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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

As Soon As This Pub Closes

John Sullivan

As Soon As This Pub Closes

Workers Power
(the Class of ’75)

WORKERS Power, like so many other sects, is a split from International Socialism (now the Socialist Workers Party). It originated in 1975, by which time, because of previous splits, the political space available was becoming scarce. The group was a result partly of a generational revolt, partly of dissatisfaction at the parent group’s attempt to reconcile the incompatible demands of work in the labour movement and support for the IRA. From its inception, Workers Power felt its theoretical inadequacy and tried to negotiate a merger with some more experienced operators. Maoism was already dated, the RCG’s theory too obscure, and the most suitable partner, the IMG, was rejected because its carelessness had allowed Workers Power’s intrigues to become known to the leaders of International Socialism. Unwisely, the naive young faction stumbled into the arms of John O’Mahoney, then trading under the name of Workers Fight.

O’Mahoney proclaimed the fusion of the two small groups as the greatest step forward for revolutionary politics since the foundation of the Communist Party, and his new partners believed him! When they realised that O’Mahoney had taken them to the cleaners, they were left fuming, with hardly a theoretical rag to cover their nakedness. Most people expected they would dissolve as they found it impossible to explain why they should be an independent group. However, to do so would have given a victory to both Cliff and O’Mahoney, so Workers Power decided to grit their teeth and soldier on. Their lack of any distinct programme or theory led to them being nicknamed ‘The Class of ’75’, implying they were merely a group of friends: few thought that the group would survive.

For some years, Workers Power held on to their parent group’s fetish of state capitalism, while alleging that the SWP were not applying their own theory. When Russian troops entered Afghanistan, Workers Power stood out from most of the left by refusing to call for their withdrawal: the group had stumbled into a Trotskyist position which it later ratified by dropping the state capitalist fetish. Having done so, it logically had to consider whether to put in a bid for the Fourth International franchise, which would inevitably meant it being told to unite with the political illiterates of the IMG. Recoiling from this fate, Worker Power had no choice but to justify its decision by producing a criticism of the Fourth International by means of a critical history. Surprisingly, the work entitled The Death Agony of the Fourth International, published in 1983, was an excellent, well-researched booklet, demolishing many of the myths about that venerable body through a very accurate account of its tragi-comic history. Like a previously dull child who has unexpectedly passed an exam, Workers Power grew in confidence and went on to produce a very decent theoretical journal titled Permanent Revolution. The group believed that it had sorted out the problems caused by its late development and curious ancestry, and was poised to begin the task of building the genuine revolutionary party. Alas! It was not to be. Workers Power remains a group of 1970s students becoming polytechnic lecturers. Its monthly paper of the same name, filled with really appalling gibberish, is after the Militant the most unreadable of all the left periodicals, light years away from its theoretical journal. Workers Power has an Irish sister organisation, the Irish Workers Group, which has tentatively begun to apply Marxist theory to Ireland. This will end in tears: a Marxist analysis of Ireland will shatter the romantic green nationalism which the English left depends on.

Red Action
(aka the Squaddists)

IN the early 1980s, as Tony Cliff was walking through Islington market, he stopped to watch some of his supporters battling it out with the National Front, when something struck him as odd. His followers were on suspiciously good terms with the ‘enemy’, and the battle was obviously being conducted according to recognised rules. When the whistle blew for half time, the antagonists bowed to each other and went off to drink in the same pub (admittedly in separate bars). Cliff, a near-teetotaller who genuinely detests Fascists, ordered an inquiry fearing that the local SWP had been infiltrated by the Sealed Knot Society, who dress up and re-enact historic battles. It transpired that, on a previous occasion, a rising young SWP intellectual had been recognised by his own comrades and beaten up when he refused to join in the fun.

The street fighters, known as ‘Squaddists’ by other SWP members and who now serve as an inspiration to the currently fashionable Gay Nazi pop artists Gilbert and George, refused to admit that their behaviour amounted to revisionism. Cliff, who is historically well informed, had in consenting to their semi-autonomous existence been taking a leaf from the book of the Catholic Church which creates religious orders to channel the enthusiasm of particularly devout believers, while preventing them from getting in the way of the mainstream operation. Some ‘Squaddists’ adopted the RCP line that Fascists are more honest than Labourites and Trotskyists, who although equally racist, hypocritically refuse to go out and beat up Blacks. It was alleged that the SWP’s inability to appreciate the rules of chivalry observed in the battles with the National Front were a proof of its pacifism and that many Front members were good types, although politically mistaken. When the ‘Squaddists’ were shown the door, they set up the journal Red Action, and denounced all other groups as incurably petit-bourgeois because of their addiction to reading and discussion and refusal to engage in physical combat.

The ‘Squaddists’ insisted that they were the only authentically working-class group on the left, and that they were particularly eager to assist all genuine struggles for national liberation. Such a juxtaposition is confusing only to those unable to decode the message. A group which wants to hire itself out always makes such a declaration. When dropping their jeans to display their charms, it is important to emphasise to potential customers that these exquisitely-shaped buttocks are proletarian. Most bourgeois nationalist groups have preferred to seek more up-market partners.

Revolutionary Democratic Group

THERE is little to say about the Revolutionary Democratic Group, which publishes a journal, the Republican Worker. It is a clot produced by individual defectors from the SWP in London and Scotland who came together to indulge their nostalgia. They see themselves as an external pressure group on the SWP, which they would rejoin if the party would turn towards the working class, reform its rank-and-file groups and institute a more democratic internal regime. The SWP leaders ban them from their public meetings on the grounds that nostalgia is both debilitating and catching.

The RDG have retreated from the difficult questions facing late twentieth-century Marxists by deciding that we must give more weight to democratic demands and fight for the democratic republic, free speech, votes for women and the separation of Church and State (except in Ireland, where society is not yet ripe for such an advanced step). It caused some surprise when they supported the RCP’s Red Front in the 1987 General Election, but the minimalism of the programme appealed to their nostalgia for the SWP of the 1970s. They seemed, when we spoke to them, a little shamefaced about that episode, and admitted that the RCP are a ‘rum lot’, hardly a convincing Marxist analysis.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007