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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

As Soon As This Pub Closes

John Sullivan

As Soon As This Pub Closes

Socialist Workers Party

THE Socialist Workers Party (T. Cliff, Proprietor), with more than 3000 members, is the third largest group on the British left, quite a lot smaller than either Militant or the Communist Party, but many times larger than the next one down. It originated, like most of the older groups, as one of the fragments of British Trotskyism, when Cliff and 30 others were expelled from the Healy-dominated movement in 1951 for advocating the State Capitalist heresy. Most SWPers, who are not noted for their grasp of theory, are unable to explain what that means, other than that Russia is as bad as America. The practical consequence in 1951 was that socialists should oppose both sides in the Korean War, and the claim that Trotsky was wrong to advocate that the Stalinist states should be given critical support in the event of war with capitalist powers.

Exclusion from all of the various Fourth Internationals had the considerable advantage of breaking free from the wretched rival cliques sitting in Paris cafés, producing perspectives for world revolution by examining their coffee grounds, while ignoring what went on either in France or abroad. Cliff’s tiny group (then known as Socialist Review) set about trying to explain the existence of the postwar boom, whereas other groups continually predicted that it was about to end in a matter of weeks. The group came up with the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy, which claimed that spending on arms had staved off a slump. The attempt to understand the actual development of postwar capitalism was very unwise for anyone trying to build a socialist organisation. We feel that Gerry Healy showed a keener instinct in always claiming that the final crisis was nigh. It is important to be consistent here if one is not to fall into revisionism. Cliff’s cautious assessment was most unsatisfying to anyone seeking excitement, and people leaving the Communist Party after 1956 were much more attracted to Healy’s promise of imminent crisis, so Cliff’s group stagnated throughout the 1950s.

In the 1960s, the group gathered strength by recruiting from the Labour Party Young Socialists, CND and, later, the movement against the Vietnam War. At that time the group (then known as the International Socialists) was an entrist faction in the Labour Party, but Cliff disagreed with rival factions who believed that the party was permanently poised for either a lurch to the left or a split. When one of us asked why we should be there at all Cliff replied: ‘We live like lice in its hair.’ Neither he nor we realised then that he would soon be able to afford his own lice.

When the student revolt erupted in the late 1960s, Cliff’s group entered its golden age. It had nearly 400 members in 1967, and it expanded rapidly as the May 1968 revolt in Paris had its repercussions in Britain. The Communist Party was discredited because its sister party in France thought the whole movement was a plot to discredit itself. The Healy group (then known as the Socialist Labour League) was already living in a miniature version of the same fantasy world where rival groups were composed of police spies trying to draw the revolutionary vanguard into dangerous adventures which would ruin its cash flow and get the leadership arrested. Ted Grant’s tiny Militant group urged the flabbergasted students to join the Labour Party and force Wilson to arm the Vietcong. Cliff told the student rebels that they would get nowhere unless they found support in the working class. The dominant ideas in the student movement at that time were a mixture of Althusserian-Maoist-Mandelite gibberish which claimed that students were a new mass vanguard, and that revolutionaries should urge them to form Red Bases in the universities where they could escape the contagion of capitalist, syndicalist and economist influences. Cliff recruited the best of the student radicals, leaving the Maoists and the then Mandelite franchisee, the International Marxist Group, with some rather inadequate human material. Furthermore, the heyday of rank-and-file industrial militancy quickly followed the student revolt, and International Socialism recruited young workers and grew to 4,000 members, several times the size of its nearest rival. Cliff gathered a talented team around him, which included Roger Protz, John Palmer and Wendy Henry. Where are they now, we wonder?

The group’s mainly student composition was, at that time, seen as a disadvantage. Nominally Marxist middle-class elements were reluctant to abandon life-stylism, Feminism, Vegetarianism and all the other fads which jostle to fill the vacuum created by the decline of traditional religious belief. Cliff fought hard to persuade the new recruits that such fetishes had nothing to do with the task of building the revolutionary party, and while the momentum of growth kept the group together he was successful. In 1974, when the miners strike brought down the Heath government, Cliff’s patience snapped and he abandoned his caution as he prepared to play the part in the revolutionary drama first made popular by V.I. Lenin. We were told that the incoming Labour government would not last as long as Kerensky, and it would be our turn soon. When the Wilson-Callaghan government stabilised the situation through the Social Contract, the tide of struggle ebbed and Cliff realised he had lost his wager.

What was to be done? Failure went to Cliff’s head, and he proclaimed that his disintegrating group was now the Socialist Workers Party, something he had resolutely opposed in happier times. The cadre began to insist that, as the revolution had not appeared on schedule, their lifestyles be recognised as relevant political activity, and Cliff was forced to concede, although too late to avoid several splits. When one of us remonstrated with him over his backsliding, an ashen-faced Cliff muttered ‘that’s what they want’ and we did not have the heart to berate him. Since then Cliff has been going through the motions, sometimes sounding like the old warrior, but once he despaired of changing the world he saw little point in trying to understand it. When Women’s, Black and Gay Sections of the party were authorised, Cliff muttered shamefacedly that these changes only brought the group into line with the norms prevailing in most other groups – precisely.

The least harmful of the lifestyle groups were the Gayfellows, who having consummated a successful entry, zipped up their Wranglers and withdrew, leaving the group none the worse. The Black Section entrepreneurs were only passing through on their way to jobs in the GLC and Channel 4. Of course, Cliff realised that the recruitment of such elements was a recognition that the group would cease trying to integrate working-class blacks, but most of the membership did not. Cliff really caught a cold over feminism. He has never really believed that we women could take straight politics, but he opposed the separatism of the early women’s movement, while he was still serious about building the party, only to embrace it as it began to decline. In 1974, he started a separate autonomous women’s section with its own journal, Women’s Voice. The traditional women’s journals such as Woman’s Own had become too old-fashioned for many young women, and Cliff spotted a hole in the market for a mag which, with a light coating of politics would function as a transmission belt between the party and the women’s movement. The belt functioned alright, but funnelled women out of the party, so after seven years trying to find the reverse lever Cliff shut down the journal and the autonomous organisation, to the chagrin of many women who had been very happy in their political Bantustan. The more political women who stayed with the group reacted in a very healthy manner to the wave of corruption in the GLC and London boroughs, not least because so many ex-comrades had their snouts in the trough. Cliff was pressured into publishing a number of exposés of Livingstoneite municipal corruption, but baulked at extending them to include the no less blatant corruption of Black and Gay entrepreneurs, or to a political examination of the whole Livingstoneite phenomenon. SWP criticism of the new interest group Labour Party middle class concentrates on the fact that they are trying to achieve their objects by subterfuge and stealth, and is rather silent on the validity of the objects themselves.

Most of the cadre, so carefully built up over a long period, defected as a result of the catalogue of disasters, but many of them are surprisingly tolerant of Cliff’s role. Survivors from that period are fond of quoting Sassoon:

‘He’s a cheery old card’, grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

The SWP survived the 1970s with a series of campaigns, of which the Anti-Nazi League was the most successful, and the Right to Work Campaign the least. The leadership works on an estimate of an inflow/outflow of 800 per year. The group will only be in trouble if recruitment in the colleges drops off for three years in a row. Opponents often dismiss the SWP as merely a student group, but that is a considerable exaggeration. Probably no more than one-third of its members are students. Admittedly, the majority of the others are ex-students, but that is no less true of the groups which criticise it. The SWP never recovered the toehold among industrial workers which it lost in the mid-1970s. Until the early 1980s, it had organised fractions in some white-collar unions, but these fell by the wayside as unemployment demoralised the trade union movement. Cliff invented a new political category, the Downturn, to augment the traditional Marxist schema of boom and slump, which were unhelpful in explaining his group’s decline. At about the same time he became heavily influenced by Karl Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, critical of the grandiose ambitions which the SWP had once indulged in, and convinced that it should concentrate on ‘small but concrete issues’.

Cliff’s criticisms of other groups’ habit of issuing calls for dramatic action, while their members fail to carry out even routine trade union activity in their own workplace, is undoubtedly well taken. But it failed to take account of the vulgarisation to which his ‘small but concrete’ notion would be subjected at the hands of his less politically-educated followers. Sometimes they interpret it as an instruction to ignore the wider movement and even to refuse to attend trade union meetings where, they allege, people are prone to talk about grand issues which are of no concern to the grass roots. Cliff has been criticised for failing to show how his ‘small but concrete’ work will carry over into the transformation of society, but the same charge could be levelled against Schumacher himself. The SWP members’ refusal to make links between small and great issues has brought the (unjustified) charge of arrogance against them. The problem is that having refused to advance any specific tactic or strategy which would justify support for their organisation, SWP members, however modest personally, are forced to proclaim ‘we do it better’, which can easily be mistaken for grandiloquence. If there is no link between immediate struggle and socialist objectives, what can an individual do apart from joining the SWP?

The SWP’s leaders have a keen appreciation of the dynamics of their group, and have evolved an organisational structure which is remarkably well suited to its functioning. It bears little resemblance to a traditional labour movement bureaucracy, and there is no imitation of the Labour Party’s baroque edifice of local/district and regional committees. In fact, there are no organisational intermediaries between the central bureaucracy and the local leaderships of branches. Such a structure, accentuated by the absence of a comprehensive educational programme, means that the group’s publications play the key role in maintaining group identity and doctrinal cohesion. The process is remarkably libertarian as, although a line is elaborated and spelled out in Socialist Worker, potential dissidents are not instructed on the line by authorised inquisitors. They may even, if they wish, object to it and write outlining an alternative. However, there are no forums apart from the desperately low-level branch discussions, where alternative policies can be discussed. Consequently, the group whose ideology most attacks bureaucracy and praises rank-and-file initiative has a bigger gap between the leadership and the rank and file than does any of its rivals. Some of the leaders privately express distaste for the role of enlightened despots which is imposed on them.

Cliff does not, therefore, have to look over his shoulder in fear of an alternative leadership emerging in area committees or industrial fractions. The disadvantage of such an organisational model is that the SWP has no mechanism for promoting a cadre which will renew the existing leadership. Rejuvenation depends on the central leadership coopting younger elements through a process of literary endeavour. The process is not unlike an academic selection procedure, and allowed Cliff to maintain his team at a reasonable strength until the late 1970s, since when it has been visibly ageing.

A corollary of the vast intellectual divide between leaders and led has been the lack of empathy between the leadership and grass-roots student members. How can Cliff know what will turn the kids on? His solution to that problem epitomises his realism and acute tactical ability. ‘Don’t fight it! Lie back and enjoy it!’, he told us. SWP branches have instructions to underwrite any student fashion which is not actually racist or Fascist. The method was used with considerable success in Brent in the early 1970s, but was eventually to backfire. Cliff believes that it would be presumptuous and unrealistic to try to tell students the flavour of the month. The SWP hopes to maintain its student recruitment by establishing itself as the most consistent and resolute advocate of whatever is popular. The formula has a lot to recommend it. The SWP is easily the largest left group on most campuses, and it provides a social life for many young people away from home for the first time, in a way that a small group cannot possibly do. A heavy reliance on student recruitment has dangers, but the SWP retains the loyalty of a fair number of graduates as they move through Community Work schemes and other forms of disguised unemployment for the more idle, downwardly-mobile members of the middle classes.

Sensationalists sometimes claim that left groups ruin young people’s careers by encouraging them to take inappropriate employment in order to further their group’s trade union work. There is absolutely no truth in that allegation in regard to the SWP, which has no equivalent of Militant’s implantation in some white-collar unions. SWP members are employed in Community Work projects because they find the life congenial, not because Cliff plans to take over the Manpower Services Commission. The harder left groups, who constantly predict that the SWP is about to enter a crisis, fail to recognise the sociological factors which give the group considerable stability. The SWP will survive, and given a revival of student radicalism, might even grow. The group’s own version of its history is to be found in the booklet The Smallest Mass Party in the World by Ian Birchall, which every aspiring hagiographer should study closely. The title nicely captures the SWP’s peculiar mixture of arrogance and self-deprecation. The genuinely learned author has modelled himself on the Byzantine court chroniclers. The successes of the group are explained by its correct theory and its reverses by objective circumstances. Cliff’s own hagiographical style is displayed in his four-volume life of Lenin which reads like a biography of John the Baptist written by Jesus Christ.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007