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Ian Birchall

Speak One More Time


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1, 2005.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jim Higgins
Speak One More Time: Selected Writings
Socialist Platform, London 2005, pp. 191, £9.50

JIM Higgins (1931–2002) joined the Communist Party as a teenager, and left over Hungary. After a brief spell in the Socialist Labour League, he joined Tony Cliff’s Socialist Review Group in 1959. He was a leading member of the International Socialists throughout the 1960s, and became full-time National Secretary in 1972. Some 18 months later he was removed from his post, and after over two years of internal conflict he and a group of around 150 members were expelled in December 1975; they subsequently formed the short-lived Workers League.

I first met Jim in 1963. I was a postgraduate student, just discovering the microscopic world of the revolutionary left. Jim was a genuine worker intellectual; he had left school at 15, and all his subsequent education had been obtained through voracious reading and experience in left-wing organisations. Yet he had a breadth of knowledge that contrasted sharply with the narrow specialisation I had so often encountered in the academic world. (Such worker intellectuals were even then a rarity; a generation later and it is inconceivable that someone like Jim would not have gone to university. But perhaps the current Labour onslaught on higher education will yet give us another wave of worker intellectuals.)

The other striking thing about Jim was his monumental irreverence. Nobody, in his organisation or in the socialist pantheon, was immune from criticism and indeed mockery. There is a marvellous book review (unfortunately not collected here, but available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins) called Is Almond a Nut?, in which Jim takes on, without any deference whatsoever, the distinguished political scientist Gabriel Almond, whose sub-Freudian analysis argued that Communists were redirecting hostility to their parents into ‘safer’ channels. Jim responds: ‘Now big though my father is, I have never considered him to be in the same class for violence as a capitalist state (not even a small one) and for a soft option I will take on my old Dad any day.’

Jim’s irreverence fitted well with the style of the International Socialists at this time. We were a tiny, marginal group and we knew it – in contrast to the SLL, who were a tiny marginal group who thought they were the vanguard of the proletariat. Whereas Tony Cliff’s humour always had a direct political purpose, Jim’s was generally politically incorrect and often straightforwardly vulgar. To some of the more solemn currents of the left, his attitude might appear frivolous. But Jim knew that, after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, you could either laugh or scream – and that those who laughed tended to keep on fighting longer.

In 1972, Jim was persuaded by Cliff to become National Secretary. He replaced Duncan Hallas, one of the finest socialist propagandists of his generation, but not a particularly good organiser. IS was growing rapidly, but was still rather chaotically organised. Jim’s brief was to introduce some order. Cliff’s talent was to grasp new tendencies, to focus attention on the priorities of the organisation. He needed someone to act as long-stop (if anyone understands this antiquated cricketing metaphor), someone to preserve balance, to maintain an organisational routine and pick up the tasks which were not priorities but were still essential.

It might just have worked. But it didn’t. Jim ran the organisation as he would have run a trade-union office. He was hard-working and dedicated, and issued a stream of branch circulars, all carefully numbered for reference. But he treated it as an office job, rarely travelling out of London. Cliff, meanwhile, toured the country tirelessly, enthused comrades, argued with them, and spent hundreds of hours on the telephone, persuading – and listening. As Roger Protz remarked to me, before the argument became hopelessly polarised, the National Secretary should be a ‘road job’ and not an office job.

These were exciting times. The year of 1972 had seen the victory at Saltley Gates and the government climb-down over the Pentonville Five. Just ahead was the February 1974 election, when a strike brought down an elected government. Cliff believed Jim’s formalism had become an obstacle, and arranged to have him removed.

Not surprisingly, Jim was extremely bitter. He had given up a job as a skilled Post Office engineer, with associated trade-union positions, in order to take a lower wage and work in a rather squalid office. In his resignation speech at the September 1973 National Committee, Jim recounted how he had discussed his doubts about taking the job with Cliff, and Cliff, in the biblical style he sometimes adopted, had responded: ‘You must measure your cloth three times.’ ‘And so I did’, said Jim, ‘but I forgot to measure the fucking tailor.’

Jim briefly formed an alliance with Duncan Hallas, who shared some of his concerns about Cliff’s current line. But Duncan was a pragmatist, and when the leadership made certain adjustments to criticism, he opted to go over to Cliff. For Jim, this seemed like a second betrayal, and bitterness was unassuaged. As he points out, he had been ‘quite fond of Cliff’. This is an understatement. Jim had been close to Cliff personally, as well as greatly admiring his theoretical achievement. If many of his writings from 1974 onwards, collected in this volume, display a tone not dissimilar to that of a divorced spouse, that reflects the enormous disappointment Jim suffered at this time.

I have written before about the 1973–75 split (see my review of Jim’s book More Years for the Locust in Revolutionary History, Volume 7, no. 1 [1998]) and I don’t want to repeat myself. Factional disputes of this sort can be highly destructive. After the split, I didn’t speak to Jim for over 20 years. Latterly he would occasionally telephone me about historical questions, and while he continued to abuse me roundly in print, in person he was his old jovial self. When Duncan Hallas died, he phoned me twice to discuss the obituary he was writing for the Guardian. He was clearly deeply moved by Duncan’s death; perhaps at last the bitterness was beginning to fade. But it also evoked thoughts of his own mortality – ‘falling off my perch’ as he put it. Within a few weeks he too was dead.

Much of what Jim continued to write about Cliff and the SWP (some of which is collected in this volume) was so marked by that bitterness that it failed to offer what Jim aspired to – a serious critique of his old organisation. John Palmer writes of Jim’s hatred of ‘sectarian Talmudists and timeservers’. Often Jim implies that all those who remained with the IS/SWP fall into this category. Those of us who decided, on balance, to stay with Cliff as the best option going, and who have subsequently made our modest contribution to the socialist cause within this framework, can hardly accept this.

The articles in this slender volume show a powerful brain and a wonderful sense of humour. It is hard to dislike anyone who describes debating with Sean Matgamna as like ‘arguing with warm jelly’. (On a good day Matgamna himself might smile.) There is a wealth of information and entertainment, but two main themes predominate: Trotskyism and trade unionism. On the former, Jim’s position can be summed up as a great, if not uncritical, admiration for Trotsky, combined with a deep contempt for much of what has passed as Trotskyism over the last 60 years. His essay Let Us Praise Leon Trotsky, published in International Socialism at the time of the dispute with Cliff, was written as a covert polemic against what Jim saw as Cliff’s preoccupation with Lenin. It stands as a good introduction to one of the century’s great revolutionaries. In another article, Jim describes the thrill of discovering Trotsky during the crisis of the British Communist Party in 1956, something that was to stay with him for the rest of his life.

The absurdities – and worse – of self-styled Trotskyists are also well represented. The collection opens with a brilliant piece from 1964, Weekend with the Lumpentrots, depicting in Jim’s inimitable style a Young Socialist weekend school disrupted by the sectarian antics of Keep Left. It is hilariously funny – but also rather sad; one wonders if there were any young people for whom this occasion was their first (and if so almost certainly their last) encounter with the revolutionary left. His brief piece on Gerry Healy for the Spectator is quite appropriately savage.

Ten Years for the Locust, his account of the early years of British Trotskyism, is a much more serious piece of work. For those of us who encountered it in the early 1960s, it opened up an area of history that was almost completely unknown, and did so with a judicious balance of respect and criticism. If it has now been superseded by the more scholarly studies of Bornstein and Richardson, it remains a pioneering contribution.

The collection contains several substantial essays on the history of the labour movement, from the foundation of the Communist Party to the Minority Movement. There is a carefully balanced piece on the success and failure of the IWW, and another about breakaway trade unions. The latter was written in response to the Pilkington Glass strike of April 1970, following which workers, disgusted at the undemocratic and ineffective General and Municipal Workers Union, set up a short-lived breakaway. These pieces appeared in International Socialism in the years after 1968, and were directed at a largely new membership who often knew more about Russia, France or Cuba than the labour movement of their own country. They were a valuable contribution to the education of a new generation, and it is good to have them in print again. In particular, Jim repeatedly stresses the need for patience, an important corrective as the exaggerated hopes of 1968 began to fade. Yet if patience is certainly a revolutionary virtue, so is the ability to seize the time.

Personally, I found the second part of the book, containing articles written after Jim’s departure from the International Socialists, less satisfying than the first. As an SWP member I am doubtless prejudiced, but while revolutionaries should always welcome serious and well-founded criticism, I found that all too often the polemic was not sufficiently focused. One of the last pieces Jim wrote for Socialist Worker before his expulsion was an obituary of James P. Cannon (included in this collection), entitled Magnificent Disciple Who Lost His Way. I don’t know if the title was Jim’s own, but it would make a good summing-up of Jim’s own career.

Certainly Jim’s wit was unimpaired. There is a little piece on Glasgow from the Spectator which will amuse many (if they are not Glaswegians). If it appeared in the Spectator today, poor old Boris Johnson would be sent scurrying over the border to apologise. Fortunately even Jim could not find any grounds on which the current state of Glasgow could be blamed on Tony Cliff. There is also a thoughtful and balanced piece entitled Trotskyism in the USA.

But as soon as Jim approaches his old organisation, the heart seems to dominate over the head. At one point, he states that what Tony Cliff thinks is ‘a matter of supreme indifference to me’. It is of course Jim’s absolute right to feel thus, but it does somewhat undermine his status as a commentator on the SWP’s politics. He does not appear to have studied the later writings of Tony Cliff or of other SWP members, nor to have given any close attention to the party’s activities.

The Anti-Nazi League, which undoubtedly had a real impact in blocking the rise of the far right in Britain, is dismissed as the SWP moving ‘from one sensation to another’. Jim attributes to Cliff the view that there are universal principles of Leninist organisation, whereas the whole of Cliff’s four-volume study of Lenin is devoted to the destruction of the myth of the immutable ‘Leninist Party’, and the exposition of the view that Lenin constantly adapted his organisational views to meet the political needs of particular situations. He generously commends the work of Revolutionary History, yet states that this work is ‘anathema to the confirmed sect-dweller’, carefully ignoring the contribution to Revolutionary History made by ‘sect-dwellers’ from the SWP and elsewhere.

Jim is absolutely right to insist that the organised labour movement is a central concern for revolutionaries, and that all socialists must encourage systematic work within the trade union apparatus. But there is a failure to acknowledge the massive changes that have taken place in the British trade-union movement. In the 1974 IS internal document reproduced here, Jim stresses the ‘main emphasis on building among manual workers’. Yet the notion of ‘manual worker’ was already problematic – is a nurse a manual worker? And over the coming decades the traditional areas of manual employment – above all mining – were to be seriously reduced. In Jim’s repeated reassertions of the centrality of the working class, there is no recognition of these changes – or of the work done by SWP writers like Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos in analysing them.

Cliff is belaboured for his alleged assertion that ‘mature shop stewards and lay trade union officials were bent’. (I have never found this claim in Cliff’s writings, and would be grateful to any reader who can give me chapter and verse.) Yet the growth of full-time convenors, etc., in the 1970s was a shift which required serious analysis. In an article urging us to move on from Leninism, Jim calls for ‘new strategies and perspectives’. But he gives us no clue what these are to be.

One article I had not seen before is an internal document from the Workers League in 1977. Jim is replying to four comrades, including Paul Mackney (now General Secretary of NATFHE), who were in favour of merger with the International Marxist Group. I have not seen the document to which Jim is replying, so it is hard to judge the debate fully. But Jim expands on his view that the Trotskyist tradition is ‘bankrupt’, and defends his view of a rank-and-file movement.

The development of rank-and-file groups under the influence of the IS was an interesting development in the 1970s. While there was a model in the 1920s Minority Movement, the whole thing was an experiment, and mistakes were undoubtedly made. In any case, it was soon brought to an end by the downturn in struggle in the late 1970s. Jim accuses the IMG of having no concept of rank-and-file work because they formed an explicitly ‘socialist’ teachers’ organisation. Jim’s claim is that revolutionaries could not directly address the mass of workers with revolutionary ideas, and must find a trade-union intermediary. How the trade-union struggle would spill over into socialism was left rather vague. Now Jim’s ideas are in many ways similar to Cliff’s at the time. But given the particular ideological role of education, his objections seem a little strange. Was he really suggesting that revolutionaries should try to work with teachers who favoured expulsions, taught the glories of the British Empire – but vigorously supported higher pay for themselves?

I will not conclude by praising Jim. Perhaps his old comrade Fred the Communist-spiritualist was right (see Why Did You Join the Party?) and there is an afterlife; if so, I can imagine Jim’s raucous contempt for any attempt to flatter him beyond the grave. If 1975 came round again, I would again support Jim’s expulsion. But Jim was a part of the history – often trivial but sometimes inspiring – of the revolutionary left in the later twentieth century, and he deserves to be remembered. Those who produced this little book have done him – and us – a service.

Ted Crawford adds:

It is, I fear, not only Jim Higgins who too much remembers past faction fights – so does our reviewer Ian Birchall. Not that Ian says anything that is not truthful – he is far too honest a scholar to indulge in anything more than a little suppressio veri with perhaps a tiny hint of suggestio falsi. But it would be quite untrue to say that Jim was removed from the National Secretaryship of IS solely for administrative failings, indeed the way he worked according to Ian sounds remarkably like the role that Cliff requested of him – again according to Ian. No, there was a political struggle and it arose from difference of perspectives. In Jim’s rather exaggerated words: ‘Cliff thought the revolution would occur in three months times, and we thought six months.’ Or, more precisely, both factions had absurdly over-optimistic views of the future, but Cliff was more wildly wrong than Jim. Of course these political differences were reflected in sharp personal antagonisms, they always are in any political fight, but the politics there were – together with, as generally happens, very nasty tactics on the part of the leadership. A further complication was that the situation was an extremely difficult one, the broad political and economic situation was unprecedented (it always is), and the lines in the faction fight were very unclear and confused. What was true, and what decided me to back Jim, was that in the branches we were suddenly told about his removal, there was no advance warning, and the whole struggle had been carried out without any consultation with or knowledge of the membership. It had the air of a coup. (I make no claim to omniscience, for at the time I was as confused as anybody.)

And there was a ruthlessness in Cliff who plucked Jim out of an important trade union job, which might have been justified on the eve of revolution, but clearly not in the circumstances of 1972. True Jim must have shared Cliff’s perspective to a considerable extent to allow it to happen, but, not to beat about the bush, both were very wrong. And if you are a revolutionary you cannot afford to be wrong for, if things do get real, you will swiftly end up dead. We were light years away from a revolutionary situation, so, in Jim’s case, he was faced not with annihilation but with having to start again and make a living which cannot have been totally easy at his age, even for someone of his great talents. Of course, Cliff was never bothered by that vulgar necessity. In retrospect with all the advantages of 20/20 hindsight, we can see that we were coming to the end of the unprecedented 25-year boom, that the world economy for the next 20 years would grow far more slowly but would not suffer a disaster on the scale of the 1930s, and, in the case of Britain, we would see the defeat and consequent emasculation of the organised working class. Apart from the defeat of the class, I remember all the economics of this being accurately foreseen by Michael Kidron at a meeting in Leeds in 1974 or 1975, but this does not seem to have been taken on board by the IS/SWP leadership.

So I am sorry that Ian found the second half of the book bitter and one-sided whenever it talked of the SWP. In fact in view of what had happened, I think there was extraordinarily little bitterness, entertaining abuse yes, but that was Higgins. But alas, the SWP like every other little tendency prefers not to go over its own history, above all where this contains possibly disgraceful or even stupid elements. (Yes Ian, exactly the same is true of Lutte Ouvrière, for the only people who cannot have a stall at their Fête are the GET or Groupe d’étude trotskyste of Richard Moyon.) Higgins was a dangerous polemicist to have around, but the response to him was of course silence from the SWP publications. But a party is not built by shouting ‘Rah! Rah! We are the Champions!’, and, Ian, no party or group is spotless and without stain. Proud vaunts about the Anti-Nazi League (was there really a threat of Nazism in this country?) count for much less if we remember how it was comrades from the Militant (who later left it) who got the Anti-Poll Tax campaign moving, a real mass movement far more proletarian and less moralistic than the ANL, and that the SWP, despite Ian’s claims, did not at that point have ‘the ability to seize the time’. They followed rather than led that movement, and I emphasise it was a Movement and did not belong to any little sect. The same thing happened at the time of the miners’ strike when the SWP started off on it own sectarian way until jolted into reality – to its credit maybe – but it does not say much for its so-called ‘leadership’.

Arguments in favour of the SWP, or any other tendency on the Trotskyist left, would be far more persuasive if there was a frank admission and discussion of past mistakes, both recent and long ago, with a sharp look at how we could all learn from them. It might even educate younger comrades. Of course, this silly triumphalism is not unique to the SWP, but it is more obvious here as it is the largest tendency on this tight little island. As an example, the little Socialist Appeal Group with a membership of less than 100 boring old codgers in this country has far more people in the Third World than anyone else, and vastly more than the SWP affiliates of the IST. But this is never mentioned before the membership of any rival groups – Pas devant les domestiques! – any more than Grant and Woods explain to their people in Venezuela that they are irrelevant in Britain compared to the SWP. Triumphalism triumphs.

How we miss Jim, who could spot a phoney a mile off, who was not bound by orthodoxy, but whose eye was always on the ball of working-class emancipation. I am delighted if SWPers will learn something from this little book, even if it is something as basic and commonsensical as the idea of transitional politics which runs through so many of these articles.

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Last updated: 29.10.2011