First Published: Autumn 1984.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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Since last year’s three part conference, which ended with the August session, the organisation’s internal life has been dominated by the refusal of the faction to accept the practical consequences of the decisions of that conference namely:
a) That they are a minority in the organisation;
b) That they have been convincingly defeated on every one of the political questions, in so far as they had been posed;
c) That, therefore, short of a sharp turn-around by a big chunk of the organisation, or, alternatively, a sizeable influx into the organisation of co-thinkers of theirs who would give them the majority, they were likely to remain the minority for the immediate period ahead.
Their choice lay between two options – either to split, or to act as a disciplined minority, collaborating as the constitution demands minorities should, to implement the decisions of the conference and to build the organisation under the guidance of the leadership elected at the conference.
In the second option they would, of course, retain the right to argue their political differences internally.
They refused to make a clear choice, and launched instead an escalating course of disruption without any obviously coherent perspective. They did not attempt to develop any of the political debates further, but went instead for a series of “scandals”, seeking to “expose the leadership” in much the same style as the SLL / WRP used to do in the trade unions.
In fact the ‘them and us’ polarisation of or the organisation was posed initially (and essentially) entirely from their side and not at all from the majority. The majority’s view was that the range of differences (with Smith, as opposed to some of his followers) did not justify the heat or polarisation. It attempted to integrate the minority into the work of building the League by:
a) proposing a new way of electing the National Committee (Single Transferable Vote) so as to give them the maximum guarantees of representation;
b) including all the leaders of the Smith group in its slate for the NC presented to the April conference. (By contrast the Smith group presented a narrowly factional slate, from which, for example, they punitively excluded one associate of their group who disagreed with them on one issue, the Labour Party – and organised tight ‘whipping’ of votes for their slate;
c) over-representing the faction on the EC by retaining all the former EC members, from the Smith group in the newly elected EC;
d) operating ‘positive discrimination’ for them in the League. For example, Cunliffe continued as joint editor of the paper, Smith was urged to do the work of Industrial organiser, etc., etc.;
Continuing the privileged position of the Smith group leaders, and allowing them to write what they pleased in the paper. Nothing that they have ever written has been rejected for political reasons. The only example of limitations on Smith is when he was asked to reduce an article down to two from four full pages of the paper. He was not asked to change the political content.
Despite all this, the minority was irreconcilable. Smith and Jones talked, acted, and responded as monarchs by right treacherously ousted from their position of unchallengable designate leadership – “the worker leadership” as they refer to themselves on the committees.
They responded in a spirit of vendetta, trying to get their own back. In fact, their faction was declared only after the second part of the conference, which they saw as decisive and which elected the NC.
Instead of accepting the verdict of the conference and working loyally as members of the organisation, the faction leaders have:
a) continued to poison the organisation with an envenomed campaign of slander and demonology against the majority of the organisation and against its leading representatives. Accusations and abuse are usually, if unfortunately, features of any sharp political conflict: but from the Smith faction the explicitly political element has been minimal, completely overshadowed by the accusations and “scandals”.
b) increasingly adopted the methods and technique of an internal agitating faction, unconcerned with the work of the organisation or with the effects of their behaviour on that work.
c) progressively withdrawn from the work of the organisation. In what amounts to a partial secession, while continuing to exercise and enjoy full rights, indeed privileges, within it.
Dues and paper money. Some faction members are conscientious, some non-faction members are irresponsible. But the basic path of development is illustrated by the Oxford factory branch in which comrades Smith and Jones are active. In August 1982 they had relatively modest debts. From then to mid-December, the debts escalated continuously, despite schemes designed to help clear arrears.
Pressure from the centre then produced some reduction of the debt – and a huge hue and cry against alleged bureaucratic oppression, which is still continuing. The debt is now practically back to the mid-December level.
Commitment to central work. Smith has been free for full-time work for around 15 months, but has done practically nothing as Industrial organiser. His explanation is that he is writing a book about Cowley. This use of his time has never been discussed, let alone agreed.
Cunliffe walked off his job on the paper in January. Smith has subsequently endorsed this action.
Federalism. The writ of the organisation’s leading committees scarcely runs in Oxford.
Increasingly, the faction leaders relate to the organisation as ‘interventionists’ to agitate and ambush seemingly without any regard to the detrimental consequences for the League. They enjoy a full share of ‘power’ in the organisation, and indeed a privileged position, but take no share of the responsibility (especially financial / organisational) for the running of the organisation. Indeed, increasingly, they do their best to oppose, thwart and spite the efforts of the League leadership to administer the basic functions of the organisation.
The Smith group has turned the leading committees, into arenas rendered partly non-functional by endless petty and irresolvable disputes of a narrowly organisational and non-political character.
The only rational perspective for a political minority in their position would be propaganda focused on the basic political issues. The feverish agitation makes sense only if they were about to win the majority (which they aren’t) – or as a build up to a split.
This activity has sapped the vitality of the organisation in two ways:
a) Directly in terms of revenue; paper sales; discipline in work; ability of the elected leadership to organise our work according to the decisions of the conference, NC and EC; and our ability to organise rational political discussion on political questions;
b) Indirectly by the resultant effect on the morale of the group.
A hiving off by the Smith group would probably now lead to an increase in the organisation’s activity rather than a loss of real resources. But the most destructive result of the behaviour of the Smith group has been on their own forces.
They have shattered the grouping that they brought into the new organisation in July 1981 and scattered most of its forces to the four winds. At first, soon after the fusion, there was a shake-out of odd sectarians here and there: these were the first consequences of Smith’s and Jones’s failure to win the old WSL to the politics they had agreed for the new organisation. Then there was the split linked to the US Revolutionary Workers League, to form the Workers International League.
For fear of a shattering split straight down the middle of the organisation we were compelled to stand by as a transparently vicious and completely alien cult openly built up a faction in the WSL out of potentially valuable youth who had been poisoned against the WSL by Smith and Jones and who then broke with Smith and Jones because Smith and Jones refused to draw the logic of their own disastrous denunciations of the WSL majority.
The third wave of ex-Smith group forces has dropped away one by one since the last conference, because, like the TILC-orientated youth before them, they took seriously what Smith and Jones say about the organisation and its majority.
That, incidentally, is their explanation for the surprising fact that the organisation can suffer the serious haemorrhaging it has had for a full year now and still be able to do pretty much what it was doing a year ago or 18 or 24 months ago. Most of the haemorrhaging has been of people who were never really integrated into the organisation and its work anyway. The clearest example is youth work.
The whole history of the Smith group shows the unviability of trying to build a political organisation around a self-designated ‘worker leadership’ rather than clear politics and clear political accounting. If we look at the nine years since, Smith and Jones broke with the WRP, a graph presents itself which shows at first a rapid ascent and then a catastrophic decline.
In 1975 Smith was one of the best-known militants in Britain receiving publicity from the bourgeois press on the scale of Tariq Ali or Jack Dash. He was also boosted to widespread fame and prestige in Trotskyist circles by the USFI press, which was interested both in courting him and in using him against Healy. Lots of people flocked to the WSL, among, them petty bourgeois intellectuals from other organisations. At its peak it came close to 200 members. Then it declined, haemorrhaged, was twice invaded by Spartacists, lost its neo-Healyite verve and coherence.
The decline was intersected and seemingly arrested by the fusion in July 1981. Potentially it might have been in fact arrested. But with Smith’s attempt to regroup the old WSL on the Falklands war issue the decline quickly resumed; until today there are about three dozen in the faction.
Much of the Smith group’s generalised discontent and irreconcilability seems to derive from a desire to have back again their golden days of the mid-1970s. But the desire cannot be satisfied.
In the meantime, the organisation now faces the alternative spelled out in the declaration of myself, Joplin, Parkinson, Hill and Kinnell to the EC of 5. 2. 84.
“The present situation in the organisation is untenable. As far as we are concerned the choice facing the minority is either to resume full organisational autonomy or to accept that they are a minority, bringing to an end their partial secession and behave as a disciplined part of the WSL under the control of the leading bodies. If they choose the latter course, we will, of course, continue to uphold the rights of the minority to present their views in internal debate and to participate in the normal activity of the organisation”.
The situation is untenable. The way the Smith group is now going, a split is inevitable.
Smith and Jones no longer adhere to the WSL in any positive sense. The faction is a more or less wholly negative force within the organisation. It is not clear why Smith and Jones have so far failed to draw the same conclusions as those many who have graduated from their group out of the WSL: the only possible reason is are the fact that they have no better alternative to the WSL, and / or a desire to do maximum damage to the organisation before they go.Resolution
This National Committee declares that the situation must be resolved by the next NC one way or the other. The faction must decide to go out of the WSL or come into it. It cannot continue the way it is.
The NC declares that a split is neither desirable nor necessary, and that it can be avoided if the faction shows itself willing to build the organisation and to accept – for now – minority status.
The following are the basic minimum preconditions for integrating the faction into the organisation:
a) that all members of the faction fulfil their basic obligations as regards paper sales, dues, etc. like all other members the organisation not formally exempted.
b) the faction accepts majority rule;
c) an end to federalism;
d) that the faction either accepts a full share in decision-making and responsibility within the organisation, or accepts exclusively majority decision making. The faction leaders either work constructively in the leading committees, or get off them and accept a subordinate role. The committees must be allowed to function properly;
e) that the faction leaders cease irresponsible and disruptive agitation.
The imposition of these conditions is nothing more than the enforcement of democratic centralist norms.