1998: Review of Jim Higgins: More Years for the Locust
1998: Review of Jim Higgins: More Years for the Locust
This review was first published in Revolutionary History 7/1 (1998)
Jim Higgins, More Years for the Locust – the origins of the SWP, IS Group, London, 1997, pp 177, £5.99
Jim Higgins has written the wrong book. If he had confined himself to his memoirs as a member of the CP, SLL and International Socialists, he might have written the most entertaining autobiography from the revolutionary left since Brian Behan’s With Breast Expanded. In the first half of his book Higgins tells a lot of anecdotes that are so funny that one scarcely cares whether they are true. There is a considerable amount of information on the left in the fifties that is unavailable elsewhere. Higgins writes in his usual colourful style, and the account is illustrated with cartoons from the legendary Phil Evans. Assuming, quite reasonably, that nobody is going to sue the IS Group, he includes a number of splendidly malicious character sketches of figures ranging from Roger Rosewell to Sean Matgamna. (I have no personal complaint; his description of me as ‘given to moodiness’ is a generous understatement.)
But all these delights are incidental; the real purpose of the book is quite different. Rather like those who entertain themselves by restaging battles from the English Civil War, Higgins’ primary purpose is to re-enact the faction fight of 1973-75 in the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP), and to justify the positions of the IS Opposition (ISO) in which he played a leading role.
It should be said straightaway that Higgins’ talents are as a raconteur rather than as a historian. The book is full of small detailed errors - the unilateralist victory at Labour Party Conference is dated as 1961 not 1960 (57); the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign is renamed Vietnam Solidarity Committee (78); the four points of the IS unity appeal of 1968 are reduced to three (by the omission of support for national liberation movements) (79). Each of these points is trivial in itself, but there is a cumulative effect of sloppiness, as though the author has relied too much on memory and not enough on solid documentation.
However, Higgins does provide an account of one of the key internal disputes in the history of the IS/SWP, moving from his removal as National Secretary in the summer of 1973 to the removal of himself and Roger Protz from the staff of Socialist Worker in the spring of 1974, and then through two national conferences to the final exclusion of the ISO in December 1975. Higgins presents a severe indictment of the IS leadership, in particular Chris Harman and Tony Cliff, and he deserves a serious answer.
However, his account is not always accurate. Roger Protz was removed from the Socialist Worker editorship at the April National Committee, not the May NC; the chronology of Higgins’ account (108-9) is hence somewhat garbled. More seriously, Higgins (who elsewhere assumes a highly moral stance about Cliff’s alleged doctoring of quotations from Lenin), provides only ‘extracts’ from Roger Protz’s document ‘A Funny Way to Go’. He thus conceals from his readers the fact that before Protz was asked to resign as editor, he had already applied for a job as a full-time appointed trade-union official without consulting the Executive Committee of which he was a member.
Higgins complains at length about the conduct of the faction fight, and in particular the alleged undemocratic conduct of Cliff and his allies. It is undoubtedly true that faction fights are nasty affairs; I doubt if any in the entire history of the movement has been fought in a wholly ethical fashion. I suppose the only lesson is that faction fights should be avoided wherever possible and if they are absolutely necessary they should be got over as quickly as possible. Indeed, one might criticise the IS leadership for letting this particular dispute drag on for too long. The ISO were heavily defeated at two successive annual conferences before their final exclusion; they can scarcely claim that there was not time to discuss the issues.
I personally withdrew from the National Committee in 1974 and returned to activity at a branch level. My clear recollection is that the main issues in dispute were discussed extensively and often heatedly at all levels of the organisation. The leadership may have cut a few corners at various points in the process, but in the last resort there can be no doubt that Cliff won because he politically convinced a substantial majority (80-90%) of the membership. Unless Higgins can challenge that assertion, all his other points on internal democracy become secondary, and ultimately irrelevant.
In explaining the opposition’s defeat another member of the ISO, John Palmer, has recently written, with a degree of self-criticism lacking in Higgins’ version:
In order to win we would have had to fight full-time for months – perhaps a year. Neither Jim Higgins nor myself were prepared to do that – and perhaps that puts a question mark over our own leadership. We thought Duncan Hallas would fulfil that role, and when Cliff won Hallas over, that was a big blow.
Cliff was prepared to fight ‘every waking hour’ (in Higgins’ phrase – 102) because he believed the result was important. Anyone who wants to run a faction fight part-time would do better not to bother.
Higgins’ complaints of undemocratic conduct would be considerably more credible if there was any evidence he had voiced them before his removal from office. Higgins had no objection to the organisation being run by a small leading group, providing he was part of it. I write this having served for over two years on the same Executive Committee as Higgins. Let me quote one example, written when my memory was much fresher than it is now:
Before one Conference, the then National Secretary [i.e. Higgins] presented to the EC a list of who he wanted on the next NC. When I, as an EC member, suggested adding a prominent Birmingham engineering worker, I was curtly shut up with ‘You don’t want him, do you?’ 37 out of 40 names on the National Secretary’s list were elected to the new NC. 
When we come to the political substance of the debate, Higgins’ account is even less satisfactory. For one who complains when others quote out of context, he takes the debates very much out of the context of the problems of the 1970s. In the final paragraph of the text Higgins invokes ‘new forms, new forces and new ideas’. (133) It is rather dispiriting to find this followed by some forty pages of articles from twenty-year-old internal documents. It has to be said that the strategy of the ISO has not stood the test of time very well.
In a document dated June 1974 entitled ‘Who Is Our Audience?’ (which Higgins, with perhaps excessive modesty, attributes to the unaided efforts of Ruth Nelson), we read:
We must relate to the thin layer of politically experienced and class conscious militants, primarily shop stewards and convenors, who can in turn relate our politics to broader layers of workers. (152)
Great stress is placed on the length of time required to become an experienced militant and on the continuing influence of the Communist Party on this layer of workers.
With the benefit of twenty-three years hindsight this is far from convincing. The Communist Party was to disintegrate within a few years. The characteristic strikes of the later seventies – Trico, Grunwick, Garners – were not led by ‘experienced militants’. And the Tory onslaught in the Thatcher years led to changes in employment patterns and the decline of certain traditional industries which meant that ‘experienced militants’ (people like Higgins himself, with his twenty-five years in the POEU) have become very much rarer. If the ISO had won the faction fight and orientated primarily on this layer, it would have condemned the organisation to irrelevance. But Higgins attempts no assessment of this possibility, and contents himself with reproducing the documents as though nothing had happened since his own withdrawal from revolutionary activity.
The ISO perspective also relies on a distinction between ‘manual’ and ‘white collar’ workers which has become increasingly obsolete. Higgins makes merry with the proposal for workplace branches for teachers (114), citing as a knock-down argument that teachers’ wages are fixed by national agreement. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed that in the last twenty years wages have not been the only issue confronting teachers.
Higgins is no more helpful on another major issue of the period, the impact of the emerging women’s movement. He himself says only a few words on the question (87), though the main ISO document devotes three full pages to the question (168-70), culminating in the claim that abortion was not an important issue to campaign on (it was to become a key issue for the women’s movement in the later seventies).
There is a good reason for this discrepancy. The ISO attracted a number of people who were dissatisfied with the IS leadership for a variety of reasons, including several who thought it had given too little attention to women’s oppression. Now it is fair to say that all of us were somewhat disoriented by the questions raised by the women’s movement and took some time to clarify our position. But it is also true that Higgins personally was one of the least sympathetic to the politics emanating from the women’s movement.
Finally, Higgins fails to tell the end of the story. At the beginning of 1976 the ISO comrades were liberated from the constraints of IS membership, free from Cliff’s manipulations, able to pursue their own perspective with a number of ‘experienced militants’ at their disposal. Yet their new organisation, the Workers’ League, disappeared without trace within three years. Of this Higgins says not a word, though the most elementary requirements of honest accounting would seem to demand it.
Nor has Higgins much to say about the development of the IS/SWP since his departure. There are a couple of pages of generalised vituperation, but no evidence that he has taken any real interest in the evolution of the organisation. He suggests insultingly at several points that anyone who remained in the organisation must have been motivated by cowardice or self-interest; he is apparently unwilling to admit that anyone might have taken a different stance from his own out of genuine political conviction.
Thus he refers to some ‘noisy campaigns’ (including ‘some anti-fascist work’) which ‘were not worthwhile in their own right’. (129) This, apparently, is Higgins’ considered judgement on the Anti-Nazi League, though he cannot bring himself to name it. To admit that the extreme right posed a serious threat (to working-class unity and to the physical safety of black workers) in the late seventies and that the ANL played a significant role in countering that threat would, of course, undermine the whole of Higgins’ thesis. Yet he seems unwilling, or unable, to argue the point. Likewise there is no attempt to analyse the SWP’s many other interventions, on a local or national level, in trade-union disputes, against racism, against the Gulf War etc. Any serious evaluation of the SWP’s role since 1975 must begin with an assessment of those interventions.
Higgins’ account will doubtless be seized on by those who wish to damage the SWP. At least they are able to counterpose their own organisations as a political alternative. Higgins has no alternative to offer, which is why his story, frequently entertaining and from time to time illuminating, is ultimately of little value.