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Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 5

Cliff found that Luxemburgism was convenient. It was something he could hold up to those being expelled elsewhere, which promised a comfortable home.
Ken Coates Workers’ Liberty

The ferment on the left in the mid-1950s, as we have seen, brought forth renewed effort from a revolutionary movement that had grown virtually moribund in the stultifying atmosphere of the Labour Party. For all that the immediate rewards were not much, the SR Group put a significant investment into improving their propaganda image. From December 1956, Socialist Review appeared in tabloid form. This not only gave much more space for articles, but also looked infinitely more attractive than the dull and rather mean looking A4 magazine. With Kidron as the editor, the catchment area for writers expanded and the quality of the writing improved. In the period of a couple of years, the essential basis of the Group’s politics were brought forth, polished and made accessible in the pages of Socialist Review.

Cliff wrote on the permanent arms economy and state capitalism, Kidron on the changing nature of reformism and the growing importance of rank and file working class organisation. Another South African, Seymour Papert – a man of considerable talent and an early computer wizard, he invented the computer language Logos – was recruited by Kidron and, for a few years, he added considerably to the impact of Socialist Review. His review of John Strachey’s, at that time very influential book, Contemporary Capitalism, for example, is an excellent attack on Strachey and, incidentally, one of the better statements on the permanent arms economy. [1] Eric Heffer (who with Harry McShane and IP Hughes formed the membership of the Socialist Workers Federation – it is not clear at this remove what they were actually federating) wrote regularly in the magazine on industrial topics. Interestingly enough, given his subsequent career as a Labour MP and a sometime junior minister, he refused to join the SR Group because they were members of the reactionary Labour Party. In his defence, he was never heard to say, “Watch my lips, no Labour Party.”

One of the big issues of the day was the Algerian war of independence. The subject was covered in Socialist Review by the ISL member Andre Giacometti (Dan Gallin, later a leading figure in one of the International Trade Union Federation that was kept rigorously clean of CIA influence). Unfortunately, the SR Group and Giacometti together with the Club, supported the MNA (Algerian National Movement) against the FLN (National Liberation Front). For the SR Group, this would seem to be because the MNA was led by Messali Hadj, who had been a Communist in the 1920s. For Healy it was almost certainly because Michel Pablo and his International Secretariat of the Fourth International (ISFI) supported Ben Bella and the FLN. In the event, both Healy and Cliff’s groups looked a little silly when Messali Hadj was found to have been a long standing French agent. (In both Algeria and metropolitan France the struggle between the MNA and the FLN gave rise to considerable bloodshed. The bitterness between the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) [2], of which Healy was the secretary and the ISFI as a result of this fighting reached unprecedented heights of vituperation with the Banda brothers especially, uttering some pretty blood curdling threats. The ISFI, in the persons of Pablo and the Dutch Trotskyist Sal Santen, were engaged in the production of false identity documents – some said counterfeit banknotes too – for the FLN and both of them actually served a prison sentence on the documents charge. Pablo, after the FLN took power in Algeria, became Minister for Abandoned Properties in Ben Bella’s government an appropriately named office, which led Gus Macdonald to suggest he was, “still Secretary of the FI”.)

In the new, enlarged format the paper was able to deal more comprehensively with the day to day issues of politics. Its style was distinctive and was potentially a good vehicle for building influence in the Labour Party, the trade unions and the workplace. It was clearly a Marxist journal that took itself and politics seriously, but it eschewed the hectoring tone and sectarianism that informed so many of its contemporaries.

Ted Grant’s group, the Revolutionary Socialist League (at the time the British section of the USFI) published a truly dire journal called Socialist Fight. It was, fortunately, so badly duplicated that most of its pages were unreadable; for this relief much thanks.

The Club, by drawing heavily on Healy’s very limited stock of restraint and self control, produced astonishingly non-sectarian propaganda. The Newsletter was a professionally produced magazine, edited by Peter Fryer, which, while paying lip service to Labour Party work, was far more concerned with industrial matters and catering to the influx of ex-Communist Party recruits and their milieu. Of particular value to the Club was their theoretical magazine, Labour Review, edited by John Daniels (an educationalist and previously a candidate member of the Executive of the CPGB) and Bob Shaw (a man noted for his total dedication to G Healy and his equally total lack of a sense of humour). This was, briefly an exceptional) good read and certainly one of the reasons why the Club recruited comparatively well among disaffected CPers.

While these improvements to the SR Group and Club journals were as the direct result of people taking thought they also arose from a new atmosphere and an attempt to meet the challenge of the times. After a long period of quiescence there were significant stirrings. The crisis in the CP gave rise to a re-examination of Marxism and a revalidation of non-Stalinist varieties. Suez and the Hungarian revolution awakened the enthusiasm for single issue campaigns and mass demonstrations. The old structures, the CP on the left and the Labour Party on the right, were unable any longer to contain and constrain a movement that had acquired a certain spontaneity, both in its activity and its leadership. Most significant of these new movements was CND and its even more spontaneist wing, the Committee of 100. These were movements that could organise mass demonstrations and actions that were quite beyond the control of conventional politics. CND was too large and unstructured for organisations as small and inexperienced as the revolutionary groups to even attempt to control but, just by turning up and talking reasonably coherent sense, revolutionaries could have an influence far beyond mere numbers.

The slogan “Black the bomb, black the bases” found a wide appeal in the ranks of CND and, especially, the Committee of 100. The movement had at its head a number of leftist Labour figures, Michael Foot, Canon Collins, JB Priestley etc, and it looked to the election of a Labour government to bring its plans to fruition. However, the very real perception of a nuclear Armageddon ensured that there was a small, but not insignificant, minority in CND who were attracted to the revolutionary idea of organised working class action against the bomb, a conclusion that is not too far from the socialist idea of the centrality of working class action to solve all of society’s ills.

At the beginning of CND, the Communist Party refused to participate on the grounds that it would detract from the work of the British Peace Committee which – unlike CND – the CP controlled. CND This was not only of benefit to CND, but also to revolutionaries working in the new movement. The Aldermaston Marches in 1958 and 1959 had to get by without the presence of the CP, a loss they bore with admirable fortitude. When it became evident that the British Peace Committee was totally moribund and that the mass movement was CND, the CPers switched to CND, like small furry creatures deserting a sinking peace movement. As latecomers their influence was never that great, although in local groups they had a tendency to propose activities that would not offend the local Anglican clergy – there were quite a lot of vicars in CND.

Within CND, the overwhelming political coloration was Labour; if not members, very hopeful voters. Another strong part of the spectrum was a sort of middle class liberal anarchism and then, a narrower band, the revolutionary left. Effectively this meant the SRG and the Club – Grant’s RSL was not at all in evidence. Of these the Club, with its new recruits from the fallout of the 20th Congress, was far and away the biggest. The Club’s internal regime had been much softened, both to recruit and retain these new members, and there were those in the SR Group who felt that the leopard might have changed his spots – the puma of course is a leopard without any spots at all, but is nevertheless a very dangerous animal.

As befits revolutionaries, the emphasis in the campaign within CND was to point to the working class as the only force capable of ending the nuclear threat to mankind. Both the SR Group and the Club supported blacking the bases as well as the bomb and, after a period of reasonably harmonious appearances at the same demonstrations and marches, the SR Group proposed to the Club that the editorial boards of the Newsletter and Socialist Review should hold joint meetings to coordinate and increase the effectiveness of their work.

It was, therefore, not too surprising when a letter arrived, dated 10th May 1958, from the British Section of the Fourth International and signed by Burns (Healy’s party pseudonym). The letter outlined the agreement that the two organisations had on CND work and their agreement on the Algerian revolution and stated that, “despite important differences on the class nature of the Soviet Union, we are coming closer together”. It proposed:

  1. The immediate exchange of documents outlining the prospects of our respective groups for building the revolutionary party in Britain.
  2. ... A joint committee ... of six members from each organisation, ... to work out ways and means to arrange a fusion.
  3. This committee would arrange joint editorial meetings, coordination of trade union, youth and Labour Party work, exchange of lecturers and joint discussion groups ...
  4. The committee will draft the conditions for unification which would be mutually agreeable to the members of both organisations.

According to Cliff, the initial response to this unity proposal was favourable in the SR Group. Only Chanie Rosenburg, Jean Tait and Cliff himself were opposed to unity with the Club. The reasons for this are not clear but one can, perhaps, assume that the comparative success of Healy in attracting dissident CP members was a considerable factor in this enthusiasm for unity. Cliff did not remain in a minority for long. In conversation with me he claimed that the change in the majority’s attitudes came from Healy’s refusal to publish an article by Cliff, on state capitalism, in the Club’s theoretical magazine, Labour Review.

Whatever the reason, a reply was sent to the Club on 26th of June 1958, signed for the executive committee of the SR Group by Robin Fior. (Fior is an extremely talented designer, if a mildly eccentric one. He it was, I believe, who invented the 1960s typographical foible for rejecting upper case type for the universal application of lower case. One of his more enthusiastic campaigns in Islington Labour Party was to have the logo on the side of the corporation’s dustcarts all in lower case. On another occasion he was contracted to design and produce the programme for a Brendan Behan play at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In the event he failed to produce the finished programme. Nevertheless, he turned up to the opening night, on a complimentary ticket, cheering the production noisily. I am told he now lives in Portugal.) As one might expect, the letter is beautifully laid out, with varying indents for different points. In deference to the innate typographical conservatism of revolutionaries, both upper and lower case type is employed. That is, however, the only concession to Healy’s sensibilities. In paragraph one, the letter condemns the Club’s workers’ state theory, their softness on Stalinism, their previous support for Pablo and his thesis of Centuries of Deformed Workers’ States, together with policy flip flops on Tito’s Yugoslavia, before and after his break with the Cominform.

Paragraph two criticises the lack of democracy in the Club. It contrasted the open discussions in Lenin’s time against the practice of Stalinism. It pointed out that in the SR Group, if there were differences they were aired in the paper. It went on to say that known disputes in the Club had yet to see the light of day in the Newsletter. In a final and ringing phrase that could, with some benefit, be embroidered on a sampler and hung on the SWP office wall, it said: “Until we can agree that all [emphasis in original] general political differences should be discussed openly, honestly, and democratically, we cannot feel that the ground is ready for fusion of our two organisations.”

That, of course, was the end of all talk of unity and there can be little doubt that had the union actually been effected, the SR Group comrades would have fared no better than they had done in 1950. The episode is of nothing more than passing interest except in so far as it sheds some light on the nature of the SR Group. For example, Fior’s letter is correct when it speaks about differences being expressed in the pages of Socialist Review. In the course of the 1950s, the Group had come quite a way from its origins in the Fourth International. During that decade, the SR Group had attempted to come to terms with the problems raised by the fact that capitalism had, contrary to all expectations, survived the war and was clearly expanding and that the predictions of its early collapse looked sillier with every year that passed.

The revolutionary movement had not grown in any way to match the enormity of the tasks it faced, or even its own pretensions. Social Democracy, after the first flush of enthusiasm in 1945, was gradually eroding its own support. The underlying reason for the long boom was, according to the SR Group, to be found in the Permanent Arms Economy. The slow decline of social democracy as a distinctive political force was seen against the background of a trade union bureaucracy that was increasingly divorced from the members and their aspirations, at the same time as it was involved with both government, of all stripes, and employers, in a corporatism designed to engender social peace at the expense of the working class. The arena where working class living standards were effectively decided was the shopfloor and the day to day leadership were the shop stewards and other rank and file representatives.

This growing coherence in revolutionary politics was accompanied by a growing away from the organisational forms of the past. Much of this, the emphasis on democratic norms, the preoccupation with the rank and file and the errors of reformism, found theoretical validation in the work of Rosa Luxemburg. The full flowering of this came with the production of the 96 page pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg: a study by Tony Cliff. (The use of crossheads in lower case and the wide left hand margin is a dead give away for the Fior design. The third edition of the same work manages to have a tendentious, not to say tedious, introduction by a Lindsey German and still be six pages shorter.) This pamphlet was written in January 1959, but did not actually appear until January of the following year. As the advertising proclaimed: “41 years after her murder, 1 year behind schedule, 11 months after the original announcement and 4 months after reviewing it, we are happy to announce Rosa Luxemburg”. In that four month early review (SR, Vol.9, No.12. Sept. 1959), Michael Kidron, despite some rather over-excited hyperbole, made several valid points that indicate the SR Group’s attitude to the revolutionary tradition. Luxemburg was: “... probably the greatest tribune the western proletariat has produced since Marx and Engels ... incapable of being accommodated in the turgid streams of social democracy or Stalinism. Even the minuscule groups of misnamed Trotskyists have found her too turbulent a spirit to commit to their gallery of deities... the greatest teacher of our time, a never ending source of inspiration to the isolated socialist minorities of today ... Nothing could stem her tirades against the machine and the machine men, the lifeless multi-limbed bureaucracy that grew on the movement in her day and is still there. Nothing could trim her infinite belief in working class initiative, in consciously conceived self directed working class action... Her deep understanding of the role of leadership, ... led her into battle not only against the Gaitskells of the German labour movement of her time, but also against the Lenin of the early, hunted Bolsheviks.” From this you will probably have gathered that if Luxemburg was not on the top step of the pantheon, this could only be because Marx and Engels were occupying that space.

The only slight criticism Kidron felt moved to make was the following: “Sometimes the logic of ideas leads the author [Cliff – JH] to ignore his subject, completely imputing to her a train of thought more his than hers.” The objective observer may feel that the condition here described is one that has gone from acute to chronic in the long journey from Luxemburg to Trotsky, taking in Lenin on the way.

Whatever we might think about the emphasis of this Luxemburg worship, it was certainly a breath of fresh air amid the stale orthodoxy of 1950s Trotskyism. Alone among. the revolutionary groups the SR Group had used the time fruitfully. It was actually attempting an overall analysis of capitalism, reformism and Stalinism together, with a credible strategy of working class advance, cast within the framework that encouraged self activity and openness within a genuinely democratic framework. This was a real advance on the Group’s origins in the RCP and one that made it a potentially strong. pole of attraction. If the first ten years had been a disappointment, with all the high hopes of a theoretically renewed Fourth International dashed, the next ten were, at least in part, to be the justification of all the seemingly wasted years.



1. Socialist Review, Vol.6, No.6, March 1957

2. The saga of the ISFI and the ICFI is a complicated one and not for those with weak stomachs, but in brief Pablo and Germain (the leading spirits of the ISFI) stood for deep, long term, entry into the Communist and Social Democratic Parties and sustained factions in those sections opposing this strategy – essentially the French and American sections. When the dispute came to a split in 1953, Healy went with the Americans, and the majority of the French section, and became secretary of the new ICFI. By 1963 the Americans found themselves agreeing with the ISFI on their enthusiasm for the Cuban revolution and they united with them to form the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI). Healy and the French group led by Lambert denounced this fusion and refused to join, continuing with the ICFI.

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