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Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 9

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum

TS Eliot, Gerontion

Throughout the latter half of the 1960s, there were not just the fragmented but developing struggles in industry, there was also CND, the Vietnam Solidarity Committee (VSC) and the smaller Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD): in all of these IS played a part. These were campaigns that mobilised the enthusiasm and the idealism of the best of a generation, not least those most idealistic and enthusiastic people, the students. What was particularly heartening was the fact that, by 1967, the Viet Cong were actually on the advance. American imperialism was getting the sort of bloody nose that Russian imperialism would subsequently suffer in Afghanistan.

The year 1968 contained enough excitement and activity to stretch the resources of a mass party, never mind a group of about 500 members. Abroad, there was the Tet offensive, the May events in France, Dubcek’s “velvet” revolution in Czechoslovakia and at home Enoch Powell’s racist speech, with dockers marching in his support. In October there was the tremendous VSC demonstration, with more than 100,000 on the street. On top of all that there were occupations and sit-ins at campuses throughout Britain. IS already had a number of student members and was thus willy-nilly involved in their struggles. This was the British end of a Europe wide student revolt that reflected a number of sociological changes in the universities in response to the changing requirements of capitalism. These students did not conform to the standard characterisation as over-privileged, flannelled fools anxious to drive blackleg trains in the general strike, nor of aesthetes in the Apostles getting ready to do freelance work for the KGB. That was a thing of the past. The Stalinists no longer had much pull and the universities housed a much higher proportion of working class people than any revolutionary group could boast. The universities were no longer required to produce the administrators of a dead empire, or staff the higher reaches of the civil service and the City. Graduates were needed in large numbers to meet the needs of a much expanded and more complicated capitalist machine. Student actions were the strike and the sit-in, the same as militant trade unionists. If they added a certain theatricality, that was just a function of youth and added to the entertainment value.

This was the first student generation to be genuinely influenced by revolutionary ideas and a minority took to them with relish. Of those that did join revolutionary organisations, a majority joined IS, with the IMG next and the rest also ran. Of course most students did not join and of those that did many have now moved on, but the renegacy rate has been remarkably low. The 1968 levy was in large measure responsible for the radicalisation of the white collar trade unions in the 1970s. It is also a fact that the media is a lot less staid and reactionary than it would have been without the creative input of the people of ’68. Among those who joined IS at this time were, Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Martin Shaw, Ruth Nelson and, one of the best organisers IS ever had, Steve Jefferys.

The May events in France added immeasurably to the excitement of the time. Cliff and Ian Birchall, in their pamphlet, seemed to be saying that all that was missing from the French scene for the revolution to succeed was a Bolshevik party. In fact, France like most other countries in the West had its quota of pretenders to the title of “Bolshevik saviour” but the fact that they did not measure up to the pukka thing actually begged a few questions as to “why not?” Questions to which, unfortunately, Cliff and Birchall did not address themselves.

In this rather overheated atmosphere, especially shocked by the dockers support of Powell, Cliff successfully urged for a unity of the left campaign against the urgent menace of fascism. The “Vacuum on the Left”, which is how Cliff characterised the period, could not disguise the fact that we were returning to the old Trotskyist formulation: “the crisis of the working class is the crisis of leadership”. The unity campaign inevitably needed to reflect some coming together of the likely fusees. The political basis for unity, IS suggested, was:

  1. Opposition to all ruling class organisations and policies.
  2. For workers’ control over production and a workers’ state.
  3. Uncompromising opposition to all forms of racialism and to all immigration controls.

Clearly the basis for unity was broad enough to encompass anyone to the left of the CP, who would probably jib at the “workers’ control” section. Although all the left groups were written to, in reality this meant the IMG. [1] The RSL was immured in the Labour Party, the SLL was implacably hostile and Solidarity was busy trying to poach the IS’s own left wing. The IMG were heavily engaged in student work, the USFI guru, Mandel, was currently rewriting Marxism to accommodate the “foci” and “Red Bases” in the colleges, and IS and IMG members were working well together. In the Vietnam Solidarity Committee, the IMG provided the full time workers and IS a lot of the on the ground organising for demonstrations. The IMG, however, was not playing; it was less than half the size of IS, had been formed for only two years and had just recently been appointed the British franchise holder by the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. After all, who wants to be a bit more effective in Britain when you can strut about in a T shirt with the legend, “World Party of Bolshevism” across the bosom. A unity campaign that was turning out to be a failure, was turned, at the last minute, into a total disaster. Sean Matgamna’s Workers’ Fight group, said “yes”. Here was a tiny group with a handful of members in Manchester and a scattering in a couple of other places. They had been expelled from Healy’s group, but there is nothing wrong with that, so had Cliff and, come to think of it, so had I. The story goes that Sean, who is hard of hearing, was forced, by Healy, to remove his deaf aid at the expulsion hearing, for fear it might be one of those Dick Tracy, two way radio, deaf aids. As if to prove that this expulsion was not a fluke, Sean and his comrades joined the RSL, only to find that they were up for expulsion once more. They let Sean keep his deaf aid, but they expelled him just the same. Now here he was signing up for IS. Having first established friendly relationships with Colin Barker, who lived in Manchester, Sean met up with Cliff and the two of them, without recourse to anyone else, arranged for the Workers’ Fight to enter IS. The admission of Workers’ Fight was essentially to acquire an ally in the move to democratic centralism and to help Colin Barker in Manchester, where the majority of the branch leaned to libertarianism. In the event it helped neither of these objectives but Matgamna was able to help himself to a few members.

It was not democratic centralism, it was not democratic and it certainly cast doubt on the effectiveness of Cliff’s intuitive nose. The first the IS Group at large knew was that we had acquired a fully fledged faction, now performing under the banner of the “Trotksyist Tendency” (TT). Cliff would have liked to remove the TT with all the negligent ease that he let them in. Bureaucratic collectivism Unfortunately, he had just enshrined the rights of factions in his version of democratic centralism and his unity proposals raised no barrier to thinking Russia was a “workers’ state,” a characterisation that Sean adhered to with great fidelity for some years, until in the 1980s he suddenly succumbed to the dusty charms of bureaucratic collectivism. This is, at first sight, an unlikely conversion considering that bureaucratic collectivism had been around for over 40 years, without any response from Sean. Indeed, Sean’s great idol at the time was James P Cannon, probably the most adamant opponent of bureaucratic collectivism and its main theorist Max Shachtman. There are those, of an uncharitable disposition perhaps, who take the view that Sean is indulging here in a bit of consumer socialism. There are all manner of workers’ statists about and lots of Cliff state capitalists but apart from a few ageing Shachtmanites in the States, bureaucratic collectivists are as rare as bacon butties at a bar mitzvah.

The next three years with the Trotskyist tendency were not at all like that great university of life, where the work may be hard but the experience has lots of educational value. There was much posturing, a deal of plotting and neither side comes out of it with much credit, although Workers’ Fight came out of it with rather more members than when they entered, which is as well for them because they had run out of groups to join and must needs operate independently. We will meet them again later in this narrative.

It was about this time that Duncan Hallas, who was teaching in Wandsworth, rejoined the group. His 14 year long sabbatical might never have happened he settled in so well and almost immediately became part of the leadership of IS. With his wide trade union and even wider political experience he gave added weight to the Political Committee’s deliberations, at a period when such qualities were in particular demand. If he was a strong advocate of group theory and politics he was not always so enchanted by Cliff’s slapdash methods and inability to operate as part of a collective. Several of us saw this as an excellent additional qualification for his presence on the leading committee. At the end of the day he may have proved a weaker reed than one supposed, but in the meanwhile if you wanted to know something arcane, like the real reason for the dispute between Craipeau and Bleibtreu in the French section of the FI in 1946, Duncan was the man to tell you in minute detail. Not only what were the stated but also the real reasons for the dispute.

Until 1968, the Group had been modest in self assessment and patiently ready for the long haul. Now a number of events were coming together which seemed to indicate that mass, and potentially revolutionary, actions were possible in the not too distant future. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that this was a fairly serious exaggeration. Even if there had been a party, with impeccable Bolshevik organisational principles, there was no revolution to be had in 1968.

Nevertheless, from the midst of that exciting year, Cliff decided that the loose federal structure of the organisation was becoming a drag on the further expansion of the Group. Until Cliff’s changes were put into effect IS had operated on the basis that its Executive Committee was made up of one delegate from each branch, meeting quarterly. A Political Committee looked to the organisation between EC meetings. It was ill defined and cumbersome and, for some of us, it left a great number of large holes in the democratic process for Cliff to do very much what he liked. For him reorganisation was the way to a group that more efficiently carried out his directions – the emphasis here was on centralism. For others in the leadership it was a way of submitting everyone to the discipline of a collective – the emphasis here was on democracy. This is one example, and there are lots of others, that shows the tensions that exist under the umbrella of democratic centralism, whose tenets are not carved on tablets of stone, that were carried down the mountain by Lenin.

The vehicle that Cliff fashioned to carry this important message to the members was two sides of a quarto sheet under the heading, Notes on Democratic Centralism (See Appendix 3 for full text). It is difficult to imagine how such a short document could contain so many non-sequiturs, misstatements of fact, half thoughts, truisms and flashes of sense. If read with care, however, it indicates that Cliff had now come round to the notion that IS was the basis of the party. In the same way that Lenin observed that “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification” so Cliff now concluded that the revolutionary party is democratic centralism plus T Cliff.

Most significant, in the light of the later draconian regime in the SWP, is the recommendation for factional representation, which was standard form for orthodox Trotskyist groups, although it did not guarantee too much democracy there either. The first beneficiary of this particular provision was the Trotskyist Tendency who throughout their stay had at least two members on the National Committee.

When Cliff tossed his very small document into the pond he probably assumed that not much would be stirred by the ripples. Mistake. Oppositionists started to come out of the woodwork, as if someone had whispered the Rentokil man was coming. It was decided that the PC had better expand on Cliff’s document. This time on eight pages of foolscap they attempted to convince the members that, with a growing organisation, with an even faster growing list of tasks to be performed, and with great unevenness in the experience of the members, it was more effective and, more importantly, more democratic to have a non-federal structure.

If this stilled the fears of some members it was not universally acclaimed. Among the more disenchanted were the so-called “Micro-faction”. This term was taken from Castro’s description of the ultra-Stalinist Escalante group in the Cuban CP; it was really totally inappropriate because the IS Micros were libertarians, but it was an offensive description suggesting that they were small and lightweight. Small they may have been, there were only nine signatories [2], but their documents were definitely heavy. In the discussion on organisation they were attempting to open up Group politics to critical scrutiny, cast within the framework of a closely argued examination of the Marxist attitude to consciousness, an area of study, they suggested, where IS had got it wrong. Their intention they said was to: “... initiate a permanent debate whose aim will not be peaceful coexistence of important different ideas but the triumph of correct policies ... to begin a ruthless evaluation of IS theory and practice ... to convince comrades of the need to understand that objective circumstances are seen by people who actively (emphasis in original) hold views on the particular, general and ideological levels; who have a history, whose understanding of the world is mediated by that ideology and who are constantly in the process of transforming those beliefs into practice through daily experience and activity ...” If the first part of this sounds to you like Daniel De Leon when he spoke of “All the tyranny of truth” and if the second part sounds to you like a philosophy graduate telling you that a lot of people learn from experience, then there is not much wrong with your hearing. Although this gives something of the flavour, some bits of the documents are better, correctly criticising an ill presented case that was being pushed through without time for proper discussion.

Peter Sedgwick in York was another critic and a Libertarian Marxist faction argued, with a quote from Raymond Challinor, that the proposals were bureaucratic, not democratic, centralism. In Manchester, a small group around Colin Barker formed a Fourth Tendency, whose main concern was that IS had not declared itself democratic centralist years before. It was a transitory faction probably influenced by Workers’ Fight: certainly at least six of its ten signatories subsequently joined the Trotskyist Tendency, as did the micro-factionalist, Andrew Hornung, a strange young man who seemed to rather fancy himself in the role of tribune of the opposition. There was a certain theatricality about him that was quite endearing. On occasion he affected a flowing cloak and a silver topped cane, perhaps he thought they made him look Byronic. In fact it did, but after the fever took its deadly toll at Missolonghi. Hornung was the author of one of the more scabrous documents of the Trotskyist Tendency, called Centrist Current. The actual content was not much cop, but the little asides when he stopped to catch his breath were a hoot: “For thirty pages I am driven on by the steam hammer of polemic. For thirty pages the focus of my own thought dims the images that do not stand in the very forefront of my vision. And yet for thirty pages, now with diffidence, now with a persistence, a doubt nags at my mind. I write swept on by the momentum of political invective till pausing for a moment a nagging doubt seizes and snares my mind. I wonder whether ... I haven’t perhaps overplayed my hand ... I wonder if I haven’t been unfair ... But I tear myself away. The piston rod of determined argument forces me on ... Unwilling to submit to doubt and unwilling to stop for scrutiny, the momentum of the polemic takes me up again. Its own internal logic driving past any signposts of doubt, past any warning lights of circumspection”. [3] I am told that, sadly, Andrew is no longer in politics: one surely misses his particular brand of guileless pretentiousness. Maybe he is writing scripts for Reeves and Mortimer.

Noisy but of even less significance was the Democratic Centralist Faction, composed of Constance Lever, Fred Lindop, Stephen Marks, Noel Tracy, Dave Graham and Roger Rosewell. The ideas, such as they were, seem to have been supplied by Constance Lever and, as usual, the bombast by Roger Rosewell. Laurie Flynn dubbed them “Toy Bolsheviks”. [4] A quote or two from their document Towards a Revolutionary Party may give a feel for its worth: “For the class to be victorious, its most conscious and militant layer must be conscious, united and organised”. I often think thoughtfully that it would make me happily happy to be surrounded by consciously conscious workers. Or try this for size: “We are now entering a decisively new historical period. The cracks and disintegrations in the social democratic and Stalinist organisations are developments of epochal significance ... we may say that we are entering a revolutionary period ... such an organisation [IS] must be exclusive, tightly knit, self disciplined and answerable only to itself collectively ...” This kind of almost literate bragadoccio is redolent of Rosewell’s style. Take it in too large a measure and your colitis becomes general.

From the Hull branch came two brief but apposite documents that bore all the hallmarks of being written by one of that branches’ members, Michael Kidron. The first and most significant was called We Are Not Peasants (see Appendix 3 for full text). Arguing forcefully for the retention of the branch delegate EC, he claimed that because there had been a large growth in membership, those new members had not had the time or the opportunity to assimilate IS theory or experience. This then resulted in the leadership attempting to find answers to the problems from the revolutionary tradition and neglecting their most important task of monitoring the world about us, so that they could direct the membership in meaningful activity. Not only should they be exercising political leadership but also, “keeping their eyes and ears open to what the new members are saying and doing.” The necessary interchange between the PC and the members could best be ensured by retaining the branch delegate structure for the EC. Paradoxically, and despite its opposition to the “Leninist” forms, this was the most Leninist of the contributions to the debate, it started from an appreciation of the importance of looking outward, it assessed the forces available to us, their strengths and weaknesses, and then formulated a plan to get the best from everyone. It was serious politics and it was totally unsuccessful, because nobody was really paying attention.

At the next conference, the PC’s plan was carried. IS now had a National Committee of 40, elected at the conference. Factions would be represented on the NC according to the number of conference delegates they commanded. Branches sent delegations to conference on the basis of one delegate per six members, later raised to 15. The NC elected an Executive Committee of ten to arrange the day-to-day political and administrative organisation of the group. Another part of the package was the introduction of the panel system which allowed the NC to make nominations for its own election. The grounds for this were that widely spread members might not be aware of the merit of certain comrades and, lacking this information, would elect some flashy demagogue who performed well on the podium. It is not particularly sinister so long as branches have exactly the same right to nominate for all positions and all nominees have equal weight. In any case, even the most libertarian constitution can be subverted by a determined leadership, given a less than vigilant membership.

No sooner had Workers Fight been transformed into the Trotskyist Tendency than they set about a little internal colonisation and, by 1971, they could report they had increased their membership fourfold. This is probably rather better than they would have done elsewhere. One might think that this is confirmation of their frequently levelled charge that IS was a soft centrist organisation. What can be said with some certainty is that it was a great deal less soft after three years of their company.

Just a year after the fusion Colin Barker, their original sponsor, was bleating for the Manchester branch to be split politically, with Manchester No.l branch as a sort of holding cell for the Trotskyist Tendency and Manchester No.2 branch taking everything else. The fact that this cunning ploy emanated from the erstwhile Fourth Tendency proponent of rigorous democratic centralism would have made a cat laugh if it had not been choked by the pathos of it all. The split was agreed and a similar one occurred on Teesside.

Matgamna and his friends were basically sectarians, conforming with deadly accuracy to Marx’s definition. Sectarianism They did see, “their point of honour” in the “particular shibboleth which distinguished them from the movement”. They believed that Russia was a “degenerated workers’ state” and that all the other stalinist countries were “deformed workers states.” They believed that unity with the Fourth International (USFI) was the correct course. Matgamna himself was much taken with James P Cannon whose party was a fully paid up member of the USFI. IS believed in none of these things, but there was an organisation in Britain that did, the International Marxist Group. They, though, had fewer members and would probably have kicked the TT out a lot sooner. The Trotskyist Tendency preferred to see what pickings there were in IS where, by concentrating on any genuine discontents, they might maximise their impact

They were to all intents and purposes, a separate organisation, with their own sub-collections and private meetings, their internal constitution including a category of probationary membership unknown in IS. Even so, despite the fact that most of their criticism was tosh – IS was never “centrist” in any meaningful sense the way to deal with their aggravating presence was not the series of organisational manoeuvres that Cliff favoured. It was quite funny to see Cliff, who after all had invited them – for which sin he should have been demoted to candidate guru status – getting quite angry when one pointed out the constitutional niceties that had to be observed before they could be removed.

Once the disputed questions had been elucidated they should have been vigorously debated before the membership. It would have been quite instructive and helped to educate the new members into the essential theories of the Group. Certainly Matgamna ventured into print on a number of occasions retailing his critique with all the amiable good nature of a Gaboon viper. As in: “In general the theory [Cliff’s state capitalism] is ultra mechanistic, based on vulgar non-Marxist economics and is irredeemably pessimistic ... Not the least shoddy part of Cliff’s book is his attempt to deal with Trotsky’s views ... In general Cliff’s book on Russia reads less like a Marxist tract and more like a moralistic ‘primitive socialist indictment.’ It is totally subjective and totally incoherent.” On a rainy day, with a head cold and one arm tied behind his back, Cliff could have dealt with the author in a debate that might have proved educational for everyone, especially Sean. Cliff, however, found all this beneath him, far better to alter the rules, or better still break the rules to get rid of the problem.

In the end a special conference passed a simple resolution, by a large majority, to the effect that the fusion had not worked and should be unravelled. The minority against was, nevertheless, quite sizeable and many comrades felt that it had not been fairly handled. From this point on Sean Matgamna and his grouplet, would have to stand alone. Sean is no longer an expellee he is an expeller, happily ridding himself of Alan Thornett and his co-thinkers and the ex-IS Left Faction. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.

For all the seeming heat that was generated by the faction fight, the aggravation was largely localised and on the EC. IS grew during the period, neither despite, nor because of, but in complete indifference to the factionalism. A new Tory government was attempting to break the postwar Butskellite consensus, as so called “Selsdon man” sprang fully formed from Ted Heath’s left ear. The industrial struggle was about to be ratcheted up a notch or two.



1. The International Marxist Group, originated in a split from the RSL and subsequently became the British section of the USFI.

2. Joan Smith, Steve Jefferys, Laurie Flynn, Mike McKenna and Andrew Hornung were among the signatories.

3. Centrist Current by Andrew Hornung

4. Ted Crawford was also a member of this faction. (Note by the ashamed transcriber Ted Crawford)

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Last updated on 31.1.2003