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Workers Socialist Review

Magazine of the Workers Socialist League

Written: 1984.
First Published: Autumn 1984.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Workers Socialist Review
No. 4, Autumn 1984

The Thornett group’s case

The following is the political presentation we have made [through Comrade Smith] at each of the aggregate meetings:

First can I say I am speaking for the 36 expelled comrades only because these are the conditions you have imposed on us. We are not an organised group, however, and I can only speak in a general sense for the whole 36. (We are 36 expelled members pursuing our appeal).

The tendency in the discussion is to discuss the situation at the level of detail, exactly how was the constitution torn up and so on. That is very important of course, but given a short contribution I think it is necessary to elevate it to the level of politics – in other words, what is the political driving force behind the detailed measures which have been taken against us, and the way they have been carried out?

The first point I want to make on this, and fundamental to it, is the characterisation Carolan and Kinnell had of the old WSL prior to fusion (and now since it is unchanged). It is an understanding and important question and the answer to it has emerged in the course of the discussion around the expulsions: we were then, and are now, says Kinnell, “non-Marxist”. “Non-Marxist” – it is a very important definition. It means in other words that we are centrists.

It is true that Kinnell says that we did not have fully hardened positions and therefore there was a possibility that we could be educated into Marxism by him and Carolan, but we are centrists just the same.

This position is fundamental to any analysis of the present situation faced by the group, since it means that the fusion, from the ICL side, was entirely dishonest and unprincipled. It means that the stated position – by Carolan and Kinnell – at the time of fusion, that the old WSL was revolutionary Marxist was nothing more than a cynical lie. Equally cynical were all the statements that there were no fundamental differences between us (except that they were Marxists and we were centrists!). All the talk about “building the new group on the strengths of both groups” were equally cynical tactical statements.

Think how sick and dishonest was all the talk about the “most important fusion of Trotskyist groups since 1944” -a fusion with a centrist group? Everyone knows that you cannot talk of a fusion with a centrist group in anything like the same way as you talk about fusion with revolutionary Marxists. With a centrist group, you don’t have a principled fusion but a tactical orientation. They are a centrist roadblock to revolution. You may decide to enter them, split them, break them up or whatever- but you don’t have a principled fusion with them on the basis of “drawing on the strength of both groups”.

It was this characterisation of the old WSL which has determined the attitude of Carolan and Kinnell to the fusion. It could do nothing else. The fusion therefore was a tactical manoeuvre towards a ‘centrist’ group to gain an advantage at their expense. It could be nothing else with that political starting point. With that position, we were fair game for anything.

This essential point, that Carolan and Kinnell regard and have always regarded us as centrists, has been stated in this way at every aggregate meeting in this discussion. Kinnell has been present at most of them and he was never challenged the point – under conditions where he has challenged everything he has wanted to challenge. He has said that no-one can say whether there were good or bad intentions in his head at the time of fusion. But this is not the point. We are talking about his political characterisation of us and its implications, and that has never been challenged.

This is not to say that the ICL as a whole were a party to that. Far from it. They were taken along with the very reasonable things that Carolan and Kinnell started saying that the old WSL once they had decided on the project and began preparing the ground. But this was the approach of Carolan and Kinnell, and they ultimately determined the line of the group.

Less sectarian

There was a completely different approach from the old WSL. Rightly or wrongly (and I think it rightly) we had a completely positive attitude to the fusion which started from a desire to tackle the damaging fragmentation of the Trotskyist movement and make a contribution towards principled regroupment. In the ICL we saw another organisation, which we regarded as Trotskyist, with which the basic requirements for a fusion appeared to be present. They did not have the complication of international affiliations – although in hindsight this can be seen as a wholly negative factor. They seemed to have the same non-sectarian approach to the labour movement that we were trying to develop. And on top of this we could at any theoretical differences which should prove impossible to contain in a single organisation.

Comrades can pass judgement in that assessment that we made. Quite clearly we misjudged Carolan’s and Kinnell’s attitude to the fusion and their characterisation of us. But that was our basic approach (something else which has never been challenged throughout all this).

We also misjudged the basic political nature of the ICL internal regime and the role of its core leaders. We were influenced (although not ina very conscious way) by the turn the ICL had made towards a less sectarian approach to the labour movement -although the political limitations of this, as we argued at the April conference, are now clear.

We expected, however, that this turn away from sectarianism would be reflected in the internal regime. We quickly found that it very definitely was not. We found a thoroughly rigid and sectarian regime built up and constructed around two or three people and tailored to build a group in their own image.

We also found that this would was compounded rather than improved by the pressure of the fusion. As the fusion went on, they became more sectarian and more clearly bureaucratic centralist. The fusion had therefore gone ahead with a built-in self destruct mechanism within it – the basic political motivation and objectives of the ICL leaders.

The fusion, even given the principled approach by both sides, was a difficult project.

Major differences quickly emerged – most fundamentally on the nature of world imperialism and world Stalinism in the post-war period. Had the fusion been genuine from both sides, however, this should not have been an insuperable problem. This would have required a development, however, since it meant containing a higher level of political differences than existed within either previous group. But that is what the fusion was all about – at least what it would have been about had it been genuine. It was what we thought it was an about.

It emerged soon after the ‘fusion’ what the tactics of Carolan, Kinnell. and Hill would be. They would take account of our views (for a while, anyway) on a range of secondary issues, but they intended, progressively as time went on, to establish their basic politics as the line of the group, and to ultimately make them completely dominant. Nothing short of this would be acceptable to them.

It is of course by no means the first time that the Workers Fight / ICL core members have been involved in this kind of intervention into another group. It is a method which is very central both to their method of party building and to the kind of party they want to build.

Faction not Party

Essentially, the Workers Fight / ICL have never been a party of any kind, or even a league. They have always been a faction or a tendency. They were a tendency before we “fused”. They were a faction during the “fusion” and they see themselves as a tendency in the future. In other words, they want, and intend to have, a highly centralised group, sterilised of all significant political differences; or at least any political differences which take on any organisational form or mount any kind of challenge to the leadership.

This attitude is absolutely basic to their politics and fundamentally affects everything they do – not least in the kind of regime they want in any group they build. It comes out as the kind of “one person management” they have fought for in the “fused” group. It came out in the differences over the constitution just before the “fusion” (which were mostly concerned with minority or individual rights) or the extent to which the organisation should be vertically controlled).

It comes out in Carolan’s view that leadership should be comprised of what he calls “professionals”. By this he does not mean comrades who dedicate their lives to the movement but many comrades do – but people who are paid for working fulltime for the group – people without jobs. It is amazing. It excludes workers by definition.

It is an attitude which rejects not just the nature of the group, but also the politics it projects as well of course. Let’s take the question of the reconstruction of the Fourth International – quite an important question for Trotskyists. This attitude has led Carolan / Kinnell / Hill into a totally sectarian blind alley in relationship to the general Trotskyist movement – both in Britain and internationally. “Yes they really are all absolutely useless” says Kinnell was challenged. The implication is pretty obvious: the only healthy Trotskyist forces in the world are in the ICL – and in the ICL there are only two people who provide the theoretical positions of the group – therefore the reconstruction of the Fourth International (or the theoretical regeneration) is down to them. Carolan and Kinnell are going to reconstruct the Trotskyist movement single-handed. lt is as crude and sectarian as that.

It comes directly out of the kind of ‘purity’ they want. Ultimately Carolan and Kinnell are the only ‘Marxists’. Anyone who disagrees with them is by definition ‘non-Marxist’ and therefore ‘absolutely useless’.

It leads to national Trotskyism, since if everything in the Trotskyist movement outside of Britain is “absolutely useless”, where do you start? If the sole source of useful theoretical knowledge amounts to two people in one country, where do you go from there? The answer is obvious: first build a group in Britain. (Theoretically this does not rule out international work, but in practical terms it does, since there is no drive for international work. It ends up with a few diplomatic encounters between Carolan and Kinnell and the occasional leader of another group).

Far from providing the starting point for the “theoretical regeneration of the Fourth International”, this attitude seriously distorts any theoretical contribution that Carolan and Kinnell might make. Any serious attempt to tackle the theoretical degeneration of the Fourth International must at least draw on experiences of the best elements within the world movement. It must be done as a part of the mainstream debate within the world movement as a whole. In certainly cannot be done whilst cut off from those debates and whilst isolated to a national Trotskyist situation Britain. How can a programme be re-elaborated and re-developed for the working class of the world from such a situation? Such a thing is ridiculous.

The attitude further distorts the theoretical positions they develop, since they reject any contribution made by anyone considering themselves Trotskyist and are attracted instead to (at best) the more peripheral strands of the movement. It is a process which leaves them even further from the Trotskyist tradition.

This has been the basic political position of the Workers Fight / ICL and where it has been taking the group.

These expulsions, however, bring something new into it. What we are witnessing now is a sectarian degeneration of the group which comes out of the past attitudes but going far beyond it. This means that the group that Carolan is going to establish after these expulsions are completed is something more sectarian, more overcentralised and undemocratic than has been established in the ‘fused’ group. A glimpse of this can be seen in Carolan’s proposal to ‘reorganise’ the Control Commission. Presumably it will not have the ‘independence’ it is supposed to have under the existing constitution of the WSL, and will be tailored to the requirements of life inside a faction.

Democratic centralism today

It is not difficult to see what that regime will be like. The justification for suspending the constitution of the WSL in order to carry out these expulsions was that the continuation of the old WF / ICL tradition stands higher than the constitution. It is an incredibly cynical thing to do. Enter a fusion on the basis of a democratic centralist constitution, knowing that you will only honour that constitution as long as it serves your political ends. As soon as it doesn’t, suspend it and do as you like. Since “the WF / ICL tradition” = the views of Carolan and Kinnell, it means that any group they form cannot have any kind of constitution which means a thing. As soon as it conflicts with the requirements of their views, it will be pushed aside as fast as the constitution of the WSL was pushed aside.

Comrades are being persuaded to stay with the ICL on the basis of the argument “Where do you stand on these political questions?” (like where do you stand on Afghanistan or the EEC, for example). They are being told to decide these positions on the basis of these “political questions” and not on the question of regime or democracy or democratic centralism – which presumably are non-political questions.

Comrades pressurised in this way should think, calmly about it. These “non-political” questions are in fact some of the most difficult political questions facing the Trotskyist movement. How does democratic centralism operate in small Trotskyist groups in today’s conditions? (I think, for example that it cannot simply be transposed from the model of big parties to today’s small groups). What kind of regime is necessary if political differences of any consequence are going to be contained within a single group? What kind of regime is necessary to recruit members of the working class into it? How does such a group tackle the problems of the reconstruction of the Fourth International? How does it relate to the crisis-ridden FI as it is today?

If there is no answer to all these questions, then there is not much value in having the same opinions as Carolan on Afghanistan.

In our opinion, the sectarian line of Carolan and Kinnell on all these issues excludes the possibility of them building anything serious, whatever views they project on anything else. Carolan, in one of his IBs, says, for example, that “splits are the small change of the Trotskyist movement”. How sectarian can you get?

That can only be said by someone who sees interventions into groups regarding themselves as part of the Trotskyist tradition as a basic method of building a group. The Sparts see it that way – that is their method of “party building”. (That is not to say that splits are always wrong; sometimes they are necessary. But splits conceived in the logic of Carolan’s method are sectarian and discredit to the Trotskyist movement).

Trotskyism as a whole

I don’t know if comrades have assessed the reaction of others to the WSL expulsions yet. There are different reactions. If you listen to the comments from those who regard themselves as a part of the Trotskyist tradition, they tell you, “we are not surprised – Carolan is at it again.” (It is not an unnatural reaction and is based on some understanding of reality).

If you listen to the non-Trotskyist activists in the Labour Party and the trade unions, however, you hear something else. There they say, “The Trots are tearing themselves apart again”. This is something else. It is a reaction which shows just how damaging this episode is to Trotskyism as a whole. It shows that these expulsions have made it much more difficult for us or anyone else to rebuild the Trotskyist movement. Not only will it be harder to recruit people to Trotskyism as a result of this, but people will be lost to Trotskyism as a result of it.

This is something else which should be borne in mind when Carolan says that “splits are the small change of the Trotskyist movement”. As we have said before – if splits are the small change, let’s hope we never get on to the main problems.

This attitude should be borne in mind by those in the post-expulsion WSL who accept the rationalisation offered by Carolan and Kinnell – that a spilt was “inevitable” and “necessary”, and that this was as good a way as any to do it. For Carolan this is “small change” like all the rest. We regard the crisis in the WSL as disastrous and damaging. Nor do we regard a split as inevitable – certainly not without a decision of the membership. The fact is that what the NC did, ranks amongst the worst of the bureaucratic and sectarian traditions which have dogged and discredited the Trotskyist movement for many years.

However, once the ICL embarked (or the ICL leadership) on the fusion in the way they did, it was bound to be damaging, but the outrageous way it was carried out – without a conference – made it far worse.

It is not a mystery, however, why Carolan and Kinnell refused to have a conference. It was not just that they have little or no concern for the import of their actions on the Trotskyist tradition – but because, on the issue of expulsions, there was no possibility at all that they would win a majority vote. None. It is simple arithmetic for anyone who wants to do it. (And if anyone is in any doubt, just add 36 to the anti-expulsion vote at the June 30 conference, and you will get the answer).

Therefore, faced with a majority of the membership against them, Carolan and Kinnell went to the NC – where they did have a ‘majority’; or at least they did after a suitable amount of pressure had been put on the necessary individuals.

Once they had that majority the constitution was suspended along with any democratic rights and procedures and we were expelled. Even NC members, who were elected by conference, were expelled by the NC majority. (This was a disputed point at fusion and it is now obvious why).

Carolan has said that the expulsions were a “necessary”, “Bolshevik” thing to do. He and Kinnell had decided that the fusion was at an end. Looking back, even Healy did not suspend the constitution to expel us. We went to conference first and got the constitution changed. It is incredible that we now have members agreeing that it was right and necessary to suspend the constitution. Thus the membership were not allowed to decide if the fusion was at an end or not. A secret caucus took the decision as to who would be expelled on the night before the expulsions.

It is even worse if you consider that the one predominant feeling that came from the majority – a large majority of members – at the three-stage conference was an anti-split sentiment – yet we were expelled without a conference. The members are now faced with a fait accompli. They are now told: decide where you stand on the basis of political positions you hold, and accept what we have done.

This whole situation has been carried through with the membership completely disenfranchised.

There is no doubt that a split could have been avoided – and still could be -but it would require a fundamental change of attitude by Kinnell and Carolan to the old WSL side of the fusion and to the fusion itself. They would have to recognise us as revolutionary Marxist and have a regime which allowed both traditions to exist in a democratic atmosphere, with political conflict of course, but in a comradely, democratic way. We put forward the document of the eight to try to achieve that; whether they are capable of such progressive change is something else.

Finally, can I say, to the extent that I can speak for the 36, that we will fight the sectarian degeneration which has taken place as long as we are able to do so. That means that we will appeal conference and attend any aggregates we are allowed to attend. After that, if we are unsuccessful and the WSL membership endorse the decisions and actions take on their behalf by the NC majority, we will be forced to recognise that what is left is bankrupt, and form a new group.

This is an excerpt from the Thornett group’s appeal document. There are a number of factual errors, small and not so small. 35 people were expelled, not 36. We never said they were centrist, nor made anything of the idea that they were ‘non-Marxist’.

The ICL’s intentions at the time of fusion were not as described (we published minutes of ICL committees to document this). The only move in the new WSL to restrict the Executive Committee to full rights came from Smith’s ally Parsons, and was opposed by most of us. No-one proposed to ‘reorganise’ the Control Commission. At the June / July conference there was a majority of well over 36 for the expulsion. And so on.

But the drift of the argument should be clear. The excerpt that follows, ‘Leninism and sectarianism’, is part of a reply to the pro-Thornett faction that remained in the WSL until July, but takes up the same basic argument.

Workers Socialist Review Index (1981-84)

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