THE DISCUSSION GROUP
The Discussion Group, which arose from a faction in the International Socialists [IS] in 1971, was a distinctive attempt to relate revolutionary politics to the labour movement. Splits in the Discussion Group produced the Revolutionary Communist Group[RCG] which in turn produced the Revolutionary Communist Party [RCP]. The RCG, a Stalinist Third Worldist organisation, still exists, while the RCP dissolved in 1997 after evolving towards radical liberalism. It is hardly surprising that a faction which produced such disparate organisations was never politically homogenous.
The Discussion Group was often accused of being an obsessively secret society, with a style more appropriate to clandestinity than to work in the 1970’s labour movement. It refused to have a public face, which would give the impression that it was external to the working class, or to produce a programme, as that should emerge in struggle and be subject to the test of experience, rather than be created by a small political tendency. The task of the Group was to work in the Labour movement and draw the lessons from that activity. The working class was heading for sharp struggles, so time was short.
The successes of the Discussion Group included maintaining a socialist commitment for 15 years, training a number of people to work in the labour movement and leading local campaigns against military adventures and cuts in welfare. However, it failed to develop the theoretical perspectives that it thought were needed, to recruit adherents, or to convince people in the wider labour movement that it was not just another sectarian group. Its tight structure gave it great staying power but insulated it from outside ideas. Its insistence on subjecting all its ideas to lengthy internal discussion saved it from domination by passing fads, but guaranteed that its intervention in specific struggles came too late. Paradoxically, 17 years of concentrated work produced only two pamphlets.
In 1971, Marxist politics was still benefiting from the upsurge around the Anti Vietnam War campaign. The Communist Party, which retained a solid, if aging, working class base had failed to control the anti war movement. The revolutionary Left, which had until recently been confined to small scale propaganda activity, was now presented with great opportunities. IS grew rapidly, partly because of its rivals’ errors. The Socialist Labour League [SLL] had kept clear of the anti war movement as it feared ideological contagion. The RSL [Militant] was confident of taking over the Labour Party through its work in the Young Socialists. It considered he anti war struggle and the wider student movement as important only to the extent that they provided recruits for the Labour Party young Socialists and Militant itself. However, the Labour Party had been discredited by the experience of the Wilson government, and most radical students were not prepared to endure the boredom of sitting in sparsely attended ward meetings.
The International Socialists [IS], later the Socialist Workers’ Party, originated in the Trotskyist movement in 1951. It grew slowly during the 1950s and rapidly after 1968, to more than 2,000 members in 1971, making it the biggest group to the left of the Communist Party. Many members were students, but as IS did not see students as the main revolutionary force, it attempted to use the new recruits to intervene in the workers’ movement. IS rejected Third Worldism, Student Vanguardism and Labour Party entrism. Its focus was on trade union rank and file movements where the task of a revolutionary organisation was to link up isolated struggles and give them a socialist content. Given the group’s social composition and lack of implantation in the labour movement this took the form of leafleting factories, which was done on a considerable scale. When IS replaced the ad hoc arrangements appropriate to a small propaganda group with a centralised party structure, tensions arose and several factions, generally anarchistic, were formed. Members were acutely aware of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Communist parties and worried that IS was not immune to such dangers.
The Discussion Group faction began in London and Bristol when some young IS members were attracted to Roy Tearse, who had been Industrial Organiser for the main Trotskyist group, the Workers International League [WIL]/ Revolutionary Communist Party [RCP] during WWII, and had been imprisoned in 1944 for supporting an apprentices’ strike. Dissident IS members saw him as a link with the Trotskyism which the IS leaders had deviated from. Their ideas at this time were unformed, but they were unhappy about the two main ‘points of honour’ which differentiated IS from orthodox Trotskyism: the claims that the Soviet Union was State Capitalist and that the boom following WW2 was produced by the Permanent Arms Economy. The faction members also had a less developed suspicion that the IS claim that the LP was finished might be overstated.
The rejection of IS’s economic theory crystallised around an article written by David Yaffe, a lecturer at Sussex University, and Rudi Schmiede in 1971. Although it was incomprehensible to non economists, a distinctive economic theory was a necessary part of any factional platform.
The faction was formally constituted in January 1972. Its leading figures [apart from Tearse who was not in IS] were Tony Polan and David Yaffe. Its existence was obvious to the IS leaders although they lacked proof of it. Given the decision not to work in the open, the main outlet for the faction’s ideas was through individual contributions to IS’s Internal Bulletin, whose main theme was that IS underestimated the deep roots of reformism in the working class. In Bristol a majority of the Branch, unaware that a secret organisation existed, supported the faction’s ideas. Their attitude, which was due mainly to contacts with the nucleus in London, was strengthened by resentment at the previous expulsion of supporters of Sean Matgammna’s Workers’ Fight group who were highly respected in the Bristol branch. On 18 April 1973 the IS national Committee expelled the faction’s leading members and ordered its supporters to choose between IS and the faction. Polan and Tearse favoured an indefinite campaign to remain within IS. Yaffe disagreed, arguing that the faction’s secrecy made it impossible for those IS members who might support its ideas to actively participate in a group which denied its own existence. On 8-9 December he and 4 others were expelled from the Tearse faction when their document The Way Forward arguing for a break with IS and the formation of an independent group was rejected.
The release of this document revealing the existence of the secret faction was a surprise to most of those who had supported its ideas and brought the campaign for reinstatement of those expelled from IS to an abrupt close. By forming his own open group Yaffe had forced his opponents to do the same. The eleven remaining faction members were now faced with the problem of how to organise their supporters who had been excluded from IS for supporting the faction’s ideas. It was decided, as a temporary measure, to form supporters into local Discussion Groups. That formula was intrinsically hierarchical, as there was, as yet, no mechanism for the local groups to control the faction, now renamed the National Group. The absence of agreement on anything except that Yaffe had been premature in launching an open group, was to cause problems later. The split at the top was followed by the exclusion of Yaffe’ssupporters from the local groups.
Many of the Discussion Group’s subsequent problems arose from the early attempt to combine Yaffe’s aim to form yet another standard issue revolutionary party, with Tearse’s wish to remain in IS. In 1974 most members saw the formation of local discussion groups as a prelude to forming an active interventionist organisation: no one suggested that they should be permanent.
The tendency, now forced to go public, had no written material which would establish its political identity. In November 1973 it had published The Bulletin of the Revolutionary Opposition, but Group members were unhappy with that document whose aim was to unite a motley group of people faced with expulsion from IS. It was felt that the faction still needed a lengthy period of discussion before it was able to provide the leadership and perspectives which the labour movement lacked. Events were moving in its direction, more quickly than was desirable. Its organisation had to change if it was to provide the leadership of future struggles. Remaining members of what had been the secret faction became the nucleus of a kind of National Committee. The newly, independent, Group set about the task of producing the theory and perspectives which the labour movement lacked.
Progress was slow at first. A Bulletin, edited by Polan, which was to be Group’s only regular publication, was produced from March 1974. It remains unclear whether it was intended to function as a think tank or as an educational project which would train members to write for a wider audience. Polan’s editorial assuming that the Bulletin would begin a process of political clarification, was at odds with its eclectic contents : there were three articles: Energy and the Capitalist Crisis, The Argentinean Crisis and Labour’s programme and the Left;. In practice, few of the articles provoked replies, so the Bulletin did not become a discussion forum. Probably, 80 copies were produced, which were to be shown only to trusted contacts, not distributed indiscriminately. No reason was given for this secrecy, which was surely unnecessary now that the group was no longer in IS. Apart for two pamphlets, no publications devoted to the Group’s declared objectives of producing revolutionary theory and perspectives were ever produced. Four [dated but unnumbered] issues containing articles on a number of topics were published by July 1976. The most common themes were the trade unions and the Labour Party. A few people wrote most of the articles.
Bristol, the heart of the faction in IS, was the Group’s stronghold. From November 1973 until February 1976 members who were delegates to the Trades Council published 9 issues of Bristol Socialist, a four page journal. It had the advantage of appearing as a labour movement organ, not something produced by an outside body. Neither the local IS group nor the Communist Party were capable of producing anything comparable. The journal’s contents were a mixture of reports of local struggles and more general political comment. Not all contributors were members of the Discussion Group. Tony Benn MP was interviewed in the May/June 1975 issue and public meetings were organised on topics raised in the journal. From May/ June 1975, once the Communist Party recovered control of the Trades Council its sponsorship ended, but Bristol Socialist continued to appear for some time. The last [?] issue in February 1976 gave no indication that it was to fold. Trade unionists were interviewed by the journal and helped to distribute it, but few became involved in producing it or participated in the discussions on the topics it raised. As the intention was to give expression to workers’ aspirations, rather than establish yet another Left journal, the endeavour was discontinued.
Even with the winding up of Bristol Socialist and the drifting away of the majority of former IS branch members, Bristol remained the largest of the tendency’s branches. Most members joined the local Labour Party which was then moving sharply to the Left, disproving the IS prediction that the party could not recover. In Bristol West Constituency, heavily influenced by the University, many new members were in revolt against the old machine politics. The constituency had no Labour Councillors and there was little working class input into the Labour Party, making it a better site for Bennite politics than Benn’s own constituency, Bristol South East. In October 1974 John Malos, a physics lecturer at Bristol University who, was influenced by Michel Raptis, a former Secretary of the Fourth International, was adopted as parliamentary candidate. While the Labour leadership could afford to ignore developments in a safe Conservative constituency, they would not have allowed that to happen ten years before or after. The new Labour Party activists were little older than the Discussion Group members, often shared a background in higher education, and were open to the group’s influence. Militant, which was more active in working class areas, was much less congenial to the university Left. Bristol Discussion Group had to adapt, however reluctantly, to a middle class milieu concerned with constitutional reform, Black Power and Feminism. A positive aspect of Labour party membership was that activists became skilled in persuasion and debate.
Lack of progress outside Bristol produced a crisis in 1976 when KW, a leading activist, presented a document to the National Group complaining of apathy and drift. He claimed that the period of discussion which everyone had agreed was necessary before the organisation could undertake collective political activity, seemed to have become permanent. He argued that the group had to take decisions on perspective and behave as a disciplined tendency. For example, members were drifting into the Labour Party. Perhaps that was the appropriate place to be, but the Group, not individual members, should decide, and should move towards becoming a membership organisation with a Democratic Centralist structure.
Roy Tearse disagreed strongly, arguing that the Group needed to produce perspectives on British and world capitalism, rather than outline the plan of action for the group itself, which KW proposed, but he gave no indication of how this would be done. On the evidence of its first five years, the Discussion Group’s tempo of work could not have produced such perspectives in his lifetime. The other members of the National Group were also hostile to the proposals although some expressed concern at the Group’s failure to grow and recruit workers. The episode remains somewhat mystifying as the rejected proposals seem the bare minimum which would be necessary if the organisation was to function as anything more than an affinity group. KW’s proposals aroused deep hostility because they were seen as a repetition of Yaffe’s ideas, which had split the Group, forced it to go public, and got it expelled from IS.
Surprisingly, in a later document, KW retracted most of his positions while still complaining of inertia and asking that the group should produce popular pamphlets. It seemed that the crisis had been resolved and an activist orientation rejected. As was customary none of the disagreements were aired in the Discussion Bulletin.
By 1978 several more Bulletins had been produced and work was proceeding on the draft of a pamphlet on the Labour Party when a new crisis erupted. Polan, the most senior member apart from Tearse, appeared at a National Group meeting in March with TJ, another founder member, bearing a 27 page document, announcing their resignations. They claimed that there was no point in a discussion as the difference between their present positions and those of the former comrades were comparable to those between the world views of Ptolemy and Copernicus. The Group members were told that those intellectually capable of doing so could join them in a new endeavour.The document abandoned Marxism completely: it questioned the value of political economy, the role of the working class and it declared that the Soviet Union was a stable society, not one in transition between socialism and capitalism. It ended with a reading list and seemed a contribution to a post graduate seminar in what was later to become known as post modernism, rather than part of a Marxist discussion. The National Group were alleged to be intellectual terrorists controlling a largely passive membership. ‘Allowing’ the members to elect a National Group had made no difference. The shrewdest criticism of their former comrades was that they ignored the rest of the Left, thereby assuming that no one outside the Discussion Group had any worthwhile ideas. Understandably, the majority were thunderstruck by the suddenness and what appeared as the petulance of the statement.
Polan’s editorial in the most recent [?] issue of May 1977 contained no hint of his current position.
The National Group replied to its critics describing their document as an eclectic mish-mash, and reminding Polan that meetings had been arranged to discuss his ideas.
The withdrawal of two members of the original secret faction was a severe blow. The only previous sign of disagreement was in Polan’s draft of a pamphlet, on the Labour Party. The group still had 37 fee paying members, nearly all of whom had been supporters of the original Platform in IS, too few to sustain many local discussion groups. The entry into the Labour Party which KW had unsuccessfully argued for in 1976 had, in practice, taken place on an ad hoc basis and this gave a focus for activity which was reflected in the contents of the Bulletin. As the Group had entered the Labour Party in order to overcome isolation, rather than as part of a traditional entry tactic, and as its structure made joining difficult, the only two identifiable recruits were both relatives of a founder member. The contents of the Bulletin were hardly affected by the split. There were articles on the Trade Unions. The Labour Party, international issues, the Labour Left’s Alternative Economic Strategy and Import Controls, a key part of that strategy. To outsiders the Discussion Group appeared to advocate similar policies to Tribune except for its opposition to Import Controls.
A new stage opened in 1981 with the launching of Labour Herald, a lavishly produced weekly, with an emphasis on local government. Its editors were Ken Livingstone, leader of the GLC, Ted Knight, leader of Lambeth Labour party and MW, Knight’s deputy and a member of the Discussion Group. It was printed by a company associated with Gerry Healy’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party [WRP]. When that party disintegrated in 1985, a WRP member claimed to be the papers’ real editor. Former Discussion Group members insist that Labour Herald was never their paper and that they were not consulted when it was launched, but a number of them wrote for it, mainly on the Labour Party and the economy, giving the group its first public outlet. The distinctive positions of Livingstone, Knight and Healy on the Middle East and elsewhere were neither attacked nor defended. The Bulletin continued to be produced, but Labour Herald became the main outlet for the Group’s views. From June till November 1985 four Discussion Group members wrote an interesting series of 16 articles under the general title of A Socialist Perspective For Today. However, the Left current around Labour Herald was disintegrating after Thatcher’s 1983 election victory, the defeat of the miner’s strike and the capitulation of the municipal Left faced with the government’s rate capping and threats to surcharge councilors. The authors of the articles recognised and opposed the general movement of retreat. Unfortunately Livingstone was among those moving to the Right, so Labour Herald was soon to close. An article by KW in the 29 November 1986 issue criticised not only the established Right but the soft Left such as Blunkett, who were capitulating to the Labour Party leadership. The tensions within Labour Herald were illustrated by the fact that the article appeared in a much less lavishly produced paper and was no longer printed at the WRP’s printshop, which had been the scene of violent clashes between rival sections of the party the previous month. The Labour Herald episode indicates that there were unvoiced differences within the Group, which took no position on the dispute between Livingstone and his left wing critics.
The Discussion Group dissolved on 3 December 1988 after receiving a letter from KW stating that he would not attend the national meeting and was resigning from the group. He did not call for the group to be wound up, but the discussion his letter provoked showed that there was no will to go on. The winding up statement of just one and a half pages contained no recrimination, rather unusual in such circumstances. It accepted that David Yaffe may have been right in predicting that it would become a politically irrelevant debating society and that a more active and positive approach to political intervention might have been appropriate. The main conclusion drawn was that conditions for socialists were harder in the late 1980s than in the early 1970s. Roy Tearse had died in October 1986 and his activity had been restricted by illness for some time before that.
A book on unemployment which the group had been working on for 5 years was abandoned. The local Discussion Groups no longer existed and the Bulletin seems to have lapsed in 1984, although the January issue gave no indication of that being about to happen. The political climate had indeed changed since 1971, and some of those changes were seen as confirming the Group’s predictions. Most of the tendencies which had dominated the Left in 1971 had disappeared or were about to undergo convulsions. The Communist Party was in crisis and would soon wind up. The WRP [SLL] had exploded 3 years before, while Militant was shortly to expel Ted Grant, its historic leader. The SWP [IS] was to survive and even grow, but with less influence on political life than in the mid 1970’s.
Roy Tearse’s decision to create a faction before rather than after reaching political agreement seems to have been misjudged. There seems no reason to have assumed that, given time, faction members’ ideas would converge, rather than diverge as they, in fact, did. Given that situation, it was sensible to keep the faction secret, rather than declare it openly. As the group lacked political coherence, the only basis of unity was group loyalty. That loyalty goes some way to explain the intensity of commitment and the explosive nature of internal disputes. Polan’s refusal to discuss his differences when leaving the Group, was extraordinary, if considered as political behaviour, but would cause no surprise in personal relationships, which are not expected to respond to impersonal criteria. Opponents saw such conduct as evidence that the Group was a clique, where the criteria for belonging were unstated and entry was closed to outsiders.
The faction’s decision, while within IS, to concentrate on doctrinal matters, such as State Capitalism and the Permanent Arms Economy, which could not easily be proved or disproved, rather than on real world issues was prudent. Yaffe’s wish to declare an open organisation was understandable, as the disagreement with IS was not over specific aspects of the host group’s politics, but on the conviction that its tradition, theory and perspectives were utterly wrong, and there was little to be gained by a long term stay within it.
The strongest aspect of the group’s criticism of IS was the questioning of IS’s absurd conviction that the Labour party was finished [the vacuum on the Left]. However, that was merely a doubt and was not shared by Yaffe, so it did not amount to a perspective which would have justified Labour Party entry. Labour’s election victories in 1974 showed the falsity of the notion that there was a ‘vacuum on the Left’ as, despite bitter disillusion at the new government’s policies, the Labour Left was about to enter what was probably its most influential period. However, if the faction had declared for a policy of Labour Party entry it would have suffered splits at an earlier stage.
The Discussion Group’s secrecy, was was generally misunderstood. It was, partly, a hangover from being an undeclared faction in IS, but the main reason was that it saw itself as an organic expression of the class, not yet another group appealing to the working class from outside. The constitution of an open group, as proposed by Yaffe, would have drawn a mental circle round it and shut the members off from other workers. Any attempt to implement campaigns or intervene in an active way would have caused dissension and shattered the group. As the name, Discussion Group, suggested to most people a loose association to discuss ideas, its closed structure caused surprise and amusement. Unfairly, perhaps, the group was seen by outsiders as a freemasonry. The, never to be accomplished, working out of perspectives would not be achieved in an open group, where people without deep commitment could occupy the members’ time and energy. Participants in a local discussion were to find it difficult to relate their concerns to a centralised national group engaged in an ambitious long term project.
Most small left-wing tendencies devote enormous attention to their larger rivals but, judging by the Bulletin, the Discussion Group largely ignored theirs. It had no wish to recruit from either the members or the periphery of other groups, so there was no point in polemicising with them. Sensibly enough, once expelled from IS there was no further discussion on that organisation’s ‘points of honour’ State Capitalism and the Permanent Arms Economy, matters of little general interest.
The Group’s practice of lengthy internal discussion delayed action and practically guaranteed that it always come late to the feast. The fairly effective intervention in the Labour Left in the 1980’s might have been more fruitful earlier rather than later when that Left was fragmenting. The lack of interest in other tendencies’ activities gave an impression of arrogance, which was perhaps unconscious. Was it considered that any open political group, by definition, a sect? The absence of distinctive programme should have made it easier for the Group to work with others, but its combination of soaring ambition and limited and prosaic activity always marked it out. Curiously, when group members sought a partner they chose Ken Livingstone, best known for expanding the local authority pork barrel so enormously. However, the Labour Herald intervention was not official, and the group seems not to have had a comprehensive discussion on the issue.
The split by Polan in 1978, aimed at creating something rather like New Left Review, left the group rather more homogenous, but differences remained. The contents of the Bulletin, while they contributed little to providing Marxist perspectives for the working class, make sense as part of a mutual education venture. The co-existence of different ideas within a small group required tact so, after 1978, polemics on fundamental issues had to be minimised, making the name, Discussion Group, inappropriate: titles generally express aspirations rather than reality, so it is hardly surprising that discussion was not the Discussion Group’s strong point. Bitter experience had shown where it could lead.
The Discussion Group can be seen as Muggletonian in the style of the 17th-century religious sect so secretive that, until E.P. Thompson encountered a surviving member in 1975,it was thought to have died out early in the 18th century, but the comparison is unhelpful. Individual Discussion Group members were generally labour movement activists, well known to fellow trade unionists, not shadowy conspirators. The Group was correct in realising that the main aim of long established organisations is to perpetuate their own existence, so that their ostensible objectives are pushed into the background. Its own attempt to minimise the barriers between itself and the labour movement had the paradoxical effect of convincing outsiders that an impenetrable organisation existed.
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Updated by ETOL: 25.10.2003