organised in two factory branches and an industrial branch. Among them there were ten shop stewards, two convenors of big factories, six members of the AUEW District Commute – one of whom was the District President – and several Trades Council delegates. All of them had been in IS for at least two years and some for up to eight years: most of them were veterans of hard fought and hard won strikes and other militant actions. All in all, you might think, it was a collection of workers that any revolutionary group would have been anxious to recruit and retain. Wrong. In a combination of the maladroit and the malicious, the CC conspired to rid IS of the embarrassment of the best industrial hope they had had since the high days of ENV.

The background to this piece of primitive disaccumulation of the cadre is straightforward. In the unity moves of happier times in 1972 and 1973, IS had attempted to involve the CP in joint activity on a limited programme. This had not happened nationally, but in the unions where IS had any sort of presence its members would involve themselves with what was the generally recognised left caucus. In the AUEW, the Broad Left was the most developed forum for discussion and debate on tactics and policy. The strong representation of the CP ensured that the Broad Left had a predilection for electioneering – in a union with an election for one post or another going on practically all the time – but for anyone with any pretensions to revolutionary work that was more than posturing or phrase-making it was a serious area for activity. Indeed, at the 1974 IS conference Andreas Nagliatti and his faction had been denounced as “syndicalists” for opposing IS Broad Left policy in the AUEW. As serious militants and as loyal members, the Birmingham engineers were involved in the Broad Left and as part of that involvement they had agreed to support the candidature of a CP member, Phil Higgs, convenor of the Rolls Royce factory, for the National Organiser job. This, it has to be said, was before the CC or anybody else thought of running Willie Lee, an IS member and a well thought of AUEW militant in Glasgow. Willie’s credentials for the job were fine, the question was: is this the way to most fruitfully pursue work in the AUEW? If the notion was to build a serious challenge to the CP in engineering, would it not have been better to fight on policy, where they could be put on the defensive, rather than electorally where they had their greatest strength?

To endorse the Lee campaign the IS leadership called an AUEW fraction conference in Manchester. Along with quite a few others, the Birmingham comrades turned up to explain their circumstances and to oppose the candidacy. Vic Collard, a Senior Steward at Lucas in Birmingham, put the case against running an IS candidate and won an overwhelming vote in his favour. Now comes the clear indication that the move was less related to a particular policy initiative and more towards getting the Birmingham engineering workers. At the IS Conference, the CC organised a meeting of any delegates who also happened to be AUEW members and secured a favourable vote for running Willie Lee as candidate for National Organiser. This ad-hoc meeting apparently outranked the national AUEW fraction meeting because, the CC claimed, it was held at Conference which was the supreme policy making body. Presumably if Cliff had a vision that he was VI Lenin reincarnated, it would be true so long as it occurred at the Conference venue.

Steve Jefferys was sent to Birmingham to call the AUEW members to order. They attempted to explain to him and the CC that long term work in the unions and the rank and file would always have its drawbacks this side of the revolution, and that we would have to forego the luxury of suck-it-and-see policies if we were ever to be taken seriously by more than a handful of workers. As Mick Rice, a leading Birmingham IS engineer, wrote: “... comrades may ask, why did the Birmingham AUEW comrades not submit to the discipline of IS? Do they hold their association with a bunch of CPers, Tribuneites and other left elements more dear than membership of the revolutionary organisation? The answer is simple, in fact the comrades have considerably more respect for IS than they have for any amorphous body like the Broad Left. They also, incidentally, have a great deal more respect for IS, its tradition and standing in the labour movement than does the current crop of IS leaders. They pursued what was IS policy for several years, their misfortune is that they have succeeded and unlike those with no record of success they cannot just jettison the work they have done. Let us give an example. Just recently a leading IS member Cde Arthur Harper, was reelected AUEW District President. This was achieved because a. Arthur is a respected long standing militant, with a proven record of struggle, and b. because he was in receipt of Broad Left support. He would not otherwise have been elected. Having effected an alliance on that election the Birmingham comrades were being instructed to break with the Broad Left on the question of Willie Lee’s candidacy. Such antics may go down well in Cottons Gardens, but in the real world where active workers measure your worth on consistent performance rather than the ability to perform flip-flops it is a recipe for disaster. Five years of work would have gone down the drain, is it little wonder that the Birmingham comrades saw a higher duty to IS than jumping through hoops held up at the caprice of the CC.” [3]

There followed some truly bizarre behaviour on the part of the leadership. Opposition supporters in Birmingham were not allowed copies of the Internal Bulletin, they had to read it in the IS Bookshop and then hand it back. Steve Jefferys had attempted to reach some compromise, but when that failed, he went about his grisly work with all the enthusiasm of Conan the Destroyer. He met Mick Rice in a pub and, on learning that he maintained his support of the Birmingham AUEW comrades, suspended him with a promise to move his expulsion at the next CC meeting. Mick Pedley received the same treatment. As if to prove that his time at the LSE had not been wasted and that he could still do simple arithmetic, Steve then went off to a meeting of the Birmingham IS District Committee, of which august body Mick Rice and Mick Pedley had been members until their suspension. At the meeting there still needed to be a bit of fine tuning to ensure that the sums came out on the right side, so Roger Griffiths was suspended as he came in the door to take his seat. For those of us who had been in the WRP/SLL, or one of its earlier manifestations all of this had a dreadfully familiar ring. Disagreement was disloyal, arguing was disloyal, marginal doubt was disloyal, even the inability to keep up with the chameleon-like speed with which the line changed was disloyal and disloyalty had to be extirpated with the utmost dispatch and never mind the constitutional niceties. Mick Rice’s last despairing paragraph puts the case very well about what might have been: “IS is more, much more than a command structure, with an immaculate leadership uniquely gifted with the authority of decision. Marxism is about mutual development, of interaction and synthesis. The Marxist party should enshrine the principles of free discussion not from bourgeois ethics but because without it there can be no serious practice and no party.” [4]

The Group continued to scamper to the left; trade union work was seen as routinism; the real class struggle according to the leadership was on the street. The Rank and File Movement was an abject failure which was now totally controlled from the Industrial Department, an IS shell that would shortly be dissolved into the Right to Work Campaign and its associated march. IS was back to doing what a small sect can do with comparative ease, the one shot noisy campaign: it was a form of activity that Gerry Healy was particularly adept at organising. The comrades are kept busy and the sheer pace of activity disguises the fact that the organisations is marking time. The less rewarding the prospect, the more boastful the promises. The promise now was for the Socialist Workers Party in 1976. The basis for this piece of vainglory was neither clear nor explained. IS, with fewer than 3,000 members, perhaps a third of whom were manual workers, was not a party. What was expected in the next two years that would transform it into a force capable of operating autonomously in the labour movement, as any organisation claiming party status must do? If what was wanted was to replicate the CPGB of the early 1920s, a very modest ambition, it would be necessary to transform the social composition and to build an infinitely bigger periphery. If it was to make Duncan Hallas feel that he had recreated the RCP of its best days, that was more an indulgence than an ambition and, in any case, it would have been necessary to amend the regime drastically so that it did not go around decimating the industrial cadre and abusing the norms of revolutionary leadership.

In the less than two years from Spring 1974, the IS group had lost 500 members and suffered a considerable fall in the circulation of Socialist Worker to 24,000, with a paid sale of half that number. The number and size of the factory branches was down, the circulation of the rank and file papers had taken a nosedive. When taxed with this fall Cliff replied, “Formal accounting is a social democratic notion”. Funnily enough, we did not reply, “and brass necked cheek is usually employed by conmen and crooks”. As I have indicated, we were much too polite and soft in our criticism.

The shadows were definitely lengthening on the IS Opposition. In November 1975, representatives of the ISO were called before the Control Commission (an “impartial” tribunal comprising Jim Nichol and Dave Peers) where they were taxed with the fact that an ISO document, The Crisis in IS, had got into the hands of a Morning Star journalist, Rod Caird. He had detailed the ISO criticism and pointed out: “It is not long since IS built its reputation on a carefully constructed image of openness and back-breakingly studious respect for democratic procedures; its appeal, like that of other ultra-left groups, rested in the way it pointed with virginal horror at the supposed mistakes, divisions and muddles of other organisations.” [5] The truth of this Caird piece should not obscure the fact that any Stalinist hack has not much right to point accusing fingers at anyone. Nichol could not prove that the ISO had passed the offending document on to Caird any more than the ISO could prove that they had not. What was certainly true and no doubt weighed heavily with the Control Commission was the fact that if you do not have an ISO you do not have any ISO documents.

At the December 1975 Party Council, Duncan Hallas argued that factions always lead to a split and were impermissible in a combat organisation. The ISO, he said, had more allegiance to their faction than to IS and were only on the fringes. In one of those moments that are so deliciously revealing, Cliff said, “Factions could be allowed in the Bolshevik Party but not in IS”. Later on he added that the Bolshevik factions were good ones. Naturally enough we wanted to be a good faction, but could not for the life of us see that there was any justice in submitting our character to Cliff’s judgement. Call us wrongheaded if you will but we thought he would be prejudiced. The Party Council majority, clearly swayed by Duncan’s oratory and impressed with the fact that Cliff had just written one bad book on Lenin and was about to write another three, carried overwhelmingly a resolution demanding that the ISO dissolve its faction.

The Steering Committee of the ISO, after discussion, sent a statement to the Central Committee: “Our position with regard to the Party Council resolution on the IS Opposition is exactly as was stated at the meeting with the Control Commission on Sunday 30th November. The criticisms that we raise go right to the heart of IS’s political traditions, orientation and democratic structure. We are concerned that the current lurch to ultra-leftism will destroy any realistic working class base, while it may generate the kind of self perpetuating irrelevant work we associate with the WRP. We feel that it is to the detriment of IS that the National Council has decided to terminate the discussion on the basis of hastily passed resolutions on permanent factions; on the issue of the Right to Work Campaign and the launching of the SWP, it has found it appropriate to disregard or overrule the decisions made at the conference. For these reasons we are not prepared to disband the faction, though we will continue to act as disciplined members of IS.”

In reality it was just going through the motions. On receipt of the ISO letter, Nichol telephoned Hazel Mandrell, the faction secretary, to say that all the members of the ISO Steering Committee were suspended and their expulsion would be moved at the CC that day. Sue Baytell, an office worker at the Centre, received the full treatment. Nichol fired her, suspended her from IS membership and undertook to move her expulsion at the CC. That man was all heart.

It was the end of the road for the ISO: if its members were not expelled they left in sympathy with those that were. For them the great IS experiment was over. The dynamics of the sect had won again. Many of the tormentors of that time became sooner or later the tormented. I cannot say that I agree myself, but my old mum used to say: “God doesn’t collect his debts in money”. If so perhaps he could consider sending in the heavies because even after all this time there are still a few notable outstanding debtors. Only the morally defective have no point beyond which they will not go. Unfortunately there are some of those and they naturally gravitate to the court of the emperor, where they can congratulate him on his political raiment, applaud his latest flight of fancy and jeer in unison at those ill mannered enough to point out that the emperor is quite naked. It is some kind of life, but not much of one and it bears no relationship to the socialist emancipation of mankind. That is an altogether more serious undertaking and one that will be performed by people who are more truthful, more dedicated, more democratic and more loyal. More truthful about what they are and what they can do. More dedicated because they operate without illusions and without lying to themselves or anyone else. More democratic because tricks and gimmicks will not work; it is only with the maximum democracy that a mass movement for socialism can be built. More loyal to theory and politics, more loyal to the members and above all more loyal to the working class. None of these are optional extras, to be tacked on as a rousing peroration to a May Day speech; they are the essential pieces to the jigsaw that will one day all fit together to reveal the socialist commonwealth. History is not over, it has yet to begin.



1. Letter to the IS Executive Committee from Harry Wicks, 24th April 1975.

2. Letter to John Rose, West Middlesex Organiser, from Ted Crawford, 11 September 1975.

3. Birmingham AUEW Expulsions, by Mick Rice, an ISO document.

4. ibid.

5. Between the Lines by Rod Caird Morning Star, 22/11/75.


Last updated on 2.11.2003