1995: ORAL HISTORY AND BRITISH TROTSKYISM
Two letters to Alan Johnson in response to his article “‘Beyond the Smallness of Self’: Oral History and British Trotskyism” available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/40179497?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents The letters touch on various aspects of the history of the far left, especially the SWP.
Dear Alan Johnson,
My son Daniel Birchall has shown me a copy of your paper ‘Beyond the smallness of self’. I found it an interesting piece of work, and I thought many of your ideas on methodology were useful, though I have reservations about some of your judgments. In case you are intending further work in the field, I thought you might be interested in some observations on your comments on histories of the SWP.
I will not respond to to your suggestions of distortion, falsification etc. [it is some time since I read The Stalin School of Falsification, which you kindly invoke in discussing my work; I lent my copy to Tony Cliff in 1971 and he never returned it - make what you will of that.] I have defended and documented my position in my reply to Martin Shaw [Socialist Register 1979]. However, I observe from your footnotes that you seem to be aware only of the two articles published in International Socialism in 1975 [not 1977]; these were republished in 1981 together with a third instalment covering the 1970s in a pamphlet entitled ‘The smallest mass party in the world’. The third part deals explicitly with the debates of the 1973-75 period; since I was present at all the main meeting I suppose my work can stand as a personal testimony to be put in the balance against the views of Protz and Higgins.
The ‘official’ status of my account may also be of some interest. It was originally written in 1974 at the the request of Roger Rosewell [now political adviser to Lady Porter and the editor of the Daily Mail.] It was however refused publication by the then editor of International Socialism Chris Harman, and was published only in 1975 when Duncan Hallas replaced him as editor. The pamphlet publication caused some consternation to some members of the leadership, since its account of the development of Women’s Voice did not fit the line then being pursued by the Central Committee. Although a number of comrades requested that it be reprinted during the 1980s these requests were always refused. Perhaps I am not quite such a lickspittle as you suppose.
You note that I describe my account as ‘unambiguously partisan’ [I am mystified by your use of the word ‘coyly’.] What concerns me is that you imply that this somehow disqualifies my work as serious history.
All historical writing is partisan; everybody writes from a standpoint within a certain set of values. I therefore remain convinced that the only honest way to write history is to make that partisanship quite explicit, so that any reader may take it into account when evaluating the text. Thus not long after writing his critique of my history, Martin Shaw became a Labour Party parliamentary candidate; is his attack on of the IS/SWP tradition a rejection of the revolutionary tradition as such, or a critique from within that tradition? Unfortunately Shaw is not explicit on that point. Perhaps it would have been a good thing if his article had been less ‘ambiguously’ partisan.
The same point applies to metahistorians such as yourself. Beyond a general expression of belief that Trotskyism deserves a place in the historical record, you do not locate yourself in the political spectrum – though the informed reader may hazard a guess. Thus when you criticise a history such as mine it is not clear whether you are denouncing historical inaccuracies [though you cite none] or whether you are attacking my partisanship for what you believe to be an unworthy cause.
It is my belief that despite mistakes the record of the IS/SWP, both in intervention in industrial, anti-racist etc struggles, and in socialist propaganda and education is a substantially positive one. Does this disqualify me from writing an honest history? You mention in positive terms Rosmer’s Lenin’s Moscow. [Since I was responsible for making this available to an English-reading audience I welcome this]. But Rosmer’s commitment to Leninism is at least as strong as my partisanship for the SWP. [I am not of course comparing my work to Rosmer’s - I deal with far less heroic times; but the principle of partisanship remains the same.]
Partisanship may, of course, take many forms. Al Richardson, for example, believes that he is the only Marxist in the world. This favours evenhandedness, but leads to a certain lack of verstehen.
While you recognise the limitations of the accounts of ex-members, you nonetheless imply that the accounts by Protz and Higgins give access to the ‘real’ dynamics of decision making, while the account of anyone who remained within the organisation is to be viewed more sceptically. Of course any historian needs to consider the accounts of Protz and Higgins; their grievances are both understandable [they were both dismissed from prestigious though poorly-paid jobs in the organisation] and legitimate [the manner of their dismissal was, as I think all involved would now concede, somewhat inept].
Nonetheless there are objective realities against which their account can be checked. The reference to ‘workers’ vodka’ which you find so amusing out of context is of course a quotation from Trotsky – as everyone was well aware at the time. [Quoting Trotsky is quite a common practice in Trotskyist organisations.] Did Cliff really think that the ‘British Revolution was now an immediate possibility’? Does any evidence of this belief exist in published or internal documentation? If, as I believe, it does not, then surely we should question whether it was central to the analysis, or merely something that may have been said in the heat of the argument. Certainly as one who took Cliff’s side in the argument I found good reason to support him without believing in the imminence of revolution.
More interestingly, however, the testimonies of Protz and Higgins actually contain some interesting clues to how the argument was in fact won. Protz claims that Cliff had ‘chipped away at the journalists on the paper’ – ie that he had taken the time to argue with individuals [I can assure you from experience that neither Paul Foot not Laurie Flynn is a yes-man]; Higgins fears three months spent permanently on the telephone. In other words, both actually recognise in their testimonies that Cliff had greater persistence than they did. And we can note that both Protz and Higgins withdrew from revolutionary politics shortly after the split from IS, while Cliff remains as active as ever.
This is important precisely if you are concerned with verstehen. Any account of the IS/SWP which fails to recognise Cliff’s dedication and ability – as well as his undoubted weaknesses – will certainly fail to understand how the SWP has achieved such modest success as it has. Cliff’s style and methods are utterly different from Healy’s – and ten years on from the implosion of the WRP this should be clear to all.
In general I believe we cannot separate the testimonies of individuals from their political records. I only knew Harry Wicks slightly, but I regarded him with the greatest respect and affection, and you are quite right to praise his autobiography. But it is also true that Wicks failed to build any organisation after 1945. This too is part of the historical record.
Likewise all accounts should be scrutinised for significant omissions. I also found Harry Ratner’s Reluctant Revolutionary an excellent account; but its account of Ratner’s role in the expulsions of the ‘state capitalist’ comrades in the Manchester area is less than comprehensive.
Finally I would suggest another text which provides an interesting example of partisan but independent writing – the late David Widgery’s Beating Time, [Chatto & Windus, 1986] a contribution to the history of the Anti-Nazi League. This was certainly not an ‘official’ SWP production; it received sharply critical reviews in Socialist Review and International Socialism [the latter by myself]. But it gives a useful account of the relation of the party and spontaneity. Widgery shows how Rock Against Racism was an independent initiative from rank and file activists inside and outside the SWP; no-one who knows the musical tastes of the SWP Central Committee could imagine that they would have ever noticed the Clash. But at the same time he shows how the Party played an essential role in building the ANL. I think he thus shows that a history can be independent and critical while also being ‘unambiguously partisan’.
I don’t suppose you will agree with my observations, but perhaps they may be of interest to you in your research.
All best wishes,
Dear Alan Johnson,
Thank-you very much for your letter and for the copies of Workers’ Liberty, which I looked at with interest. May I say first of all that I found the first part of Sean Matgamna’s review of Bill Hunter’s book in the May issue an excellent piece of writing; whatever my differences with comrade Matgamna – and they are profound – I thought this was a very good example of what can be achieved by oral/autobiographical history.
I was not aware when I wrote to you previously that you were a member of the AWL. I think this confirms one of the points I made in my first letter. The standpoint of my history is clearly labelled, and the reader can take this into consideration. Your article contains both historical and political judgments, and it is not always easy to distinguish them. To be honest, I think you have greater problems than I do in combining your historiographical project with you political commitment.
I note that in two issues of WL comrade Matgamna accuses my history of lies. This is perhaps excessive for something that has been out of print for over ten years. Yet neither he nor you gives any specific examples. Just one Hotel Bristol would make your case a lot stronger. In particular I am accused of denying that IS did not call for the withdrawal of the troops in 1969. But my pamphlet makes the position quite clear; in fact I opposed Cliff on this and still think he was wrong. [MY history states: ‘In the event it was decided not to make ‘Withdraw the Troops Now’ an agitational slogan. A minority of the leadership and of the membership dissented. (p 17)]
I found several of the contributions to the symposium very interesting, inasmuch as I knew the contributors at the time and am able to observe how their political standpoints have shifted. But they also reveal some important questions about historical methodology. I would not accuse any of the contributors of lying; I am sure they are all describing events and processes as they honestly remember them. But historical objectivity is not achieved by goodwill. I think Trotsky makes the point very clearly in his preface to the History of the Russian Revolution: ‘The circumstance that the author was a participant in the events does not free him from the obligation to base his exposition upon strictly verified documents.’ [I’m not a megalomaniac; I am not comparing the content or the quality of my work to Trotsky’s , simply the method]. Joan Smith in her appendix to Harry McShane’s No Mean Fighter gives a very interesting account of how an oral record was scrupulously collated against documentary evidence.
I don’t have time to comment on all the contributions, but there are a few points on the Vic Collard piece. Firstly, I don’t know what is the basis for your claim that Collard was the leading IS shop steward. There were a number – perhaps 10-20 – in comparable TU positions. Collard wasn’t even on the National Committee. [I nominated him for the unofficial recommended list in 1973, but was vetoed by Jim Higgins.] Collard’s piece is very interesting as an account of the psychology of the trade union militants who disagreed with Cliff in 1974. But his account of the May 1974 National Committee would have to be collated against the minutes of the meeting and would show a number of major inaccuracies. Jim Higgins was never editor of Socialist Worker, and there was no proposal to expel him at this stage. He, like Protz, was dismissed from his full-time employment because he disagreed with the agreed political line of the organisation. No organisation, even the AWL, can have its paper edited by someone not in agreement with the political line of the organisation. [There is no gloss or fudge in my position; I think the fact of the dismissals was right, but the manner inept. This is a perfectly clear political distinction. As for Chris Jones, I know only what I have read in the RDG bulletin, from which I deduce that he is a supporter of the RDG. I don’t think the AWL would allow a hostile entrist faction to operate within its ranks.]
I am grateful for your invitation to contribute to the symposium. However, despite your acknowledgement that the SWP is a quite different phenomenon to the WRP, I read in the editorial introduction to the symposium that the SWP is ‘a rigidly authoritarian variant of the Stalinist model of a party’. This is a bizarre formulation, with its suggestion that there may be ‘non-authoritarian’ variants of Stalinism. It is also highly misleading to a younger generation who don’t remember what Stalinist organisations were actually like. If I were looking for an example of what you call ‘corrupting partisanship’ I would go no further than the introduction to your symposium.
Obviously I have to ask what are the motives for publishing such a symposium (and indeed devoting nearly as much space in your journal to the SWP as you do to the Labour Party!). I can only deduce that your aim is to recruit a handful of members or ex-members of the SWP. I note in the February editorial the appearance of a rather sinister phrase; the SWP is called an ‘ostensibly revolutionary organisation’. I’m sure you are aware of the source of the phrase. In the late 70s the Spartacists developed the theory that in the present period it was impossible to actually campaign for socialist ideas in the working class, and that therefore the only way to build was by poaching members from the OROs. Just as you concede that the SWP is not the WRP, so I will agree that the AWL is not the Spartacist League; but you are on a slippery slope. As I say, I think it is you, not I, who have problems reconciling historical objectivity with political partisanship.
You will therefore appreciate why I decline your invitation to contribute to the symposium. However, I am very happy to authorise you to reproduce any part of my History of the IS/SWP. Since you see fit to refer to this repeatedly, and since the SWP has decided not to reprint it, this might well be a useful contribution to the debate.
All best wishes,