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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

Go Fourth and Multiply

John Sullivan

Go Fourth and Multiply

Part I: The Left


Grey Liberation

YOU are at a meeting, and someone with a fake Liverpool accent makes a speech demanding the nationalisation of the principle 253 monopolies.

Well, what’s wrong with that? Why is everyone groaning?

You’ll soon see. Half a dozen other people stand up and make the same speech, with the same fake accent and the same curious hand-movements. Are they clones? No, you have just met the Militant – the largest organised group on the British left. Militant’s theory is simple. The working class needs a programme. The revolutionary party’s job is to elaborate the programme and go out and win converts to it. So, for example, the basic weaknesses of the Wilson/Callaghan governments were their lack of such a programme.

Militant’s ideas would have been readily acceptable to most socialists before 1914 – indeed they were the orthodoxy of the Second International and its theoretician Karl Kautsky. If they seem strange to most socialists today, it is mainly because they have themselves been influenced by some variant of Trotsky’s ideas, stressing transitional demands and the need to unite political and industrial struggle.

History: When Fourth International supremo Michel Raptis (Pablo) split with Gerry Healy in 1953, he placed an advert for a replacement in Tribune. Ted Grant replied, and was given the British franchise. Grant’s orientation to the Labour Party coincided with Pablo’s theory that the mass social-democratic anti-Stalinist parties could be pushed in a revolutionary direction.

Grant’s historic meeting with Pablo can be seen as marking the death of British Trotskyism, once one of the Fourth International’s best sections. The meeting created British Pabloism, that strange mutation combining Trotskyist vocabulary with capitulation to whatever happens to be in fashion. The extent of the degeneration is shown by the fact that Grant, who introduced Pablo’s innovations to Britain, is now seen as the orthodox Trotskyist in comparison with the revisionists of the International Marxist Group.

The relationship was a happy one until Pablo’s successor Ernest Mandel discovered the student and youth revolt. The FI’s British section was urged to throw itself into the anti-Vietnam War movement. Grant’s consistent position was to argue inside empty Labour Party wards that Wilson should arm the Vietcong. This was to miss the boat of the youth revolt, so Grant’s franchise was revoked and the IMG was formed and given the contract.

Since then Grant’s group has imperceptibly but constantly grown. They have never made any big intervention anywhere, nor suffered any real reverse. Their lack of interest in most features of modern life has saved them from the foolishness indulged in by other groups. Thus the Militant doesn’t support individual terrorism, and, unusually for a modern left group, appeals for the working class to unite across sectarian, race and sex barriers. There is no significant opposition to the Militant in the Labour Party Young Socialists, although their domination keeps the LPYS small.

The Militant is here to stay – they will be writing ‘Vote Labour’ on the barricades. Much criticism of them is unfair or irrelevant. Their stereotyped hand movements and behaviour is hardly counter-revolutionary. Militant, in striking contrast to the Socialist Workers Party, ensures that its members all have some knowledge of its basic ideas. The trouble with the Militant formula is that it is just that – a formula. Young people learn to recite it and feel no need of relating to the real world. Politics become as easy as a children’s game.

Its rumoured that the Militant training committee is considering supplementing the basic programme (nationalise the 253 monopolies) with a more complex unit, which would programme operatives to make speeches linking this demand with other issues. I’m sceptical about this. The basic programme has the great virtues of simplicity and durability. Why complicate matters unnecessarily?

Socialist Workers Party

Pessimism of the Will

THE SWP is generally assumed to be a split from the Young Liberals. It is an understandable assumption given the group’s strength on the PR side and its political instability, but it’s nevertheless mistaken.

Surprisingly the SWP originated in the Trotskyist movement. Its Guru Tony Cliff and his supporters were expelled from the Trotskyist organisation in 1951 when they refused to take sides in the Korean War. Ever since then Cliff has been running his own troupe.

It is a long way from the serious politically-motivated circles of self-educated working men which constituted British Trotskyism till the 1960s to ‘Transvestites Against Nuclear Power’.

How did Cliff get from there to here?

You can read a version of the trip in the authorised history of the SWP – The Smallest Mass Party in the World by Ian Birchall, an historian who would have been at home in the court of the Emperor Justinian.

You may sometimes hear SWPers muttering ‘State Capitalism’ or ‘Permanent Arms Economy’. Although they won’t be able to explain what they mean by these phrases, they do provide a clue to Cliff’s evolution.

Cliff maintained that Trotsky was wrong in categorising Russia as a Workers’ State, albeit bureaucratically degenerated. Russia was essentially capitalist. Cliff also maintained that the capitalist system had been temporarily stabilised by spending on arms – so the final crisis was not coming any minute.

Cliff’s scepticism about the imminent collapse of the system allowed him to sit out the 1950s, while other groups made premature bids for the radical market.

When the market revived in the 1960s, most political groups ditched Marx in favour of Mao, Marcuse, Fanon and Eldridge Cleaver. Cliff, in contrast, saw that some fashions would be short-lived and that any student daft enough to swallow Mandel’s student vanguard theory would probably fail his exams. He realised that the best student radicals would be attracted to a group which stressed the crucial role of the working class.

During the late 1960s, Cliff’s success left rival entrepreneurs fuming. A very rapid growth after 1968 enabled him to build an organisation and recruit a number of industrial militants.

It was too good to last.

In 1974, when the miners threw out Heath, Cliff decided his hour had struck. He had cast Harold Wilson in the Kerensky role in the rerun of 1917, with himself re-enacting the role first made popular by V.I. Lenin. Strikes and occupations would multiply. The then International Socialist (IS) group was transformed into the SWP, which was to become a mass party in the brief time available before the British October. This didn’t happen. In the ensuing confusion, most of the long-serving IS cadre and industrial workers absconded, leaving Cliff with a fairly demoralised collection of students, white-collar employees and drifters.

When the revolution was seen to be unavoidably delayed, Cliff announced that the formation of the SWP had been necessary, not to lead the revolution, but precisely because the workers’ movement was in such a bad way that it needed the SWP to prevent the retreat becoming a rout. (Cliff could always think on his feet.)

The IS group had always been sceptical about middle-class lifestyle fads, but it was clear that if the middle-class members were not to lead the revolution, they would have to be allowed to indulge their personal fetishes; so Gay Lib, Ecology and Life-Stylism were authorised as politically relevant.

This removed one of the main boundaries between the SWP and the other groups, and left the SWP open to a unity offensive by the IMG, who saw a merger being possible now that the SWP had abandoned its ‘workerism’ and ‘economism’. This was naive of them: the IMG actually believe in Transvestism’s revolutionary potential; Cliff merely looks at the market and provides what the punters are demanding.

Cliff is an admirer of Lenin, but it’s a Lenin viewed from a distinctive angle. His four-volume life of Lenin reads like a biography of John the Baptist written by Jesus Christ. Cliff has also been described as the thinking man’s Ernest Mandel, but that is being a bit harsh.

The SWP now staggers between organising punch-ups with the National Front and chatting up vicars in the Anti-Nazi League. It’s not going anywhere in particular, but a fairly efficient apparatus keeps it on the road.

Strength: 3,400, paid-up members 1,500, declining slowly

Papers: Socialist Worker, Socialist Review, International Socialism

International Marxist Group

We Haven’t Crossed the Class Line, Or Will the Real Fourth Internationalists Please Stand Up!

WATCHING the grey and balding IMGers sitting behind the nearly-new stall at the Labour Party Jumble Sale next to a yellowing pile of Socialist Challenge, you may find it difficult to visualise them in 1968. What a brave sight they made charging to Grosvenor Square, banners flapping in the wind, chanting ‘Ho, Ho, Ho – Chi Minh!’ Didn’t they go like the clappers!

Even into the 1970s, IMG leader Robin Blackburn could be seen with a suit carefully chosen to match the Vietnamese flag he carried – a striking exception to the generally low sartorial standards of the British left.

The IMG’s politics at that time consisted of ‘exemplary actions’. The vanguard was to take risks and throw off sparks which might detonate a popular explosion. The 1970 election was seen as irrelevant, because the Labour Party was really no different from the Tories.

Whatever happened to turn these dashing young people into the shambling figures to be seen today? What possible connection can there be between their politics then and now?

For the IMG, these questions are not vital. Its defining feature is that it is the British Section of the Fourth International (Mandel Tendency).

The IMG has subscribed to a bewildering variety of political positions since its formation in the late 1960s. When asked about this apparent lack of consistency, they will reply that they are the authorised section of the FI, and that none of their many and varied deviations amount to scabbing or counter-revolutionary activity (their opponents dispute this). The critics ought therefore to join them and make their criticisms from within. If the IMG was to lose the FI Imprimatur, critics would be entitled to form a group and put in a bid for the British franchise. Without the FI, a political group is bound to succumb to national deviations. These can be nasty, including as they do workerism, empiricism and anti-intellect­ualism.

The bewildering inconsistency of positions which the IMG had adopted – Maoism, refusal to distinguish between the Labour Party and the capitalist parties, exemplary actions, etc., etc., make its history bewildering in terms of a development of political tendency, but are an invaluable guide to what was turning on the radical youth at any given time.

In truth, the IMG have always been too generous and impressionable. They respond to the spirit of the day. If bestiality became popular, they would take that up too. At present, they are happily ensconced in the Labour Party where they continue their battle against their old bogies workerism and economism. Currently their anti-economist, anti-workerist line gets some support inside the Labour Party from middle-class people who have always been unhappy with the Labour Party’s working-class base.

It is inaccurate to see the IMG as an aristocratic revolt against bourgeois dominance. True, their best known ex-leader, Tariq Ali, is an out-of-work rajah, but most of the group is middle-class. Tariq Ali didn’t in any case play the dominant role of a Cliff, Healy or Grant.

The really ironical feature of the IMG is that it’s probably the best section of the Fourth International, while it thinks itself one of the weakest.

Strength: 580

Papers: Socialist Challenge, International

Workers Revolutionary Party

The Theatre of the Absurd

IF you were to stumble into a meeting of the Workers Revolutionary Party Central Committee, you might wonder for a moment why there are so many familiar faces. But of course! You’ve seen them on the telly! Vanessa Redgrave is the best known of this group of proletarian activists who have long fought bitter struggles to win the toiling masses of Equity (the actors’ union) to revolutionary positions. Is real life merely an escape from the pressures of the stage? It’s certainly true that if the CIA ever succeeds in eliminating the WRP leadership, casting directors everywhere will be in trouble.

The WRP’s main star, Gerry Healy, has not himself trodden the boards of the legitimate stage, but his gifts as actor, producer and director are considerable. Lawrence Olivier’s shot at portraying him in the play The Party was generally acclaimed as a brave try, but not really up to the histrionic standards of the original.

Healy’s fascination with drama started early. He was British Trotskyism’s first superstar when Tariq Ali was still at school.

The WRP is the only group apart from the Communist Party to have a daily newspaper, a remarkable achievement for a group with only 600 or 700 members.

Most of the paper Newsline reads like the Daily Mirror without the politics. Lots of sport and TV programmes and occasionally more news on the CIA’s infiltration of the Fourth International, most of whose historic leaders, it is suggested, were and are CIA agents. Some of them doubled as KGB agents, which might seem to be overdoing it a bit. However, the Stalinists traditionally accused Trotsky of working for all the imperialist secret services, even when they were in conflict with each other. All other groups, including opponents of the American SWP, feel that this kind of allegation goes beyond the traditional, fairly robust polemics which enliven the tedium of most left journals. (It’s alright to say that a rival group behave as if they were working for the CIA, or that they are objectively counter-revolutionary, but to allege that poor old Joe Hansen actually set Trotsky up for Ramon Mercador’s ice-pick really isn’t very nice.)

The WRP’s other main eccentricity is their support for Colonel Gadaffi and the military rulers of Iraq.

Supporters of rival fragments of the Fourth International are highly embarrassed by the WRP, and protest that Healy is just a megalomaniac who has nothing to do with the FI tradition. This isn’t quite so. Healy emerged as the dominant figure in British Trotskyism in the late 1940s, sponsored by the international leadership of the FI.

He remained the chief side-kick of the American SWP after the 1953 split, breaking with them when they reunited with the Pabloites in 1963. His group (then the Socialist Labour League) was an important faction in the Young Socialists in the early 1960s, and was probably the largest Trotskyoid group until about 1965.

Rivals who constantly predict the WRP’s imminent collapse are almost certainly wrong. This show will run and run.

Workers Socialist League

The Revolt of the Spear-Carriers

IN 1973, the WRP showed clear signs of going round the twist. The actors who till then had been decoration were promoted to the leadership.

You can hardly blame actors for liking drama. They predicted a military coup and launched the group into a self-induced trance, where they feared assassination as the Heath government tried to destroy the WRP – the tried and trusted leadership of the British working class.

The remnants of the WRP’s once considerable industrial base (by then reduced to a sump in the Oxford/Reading/Swindon area) were taken aback. They didn’t fancy being reduced to stagehands supporting the new leading men and ladies.

Led by Cowley shop steward Alan Thornett and supported by some of the old style activists still oriented towards the labour movement, they protested and were duly expelled.

The WSL returned to the old Healy line of ‘Make the Left MPs Fight’. Apart from that they have nothing much to say. They survived for eight years because of Thornett’s personal position and the strength of the group inside Oxford’s Cowley plant, where they have considerable weight.

The pressures of geographical isolation and lack of direction have now made them collapse into the arms of Sean Matgamna’s International Communist League. The marriage settlement includes a commitment to lifestyle politics. Some WSLers won’t like this.

Strength: about 130

Paper: Socialist Press – now merged with Workers Action

Comment: It might have suited you, but it’s too late now. If you are thinking of forming a group to fill the missing space, try to create a sharper profile.

Spartacist League

Big fleas have smaller fleas
Upon their backs to bite ‘em
And these fleas have still smaller fleas
And so ad infinitum …

TO hear the Sparts, go to some other group’s meeting. Not the SWP, who won’t allow them in. The Sparts’ vigorous polemics annoy meeting organisers who say it is organised disruption and when they really get rattled talk about CIA agents. (If they annoy you don’t throw them out – they will have a demonstration within the hour, and denunciation in their press in six languages within a fortnight.)

Nor will they be unhappy about being thrown out. It provides copy for their papers (Workers Vanguard and Spartacist Britain) and material for their campaign.

Primitive Socialist Accumulation: Why do they do it? You have to look at their theory and history. The Sparts originated in a split within the American SWP. In the early 1960s, the SWP abandoned Trotskyist orthodoxy for Castroism, broke with their British associate Gerry Healy, and reunited with the Pabloites from whom they had split in 1953.

The Sparts maintained that a Trotskyist organisation and programme was essential, so they were duly expelled. They see themselves as the continuation of the revolutionary Trotskyism exemplified by the SWP until its infatuation with Fidel led it to substitute the guerrilla band and the student vanguard for the working class. An examination of the SWP’s press in the 1950s suggests the Sparts are far too kind. The SWP and the FI were pretty degenerate by the late 1940s.

The Sparts’ main energy is devoted to slagging off other groups which claim to be Trotskyist. Why? Well, these groups are incurably centrist or reformist, so their pretensions must be exposed so that they won’t mislead potentially revolutionary workers.

If they are so rotten, why bother with them?

Because the authentic Trotskyist cadres can, in the present period, come only from defecting members of the ORGs (Ostensibly Revolutionary Groups). To imagine that one can go directly the masses now is to engage in fake mass work – when Sparts utter these words their lips curl in the same way as does an IMGer when he says ‘Workerist’.

The Spartacists in the Twenty-First Century: The British Sparts have grown since they were first established by American colonists some six years ago. They now number 90, having recruited from splits in other groups. They face the future with quiet confidence, and hope to rival the IMG by the mid-1990s and the SWP by about 2010. They calculate that Militant is too culturally conservative to adapt to the inevitable changes in lifestyle of the next 30 years, and will cease to attract youth. The Communist Party on present rates of decline will be smaller than the SWP within 10 years, and will then be a suitable object for raiding.

Just as today’s Trotskyists are often children of Communist Party members, so the children of the IMG and other Trotskyoid groups could provide recruits for the Spartacists, although survivors of IMG communes will include a lot of deeply disturbed individuals.

The Sparts’ attack on the ORGs, although sharp, is launched on quite a narrow front. They deny the early degeneration of the FI. In fact, they vie with the SWP(US) in building up the personality cult of the late James P. Cannon – a Healy who never found his Gadaffi.

The capacity of the Sparts to take such a long-term view takes the average lefty, who doesn’t think much further ahead than next week’s demo, aback.

Only the mysteries of the dialectic can explain how this long-term perspective of ‘primitive accumulation of cadres’ coexists with a perspective of backward British capitalism collapsing shortly into some kind of authoritarian military regime.

At first sight, the Sparts appear very different from the average lefty group. They criticise the lumpen-bourgeois periphery of the old IMG, rather than accommodating to them. In reality, the Sparts have no intention of abandoning the lumpen-left milieu which is their real constituency as much as it is that of the other left groups. The inhabitants of this milieu like being flattered by the IMG and SWP, but most of all they like attention, so being insulted by the Sparts is quite acceptable.

Membership: 90, mainly in London, Birmingham and Sheffield

Revolutionary Communist Group

The Agonies of Being English

THE RCG are generally to be found heckling meetings on Ireland or racism.

They are a group which split from the SWP (then IS) in 1972 on the grounds that the IS’s militant syndicalism ignored the struggle for a Marxist programme. The RCG’s guru is an academic, David Yaffe, who has done sterling work on the velocity of the falling rate of profit, and has almost got it down to the nearest foot per second.

The RCG moves from a quite competent study of economics to a sub-CSE [1] political theory. Their ideas are simple:

  1. Imperialism has savagely oppressed colonial peoples. The British working class has acquiesced in this oppression. We can’t get anywhere until this oppression is ended. As beneficiaries of this oppression, neither the British working class nor the left groups have the right to tell the anti-imperialists what to do. On the contrary, the RCG on principle refuses to criticise nationalist movements. If Mugabe, for example, wants to break strikes, that’s his privilege.
  2. Left groups are castigated for their criticism, however timid, of the Provos, Mugabe, etc. This exemption from criticism is also granted to bourgeois representatives of immigrant groups. The RCG competed with the Home Office for the allegiance of the Southall Youth Movement. The RCG claims to have won the argument, and alleges that the Home Office’s final winning ploy (a £20,000 cheque) constituted foul play. Most fair-minded people would surely agree with them.
  3. Capitalism causes racism, unemployment, etc. Therefore a movement such as the ANL which attempts to combat racism by attacking the NF is reactionary in that it tries to pretend that there can be a non-racist capitalism. (For an earlier, more consistent form of this argument, see the section on the SPGB.)
  4. Attempts to create movements around limited trade union struggles by raising demands which will carry the struggle forward, fall into reformism if the full socialist programme is not advocated. The attempt at a transitional programme is therefore deplored.

The RCG can be seen as a cross between the SPGB and an old-style Stalinist party, combining as it does maximalist positions with worship of anti-working-class forces. It does also have some interesting eccentricities of its own.

Members will insist on using aliases in surroundings where they are well known, and will complain bitterly when people inadvertently muddle their real and false names.

They make a great point of declaring loudly that they maintain secrecy about where they live and work. This must make them a secret policeman’s dream. The RCG appeals to dedicated, serious and not very bright young people. Their speakers have the air of someone repeating a lesson by rote.

If your memory goes back as far as the 1960s, you will recognise the RCG’s line as a ‘Marxist’ version of the ‘white skin privilege’ theories which were popular at the time.

RCG members feel terribly guilty about their privileges. There they are – young, white, beautiful and enjoying a student grant paid for by the exploitation of black or Irish people. Surely such good fortune can’t be deserved.

Strength: about 40 members

Papers: Hands Off Ireland, Fight Racism Fight Imperialism, Revolutionary Communist

Prospects: For survival, good, although they probably won’t grow much. The combination of the possession of an esoteric economic theory, an extremely crude political formula, the thrill of secrecy and the sense of importance of belonging to an élite group, should ensure it a small share of the radical student market.

Revolutionary Communist Party

Formerly the Revolutionary Communist Tendency

THE RCT was expelled from its parent, the RCG, for challenging that group’s grovelling before the Communist Party and the Anti-Apartheid Movement on its way towards becoming a consistent defender of anti-working-class regimes.

The RCG was then conducting entry work in Anti-Apartheid. The people who became the RCT wanted to criticise the African National Congress. The RCT’s interpretation of the group’s propagandist orientation was that at a certain point once forces had been built up it would begin agitational work. Yaffe’s response, predictably, was brutal and the RCT was expelled. In reaction to the RCG’s prostration before bourgeois dictators, the RCT has quite a sharply critical attitude to Mugabe, etc. (Logically they should extend this to criticism of the Irish Nationalists, but realise that this would make their product unmarketable.)

Rebounding from the RCG’s passivity, the RCT decided to become the vanguard and substitute themselves for the working-class movement. They have formed a couple of anti-racist front groups, ELWAR and SPTAC, and have taken to dressing up in jump suits and making rather violent verbal contributions to meetings. I rather like them.

Prospects: There is a fair market for a group like the RCT for young people bored with the SWP’s illiteracy and the sub-reformism of the IMG.

Strength: around 70

Journal: The Next Step

Revolutionary Workers Party (Posadas)

WHEN the two largest tendencies in the Fourth International united in 1963 (the American SWP and the Mandel tendency), this produced the (customary) splits within both groups. The SWP lost the British SLL and what became the Spartacist tendency. The Mandelites lost one of their most important South American leaders – Posadas.

The story of Posadism in South America is bloody, while in Europe it is bizarre. The Belgium and Spanish sections flirted with the idea that flying saucers were emissaries for a higher socialist consciousness in some other galaxy.

Curiously, for a 1960s tendency, Posadism was never Maoist. It took the Russian side on the Peking–Moscow split. It argues that the proletariat and the oppressed generally are everywhere spontaneously moving towards Trotskyism. All that is needed is a revolutionary leadership to give this movement direction.

The RWP’s line is reiterated in their paper Red Flag, the core of which was always an article by J. Posadas, allegedly shouted into a tape recorder in a suburb of Montevideo, and rushed to his three supporters throughout the world (always the same article). Posadas has died, but has left a number of tapes.

The RWP are Labour Party entrists. Another of their distinctive demands – that the Russian leadership must not be side-tracked by pacifist deviations, but must launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike – is generally played down when canvassing.

Assessment: If you get frustrated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ reluctance to name the date for Armageddon, then the RWP might be your cup of tea.

Strength: about a dozen people

New Communist Party

IF you enjoyed the 1950s, you’ll love the NCP. They split from the CPGB in 1977 over the CP’s efforts to take their distance from the Soviet Union and repeat its line on anything. If they didn’t exist, the Russians would have to sign on as clients of Saatchi and Saatchi.

The NCP has difficulty in separating itself from the CP on most issues. It’s not clear how revisionism on the Russian question links up with the CP’s reformist line. Anyway, the CP used to combine reformist politics with a slavish loyalty to the Kremlin.

The NCP has to walk the straight and narrow path between the reformism of the CP and the leftism of the competing Trotskyoid groups.

At first, the NCP simply repeated the CP on everything except support for the Soviet Union. In response to the pressure of small groups’ politics and the competition of what they regard as the Ultra Left, they now call for the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland and oppose import controls.

Sometimes when my kids have gone off to their noisy discos, I put on my mum’s old Paul Robeson records. Reading the New Worker and listening to Old Man River, I imagine myself in a world where punk rock, video games and gay liberation don’t exist.

Prospects: Are here to stay but won’t grow much unless the Kremlin breaks with the CP and gives the franchise to them.

Strength: 400

Paper: The New Worker

Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)

Fight Where You Are!

THE CPB(M-L) is sometimes known as the Reg Birch Admiration Society, after its founder, a recently retired member of the AUEW Executive.

The CPB(M-L), a product of British Maoism, was unusual in once having something of a working-class base. For a time it controlled the North London District Committee of the AUEW – it originally represented some militants in the CP, not merely seekers after Eastern Promise.

The Chinese sensibly never gave their franchise in the British market to any of the quarrelling Maoist groups as the groups’ quarrels were so vicious that it would have been impossible to amalgamate them.

The CPB(M-L), faced with their mentors’ reluctance to tell them what to say, evolved a technique for saying nothing. They are against capitalism, imperialism and the Labour Party and for the workers’ struggle. Otherwise their pronouncements are at so high a level of generality that controversy and errors are avoided. It is a good technique which other groups would copy if they weren’t such intellectual snobs.

For a small party, the CPB(M-L) had very heavy demands placed on it. It had to represent the British Proletariat at Party, Trade Union, Women and Youth Congresses of both the Chinese and Albanian Parties. Leading members gallantly shouldered this burden, spending a considerable part of their life on these visits. One wishes that the working-class movement showed more gratitude for these efforts on its behalf.

The CPB(M-L)’s reticent style protected it from getting embroiled in disputes over Peking’s reactionary policies. When Albania split with China, the CPB(M-L) chose the Albanian franchise and continued attending the congresses.

A few years ago, the Albanians wanted the CPB(M-L) to organise breakaway Red Unions. When the CPB(M-L) wouldn’t and couldn’t do so, their recognition was withdrawn and they had to face life alone.

The formula for survival has been to comment approvingly on workers’ struggles, but refrain from attempts to generalise (if they did they might get it wrong).

Members work in their workplace and union branch, but form no linking organisation to implement the party line. So it is uncertain what they actually do; fantasy flourishes. The party branch becomes a forum for general anti-capitalist propaganda and largely imaginative accounts of struggle at the workplace. Attempts to generalise the trade union struggle are denounced as Trotskyism.

The CPB(M-L) has moved from being one of the groups with the most industrial base to one with the least. Its slogan – ‘Fight where you are – Down with Thatcher’ – and its opposition to rank-and-file movements rationalise that situation.

Prospects: Not bright. If you aren’t old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution, you won’t appreciate the importance in CPB(M-L) folklore of Madame Birch providing the idea which sparked it off in her discussions with Madame Mao.

Stop Press: The CPB(M-L) have recently came full circle and now support Russia. Belief in Socialism in One Country does require one country to support.

Big Flame

The Thinking Man’s Maoists

BIG Flame is a hybrid group originating in an (originally) local journal in Merseyside in the early 1970s. BF was Maoistic but consciously eclectic, drawing back from the extremes of Little Red Book waving, and fusing Maoism with Anarchism and Populism, never subscribing to a Stalin cult. An unusual group for Britain but very similar to the now defunct Italian group – Lotta Continua.

BF seemed ideally designed to cater for the student market. While its actual practice was similar to the IMG, it was unrestricted by Marxist theory even of the most formal kind.

BF was able to travel light and was well suited to take advantage of the new movements then arising. Absence of a theory (‘dogma’) meant it could almost simultaneously support Mao, Fidel, Allende, General Carvalho or whoever.

BF’s quick-footedness soon made it abandon Maoism – most Maoist groups couldn’t do so and didn’t survive. Its sensitivity to the spirit of the time induced it to form an electoral alliance with the IMG during the Wilson/Callaghan government (dumping Anarchism).

But why Liverpool? Until very recently Liverpool would have been considered a stronghold of the labour movement – much more militant than any city in the South. Yet the working-class movement has been battered into apathy: unemployment has soared. Traditional strongholds have been destroyed, while the Liverpool Labour Party has often been singled out as one of the most corrupt, inactive and undynamic anywhere.

In these circumstances, the Liberals became a power by concentrating on community politics. BF represents a more radical version of this tactic. It has a really genuine community politics, free of the Liberal’s cynical vote-catching, and pushed to its radical conclusion.

It is no accident that the scene of the Liberal triumph produced the group which is furthest away from the Marxist tradition. BF until recently was hardly concerned with the questions of principle which occupied Marxist groups. With the collapse of Maoism, BF felt they needed a theory and hired clever Moshé Machover to write then a theoretical document outlining their line on Russia, China and the Third World, etc. The result, published as The Century of the Unexpected, argues that the new bureaucratic regimes are progressive for a while, then they become a fetter on society. So Mao would be progressive, but not Deng. With any luck this change will be marked by a dashing general being replaced by a grey bureaucrat, the regime falling out of favour with middle-class and student opinion in the West, leaving BF still swimming with the stream. Nice one Moshé!

Strength: about 80

Journals: Big Flame, Revolutionary Socialism

Socialist Party of Great Britain
(founded 1904)

THE Socialist Party is in some ways the most extreme of all left organisations. It stands for nothing less than complete socialism now and has no time for Labour governments, Alternative Economic Plans, or any kind of transitional strategy.

On the other hand, the SPGB can be seen as moderate. Its activity consists of contesting elections, selling its publications and giving lectures. It abhors violence and sees no reason why the socialist society should not be smoothly inaugurated once it gets a parliamentary majority. It is this legalism which has prompted the gibe that they are the Small Party of Good Boys.

The SPGB is sometimes ridiculed for having so few members after 77 years’ work. (This gibe surely loses force as the groups formed in the 1960s settle into middle age without having found a way to the masses.)

Of course, an organisation founded in 1904 will differ in many ways from one founded in 1968. The SPGB split from the main Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, over a reformism which led it to congratulate King Edward on his accession to the throne. The left wing of the SDF was outraged and formed an opposition tendency. Some mainly Scots comrades jumped the gun and split in 1903 forming the Socialist Labour Party, leaving the London-based SPGB to go it alone in 1904. The SLP were then under the influence of James Connolly; his encouragement of their precipitate split was one of his many disservices to the labour movement.

The SPGB suffered from its opposition to both world wars, members being forced to go on the run in World War I and having difficulty with the tribunals when asking for conscientious objector status in World War II.

The advantages of a long existence without major splits include being able to recruit from the children of members, rather than having to depend entirely on recruiting outsiders. This internal recruitment, in its turn, produces greater stability than exists among newer groups.

In private, the older leaders of most left groups envy the SPGB’s peace and stability, but they know that their younger members must be offered something more dramatic.

Strength: about 600

Part 2


1. CSE – Certificate of Secondary Education, alternatively Conference of Socialist Economists.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007