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Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 12

How dare you speak when I’m interrupting.
Gerry Healy

The Bellevue Socialist Worker Rally, in Nov 1973, was successful with 1,200 people attending. The following April, the Rank and File Conference was held in the Digbeth Hall, Birmingham. Some 600 trade unionists applied for credentials and it is possible to gauge the effectiveness of the previous work with rank and file papers by the fact that of 32 TGWU branches participating eight of them were from London bus garages where Platform circulated. Hospital Worker encouraged nine NUPE branches, two T&G and one COHSE branch to send delegates. Carworker was influential in getting 21 AUEW and TGWU branches in the motor industry and 27 shop stewards’ committees to the conference. In all more than 300 trade union bodies applied for credentials, including 249 trade union branches, 40 combine and shop stewards’ committees, 19 trades councils together with a few strike committees and occupations.

If this did not look like the Petrograd Soviet in 1917, or 1905 come to that, it was a very creditable event. It is true that a majority of the contributions from the floor were from IS members; it was still a matter of consequence that they were all experienced trade unionists with something credible and apposite to say. Better still was the fact that there was a not insignificant number of non-IS militants who spoke in support of the programme and in favour of a continuing organisation to develop the rank and file movement. Outstanding among these was George Anderson, chairman of the joint shop stewards’ committee at Coventry Radiators, and Joe McGough, convenor of Dunlop Speke and chairman of the Dunlop National Combine Committee. It was an impressive start that proved to be another false dawn. Cliff, influenced by Rosewell and Charlton, was not at all enthusiastic. It was clear that a deal of resources would need to be put into the building of the Rank and File Movement. That work would have to be self denying and dedicated to the proposition that the independence of the Rank and File Movement was one of the most important conditions for its eventual success. The benefit to IS was in the long term and the only guarantee that IS would be at the far end of the bridge to the revolutionary party, when the workers started to pass over it, was that we would establish our credentials, incontrovertibly, against all other comers. It was, in a word, an affirmation of our confidence in the work of the previous 25 years that IS politics were correct. To those of us who had some small part in developing those policies and passing them on to others, this seemed to be the ABC of Marxism in the 1970s. For Cliff’s faction it appeared as a step too far in the dark. Precious resources that might be expended on immediate rewards should not be exchanged for something that might ultimately be more richly rewarding. By some quirk of fate, the opposition found itself defending Cliff’s politics against Cliff’s policies. If his faction had argued outright that the Group and the real world were as yet unready for the sort of long term ambitions represented by a successful Rank and File Movement, then there would have been a serious discussion that might have completely reoriented the Group. That, however, was not possible because for Cliff social upheaval, as in France in 1968 and later in Portugal (where according to Cliff the future was fascism or revolution led by a Portuguese IS), were the portents of the Europe-wide revolution. To take, perhaps, years to build a solid working class base would, for him, be some kind of Menshevism. Before then a period of experiment would divert the comrades and might even work.

With the EC now a pliant extension of Cliff’s enthusiasms and the NC an extension of the EC, all the democratic structures of the Group failed to function, and other forces with different needs started to fill the vacuum. The full time organisers, the medium through which Cliff could give substance to his latest schemes, not only blossomed in the warm glow of Cliff’s attentions, they also acquired a measure of power in their own right. This was neatly exemplified in the otherwise risible Buyers into Sellers Campaign.

In the course of writing his hagiography of Lenin, Cliff found himself examining afresh the institutions of IS in the light of his researches. Having wrought his Leninist magic on the EC with less than stunning success, he looked around to discover that the “conservatives” were now ensconced in Socialist Worker. That the paper was still putting on circulation, while the membership remained static, was not something that an irrelevant diversion could not put straight. The first shot in the campaign was fired in the March 1974 issue of ISJ followed, in the April Internal Bulletin, by the second barrel.

The piece in ISJ 67 has some mildly interesting things to say in a general historical way. That, however, is not its purpose. It is designed to sell a policy on the basis of inadequate, partial and distorted evidence. Its authority rests on the fact that it is bolstered by quotations from the great Lenin, in the same way as, on occasion, Cliff will quote from Trotsky if the context could be made to look appropriate. Let us see how this works in practice. First we have to bear in mind that Cliff has a hidden agenda to dispense with some of the Socialist Worker journalists. Cliff writes: “Pravda was not a paper for workers; it was a workers’ paper. It was very different to many other socialist papers, written by a tiny group of sometimes brilliant journalists. Lenin described one such paper as a ‘journal for workers, as there is not a trace in it of either workers’ initiatives, or any connection with working class organisations’ ...” The alleged Lenin quotation, within single quotes here, is from Collected Works, Vol.20, p.328. The real quote actually reads as follows: “Trotsky’s ‘workers’ journal’ is Trotsky’s journal for workers, as there is not a trace etc., etc. ...” It is quite amusing that Trotsky does not get named here because in the companion piece in the ISIB (April 1974) he is quoted approvingly on his views of the workers’ paper. The deceit of course is that this doctoring of the text is to fool the reader, in whose eyes Lenin’s authority might be reduced by the amount of weight accorded to Trotsky, if the report had been accurate. It does not end there either, because, while Cliff is suggesting that Lenin’s Pravda was “a workers’ paper” the great man himself is actually not claiming anything of the sort. The article, with the pedestrian title, Disruption of Unity Under Cover of Outcries of Unity, is basically an attack, rather a sectarian attack as a matter of fact, on Trotsky for starting another socialist paper, Borba. Cliff fails to mention that Borba was intended as a journal to foster unity in the party not to report strikes; it was a weekly not a daily, as was Pravda, and it only appeared for seven issues between February and July 1914. Once you appreciate that Borba and Pravda are as different as chalk and cheese, you might further think that Socialist Worker and Pravda are not particularly fruitful subjects for comparison. If you did come to this conclusion, you would be right and you would also have learned something about the Cliff method: history, for him, is a vast archive rich with precedents; he decides what he wants to do and then, like some shyster lawyer, pillages the past for something that can be made to fit his case.

Let us shed a little more light on the Pravda of 1912. It was a daily paper circulating mainly in Petrograd, half was sold on the street and the rest in the factories. Although as Cliff claims, the Bolsheviks in 1912 were smaller than IS in 1974, they had been a major force in 1905 and even in 1907 had 46,000 members. There was, therefore, a numerically small working class, a significant proportion of which had been in the Bolshevik ranks, employed in large enterprises – at the time the Putilov Works was the largest in the world. The Bolshevik’s periphery was much bigger than anything the IS could dream of in 1974, because it contained literally tens of thousands of ex-members, their friends and workmates. In Tsarist Russia, there was a well established tradition for workers’ groups to club together and collect a little money to help finance the founding of a paper. In the first months of 1912 workers’ groups, overwhelmingly in Petrograd, made 504 collections for the Pravda. That is not 504 distinct groups, it is the total. For instance in January 1912 there were 14 group collections and 34 in June, the highpoint was in April with 227. Similar collections were made for Menshevik papers, although Lenin claimed not as successfully. With this in mind one can see that the statistics are not quite as impressive as Cliff presents them. Indeed, using similar arithmetic, the SWP could today claim 30,000 members, among whom, it could number Bill Ainsworth, Sid Bidwell, Stan Newens and Jim Higgins. One should be doubly careful in this case because not only is Cliff doctoring the statistics but also Lenin had already done a little sleight of hand himself. Cliff writes as follows: “During the whole of 1913 Pravda received 2,181 contributions from workers’ groups, while the Mensheviks received 661. In 1914 up to 13 May, Pravda had the support of 2,873 workers’ groups, and the Mensheviks of 671. Thus the Pravdists organised 77 percent of the workers’ groups in Russia in 1913 and 81 per cent in 1914 ... And Lenin correctly drew the conclusion: ‘Thus four-fifths of the workers have accepted the Pravdist decisions as their own, have approved of Pravdism, and actually rallied round Pravdism.’ ...” None of this stands up to examination. Pravda organised four-fifths of the total of Menshevik and Bolshevik worker support groups, there were workers’ groups for other legal papers. For example, if you aggregate the total number of groups for Pravda, Mensheviks and Left Narodniks from January to May 1914, Pravda actually had 70 percent, Mensheviks 17 per cent and Left Narodniks 13 per cent. And still Lenin is only aggregating three sets of adherents, not the entire working class. With breathtaking nerve Lenin quotes these figures and then says: “The Pravdist newspaper is the only working class newspaper. Both the liquidationist [Mensheviks, Trotsky etc. – JH] and the Left Narodnik newspapers are bourgeois newspapers. No lie can refute this objective fact.” Don’t you just love that “objective fact” bit for what is actually Lenin’s opinion? No wonder Cliff thinks so highly of him.

If the historical analogy is bent beyond repair what are you left with? Bald unsupported assertion I fear. Cliff concludes his article: “Workers who are not in IS should be asked to sell the paper to their workmates, to their neighbours on the estates, at trade union meetings, in the local pub. In addition, collection cards for regular donations to Socialist Worker should be issued on the widest possible scale. Last but not least the paper needs thousands of workers to write letters and reports for it ... Members of IS will often find that involving non-members demands enormous persistence and perseverance. But without that involvement the gap between our organisation and the growing militancy of sections of the working class will remain ... difficulties will arise again and again as we develop the network of Socialist Worker seller-supporters. But Marxism as a guide to action is not only a science it is also an art ... Hence it demands improvisation and daring when it comes to organisational forms ...”.

The last two sentences quoted here are such richly steaming products of the byre they almost make your eyes water. Marxism as a scientific art form guiding us to action is a concept only Cliff could dream up. His apotheosis into the Leonardo da Vinci of the dialectic is rather like the man who was astonished to discover that he had been speaking prose all his life. As the connoisseurs marvel at the beauty of line, the elegant dissonance of mixed metaphor and the grace of composition in the buyers into sellers campaign, the workers can explain how they don’t know anything about scientific art but they do know what they don’t like. Not only that, the concept can be extended to organisation where artistic Marxist science appears as daring improvisation. The coded message here is: The more barefaced and arbitrary my diktat, the more Marxist it becomes.

In his enthusiasm for the Buyers into Sellers, Cliff variously estimated between 1,000 and 5,000 buyers becoming sellers, with a lot more becoming SW supporters. Cards were printed to enable supporters to have their contributions marked; they were of a somewhat bulky design and became known as “revolutionary beer-mats”. If 11,000 items written by workers could appear in Pravda in 12 months, Cliff maintained (although without reference or attribution), why not 50 each week, 2,500 a year in Socialist Worker? As Cliff put it, “It is much easier for Paul Foot, for instance, to write a whole page on his own than to edit five or six stories that will also fill a page.” This, of course, was one reason why Paul Foot would not have done it.

The policy announced in ISJ, subsequently rubber stamped through the NC, was then put before a meeting of full timers. Here, as if to confirm Joe Stalin who said, “The cadres decide everything”, the policy was greeted with a resounding raspberry. That day, Buyers into Sellers bit the dust, a sad confirmation that historical analogy is always of limited value and may be counter-productive if you are tampering with the evidence to bolster a bad case.

What remained was the revolutionary beer-mats and the worker-writers for Socialist Worker. The first fizzled out very quickly – another mountain that turned out to be a small depression. The worker-writers were not so easily lost and had real factional value for Cliff and his satraps.

The leading areas EC was not a disaster at all, it was nothing less than a damp squib. Its sole purpose seems to have been to engineer the exclusion of Jim Higgins and Duncan Hallas. In short order, two of its members resigned and the full body met once or twice a month, hardly close attention to the activity it was supposed to promote. To make up the numbers, Nigel Harris was brought back, so was Chris Harman, then Granville Williams, another exceptionally good organiser with an ability to get close to and recruit experienced workers, and then Paul Holborow, Wolverhampton organiser. He was a great Cliff fan who I once heard described as, “A Stakhanovite sycophant who has overfulfilled his grovelling norm” – a nicely rounded phrase I thought, and accurate too. Rosewell was by now back in Liverpool, where he established a fiefdom from which he would sally forth occasionally to abuse the NC and EC. Having cashed in his one way El Al ticket to the land of sad oranges, he resumed his pose of granite hard bolshevism, the theory fashioned for him by the fine Italian hand of Andreas Nagliatti, supported by Glyn Carver the Manchester organiser. They talked so tough even their tongues were muscle-bound.

In his April 1974 IB article Cliff had been quite complimentary about SW: “There is no question that Socialist Worker has improved radically over the last few years in terms of involvement of workers in writing for it. There is no question that it is by far the best socialist paper on the left for decades.” It is strange, therefore, that he was shortly giving tongue to the thought that he found the paper unreadable, let alone the workers. So obvious was the whispering campaign directed against Higgins, Hallas and Protz that, on Duncan’s urging, a few NC members met informally to discuss the problems. They were Ross Pritchard, a leading left wing member of the NGA and a machine minder in SW Litho, the Group’s printshop, Roger Protz, John Palmer, Jim Higgins and Duncan Hallas. Of these the most alienated and bitter was Duncan who, not unreasonably, had a particular animus for Cliff. It was decided to produce a document detailing our disagreements with the campaign against Socialist Worker, the political and industrial perspectives, especially the Rank and File Movement and the nature of the regime in IS. At the end of the day the document received additional support from other members of the NC, Wally Preston, Manchester power worker, Ron Murphy, Manchester AEUW, Granville Williams, Birmingham organiser Rob Clay, Teesside organiser, Arthur Affleck, steelworker Teesside, Ken Appleby, draughtsman Keightly and Tony Barrow. This was then sent for inclusion in the April 1974 IB.

If our intention had been to upset the EC, we could not have calculated more accurately. The signatories available in London – Hallas, Higgins, Palmer and Protz – were summonmed to meet the EC. Arrayed before us, rather like a French Committee of Public Safety in a Baroness Orczy novel, were Cliff, Harman, Peers, Harris and Nichol, who had obviously chosen the role of Citizen Chauvelin – he is the character who rubber stamped the death sentences. We had been sent for, it turned out, to withdraw our document in the interest of Group unity. There was, unfortunately, to be no meeting of minds: Nichol’s presence on their side probably precluded that. There was no quid pro quo offered, no attempt to engage us in some dialogue, or to accept our seriousness and sincerity that we too had some concerns about IS. Our role in all this was to roll over and play dead and the EC would then roll over us without a second thought. We took the view, like all serious Marxists or anyone else with an ounce of principle, that we would not withdraw our document. At this Nichol swore violently and flung his chair against the wall. We took this as his way of saying that the meeting was terminated and left, all the while wondering if there was, after all, some truth in the old canard: “A Geordie is a Scotsman with his brains kicked out.”

The response to our document in the Group as a whole was encouraging and depressing at the same time. It was nice to know that we were not alone, but it was alarming to see the number of angry, puzzled and increasingly disaffected members in virtually every part of the country. Predictable, but tedious, was the campaign mounted from the Centre against the “conservative elements”. The full flowering of this became apparent at the May National Committee.

The first thing that one noticed on entering the meeting room, over a King’s Cross pub, was the presence of a small detachment of Liverpool Proletarian Light Horse, whose task it was to act as a claque, jeering any oppositional speakers. One of their number, clearly an Alan Bleasdale prototype, intervened at one point to explain wittily at full bellow, “We’re the workers we’ll march all over you”. To get the full flavour of this try it in as broad a scouse accent as you can manage. Cliff was nervous, and why not, he was just about to jettison a large lump of IS theory.

He informed us that Socialist Worker had entirely the wrong focus, the emphasis on advanced militants was misconceived. The people moving to revolution were the young and traditionless, while their elders were bent, having established comfortable niches for themselves in the shop steward’s committees and union branches. This, he said, was the meaning of the theory of the Changing Locus of Reformism. For the new levy of revolutionaries what was needed was a paper that exposed the scandals of the system in short pithy Daily Mirror style journalism. If only the journalists would apply themselves to this new layer and adapt to sub-edit the workers’ copy, then 80,000, nay 100,000, copy sales of the paper could be ours.

In the discussion that followed it was quite difficult to have a sensible debate. The Proletarian Light Horse noisily indicated their displeasure with anything less than fulsome agreement with Cliff, while Jim Nichol entertained the claque by making grossly offensive interjections from the sidelines. It was unedifying, it was ridiculous and it made a mockery of 25 years of IS politics

Of course, the chance of doubling the Socialist Worker circulation was, for the innocent, a beguiling prospect and at the time I failed to realise that Cliff did not believe in his prescription any more than I did. A moment’s reflection would have indicated that not only would a Rank and File Movement be useless with a generation of bent stewards, but Buyers into Sellers would look pretty silly as well. If the Changing Locus of Reformism was not about the importance of the shop floor and the advanced workers, then Cliff’s books on Incomes Policy and Productivity Bargaining were an exercise in daydreaming, not to speak of a more or less total denial of Leninism. If it meant that the whole trade union machine, both official and unofficial, was rigged, then our first task would be to see how we could assist in building new revolutionary syndicates, an essay into dual unionism, another Industrial Workers of the World.

The matter goes further. If we were seriously convinced that one of the fundamental, and most securely based Group theories was really about the corruption of the shop stewards, then Socialist Worker should have exposed it in every issue. Paul Foot, who was always a dab hand at the shock, horror, scandal type story, might have written something like this: “James Roberts (34), convener at United Grumblewuzzits, Acton, was heard calling the Works’ Manager, Frederick Fredericks (54), by his first name. According to union member Jack Spriggs (18) ‘There is a great deal of anger in Grumblewuzzits at this unprincipled class collaboration. These old men are rotted by the fruits of office, he won’t even become a Socialist Worker buyer let alone a seller. When the new interpretation of the Changing Locus of Reformism has had time to bed down properly, I will run against him, if I can find a seconder. I reckon that I’d be pretty good once I find out what mutuality and measured day work are all about’.”

Of course no stories of that kind appeared in any IS publication, under any signature, let alone Cliff’s. The whole thing was a set up. Cliff saw an opposition that was almost as much a part of IS as himself; it could not be shrugged off as an alien intrusion. To fix it he was prepared to deny vigorously that which a few before he had affirmed whole-heartedly. It was a sad spectacle and an earnest of worse to come.

Immediately after the NC an emergency EC meeting was convened at which it was decided that Dave Peers and Jim Nichol should seek Roger Protz’s resignation from the editorship of Socialist Worker. It will surprise nobody that Roger, who was a voting member of the EC in his role of Socialist Worker editor, was not invited to this meeting. Having secured Roger’ s editorship, the EC then organised the sacking of Jim Higgins from Socialist Worker. The whole episode was conducted with such well rounded and polished cynicism that one was left awestruck at the sheer cheek of it all. It has to be said, though, that the National Secretary’s letter to the branches purporting to explain matters had all the veracity and half the credibility of a snake oil salesman. It combined unctuousness and menace in a way that had not been seen since Uriah Heep. (See Appendix 4.)

The response from the branches was surprise, bewilderment and, in some cases, anger. Many sent resolutions demanding reinstatement and calling for a full discussion of the disputed questions. At the May NC, the EC was censured for its decision to force Roger out and to sack Jim Higgins, but the call for reinstatement was not carried. A similar result was obtained from the conference. Cliff, of course is quite happy to lose the odd vote so long as he gets his own way and, as he would probably have ignored a resolution to put them back on Socialist Worker, it did not make much difference anyway.

For my own part, a though I had enjoyed working on the paper immensely, I found that in some ways it was a relief not to have to work any more with Foot.

Prior to his metamorphosis into Cliff’s catspaw, I had thought of him as a bit of a weak sister, given to buckling under pressure, as his antics over the Common Market debate showed, but I had not judged him so feeble as to be unable to work with somebody who disagreed with him. Since then, of course, he has been able to work, for a king’s ransom – albeit a small Balkan kingdom – for Robert Maxwell without damage to his delicate psyche, although he did find the dubious Ulster charm of David Montgomery more than even he could stand. Now there is a useful marker for a chap to measure himself against. I am worse than Maxwell but on a par with Montgomery. Another entry for the old CV?

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Last updated on 31.1.2003