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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

John Sullivan

Rolling Your Own

A Guide to Forming Your Own Political Group

From New Interventions, Vol.11 No.4, 2004, pp.15-16.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Many thanks to Paul Flewers for providing the text.

Another blow to the socialist movement and to this magazine was the sudden death of John Sullivan last October. An expert on Spanish politics, John was also responsible for a number of satirical pieces on the British left, and readers will be delighted to learn that Socialist Platform has recently republished John’s peerless Go Fourth and Multiply and When This Pub Closes. The essay below, which was written during the mid-1980s, has not previously appeared in print.

I: The Material Base

ONLY incurable idealists can believe that a viable group can be formed without a material base. You will need to maintain yourself while you write the key documents which expound your theory and develop your programme. Many potentially viable groups used to fall at this first hurdle, but fortunately the Department of Employment’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme (EAS) now gives you £40 per week (but for only one year) while you do the preliminary spadework which will establish whether your group has what it takes to survive in the competitive world of political sects. Formally, political and religious projects do not qualify for the EAS, but the helpful officials at the Department of Employment inform us that the technical difficulty can be avoided if you describe your group as a research agency.

If there are half a dozen of you, register with the EAS as a cooperative; if there are more of you, individuals should register as separate schemes, which need not amalgamate until you are at the stage of issuing a journal and going public. The research project will be more plausible to the EAS if you are a social science graduate, but that is seldom a problem, as few people feel ready to launch their own group while they are undergraduates.

II: Franchising

Before embarking on the onerous task of elaborating your own ideology, ask yourself: ‘Do I really need to?’ Why not apply for the British franchise of an existing International? Recent bust-ups have left some Internationals without a British franchisee (Lambert) or with one which they are dissatisfied with (Mandel, Moreno). You may be pleasantly surprised at the latitude which Internationals allow franchisees in their domestic policies as long as they accept the International’s line on matters of faith and doctrine. If you become a franchisee, you will have the considerable advantage of becoming the recipient of a body of theoretical work which no new group could produce quickly.

Those reluctant to accept a franchise sometimes argue that they do not relish having to defend the record of long-established groups in countries which they know little about. That will probably be less of a problem than you might think. Potential members of your group will be impressed by the existence of prestigious allies, and will be prepared to accept their correctness, rather than agonise about the intricacies of the labour movement in foreign countries.

A Friendly State? Should you aim to be the franchisee of a state, not just of an International? It is a possibility, but do be careful. The officials who determine such things usually demand a proven track record. You should also remember that currently popular dictators can easily become discredited. If you think you are up to this, then neither the North Koreans nor Romanians currently have a British franchisee. If you do put in such a bid, insist that you are publicly recognised as the authorised agent. Groups which have acted as unrecognised supporters of specific regimes have often been shabbily treated. In this area, it is not better to be a mistress than a wife.

III: Ideology

We recommend that you choose between one of two options.

  1. Invent a doctrine which only you understand. You will then be the sole repository of truth and judge of its application (examples Gerry Healy – WRP, David Yaffe – RCG). Potential dissidents will be in the unenviable position of a grumbling peasant faced with a priest’s fluent Latin.
  2. Discover an obscure, preferably dead, theoretician whose thought you can interpret. You will, of course, need to master the appropriate language. Resist the temptation to invent an imaginary figure, as such a ploy would soon be unmasked. It is too late to choose a major figure as a surprising number of people have read Trotsky or Bukharin. But what about Brandler, Thalheimer, Bordiga or Sacristan? For all we know, there may be obscure gems which would glow in the mystifying half-light of translation. There are, for example, Japanese Marxists whose thought processes are incomprehensible to the Occidental mind. A partnership with a Japanese who can write English (but not too clearly) might net you a marketable product.

Whether you choose option A or B, it is essential that you study the accounts of existing groups in As Soon As This Pub Closes in order to differentiate your own group from what is already on offer.

IV: Recruitment

The dense population of existing political groups makes this the most daunting task of all. Having accomplished tasks 1 to 3, do we sally out to the highways, byways and Labour Party branches to trawl for support? Some people in Labour Party branches where all the activists already belong to entrist groups have suggested that the scene is too crowded and that it would be sensible to aim at hitherto untouched social strata such as manual workers, women without higher education and the low paid.

We take the point, but all the market research shows that you should stick to the existing market, rather than pursue a new untried one on working-class housing estates. That market consists of students and members of a few white collar unions (NALGO, NUT, AUT, NATFHE). Purely student groups do not survive. Neither do those who recruit significant numbers of manual workers. Why, in any case go to the trouble of recruiting, people completely new to politics when there are about 600 people leaving the Socialist Workers Party each year and a proportionate number from the smaller groups. Concentrate on such people, but avoid ex-members of Militant, whose limited conceptual abilities cripple them once they cut loose from their organisation’s guidance. Once you become established, you might pay some attention to members of Anti-Apartheid and Friends of the Earth.

We do not propose to give more detailed advice here as you should get used to ad-libbing. However, we are cooperating with five separate ventures all still at the EAS stage. We suggested that the projects be amalgamated, but all five refused, alleging irreconcilable differences of principle.

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Last updated on 7 May 2022