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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

As Soon As This Pub Closes

John Sullivan

As Soon As This Pub Closes

Tearsites and Yaffeites

THREE quite distinct groups have their origin in a single split from the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party) in 1973-74. They are the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Revolutionary Communist Group and the Discussion Group. None of the groups willingly admit to their common parentage, and they are, at first sight, unlikely cousins. However, once they are examined under the infra-red rays of the dialectascope, the similarities which derive from a common ancestry show up clearly enough.

All three derive from an undeclared faction formed inside the International Socialists in 1971. The faction had no definite ideas and represented little more than a vague dissatisfaction of young people resentful at the prospects of promotion in a group with too many students and graduates. The absence of a distinct programme, dogma or theory of their own made the faction vulnerable, and consequently very secretive. Two of the groups maintain this secrecy still, and the Discussion Group still refuses publicly to acknowledge its existence. The faction was influenced by the now deceased veteran Trotskyist Roy Tearse. When asked to contribute to a discussion, faction members would either remain silent or mutter something about the group’s tradition being wrong. The ingenious idea of a faction without a theory threw Cliff and his lieutenants into fits. Yet it made good sense: an attempt to agree on a theory or on specific proposals would have split the group. By playing the cards from the top of the deck, the faction was able to claim that its members were being denied their democratic rights. Such an existence was too good to last for ever, so when at the end of 1973 Cliff turfed them out, the dissidents had to decide where they were going.

The Discussion Group

At the first meeting of the faction after being expelled a bid for leadership was made by Doctor Yaffe, who unveiled the velocitometer, designed in his Sussex University laboratory, which could calculate the speed of the falling rate of profit to limits of 0.00002 feet per second. He invited the participants to join him in founding the Revolutionary Communist Group, which, with the aid of his ingenious device, would build on the fleeting insights of Marx, and provide the theoretical basis for the revolutionary party. About half of those present, impressed by the gleaming chrome tubes and elaborate dials of Yaffe’s machine, did so.

However, the core of the clandestine faction were shocked at Yaffe’s indiscretion in admitting to the group’s existence, and refused to join. The Discussion Group, which they now called themselves, had been so deeply marked by their experience of clandestinity that the thought of ‘coming out’ was inconceivable. They retired to their cell for the rest of the 1970s to work out a theory which would justify their inactivity. The theory which was eventually produced declared that the trouble with most of the left is that it lives in an enclosed world where its ideas are never subjected to the test of practice. An adequate theory will be constructed only when significant sectors of the labour movement engage in both discussion and action. Until that happy day comes, only very tentative ideas can be discussed. Consequently, the group, which soon drifted into the Labour Party, practices a discretion which one would normally associate with people living under harsh dictatorships. Its members normally deny that their group exists, and some of them refuse to admit to each other that they are members. The group has retained a very high proportion of its original members, and has recruited almost no one in 15 years. An experience of its rare meetings will explain why this is so. On these occasions, a few carefully selected guests are presented with a very general exposition of socialist theory, and then asked to present their own programme for the way forward for the labour movement. This tactic does for political clarification what lockjaw does for conversation, so the guests retire without ever knowing that they had briefly been candidate members of the Discussion Group.

A Discussion Group member justified his group’s procedures to us by stating that as they took discussion seriously, they were not prepared to indulge in it casually, or with just anyone. A group which believed in insurrection would not erect the barricades on impulse, so why should those who favoured discussion be promiscuous about it? Who could have any respect for a Christian who leapt into bed with someone before going through the proper rituals? The last time the Discussion Group edged discreetly out of its closet was in 1980 when it joined with Ken Livingstone and the WRP in sponsoring a very lavishly produced journal, Labour Herald. While that episode lasted, the group’s caution vanished, as Labour Herald had extremely detailed and specific policies, all of them about the Middle East. This, it was argued privately (the Discussion Group does not argue publicly), was a subtle dialectical device. The Middle East was far enough away for British Marxists to analyse, whereas in Britain, it was difficult to see the wood for the trees. That particular venture collapsed because of a falling out between Livingstone and his partners, so the Discussion Group has resumed its vow of political silence, producing only the occasional pamphlet. The whole Labour Herald episode remains unexplained. It would seem that while the other partners in the enterprise had good reasons for secrecy, the Discussion Group valued it for its own sake.

The desire for privacy has driven many members of the Discussion Group to live in Stockport, but there are clots in Bristol and Lambeth. What do they actually discuss? It is easier to answer that question negatively, as the group has a larger number of taboo subjects than the Women’s Institutes. The organisation, wisely, does not discuss Russia, the Middle East, Ireland, or most of the topics which the left is prone to tear itself apart over. The reason for this is that lacking the stability given by a public existence, regular publications or open campaigns, the group fears that a debate might threaten friendships of 16 years’ standing, and therefore the organisation’s existence. Having opted for talk rather than action, the talk soon became quite inhibited. After a decade and a half of existence, the group is no nearer to being able to answer the question first asked by exasperated fellow members of the International Socialists in 1971: ‘What the hell do you believe in?’

Revolutionary Communist Group

Such a congenital terror of adopting a political line was incomprehensible to Doctor Yaffe, as he delicately adjusted the controls of his velocitometer. He and his followers, mainly earnest postgraduate students, plunged into theoretical work to remedy the appalling empiricism of the British left. The RCG was the concentrated expression of purely student politics, and it quickly shook off the residual influence which the working class exercised on its parent group, describing the manifestations of this as syndicalist deviations. The RCG soon adopted a Stalinist ideology, an early example of what was to become a common tendency as former student revolutionaries abandoned the libertarian and anti-bureaucratic spirit of 1968.

The RCG’s Stalinism brought it no closer to the British Communist Party, which it saw as just as incurably syndicalist as the Trotskyists. The working class was denounced as beneficiaries of imperialism, and enemies of its real revolutionary victims, the Irish, Blacks and Third World dictators. All of which was familiar stuff among liberals and Maoists, but the RCG has some peculiarities of its own which delight the connoisseur of sectariana. Its members insist on using pseudonyms, after first making sure that everyone knows their correct names. They publicly announce that they keep their address a secret. What police agents make of such ostentatious secrecy, God only knows. Given the RCG’s world view, its main focus of activity has to be on solidarity with struggles abroad and with the immigrants who are seen as the emissaries of the Third World here. In its early days, the group devoted much effort to wooing middle-class immigrant associations, but lost out to competition from government-funded agencies. It complained bitterly when its associates in the Southall Youth Movement defected on receipt of a cheque for £20,000, and most taxpayers would agree that our money should not be allowed to distort the normal working of the political market.

Realising that trying to compete with the Home Office was fighting above his weight, Yaffe turned towards Anti-Apartheid as the strongest representative Third World force in Britain. As he proclaims that no British groups or persons, because they are personally guilty of the crimes of imperialism, have any right to criticise imperialism’s victims, Yaffe’s only possible tactic was to bid for the British franchise from the African National Congress. It was a bold attempt from a young and small group, but the ANC leaders, rightly or wrongly, decided to leave the Communist Party in charge. The RCG then took over the City of London Anti-Apartheid as a base to harass the national leadership of the organisation. That group is far more active than all the others, and mounts a permanent vigil outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. The national Anti-Apartheid have instituted fairly draconian measures to fight off the RCG, thereby transforming a loose solidarity movement into a doctrinally orthodox organisation. What help all of that is to the workers facing the South African bosses, armed police and goon squads is a matter of opinion.

The RCG’s lack of interest in the topics which have generally occupied Marxists is demonstrated by the title of its journal Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism. The group is interested in manifestations of capitalism rather than the thing itself. It has also made a bid for the Provo franchise, but the Provos have so far refused to hand over the British solidarity work to it. It would seem that one of the RCG’s problems is that it is attempting to do too much in serving the interests of all anti-imperialist leaderships. A small organisation should perhaps seek out one or two clients, rather than do too much. The RCG takes its anti-workerism to greater extremes than anyone, with the possible exception of the London Labour Left. Black workers in the now-independent countries are behaving in an objectively imperialist way when they demand trade union rights, and deserve all they get from the anti-imperialist leaders who have them jailed or shot. Any white leftist who supports solidarity action for such reprobates is playing the imperialist game. The RCG has painted itself into a corner in its struggle for control of Anti-Apartheid. Its dogma that anti-imperialist leaderships cannot be criticised must include the ANC and the South African Communist Party, and surely they are entitled to appoint whoever they please to head Anti-Apartheid in Britain. The only way out for the RCG would be to extend its criticism of the Anti-Apartheid leadership to include the ANC. That would be an abuse of their white-skin privilege and would be objectively imperialist and a denial of the group’s whole evolution, so the RCG’s prospects are bleak.

Revolutionary Communist Party

Yaffe’s plunge into full-fledged Stalinism, combined with a disagreement over the mathematics in Capital with his chief lieutenant Frank Richards, produced a split, which eventually became the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The new group declared itself anti-Stalinist, and took several steps sideways in an attempt to differentiate its product. The ancestral curse of all the Tearsites still dogged it, as it too found difficulty in defining a suitable mix of slogans and demands to attract custom in an already overcrowded market. The group dropped Yaffe’s hostility to the working class, and adopted an agnostic attitude to the historic divide between Stalinism and Trotskyism. At first sight, it is a much less repellent group than its parent, but its essential eclecticism has landed it in some strange company. Opponents translate the initials RCP as the Ray Chadwick Party, after the leader of the breakaway Union of Democratic Miners, because of the group’s support for a ballot during the miners’ strike.

The RCP cobbled together a programme from various pieces of ultra-leftism and Third Period Stalinism without worrying too much that the various pieces did not fit together well. It dates the degeneration of the world communist movement from the Popular Fronts of the 1930s rather than the ultra-left period which helped Hitler to come to power. Yet while indulging in a typically British pragmatism, it constantly stresses its theoretical credentials. The theory is student theory, as the faint link between orthodox Trotskyist groups and the working-class movement never existed for either the RCG or RCP. Its rehabilitation of the working class from the purgatory which Yaffe had consigned it also has not given it any specific interest in the actual labour movement. This comes across strongly in its weekly journal The Next Step, which is a kind of left-wing answer to Marxism Today, sharing that journal’s eclecticism. The RCP speaks of the working class in tones which seem similar to those of traditional Marxists, but that is deceptive, as the class is seen as a collection of groups which are all part of the revolutionary project, while hardly being a class for itself. When the group took to standing in parliamentary elections in 1986-87 it formed the Red Front, which like most fronts had nothing behind them except for the tiny Revolutionary Democratic Group (RDG) and the Squaddists of Red Action. The front’s electoral programme consisted of a minimalist series of demands, which did not attack the capitalist system, nor advocate serious reforms, very similar to the programmes which the SWP used to present when it indulged in such antics. We doubt if the RCP’s style and vigour will be enough to carry it through the tough times ahead.

What then gives the RCP’s eclectic mishmash the appeal which made it the fastest growing group of the 1980s, with a dynamism notably absent from both the RCG and the Discussion Group? The answer is style. The group is part of the harder aggressive, post-punk move away from peace and love, and the average RCPer looks very different from the grotty SWPers. They have been described as ‘the SWP with hair gel’, and many a parent, pleased at the improvement in their child’s appearance, have welcomed the move from one to another. Alas! The mind remains just as untidy. Whatever the RCP’s problems, they are nothing to that of its political cousins. Fellow members of the Labour Party continue to believe that the Discussion Group is just a collection of drinking mates, held together by age/peer group loyalty and sexism. As for Doctor Yaffe, he fiddles aimlessly with his fantastic machine which sits gathering dust in the laboratory, having proved incapable of producing a formula for the South African revolution. The laboratory technicians like it better than the squat Japanese electronic devices which are currently fashionable. Psychologists will, no doubt, explain some of the behaviour of these three political cousins by the traumatic affect of being part of an undeclared faction, ashamed of having no valid reason to exist. Yet the vast majority of members of two of the groups were never in the SWP and know little of their group’s origin.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007