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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism


Arthur Truscott

John Sullivan


From John Sullivan, Go Fourth and Multiply/When This Pub Closes, Socialist Platform, London 2004.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Many thanks to Paul Flewers for providing the text.

THE untimely death of John Sullivan last autumn has robbed his family and friends of a man blessed with great intellect, personal integrity, warmth and friendliness, and with a remarkable sense of humour. This last attribute is unfortunately rare on the political left, and John combined an unshakeable commitment to socialism with the ability to view the left-wing movement in a delightfully irreverent manner.

We therefore have great pleasure in republishing two pamphlets on the British left that John wrote in the 1980s. When published – under typically Sullivanite implausible pseudonyms – they provoked stern disapproval amongst the more po-faced folk on the left for whom politics is a Serious Business which is not to be mocked. They caused jollity amongst those who shared to some degree or another John’s impish sense of humour, although not a few readers found their smiles rapidly evaporating when they turned to the pages describing their own particular group.

Nonetheless, many a true word has been said in jest, and there was and remains much that rings true in these two pamphlets. Any future historian of the left would do well to consult them. Are they outdated, have they been rendered obsolete? To be sure, many things have changed. The Socialist Workers Party is now the biggest group on the British left – indeed it’s now the only big group on the left – but how it will deal with difficulties after the death of its leader Tony Cliff in 2002 is anyone’s guess, seeing how he more-or-less single-handedly elaborated the group’s theories, strategies and tactics, and kept it together through its various twists and turns and ups and downs. Its latest campaign, the Respect Unity Coalition, an electoral alliance assembling George Galloway, a few left-wing union leaders (personal capacity), some of the smaller left-wing groups and sundry Muslim organisations whose politics are a mystery, and a programme that a Green Party leader called a pale imitation of his own organisation’s platform, seems to some to be a disaster-in-waiting. Have Cliff’s successors learnt enough of his technique to be able to sort out the mess should it all end in tears?

Militant has gone through a series of crises. Its Scottish section unilaterally wandered off into ‘Tartan Trotskyism’. The office boys around Peter Taaffe staged a coup and turfed out their leader Ted Grant, and pulled their much depleted group out of the Labour Party. Now trading as the Socialist Party, it competes directly with the SWP, but is sorely handicapped by its inability to replace the dreadfully dull public image so lovingly cultivated over the decades by their now-deposed leader with something more attractive.

The Revolutionary Communist Party, the last group in Britain to go through any real process of growth, has disappeared altogether, with its minuscule inner core surviving as a noisy if ineffectual right-wing libertarian think-tank. Leaving his exegeses on Marx’s Capital far behind him, the RCP’s guru Frank Füredi now rabbits on about the ‘culture of low expectations’, a theory brilliantly confirmed by the evolution of his group – from wanting to change the world to whinging about it like a cut-price Julie Burchill. Readers will, however, be gratified to learn that the group’s insufferable arrogance has survived the transformation, thus proving, in an interesting twist of the dialectic, that the content of a phenomenon can change dramatically, whilst its form remains unaltered.

Socialist Organiser, now rebranded as the Alliance for Workers Liberty, has, as John suggested it might, adopted Shachtmanism, although not until after the fall of the Soviet Union, which renders it all somewhat redundant. The AWL’s leader, Sean Matgamna (aka John O’Mahoney), has declared himself a Zionist, rather to the embarrassment of some of his group, and insists on branding as ‘anti-Semitic’ socialists who would like to see Arabs and Jews peacefully coexisting within a single democratic secular state in the Middle East.

The aftershocks of the implosion of the Workers Revolutionary Party has produced so many new groups that even our inveterate Trot-watching pals have lost track of them.

Yes, many things have changed in the intervening two decades, yet much has run, and continues to run, along very familiar lines, and John’s incisive observations retain all their relevance.

About a year ago, a friend of mine asked John if he was thinking of writing another pamphlet in this vein, looking at the British left as it was making its way into the new millennium. John replied that he had no plans to do so, but he didn’t say that he wasn’t going to at some point. It is very sad to think that this will not now happen, and it is equally sad that there doesn’t seem to be anyone who could step into John’s shoes and carry on his good work.

The two pamphlets reproduced in this volume have been republished with the full permission of John Sullivan’s widow Palmira.

Arthur Trusscott
5 March 2004

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