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Ian Birchall

On Generalised Opposition

(November 1971)

From the International Socialism, Internal Bulletin, November 1971.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford September 2012.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One important issue that has come up in the debate about the dissolving of the fusion with the Trotskyist Tendency is the question of ‘generalised opposition’, as distinct from opposition on specific issues. This problem is reflected in the Enfield and Brighton resolutions to the Special Conference and clearly reveals an anxiety that extends beyond those who give political support to the Trotskyist Tendency.

As an ex-member of the (now defunct) Democratic Centralist and more recently an opponent of the NC line on the Common Market – as well as being, according to members of the Trotskyist Tendency, ‘frightened to carry through the logic of my positions’ – I would like to make a few observations on this question.

Opposition in a revolutionary organisation is not a right. It has nothing to do with the right of free speech we demand in society as a whole, or within the trade unions. The revolutionary organisation is a voluntary association of those who share certain aims. Opposition is a duty. Any comrade who, after serious consideration, is convinced that the organisation is making a mistake which will be harmful to it, has an absolute duty to fight for the correction of such errors. Since no individual or group is infallible, it is only through such a process that correct positions can be evolved. Much of what passes for the defence of ‘democracy’ in IS is in fact an appeal to liberal principles, and nothing to do with democratic centralism.

If opposition is understood, not as a debating society exercise, but as part of a process of collective learning from the experience of struggle, :then all opposition involves generalisation. For instance, two years ago we made a serious mistake by underestimating the importance of the establishment of a hard revolutionary organisation in Ireland. If an understanding of this mistake is to enable us to avoid making similar mistakes in future, then we must understand not merely that we made the mistake, but why we made it. The documents by JH and others on the Common Market aim at precisely such a task of generalisation. To this extent the claim by the Trotskyist Tendency that every specific debate raises the question of method is correct.

What is the experience of attempts at generalised opposition in IS? In the 1968–69 period there were at least three groupings – the Democratic Centralists, Platform Four and the so-called ‘microfaction’ – who, faced with major changes in the objective situation and the group’s work, tried to develop a general critique of the group’s theory and practice. All of us were motivated by a serious concern to improve the group, and all of us made certain criticisms which have been accepted and acted upon by the group. But in the job of formulating a general critique and alternative strategy we all failed. And any grouping that claims to have a generalised critique without spelling it out in absolutely precise terms will inevitably attract a whole variety of discontented elements. As a result all three groupings disintegrated.

I am not saying that a generalised opposition platform is impossible – I am simply saying we have not yet seen one. Certainly the Trotskyist Tendency does not offer a generalised opposition. Its identifying features are not points of method or programme – they are historical identifications – the first Four Congresses, the Transitional Programme, and a glamourised myth of the SWP in the 40s and 50s. They have never even attempted to show how these historical reference points in any way relate to their rather modest and unoriginal proposals for action. The Trotskyist Tendency is not a generalised opposition, it is not an opposition of any kind, in terms of the definition I have tried to give. It is a clique, an amalgam of various disabused elements which, once liberated from the unifying force of hatred for the IS leadership, will disperse to the four winds.

On this interpretation the rampant Utopianism of the Enfield resolution (calling for a commission to establish conditions for any future generalised opposition) becomes apparent. Leave aside the fact that this resolution would involve us in not one but two special conferences and transform the group into debating society over a period of months. What it asks us to do is to make provisions for a generalised opposition not yet formulated but which one fine day may emerge. Obviously such an opposition could arise. If so, various developments could take place. The group as a whole might be persuaded by the superior analysis of the opposition and adopt it. Some elements of the opposition’s programme might be adopted. Or comrades might realise at the end of the day, that their differences were irreconcilable. A split would then occur. This would involve a prolonged period of debate in the group from which, at best, we would all learn a great deal. But to legislate in advance for it is a pure waste of time. And it has nothing to do with putting an end to an intolerable situation where one ‘democratic centralist’ organisation exists within another such organisation.

My own characterisation is that IS has the vices of its own virtues. What has enabled IS to survive and build for the last twenty years has been its sensitivity to reality, its ability to analyse changes in the objective situation, its concern for involvement in real struggle, its outward-looking and non-sectarian style. This has inevitably been accompanied by pragmatism – a concern with short-term needs at the price of a neglect of long-term issues. I would analyse as lapses into pragmatism most of the mistakes the group has made – over Ireland, the Common Market, the shop stewards’ defence committee, and for that matter the hasty and botched fusion with Workers’ Fight. In a sense this is the basis of a generalised critique. What I do not believe is that there is any formula which solves this once and for all. As revolutionaries we are walking a tightrope, with dogmatism on one side and pragmatism on the other. We shall not get off the tight-rope – not until the happy day when socialism is here and we are all lying in the long grass eating peaches. One does not walk a tightrope by taking an exact compass bearing in advance and then shutting one’s eyes. To believe that method – whether in the form of the Transitional Programme or of an abstract and formal account of dialectics – can absolve us from permanent vigilance, permanent criticism, is the most dangerous illusion at large in the group today.


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