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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

As Soon As This Pub Closes

John Sullivan

As Soon As This Pub Closes

Socialist Action and International Group
(formerly IMG)

YOU may have heard people speak of the IMG, and even know that it stands for the International Marxist Group, without recognising the International Group and Socialist Action, the two splinters which currently dispute its inheritance and the Fourth International franchise. When the Mandel tendency and the American SWP reunited in the early 1960s, Gerry Healy had his concession from the SWP terminated, and Ted Grant, the Mandel concessionaire, was foisted on the reluctant SWP. The main currents in the International have seldom for long agreed on anything except the need to huddle together and minimise their differences, but they were both glad to give Ted Grant’s Militant the heave in 1968 and concentrate on the student revolt. But who was to get the British concession?

In that marvellous year, even the Fourth International was able to muster 30 recruits for its British section, but quality was a problem and has remained so. The International Marxist Group from the beginning concentrated solely on the student and anti-Vietnam War movement. An alliance with Ken Coates and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation foundered over obscure financial controversies, and the few members of the IMG who had any commitment to the Labour movement were turfed out and formed the Chartists (a group which eventually was to give corruption a bad name). No one in the group had any weight in the labour movement or experience of the Trotskyist tradition. Its whole effort was put into the Vietnam Solidarity Movement, and while the war lasted that produced some results. Apart from a few aristocrats, the group, like its present successors, was completely middle-class, but unlike most left groups it was not in the least concerned about that fact. It made a virtue of its discontinuity with the British Trotskyist tradition, whose more than 30 years of history it saw as an uninteresting prelude to its own appearance.

Complete absorption in student revolt was in 1968 less of a distinguishing feature than a common denominator of Maoist and New Left politics. The IMG’s only distinctive badge of identity was its status as the Fourth International’s British licensee. Insofar as it had a strategy, it consisted in building Red Bases in the University on the model of the Chinese Red Army’s strongholds in Yenan which acted as the springboard for the seizure of power in 1949. It was never explained how or when the revolutionary cadre was to sally forth and occupy the enemy territory. When they did, would not their voluntary withdrawal from the labour movement make them fish out of water? To be fair to the IMG, they did not dream this up themselves. They got it from Ernest Mandel, who revamped Herbert Marcuse’s ideas and came up with the theory of the Youth and Student Vanguard. In spite of the notorious deficiencies of the British educational system, most radical students had enough sense realise that students could not replace the working class, so they signed up with groups who had some working-class orientation.

As the student revolt subsided, the IMG had to find new constituencies. The most obvious one was Ireland, and they quickly signed up as members of the Provos’ fan club, producing the slogan ‘Victory for the IRA’, which even the Provos found bizarre. The Women’s and Gay movements were other obvious markets, and eventually, as the strike wave of the 1970s mounted, the working class was admitted to the club of potentially revolutionary forces. The IMG shocked traditional Trotskyists by refusing to call for a vote for Labour in 1970, but they were eventually pulled by the Bennite tide as their ex-student contemporaries renewed their faith in the parliamentary system, although they were standing candidates against the Labour Party as late as 1979.

Unkind people, unwilling to make allowances for the group’s isolation, have made a great deal of some of the IMG’s startling aberrations. The political illiteracy of their average member was encyclopaedic, and their Marxism always owed more to Harpo than Groucho. You have probably heard that they once argued that Apartheid was progressive because the laws preventing people living with their dependants tended to break up the family. Contrary to popular belief, that was never the group’s official line, merely a factional position within it. As the British branch of the Fourth International, the IMG was inevitably torn between its rival patrons, the European Mandelites and the American SWP. While the partners were friendly, the IMG could happily serve two masters, but when they fell out its position as part of both Europe and the English-speaking world meant that it did not fit easily into either sphere of influence. During the 1970s, the IMG became factionally divided over issues which only made sense in terms of the Mandel/SWP rivalry. Outsiders laughed at these incomprehensible factional divisions, but their very lack of relevance to domestic issues prevented the group from splitting.

Fourth International divergences were eventually to trip up the IMG just as they had Healy and Grant in the past. During the 1970s, the ageing SWP(US) was taken over by a group of Yuppies led by Jack Barnes who had cut their teeth as opponents of the radical tendencies in the anti-Vietnam War movement. They threw out most of the veterans, as well as supporters of Mandel, and started to ‘junk the old Trotskyism’ in the hope of becoming the authorised agents of Havana and Managua. Mandel, more responsive to the European labour movement, had no alternative but to build up national factions to prepare for the inevitable split. The result in Britain is the International Group formed in 1986 by defectors from Socialist Action (as the IMG had become). The International Group, which publishes the journal Socialist Outlook, fused with Alan Thornett’s faction, which had split with Socialist Organiser because of its refusal to back Galtieri in the Falklands War. At the end of 1987, less than a year after the defection of the International Group, Socialist Action split once more. A new faction followed its American mentors, embraced Stalinism, and is now attempting to create a dwarf version of the American SWP in Britain. Although both of the factions were in agreement in junking the idea of the self-activity of the working class, their appetites then diverged. The rump of Socialist Action were uninspired at the thought of being a liberal sect, and decided to maintain the alliance with the Campaign Group of MPs. This unusually close agreement between a parliamentary faction and an extra-parliamentary organisation resembles the alliance between horse and rider.

The MPs assure us that Socialist Action is cured of its youthful radicalism, and will cheerfully prostrate itself by selling the MPs’ abysmally boring Campaign Group News.

The people who formed the International Group were not prepared to go along with their former comrades in explicitly proclaiming that the working class was merely one part of the progressive alliance formed by the Feminists, Gays and the Labour Party’s Black Sections. Interestingly enough, all of the Campaign Group MPs we have spoken to have more in common with the International Group than with Socialist Action on this point, but complain that it is difficult to get good staff nowadays. Although the division between the three groups originated in a dispute over international spheres of influence, it seems reasonable to expect that the normal process of competition will eventually produce further political differences. The united group were agreed on lining up with the Labour Party leadership, the Liverpool bishops, the Race Relations industry and the Liberal Party in attacking Militant and the other left-wing councillors on Merseyside. Similarly, neither group has criticised the ‘right on’ Labour councillors as they implement cuts and worsen the condition of their staff, while handing out well-paid jobs to their friends. However, Socialist Action’s attitudes seem more definitely anti-working-class, so we fear that their next step will be to exclude the proles from their position in the Broad Left alliance.

The International Group’s position is much less definite. Its members shuffle their feet when asked if the working class is still the revolutionary force, betray unease when reminded of the crimes of their trendy allies, and remain committed to trade union struggle. They have toured their new partner, ex-car-worker Alan Thornett, round their branches, and to their credit react defensively when questioned about his role in the 1979 engineering strike.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007